There is a Salon article that has been making the rounds on Facebook, in which a man writes of how much insight he has gained into women’s lives and psyches by working in a lingerie store. I know it’s an amusingly written article. The writer is described as a “humorist” who “performs a one-man show about his time at Victoria’s Secret called “The Lingerie Diaries.”” And it’s hard to deny what he claims – that entering spaces that are new to you, or even entering familiar spaces with a new perspective, teaches you something about other people. Indeed, this is what underpins journalism at one end of the spectrum of “understanding the other” and ethnography at the other end. I can’t seem to find this article as funny as some of my friends do. That’s actually been happening to me a lot lately as I skim through my Facebook newsfeed. I think it’s because I’m developing a particular lens that immediately zooms into certain types of meanings. When I first started getting this annoying particle of glass stuck in my eye, I used to respond by commenting when my friends posted links to articles like this one: “But don’t you think…” Which of course must have pissed them off. Because it’s not like other people don’t always see these things. And even if they don’t, why would they appreciate having it pointed out to them on their Facebook wall when all they wanted was to focus on the funny? So here I am, on my blog, saying what I really think, and not forcing anyone to read it (even inadvertently on a newsfeed).
The reason I don’t find the article so funny, or heartwarming, or whatever, is because my first thought was this: he would have learned so much more if he had trained himself to listen to the women in his life, being reflexive about his subconsciously held and unconsciously displayed judgments. Of course this would not have resulted in half as much attention, at least not without twice as much intellectual effort. Mothers, sisters, aunts, cousins…women talk (big surprise), and in my experience, they don’t talk less just because men are around. They talk less (or self-censor topicwise, in any case) when they feel they are being judged. Also, when a man enters a “women’s space” as an outsider – more than in a family situation – he has to be aware that the women are to a greater extent consciously performing for him. [Note: everything I am saying here probably holds true if it were the other way around and a woman were entering a “man’s space”.] Also, Victoria’s Secret may be filled with women, but it is a space created out of patriarchal logics (it’s telling that the first place he considered was a brothel). If a man wants to go deeper into women’s interaction patterns or whatever, and doesn’t think he can tap on his family for whatever reason, there are plenty of women’s spaces that exist outside of sexy (although, admittedly, not outside of other structural boundaries, but I don’t think that’s really possible anyway).
So you know, if a guy wants to work at Victoria’s Secret, that’s cool. But this seemingly amusing article actually points to a lot of missed opportunities, given what the writer said his motivations were. Of course, it represents a huge UNmissed opportunity in the form of a comedian’s schtick. The article also exemplifies the continued mystification of women’s communicative worlds, which absolves men (if they were so inclined) of the need to examine their own thoughts, words and actions when they interact with the women in their lives. When I say this, I am not criticizing the writer. Obviously people can write what they want to, and if they feel they learned something and can make some money out of it, more power to them. I am merely reflecting on what this particular genre of writing means for the stated project of understanding women. My conclusion: not much. I’ll leave you to think about how this picture is relevant: