I needed a key made, so I went to my local hardware store. It's the kind of place you want to go instead of Home Depot--not a chain, a storefront where you always know how to find the exit. I had a conversation with the female clerk at the front counter about getting my key made. There was a man standing to my right working on something, and I'd seen him there before. I got the impression from prior visits that he was the owner. He certainly projected that he was the boss. I wasn't talking to him and he was focused on something else, so I was surprised when he interrupted me to say, "You sound uncertain."
I said, "It's interesting how often men misinterpret female vocal patterns as uncertainty."
He said (again), "You sounded uncertain."
I said, "No."
Then he returned to what he was doing and the female clerk smiled extra big at me when she gave me my key.
I walked away thinking, well, at least this time I got to say what I thought on the spot. I didn't smite my forehead fifteen minutes later, wishing: dammit, I should have said...whatever.
As I walked on, I began thinking about The Power, by Naomi Alderman, which I'm reading and admiring. It's speculative fiction that imagines a world in which young women suddenly develop what's called a "skein" of electrical power within their bodies--and they use that electrical power on the people (men, especially) who anger or threaten them or over whom they want to exert power. And of course this alters the power balance of the entire world. Essentially, the novel asks: What comes from physical power? Spoiler alert: It's remarkable how quickly men start saying please. And often enough that's not because the power has been used on them--their behavior changes simply because they know the power exists and could be used. But back to keys: In lieu of greater physical power, women have learned to use our words--and to use the tone of our words--to communicate. Sometimes we sidle up to things instead of punching straight through. And you know what? I like to do both. And both can be good, and I get to decide which I do.
I confess my anger didn't abate as I walked. I wasn't at all sure that if I had a skein I wouldn't have been tempted to give Middle Aged Hardware Store Dude (as I referred to him on Instagram) a little shock. Not permanently damaging or terribly painful, but a noticeable zap, just to make sure he got the point. Because I'm pretty certain he didn't get the point, and he will say the very same thing to some other woman who asks for something in a voice that is all her own.
There wasn't anything particularly querulous or diffident about my voice when I asked for the key. Rather, I was speaking to another woman the way women often do with each other. I was smiling, I wasn't trying to dominate, I was inviting her to be my ally in getting me what I needed. But the nature of the patriarchy is such that even though half the population is more inclined to speak the way I did, it's deemed wrong by a significant percentage of the other half of the population (and certainly many women have also internalized the message that the way we speak is a sign of weakness). We're thought to be uncertain, unclear, incorrect. When some men don't listen to women, they tell themselves it's because we're not expressing ourselves well--not that they lack the ability to decipher our meaning.
I'd been intending to watch the movie In a World for ages, and I finally did recently. I enjoyed most of it very much and Lake Bell is wonderful, but the ending was disappointing. I'm not giving away anything by saying that the point of the ending was that there is something inherently wrong with the way young women speak. And sure, in the movie the examples given are egregious (more comparable to cartoon baby talk than to the way young women really speak), and sure, young women should own their opinions. But it makes me sad that we're so quick to denigrate their voices. No wonder they don't want to speak up. Personally, after my experience at the hardware store, I'm going to uptalk all I damn well please.
Another movie I saw that was deeply moving and was very much about one woman expressing herself in ways that could discomfit those around her: A Quiet Passion. In that movie, about Emily Dickinson, the poet is full of barely contained desire and rage. Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson, and I cannot get her face out of my head. The Dickinson she portrays is at once vulnerable, nakedly desperate, fiercely original, resentful, supremely self-controlled, and explosive. Watch it when you're ready to hand your emotions over to a film.
As always, thank you so much for reading. When I write to you next we'll be verging on spring!
The infamous key, henceforth known as "The Middle-Aged-Hardware-Store-Dude Memorial Key."