During a recent radio interview concerning our book about men and women, the female host suggested that Gina Barreca and I ask each other questions. Gina went first. She asked me how I thought my professional career would have been different had I been born a girl.
I said that, given my basic outlook on life, I probably would still be a humor writer. I just wouldn't be as funny.
After recovering from the 20-fingernail mauling, I decided that this subject was worth exploring further. So, Gina and I wrote an entire column in which we discussed how my behavior, at key moments of my life, would have been different had I been female.
Unfortunately, you will not read that column. My editor, Tom the Butcher, felt it was not quite worthy of publication in the sense that it was -- and I am quoting Tom here -- "rancid and inept." This bothered me a little.
Gina: A little?
Gene: A lot.
Gina: The e-mails you sent me describing this exchange were all in lowercase, filled with self-loathing and despair.
Gene: Well, yeah.
Gina: Welcome to the world of women.
Gina: You got yourself all prettied up for Tom, with a nice new party dress, and he told you that you looked fat. And you were crushed.
Gene: That's ridiculous.
Gina: Is it?
Gina: You knew the column was good. I knew the column was good. But once Tom told you it was bad, you didn't get angry, you got hurt. It caused you to reflect on what you had done wrong, as opposed to deciding Tom had his head up his butt. You got all girly and self-reflective, like it was your fault.
What do you think happens to women 10 times a day? Women's lives are based upon anticipating, avoiding, confronting and internalizing rejection. You suffered an inversion of gender roles, and now you're really uncomfortable dealing with it. Tom feminized you.
Gene: Stop saying that.
Gina: He made you "his bitch."
Gina: God, I'm loving this.
You're learning something here. The essential neurotic state of women is that we define ourselves by how others see us. Why? Because we have always had less power, and, as writer Elizabeth Janeway said of all sentient life forms, from hippos to humans, "power is the ability not to have to please." If our function is to please others, we judge ourselves by our success at it.
The employer-employee relationship perfectly recapitulates the male-female relationship, whatever the genders involved. It's particularly intense with writers, where you're almost naked out there before your editors. Like you're wearing a chiffon party dress without a slip.
Gene: Stop that.
Gene: It seems to me that in interpersonal relationships, women have the upper hand, power-wise.
Gina: It's true that, for those relatively brief moments in a relationship where the negotiable instrument is sex, we can make you bark like a seal. But even in that theater, the man is always trying to be bigger, and the woman is always trying to be smaller -- which, in turn, makes the man feel bigger, if you see the literal and metaphorical implications of what I am saying.
Gene: I think you probably shouldn't go any further down that road.
Gina: You're right. Tom might object.
Gina: The fact is that from the time of the troglodytes, women understood that they could not compete through brute strength. So they learned to strategically harness their powerlessness, to the point where, paradoxically, it has become our most effective instrument of power. Historically, damp eyelashes have achieved a lot more for a woman than any flash of anger or show of authority.
Gene: So, what is your point?
Gina: My point is that we're not going to get that column back, no matter how unfair that situation may be. Life is tough for women. But maybe this experience can sensitize you to what we have to put up with. Maybe you can use it to be a better man, from now on.
Gina: And I'm sorry I teased you at a vulnerable time. I apologize.
Gina: So, you want to go shopping?
Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Gina Barreca's is email@example.com. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.