"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Nicknames–Another Way Of Keeping Women In Their Place

Leonard Abrams was always called Needles. The nickname was perfect. Needles was small with pencil-thin arms and stork legs.  His nose was long, thin, and pointed.  His ears were small and delicate and shaped like the pinion feathers of a bird. When the light caught them right, the natural ridges and cavities resembled the whorls and abstractions of a peacock feather.

I don’t remember when exactly Leonard became Needles.  I remember him always being called by his nickname, but it must have been soon after he came to Pendleton, our country day school. If children had nicknames in grade school, they were given by parents.  In our day names were standard and so were the nicknames – Bobby, Johnny, Billy, Tommy, and Betty. It was only as adolescents did we learn the trick of picking up on others’ weaknesses, naming them, and using the nicknames as taunts.

By the time we got to boarding school, the pace picked up and everyone had a nickname.  Most were as accurate and perfectly matched as Needles.  Zits Perdue, for example, had horrible flaming wheals and furuncles all over his body.  In fact he could have been called far worse, for ‘zit’ was too tame for the awful red corrugation of his back where from hairline to shorts he was covered with suppurating pustules, brownish crusts, and open sores.

Scoop Birkett hunkered down over his food and shoveled it in.  He hooked his left arm around his plate and between shovelfuls of tuna yum-yum, he looked up nervously like a dog over a bone.  We, of course tag-teamed poor Scoop, distracted him from the left, snitched bits of cheese and tuna from the right, and made him hang even lower over his plate and scoop food in bigger globs twice as fast.  It was a vicious cycle which made ‘Scoop’ more and more apt.

We were observant, accurate, and creative. No tic, deformity, annoying habit, dress, gait, or hairstyle escaped us.  Bobbles Bennett had a slight limp, and although he kept the rest of his body straight, plumb, and well-aligned, his head bobbled as he walked. Marsh Hopkins gave off a slightly sulfurous smell from the cream he used to oil his dry, scaly skin. Mole Lapham looked exactly like a rodent.  He was short, compact, and twitch, and had a nervous habit of wrinkling his nose and sniffing.

In today’s PC world parents who remember the apt but often cruel nicknames they carried around with them want to reduce the chances of their own children getting saddled with Scoop or Bobbles. So to set the tone and the rules, boys are only Jonathan, Jason, Robert, Michael, and David.  Add to this the gulag mentality of elementary schools where surveillance cameras monitor every recess to pick up signs of bullying, unwanted nicknames are considered forms of intimidation and cruelty.

Jessica Valenti writing in The Guardian (4.29.14) is outraged that men use diminutives of women’s names when they want to humiliate them. “Men who use nicknames for women to win fights are creepy, sexist and dumb”, she says, and is ready to jump in the bullring whenever some prick calls her Jessie.

Like most things men call women when they want to diminish them, "Jessie" is meant to remind me that no matter what I accomplish – the number of books written, articles published, speeches given – I'm still "just a girl". But it's the overly-familiar infantilization that really makes my skin crawl.

This phenomenon may well be common in the UK, but in the US, the office is a very politically correct place.  Men are scared of their own shadows, afraid to be called out as sexist and hauled before a company tribunal.  Men are not supposed to notice décolleté, high heels, coiffure, jewelry, lipstick, and perfume. Despite this deliberate feminine allure, women demand that men look at them no differently than at a street sign or a lamppost.  Men look up at the ceiling in an elevator filled with attractive women.  They shuffle out looking at their feet on the way to their cubes.  The idea of a ‘Jessie’ for Jessica is totally unthinkable.

Ms. Valenti may be referring to bosses and subordinates in her outrage.  A male boss of a female employee may call her Jessie to humiliate and demean her.  Once again, I have to cite the maximum security lock-up rules which govern the American workplace.  If a colleague calls Margaret an unwelcome Maggie, he is automatically under suspicion.  If a supervisor does it, the SWAT team hauls him away for interrogation.

Men, however, have not changed their opinions of women; and are as suspicious, wary, and mistrusting of them as ever. American men are no different from the barking misogynists of Shakespeare’s day. Claudio, Posthumus, and Othello hated and feared women, and when men got together they shared their dismal views of them.  Once men are out of their K Street cells and with their mates, women are bitches, sluts, ho’s, and cunts.  They are shrill, nitpicky, and shallow.  They are harridans, vixens, and succubuses. The Four F’s – ‘Find ‘em, Feel ‘em, Fuck ‘em, Forget ‘em’ – is still the male credo of the bar.  American men may act all respectful and supportive under the eye of office security cameras, but they turn into Posthumus and Claudio once they are out the door.

There is another way to avoid the shaming-naming nickname problem – move to the Philippines.  There everyone has a nickname, and no one is ever referred to by their Christian names.  Kate McGeown of the BBC Manila Bureau notes 3.27.11):

On my first day in Manila, I walked down to the local cafe and was served by a smiling young girl who wore a name badge entitled BumBum. I did a double-take, then smiled back, deciding it was probably a joke. But if so, it is a joke that practically the whole country seems to be in on.

Since then I've met a Bambi, three Bogies, several Girlies, a Peanut, a Barbie and a middle-aged man called Babe.These names are found in all sectors of society. Sometimes they are nicknames, sometimes genuine first names - but they are always what people are referred to on a day-to-day basis.

McGeown lived a number of years in Manila, and quickly got used to the Filipino nicknames:

When I'm introduced to a Dinky or a Dunce, or read about people called Bing and Bong, it seems almost normal. In fact, if anything, I rather like the fact that Filipinos are self-assured enough to use these names, no matter how odd they sound or how senior the person's public role.

Self-confidence, that’s the ticket.  Katty Kay and Claire Shipman have recently written an article in The Atlantic (4.14.14) about women’s persistent (and troubling) lack of it:

Maternal instincts do contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, a tug that, at least for now, isn’t as fierce for most men. Other commentators point to cultural and institutional barriers to female success. There’s truth in that, too. But these explanations for a continued failure to break the glass ceiling are missing something more basic: women’s acute lack of confidence.

Compared to what men call women in private, using a diminutive to demean a co-worker or subordinate is nothing.   I suspect that women do not spare men in private either. When Cleopatra is alone with her female servants, she mocks Antony, calls him names and shows her complete disdain for him.  Ah, she says, where is the manly, virile Julius Caesar when I need him?  Beatrice has her mocking fun with Benedick when she is with her girlfriends.  Rosalind and Celia are no less kind. In Shakespeare women don’t take men very seriously, manipulate them, and run rings around them.  They care little for what they say because they – the women – know exactly what to do. They have supreme self-confidence and are as self-assured as anyone.

If anything, the PC environment of the American office has made gender relations even more contentious.  By being muzzled, men’s animosities towards women become even more virulent.  Men and women are not left free to duke it out.  Despite women’s claim to be equal, they seem to still feel the need to be protected, supported, and encouraged.  No wonder that men are at best confused and at worst, angry.

Today’s hothouse atmosphere – a distortion of Equal Rights that does far more harm than good, stifling as it does the free give-and-take of avowed equals – needs to go. Let Binky, Cutie, Pom-Pom, and Jessie stay; and add Dorky, Pin-Prick, Needles, and Bobby to the mix.

When women become as confident as Beatrice, Rosalind – or the great villains of Shakespeare, Goneril, Regan, Volumnia, Dionyza, and Tamora – the issue of nicknames will seem like a silly pastime.

Two of the strongest and most memorable female characters in literature are Hedda Gabler and Laura, wife of The Captain in Strindberg’s The Father. Both women not only dominate men but destroy them because of their own ambitions and indomitable will.  Laura drives The Captain mad, consigning him to a mental institution so that she can have complete control over their daughter.  She voices the opinion of many women when she says to her husband, you have dribbled your seed, you have fulfilled your only useful purpose, now leave.

Men and women will continue to fight for supremacy and will achieve occasional peaceful equilibriums; but the struggle will never end.  Men still have the upper hand, and PC regulations and attempted changes at observed social behavior will not even scratch the surface of hardened if not hard-wired male behavior.  Social engineering is as bad in the gender arena as it is anywhere else.  Woman up, ladies!

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