Women’s Voices and the Ears of Men: On Stage(s) 2013

This historical document shows that Lord Jeffrey Amherst, contrary to popular opinion, was a staunch advocate for women's equality.
This rare portrait of Lord Jeffrey Amherst shows that, contrary to popular opinion, he was a staunch advocate for women’s equality. (Courtesy of the Amherst College WAGS Archives)

(Ryan Arnold)– A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the Women of Amherst to write what I’ve come to affectionately call “The Man-Letter”: it’s a letter to men, from a male peer, explaining why we as men should go to see their show this weekend (get tickets!!!). Given my experiences writing about masculinity and targeting a male audience, I figured it would be easy: I’d just let a draught flow effortlessly forth from the reservoir of rhetoric I usually keep on tap. This is not at all what happened; perhaps I emptied the keg when I shaved my legs. I struggled bitterly with this letter. I wanted it to be persuasive without being didactic, informative but not condescending, colloquial but not inarticulate, beautiful but not grandiloquent, adjective but not other adjective. I wrote it, and re-wrote it, and then re-re-wrote it. Even now, at this moment, you are watching me attempt re-write it again.

The Man-Letter was a unique chance for me to speak to men in the vernacular of masculinity, to dispatch with the theoretical abstraction and Liberal Arts-isms that are the hallmarks of critical discourse, and I will now dispatch with them even further. I don’t want to have a critical discourse. I want dudes to come to the show. And so now I hear the dudes in my head say, “Why, Ryan? Why is it important for men to come to a show that is essentially about what being a woman is like? Why do you give all of these shits?” My dudes, my ultimate dudes, you are invited to join me in the audience for this show, and this is why you should.

On Stage(s) is a collection of stories written and performed by women, about women, and so it’s easy to assume that it’s also intended for women. Indeed, some of the stories will feel foreign to us: the fear of getting pregnant, the erosion of body image and self-esteem by societal pressures, the impact of sexism. However, much of the emotional content in On Stage(s) isn’t gendered – the show underscores that we share more experiences in common with women than we are led to believe. Our identities are separate, but our consciousness is not diffuse: middle school is universally awkward, sex can be amazing for everyone, and our lives are enriched through positive relationships with the opposite sex.

There are some feelings that have to be addressed honestly and openly. Men don’t like talking about patriarchy because, in its most fundamental definition, patriarchy is the oppression of women through masculine domination. The word feels threatening and accusatory, like we are purely by virtue of a biological designation we did not elect implicit in the historical exploitation and bondage of an entire gendered population. I anticipate a lot of men might have some anxiety about attending On Stage(s) because they think they might be attacked, like the show is actually some kind of elaborate Hamletian ruse that climaxes in ambushing, exposing, and shaming us as the enemy. But there is no such ambush planned, no guilt mongering or surprise castrations performed during intermission.

So why are we, as men, so uncomfortable with having conversations about gender politics? If I don’t think I oppress women, if I think I try to be a good man, then why do I assume that “patriarchy” condemns me? Is it because, on some conscious level, I have witnessed the more subtle and insidious manifestations of social oppression? Does this discomfort come from a sense of guilt? The reality within the rhetoric is that men can be valuable allies to women – a reality that On Stage(s) underscores heavily. But this reality requires that we first listen to them. Attending On Stage(s) is a gesture that shows our solidarity with the women of our community, and lets them know they have our support. In turn, by listening to them we learn how to be stronger allies.

It’s hard to care about women if you don’t listen to them.

It’s easy for this conversation to devolve into a pathetic argument about “the women in our lives,” one which I am vehemently running away from. Yes, every living person has a biological mother and father, and isn’t it wonderful that men and women are united by the shared complementarity of their genesis, etc. The problem with appealing to pathos in this context is that we construct women purely in relation to us – our mother, sister, wife, partner, friend – and not as an independent and autonomous entity. Maybe instead we should look at ourselves in relation to women and discover how we are obliged as brothers, boyfriends, fathers, sons, friends, and husbands to act in ways that support and engender their autonomy.

I think you should go to see On Stage(s). I think you should do it because neither you nor I have any way to know what it’s like to be a woman. I think you should do it because the voices of women are frequently unheard and more frequently unlistened to. I hope that if we go to On Stage(s), two things happen to us:
1) I hope that we will recognize how few spaces exist at Amherst where we can make ourselves vulnerable. It is notoriously hard to be emotionally unguarded at this school, and this show is an act of pure courage. I hope we can aspire to the same brave honesty exhibited by our peers.
2)By witnessing the complexity of the women in our community, I hope we will begin to recognize our own complexity – like the women in On Stage(s), we are as diverse as our experiences. I hope we start to ask what it means to be men. Who decides it for us? Who tells it to us? What things does it blind us to? What happens if we disagree?

To take brief stock of the legacy that will be left by this year in the history of Amherst College: we have been plagued by the unequivocal reality of sexual assault, misogynist t-shirts, an arbitrary drinking policy, fighting over our right to pool tables and a disappointing student center, snowy hate speech, the public shaming of student athletes by faculty, the public shaming of faculty by students, the public shaming of illegitimate fraternities by everyone, people realizing that our mascot is an effigy to genocide, and the administration’s continued public inability to pronounce the words “sexism,” “misogyny,” or “rape culture.” It’s been, by anyone’s account, an atrocious year. For the love of God, even Schwemm’s is telling us to have a drink.

However, if this past year has shown us anything, it’s that we are not exempt from the horrors of the external world. We have been left to take care of one another; there is no one else who will. As men in the audience, as members of this community, as citizens of this planet, we owe compassion to each other and ourselves. We can’t afford not to listen. Go to see On Stage(s). We have got nothing to lose.