My first clash with the patriarchy came in fifth grade.
My mother loves to tell the story of how I marched into the principal’s office to complain that the P.E. teacher was coaching a baseball tournament for the boys while the girls did self-guided aerobics, a slight made worse by the soundtrack consisting of a single track by Kool & The Gang.
“You should have seen the look on his face when he called me in!” she always laughs, slapping her knee. “He thought I was going to back him up and make you wear a dress. Instead he got an earful about the Equal Rights Amendment, haha!”
Under the pressure of my Phyllis Schlafly-picketing mother and my Ramona Quimby scowl, P.E. class became a bastion of equality overnight, alternating between brutal games of dodgeball and the savage stranglefest known as Red Rover. While this was chalked up as a success, the solution I was looking for was more along the lines of everybody running the bases while dancing to Blondie. (This dream has finally come true in Savannah Gay Kickball—new season starts in September, babes!)
But the fallout was far worse than being commanded to Celebrate Good Times a hundred times a week. A couple of boys who resented my upset of the public school physical education applecart singled me out for harassment, snickering at my tube socks and making sure those dodgeball hits left a bruise. “Hey Jane Fonda,” they’d hiss when I passed by on my way to the pencil sharpener, a slur that could encompass traitorism and aerobics only in 1982.
In response, I said nothing. I’d gotten what I wanted, hadn’t I? I didn’t want to be branded a tattletale, or worse, picked last for the teams they always seemed entitled to captain. So I sucked up their bad behavior, learning the lesson of so many mouthy women before me: Even if I’d won a small victory, the boys defined the game.
Forty years later and so many more instances of playground torment, dating discomfiture, and workplace gaslighting behind me, I still find smashing the patriarchy to be an exhausting and inexact endeavor. Progress has been made though triumphs have been scant, what with the bullies moving the goalposts all over the place with their self-serving voter suppression legislation and disgraceful climate change denial. (The anti-vaccine stance simply defies logic; you can’t exploit the world’s labor and resources if you’re dead, bruh.)
But every challenge to the rules of their nonsensical dictatorship is worth cheering, and the last few weeks have been particularly gratifying. From badass Olympic athletes claiming their right to dress themselves as they see fit to Scarlett Johansson suing for her share of Disney’s Black Widow streaming profits, the boys’ club of Western Civilization is seeing its power unravel under the searing sunshine of social media and demands for equity and accountability. Even 83 year-old Jane Fonda is still raising her fist and looking goddamn smokin’ doing it—take that, ya fifth grade shitheads.
In a just but surprisingly speedy turn, Andrew Cuomo and his gross inability to keep up with “generational and cultural shifts” (or just keep his perv hands to himself, der) have abdicated to newly-minted Gov. Kathy Hochul. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have now forced a significant number of authoritative mad men off their platforms, ideally spurring others to change their ways before they hurt others, or at least scare them into behaving like decent people.
The times they are a’changin’, though such momentous shifts only come with the bravery of those willing to speak up at the risk of destroying their own careers, privacy, and personal safety. Let us never forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who sacrificed everything dear to her only to suffer Justice Rat Face Kavanaugh holding the future of women’s autonomy in his creepy little claws.
As the toxic masculinity of politics, sports and celebrity have been exposed like a micropenis shriveling under the female gaze, the restaurant industry seems close behind. Multiple treatises have pointed out that nationwide labor shortages in kitchens and front of house are not some socialist aversion to work but an unwillingness to return to an environment where top-down abuse is baked into the job. The Great Departed Sinner-Saint Anthony Bourdain may have served up that secret sociopathy in Kitchen Confidential 20 years ago, but it’s taken a pandemic to foment a revolution.
Savannah saw a breathtaking example last week in the takedown of The Haunt, the anticipated vegan spot set to open in the former Leoci’s spot by former Fox & Fig owner Clay Ehmke. While his culinary awards and plant-based menu presented an outward-facing persona of professional enlightenment, rumors of addiction and abuse swirled among the service sector’s close-knit community.
When a former employee posted on Instagram an account of sexual assault by Ehmke, over a dozen others came forward with similar stories, inciting most of the newly-hired staff to quit and effectively shut down the venture a day after its soft opening. (For more details and an explanation of why surreptitiously taking off a condom is most definitely sexual assault, please refer to Rachael Flora’s excellent reportage in The Savannahian.)
To many, it’s a harbinger of reckoning in what has traditionally been a trade run by badly behaved men fostering a climate of exploitation—though lasting evolution will only prevail with drastic measures, including legal action, if necessary.
“I hope people are paying attention. This community of industry women mobilized in less than 48 hours to close him down,” said one longtime local restaurant veteran.
“No one is trying to be cute anymore.”
But the white-cis-man-gang doesn’t have to be abusive to perpetuate their status quo (nor is it composed of only men)—it just needs to be exclusive. After singer/songwriter Josephine Johnson pointed out the homogeneous nature of the local music scene in a recent Facebook post lamenting the lack of opportunities for women on stage, the reactions from fellow musicians were less than supportive. Some mansplained why she was imagining the issue, and others were downright unkind, reflecting obtuse refusal to recognize an imbalance in representation as well as a meanness of spirit incongruent with heart-baring lyrics.
“All I was trying to ask was how do we as a community of talented musicians talk about and work together to create performance opportunities to better represent the talented women musicians who are here. It’s about equity. I wasn’t attacking anybody,” she told me when I reached out after reading the exchanges.
“A pair of eyes is all you need to see Savannah and the Lowcountry stages are dominated by men. Not including women creates this distorted perspective that only men play music, and the optic sends the message to young female and non-binary musicians that you’re not going to play in Savannah.”
The fortunate thing is that there are more games than ever in town, and Josephine’s talents sing for themselves—I hope to see y’all when she serenades our city Fridays in September at The Drayton Hotel.
The point here is optics do matter, a lot: We see you, crumbling patriarchy. And those of us working for a more equitable world are here to smash it, dismantle it…maybe take it out into the woods with a baseball bat with badass artist Shelley Smith and post the video on TikTok, IDK.
To the ones crying in their craft beers about cancel culture, this is what the beginning of accountability looks like. Know that those coming up behind us have more courage in their convictions than ever, speaking up against the poisonous privilege of white male supremacy and the harm it’s done to the planet and collective humanity. Though we have a long way to go to create a climate that supports liberty and justice for all, or at least the right not to be groped at work.
My mother taught me to stand up when the rules are unfair, even if you don’t win the game. As we hurtle through space on this melting globe, I’ve come to understand that we’re all undeniably on the same team. But the delusion of male superiority endures, and to paraphrase our Our Lady of Eternal Empowerment Gloria Steinem, power is never given up freely. Keep spreading the sunshine, folx—I expect we haven’t heard the last of the teeny-peenied trolls.
They oughta know I’ve gotten a whole lot better at dodgeball.
Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight ~ JLL