Monday, February 14, 2005

Man Assistant

I’ve always said that Bryn Mawr didn’t make me a feminist—France did.

Sure, Bryn Mawr breeds feminism like any other women’s college. Take Valentine’s Day, for example. Most people’s idea of Valentine’s Day involves chocolates, flowers, and the anxiety of what to do for that special someone.

Bryn Mawr, however, as you might expect from a women’s college, takes it one step further. That’s right, there’s another V-word besides valentine. In the legacy of Eve Ensler, on Bryn Mawr campus, February 14th is V-Day, the V here being vagina. It marks the yearly performance of the Vagina Monologues, and in a veritable parody of women’s lib, students swarm Thomas Great Hall and hoot and holler throughout the performance. Between monologues, door prizes are awarded, including sex toys and feminist paraphernalia.

It would be naïve to think that this sentiment is lacking throughout the rest of the year. Lecturers come to speak about women in business, women in law, women in medicine, women’s rights, women’s lib, women’s health, women’s sexuality, women’s role in the creation of role models in medieval quilt-making, the list goes on.

If you want the feminist slant on something, it will suffice to walk into any room on campus, or attend May Day, which not only features a May Pole dance, but a May Hole dance. Women gather around a giant hole on Denbigh green, dressed in traditional and virginal white, chanting, “Hey hey! Ho ho! The patriarchy has got to go!”

This is the environment from which I embarked for my year of studies abroad. I’d chosen Paris, France, that magical city that conjures images of fresh baguettes and good wine, romantic moonlight mist and men with soft French accents.

But the women in France were different. In Paris, when men called to women on the street, the women didn’t typically give them the finger. They giggled. Dating here involves games, and infidelity appears to be commonplace. (French women have told me that men will be men.)

Recently, when giving me dating advice, my friend Laurent laid it out for me: “The French man is a cougar in the jungle. You have to let him seduce. If he thinks it’s too easy, then he doesn’t want it. You have to make him think that he’s winning you over. You must be a rascal.”

To my knowledge, cougars don’t pay much attention to whether or not their prey is rascally. But he made his point. I begrudgingly resisted the urge to text my recent date to tell him that I’d had a good time.

But this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Later that semester, when a man exposed himself to me on the Paris metro, I angrily went to the security office to complain. The man behind the counter smiled and said simply, “You’re a pretty girl. What do you expect?” I told him that I expected to be able to ride the metro without having a man masturbate in the seat across from me. He smiled at me again. Convinced he was going to invite me to dinner, I left the station furious.

My anger didn’t subside. The next fall, I happily returned to the gleeful feminist wonderland that is Bryn Mawr College. I didn’t win anything in the raffle that year, but you can be sure that on V-Day I was among the smiling women in Thomas Great Hall.

Back in France and therefore having no Valentine this year, I turned once again to my V-Day roots. Since September, I’d shared many days with business professionals, who are, for the most part, men. Where were the women?

I’d been shocked at one particular engineering company, when I went to the bathroom at 3pm and discovered that all the toilet seats were still up. No one had used them since the previous night’s cleaning, because there simply weren’t many women that worked there. I thought about having recently read articles about the waning number of women in European business.

With this in mind, I decided to create my own V-Day celebration here in Paris. Of course, I couldn’t bring texts from the Vagina Monolgues to work. “Today, we’re going to practice pronunciation in the form of a dramatic reading. Take the first line, sir. 'What does your vagina smell like?'”

No. I would surely be fired, even if I planned my argument about cultural context: women in the workplace, corporate culture, the Glass Ceiling, and Americans’ obsession with the politically correct.

Instead, I decided to slightly change the standardized material that’s distributed by my company for use in the corporations. Well-trained by Bryn Mawr, I had certainly noticed that all the examples of Big Bosses were men, and that all the assistants were women. Many of the examples referred to women as girls. The roleplays, while effectively designed to highlight the difference between the present perfect and the past simple, failed to address the changing male and female roles at home. This example was that of a man whose job was forcing him to relocate for a year—-without the stay-at-home mom and kids—-and he had to break the bad news to her.

So I bought some white-out at the local office supply store and set to work, reversing all the roles. The next day at the company, I fed a business man the example, “My assistant is always leaving the lights on when he leaves the office.”

Correct response: “Well, tell him to turn them off next time.”
Response given: “Well, tell her to turn them off next time.”
“No,” I said, “Listen carefully. My assistant is always leaving the lights on when he leaves the office.”
He gave the same response.
I corrected him, “Tell him to turn them off.”
He argued, “No, you said your assistant.”
“Who is a man,” I said, and showed him the example.
He stared at me blankly, and repeated, “who is man assistant?!”

I just smiled. The rest of the lesson went off without a hitch. Before he left the conference room at the end, he paused and muttered, “man assistant.”

I just flashed my standard work smile, shuffled my papers, and prepared for my next student. And to my friends at Bryn Mawr, I wish you a Happy V-Day.


At 4:30 PM, Blogger Dani said...

Subversive without being militant and ugly -- I like it!

At 5:40 PM, Blogger Emily said...

Yeah, but I can't take credit for diplomacy. I'm just scared of being fired.


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