Thursday, 19 September 2019

Exploring awkwardness as a feminist matter: the theory of the irrelevant

María-Alejandra Energici
Facultad de Psicología, Universidad Alberto 
Santiago, Chile
Twitter: @AleEnergici 

I was talking on my cell phone on the bus home the other day when suddenly a man said to me: "You are yelling." He was gently pointing out that I was talking too loudly. I felt embarrassed, so I got off the bus one stop before my house and walked the rest of the way. The fact that this man delivered his comment with kindness made me feel worse, like I was being rude and he was being polite. 

Feeling loud and out of place is not uncommon for me. I am very tall (the average woman in Chile is 1.59 cm and the average man is 1.71 cm; I am 1.75 cm, so sometimes even among men I am the tallest person in the room), and I have lots of curly hair, not in a wavy and sexy way, but more of a frizzy, unmanageable, will-of-its-own kind of way. Even though I am not overweight, I often feel fat. So, I use a lot of space and I make a lot of noise. But those aren’t the only things that make me feel awkward; I feel I think too much, I have too many opinions, and I certainly complain… a lot. I have feelings I think I shouldn't have: I am a mother of three and I have never, not even once, missed my children when I am on a trip or when I haven't seen them for a while. I easily feel socially awkward, like I am oversharing my thoughts and feelings, and I have often got dress codes wrong, usually by not being formal enough for the occasion. Above all, I am clumsy. I drop around five or more things every day; I easily break things and I fall over more than I should. As you can imagine, I have felt awkward in many settings and on many occasions. And not awkward in that adorable, Hollywood-movie way, but in a shameful, embarrassing, I-want-to-hide kind of way. Because it is embarrassing it is something I usually don't talk about; even writing about it is quite hard. I have usually felt that I was the problem, that something was wrong with me. This is an especially complex feeling if you consider that I am part of a privileged group and I have achieved many things in my life. I shouldn’t feel awkward. So, the feeling of awkwardness tends to get hidden from sight, losing itself among the successes of my life. It is not the primary feeling of my day, even though sometimes it feels that way, but it is there.

A few days after the bus incident, I was once again on the bus and two men were having a conversation. They were very loud and swearing a lot. But no one even noticed. That made me think that maybe, just maybe, the problem wasn´t that I was loud; it was that I was a loud woman. So, it made me think: What would happen if I explored this awkwardness? What if I weren’t the problem and it was something else that was making me feel awkward? In other words, what if I took this awkwardness and, instead of being ashamed of it, understood it as a mark of gendered daily norms – the kind of norms that are so subtle that we miss out, the norms that make us doubt the situation. After all, the man on the bus was kind. Was I reading too much into his comment? Or was I correct in feeling embarrassed? These norms are about irrelevant issues, what I like to call the theory of the irrelevant. Certainly, it seemed irrelevant to everyone on the bus; probably most passengers didn't even notice the scene. From an academic perspective, awkwardness hasn't been a central matter, although there are some explanations that come from a feminist perspective. Caroline Criado Perez (2019) documents a gender data gap that, as a consequence, has created a world designed for men. So maybe I am not so clumsy; maybe the problem is that the objects are not designed for my body (which explains why I keep hitting my Apple watch, because it is too big for my wrist). Sara Ahmed (2017) compares institutions with garments, stating that institutions fit some bodies better than others. But what if this applies to society as well as institutions? It is not new to say that social norms are gendered, but we can go further and think about these subtle, daily norms about irrelevant things, such as how loud someone should talk on the bus, as the basis for other, more obvious, and politically controversial, norms such as women not belonging in certain places such as science, sport, or politics.

We can understand awkwardness as a flag, as a mark or clue of a gendered norm about something apparently irrelevant but actually very political: how we should move, talk, be, feel, think, and so on. This wouldn’t be a problem if it were only about one little thing, such as being too loud on the bus, but it is problematic because it is micro-aggression, a constant and systematic reminder of our place in the world. I think we should embrace the irrelevant, the important things, such as science, sport, and politics, that have traditionally been men's areas. Women have been placed among the irrelevant things. Femininity, as something we do, has to do with beauty, common sense, shallowness, and irrelevant stuff that can easily make us feel out of place. We should analyze the things that make us feel awkward. We will find many problems with gender and femininity if we ask why it is uncomfortable to be tall and loud. Why don’t we like to be noticed because of our hair or size? Why do we feel out of place when we talk too much or share too many opinions? Why do we feel we can´t say that we have never missed our children? Why do we feel shallow if we worry about our appearance but ugly if we don’t? Why are dress codes so important and we feel so bad when we don't follow them?

I think shame and embarrassment are important forms of social control; they stop us from placing these issues in the material and social world, where they belong, and instead we place them on ourselves. If we are ashamed, we don't talk, and if we don't talk, we think we are the problem. Hence, we can't see that the origin of awkwardness is not the self, but the constant reminder of someone (like the man on the bus) or something (such as my watch) telling us that we should be small, thin, passive, quiet, graceful, and pleasant to look at. We tend to ignore awkwardness because it makes us feel bad, but if we explore it we can point out those supposedly irrelevant events of our life that make us feel out of place. And if we embrace it, awkwardness can be a form of resistance on a daily basis.

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