Culture

The Trader Joe's Incident: What Do We Do About Everyday Sexism In Our Lives?

Should we speak up? What's the cost of silence? Do things ever change?

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

It can be a small indignity that pulls you out of your daily routine: a catcall, a degrading advertisement. Or it can be a bigger affront —a threat, a physical invasion. Big or small, it reminds you that aggression towards females is not only prevalent in our society, but often tolerated, and even celebrated.

Women are expected to mostly brush this stuff off.  If we speak up, we face certain backlash. We’ll be accused of being touchy, or pushy, or worthless. Or worse.

But what happens if we don’t?

The creators of the Everyday Sexism Project decided “to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis.”  The purpose is to show that sexism happens to women every day and that it’s valid to talk about it. Tweets with the hashtag #everydaysexism show the assaults on dignity that happen to women each day as they go about their business.

@girlonetrack: Walked from one end of Holloway Road to the other, only got street harassed five times. #summer #beingfemale #everydaysexism

@mediamocracy in a suit asked by customer to bring coffee at hotel breakfast buffet - #everydaysexism

@SallyStrange I arrive at the client's house. "Oh, this is the girl! They're taking over our jobs!" He touches my cheek. Ugh. #everydaysexism

Recently, I wrote about how I felt hearing the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” while shopping at Trader Joe’s in the wake of Elliot Rodger’s murder spree.

Normally, I would have felt a twinge of irritation and continued on silently as a catchy, 50-year-old song describing the gleeful degradation of a woman played on. But I couldn’t stop thinking, as the singer compared his girlfriend to a squirming dog, about how it is that young men can get to be consumed by their desire to control and punish women. What goes into the mix?

The lyrics of “Under My Thumb” (check them out here) jumped out at me. What did it mean that such a mainstream tune or the even more misogynistic “Brown Sugar” are so normalized that they now play as background Muzak for choosing a head of lettuce? Do the lyrics become part of the steady drip, drip, drip of influence that shapes our perceptions?

Unleashing the Id

This time, I spoke up about why I found the song disturbing.

The response from Trader Joe’s was dismissive and disrespectful — not particularly surprising. What was a bit more surprising was the amount of vitriol unleashed against me by commenters on AlterNet and social media sites. Another surprise, a happier one, was the wisdom and insight strewn among the attacks, some from men, who thanked me for not remaining silent and expressed their astute observations on how such messages contour our cultural landscape. I must give particular thanks to Don Hazen, editor-in-chief of AlterNet, who believes that a writer must not retreat when a nerve is struck.

So I’m returning to the subject to reflect on what it means to speak up, and to address some of the things readers talked about.

A great many of the commenters degraded me as a woman, hurling insults and violent language. The irony, of course, is that there could be no more eloquent justification for my complaint about the misogyny and sexism circulating in our everyday lives than these very comments. ((AlterNet's moderator has removed the most obscene comments on this site, so they can't be included).

Some commenters used gender-specific obsenities:

Jake Cullember 'Whoever wrote this is a flat out CUNT!' (AlterNet FB page)

Others were enraged at the very mention of the word "misogyny":

Horace Kopeck I swear to Christ if I hear the word "misogyny" one more time I'm going to go jerk off to revenge porn just on principle. I don't give a fuck about your #firstworldproblems; the world does not revolve around you just because you happen to have an extra X chromosome. (AlterNet FB page)

A fair number hinted at violent impulses toward women:

CarnivoreKing 7:46am via Twitter for Android
@LynnParramore what do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice

davekelly59 LiquidCrystal • an hour ago
PLAY IT! I will shop in rage. Any bitch in my way, is going to be mowed down with my metal shopping cart, at wall mart, mind you, especially on BLACK Friday! All in getting with the christmas spirit.

Still others, like those attracted to libertarian Matt Welch's article attacking me, discussed what I look like and how they would like to punish me sexually:

  • PapayaSF|

    6.12.14 @ 4:03PM|

    Actually, she's a pretty hot MILF.

  • chmercier|

    6.12.14 @ 4:11PM|

    The smugness has worked well for that one! An 'ump and dump, if you will. "Progressive for a Friday night" tactic would work on that one.

I suspect the rage has several sources: the impotence felt by men in a stagnant economy, the collective guilt of men and women who feel complicit in not speaking up themselves, and the old, primal fear of women having too much power, too much say. Many expressed outrage that I'm a woman with advanced academic degrees, a person who gets paid to write, a person confident enough to speak up.

The insults are a demand for silence, a return to the status quo, a warning.  As one reader called guesty put it, “the main touch point of the comments here is that each instance of sexism is trivial and trying to correct it makes you a shrew.”

It’s true that a song may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of life. But as reader Frumkin pointed out, things that seem “trivial” can set the stage for bigger wrongs:

“Issues like unequal pay, blaming rape victims for their victimization, as well as the myriad other ways that sexism affects women do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of the tapestry of patriarchal and sexist culture, a culture in which sexism and patriarchy take many, many forms: some overt and others less so. It is the latter, the subtle (or not so subtle, because to me there is nothing subtle about the sexism in the lyrics to "Under My Thumb") brainwashing that occurs in our daily lives that create the context in which the more overt and egregious forms of sexism can flourish…”

Other commenters expressed indignation at the idea that I was advocating censorship. I did not, of course, suggest banning any song or preventing people from going to concerts, buying records, listening to the radio, studying pop culture, or any such thing. I simply asked what it meant for songs about the degradation of women to be part of common playlists that we are forced to hear in 2014 as we go about our routine tasks.

Some commenters raised questions about how we interpret meaning, and many fell into the trap of insisting that a cultural product means only what the producer claims it means. “Brown Sugar,” such commenters insisted, is really about heroin because that’s what Mick Jagger once claimed.

That is particularly naive: A producer’s stated intention is merely part of the mix of things that go into our reception and understanding of a text. Producers can be duplicitous in their claims, and sometimes they don’t even know why they wrote what they wrote, a fact Jagger captured perfectly in a 1995 interview when asked about “Brown Sugar”: “God knows what I’m (going) on about in that song” he said.

But a lot of women know what they think when they hear misogynistic songs. Reader SuZieCoyote described her discomfort with “Under My Thumb”:

“It's a small thing, to be sure, that song.....but it always made me uncomfortable. It is a nasty song and offensive. Always has been. Deeply entrenched sexism is made up of many small things - constant, grinding put-downs, day after day. One song, by itself appears ‘no big thing.’ Thousands of these things, day after day....create a corrosive environment that breeds sexism…”

We’re Not Innocent

In 2014, after over a century of psychology, modern advertising, and the postmodern movement, we ought to be hip to the fact that we often don’t know what we mean, that cultural products influence us on many levels, and that we are not innocent bystanders on the cultural playing field.

We also ought to know enough history to understand that the reception of many parts of our cultural and artistic heritage evolves as the years pass. To recognize that does not mean we have to forget the artist, or diminish the contribution. Stephen Foster, known as the "father of American music", wrote tunes that fill our childhoods. But I’m going to guess that you — even you who cry out so loudly against censorship — wouldn’t want your kids singing the full original lyrics to “Oh, Susanna!” at summer camp, which include this line:

“I jump’d aboard the Telegraph and trabbeled down de ribber
De lectrie fluid magnified and kill’d five hundred [insert N-word]”

You’d prefer the expurgated version, wouldn’t you?

Like the Rolling Stones, Stephen Foster was a talented artist who was fascinated by American southern culture — riverboats and the city of New Orleans — even though he only visited the South once. He embraced the blackface minstrel show tradition popular in America in the 19th century and made it his own. He was producing what his audiences wanted to enjoy.  But times change. Foster's later minstrel work shows complexity and uneasiness about the stereotypes that music of this genre popularized. America began singing a new song, and today much of Foster's work feels problematic. That doesn't mean we have to get rid of his repertory, but we can be mindful of what certain parts of it evoke in the modern audiences who hear it. We consider context, setting. And yes, we may even change the lyrics, or decide a certain song doesn't belong in a certain place.

Our cultural playlist changes all the time. The Rolling Stones are well aware of it: Jagger, a talented songwriter, penned songs like “Under My Thumb” and “Brown Sugar”  — both explicit and unambiguous in their expression of desire to domineer over women — in his early twenties, when he was on pop culture roll, trying to push the envelope and finding that a posture of sexual aggression made for hit records and exciting concerts. But he’s not the same man he was then. Today, he routinely changes the lyrics of both songs to make them less offensive to women and to African Americans, as he did when he sang duets with Tina Turner. Is Jagger compromising his own artistic purity? Selling out for the crowd? Or recognizing that a song is a living thing, and it can change as we do?

For Trader Joe’s, the grocery store playlist is “set” and that’s that. And for many commenters, suggesting that some songs do not need to serve as the soundtrack for our daily tasks is heresy. But as a society, we evolve. Artists change. Audiences change. Mick Jagger certainly knows this. Do you?

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.