I am going to do my best here, but you should know that I find this subject nearly impossible to talk about, for reasons that should quickly become obvious.
Middle-class, intelligent people, especially women, live under enormous societal pressure to keep things light. First of all, we’re expected to prove that we aren’t any threat to you by continually poking fun at ourselves to reassure you of our awareness that we’re no one special. That subconscious little tapdance can be a useful method of communicating to new acquaintances that we are capable of introspection, or simply a method of genuine entertainment, but it can also become a compulsion. Some of the most popular, and thus pressured, bloggers can’t get through a paragraph without prostrating themselves before their audience, so rife are they with anxious humility.
I crafted something again, you guys! But oh, you know me! I’d bedazzle my own head if it weren’t attached! Also I eat too much and am a lax parent.
I can’t really say I blame them. When even simply existing matter-of-factly, without all of the apologetic jokes, can make hackles rise (just who do you think you are, anyway, showing us all these pictures of a birthday party without so much as a public acknowledgment that their existence is self-indulgent and extravagant?), hardly anyone wants to get downright controversial.
Thus, plenty of positively brilliant bloggers have flocked to the Internet in order to say just about anything, so long as it’s not overly upsetting or challenging.
When we do express earnest opinions or, worse, draw your attention to a depressing facet of reality, we do so apologetically, because it’s guilt-inducing to be the one who brings down everybody else’s good time.
Alice Bradley wrote one of the best posts on the objectification of women that I have ever read anywhere, but not before first summing up the plight of the Friendly Smart Woman so perfectly:
“I keep trying to write this post, and every time I’m taken aback at how angry I am, how very furious, and I don’t want that, I want to be positive and have fun and entertain. But oh, there’s something I want to say, so I try again, and I’m back to being furious. Well. I’ve literally been at this post for a year and it never gets any funnier or lighter, but I keep wanting to write it; I have to write it; I have to be done with it. So here we go.”
She went on to write a compelling post, a post that had every right to exist, a post that honest-to-God made the world a better place. Still, I can relate to her ambivalence.
Simply put, serious topics are uncool. The demeanor of Someone Who Cares is generally parodied as that of the absurdly angry vegetarians exhibiting no social skills at dinner, or the blowhard activists who are making small children cry by aggressively protesting the environmental damage caused by a two-goat petting zoo, or who can’t stop talking about their biodegradable sneakers, or God knows what.
One of the more frightening aspects of this stereotype is that a concern about the world at large is so frequently associated with a sort of melodramatic immaturity. Caring is for college! Once you’re approaching middle age, you’ll have the good sense to avoid such gauche displays.
Besides, people who care are always so negative and judgmental about it, right?
Britta Perry on Community is a perfect (and admittedly hilarious) example of this character: “You know what ELSE was the best? The rainforests! Too bad those fascist oligarchies are raping them to make hamburgers. LOOK IT UP!”
In a lot of cases, this mockery is deserved. I’ve certainly done my own share of horrified cringing when some well-meaning but socially impaired blowhard fails to grasp now is Just Not the Time for That, “now” being the engagement announcement of a dear friend, and “that” being an insistence on bringing up the ethical concerns surrounding blood diamonds.
So, okay, some of them had it coming. But what has that stereotype done to reasonable human beings to might venture to care about something depressing once in a while?
I feel as if our fear of being That Guy has created a false dichotomy: Either you choose to own your rebellion and become a righteous, badass, unapologetically outspoken individual who writes for Jezebel (which: awesome), or you remain in the intelligent sector of polite society, which means you can only get vulnerably earnest about something that is not your own life, on behalf of someone who is not you, a few times a year, if that. If ever.
And even on those rare occasions, a few glasses of wine might help. Also, can we turn the lights off? It’s just easier with the lights off. And don’t worry, I won’t forget to blatantly apologize for clogging up your Facebook feed with my petition for women’s health. I know you’re busy.
There is nothing wrong with being a straight-up rebellious badass, by the way. (If you want to take Fucking as your middle name, do not let me stop you. Do not let anyone.)
There’s also nothing wrong with posting about the uncontroversial aspects of your life, from your Bedazzler to your kid to your wedding to that television character you totally want to bone.
It’s the need to do both, without feeling hypocritical at worst and erratic at best, that can feel uncomfortable. I mean, you guys, what is this going to do to my brand?
(I jest, but we all have a brand, even if anthropologists surely call it something else.)
Frankly, if all I felt allowed to publicly discuss were my Bedazzler or my kid or my wedding or a television character, I would not be able to stop myself from poking my own eyes out with those cute striped straws everyone is using to drink everything.
Not only that, but I consider the discussion of those topics, and only those topics, to be a disservice to society in the same way that displaying photos of skinny women, and only skinny women, is a disservice to society. The world needs to know that even you, with your glossy hair and enviable job, have flaws that aren’t so funny, that are more destructive and terrifying than a love of cupcakes or an occasionally easygoing approach to your children’s supervision.
Even if you don’t, just … lie to me, okay? You aren’t allowed to have a completely harmless personality and that fetchingly styled pile of photogenic macaroons. You’re going to have to give me the macaroons.
Similarly, if I were expected to limit the discussion to orphans and politics, I would have dangerously high blood pressure. Plus, I would get spittle all over everyone all the time, which would be not only distracting, but unhygienic. Besides, sticking to only those topics would be an insult to other awesome topics, like how delightful it is to stick an orange slice in your mouth when no one is looking and then grin at them with your new sweet grill. Citrus mischief!
I’m well aware that, if I don’t want to risk being seen as a tiresome person who is physically incapable of a belly laugh, it’s considered more societally appropriate for me, in this space, to tell you what to wear, or what music to listen to, than to tell you that the toughest question I’ve dealt with this year is what it really means to be a human being and what my moral obligations are as a member of this race.
My first moral obligation as a human, I’ve decided, is just to be honest about the fact that I’ve been cowardly enough to allow the societal pressures I just described to keep me from doing good things.
So, here I am, admitting it right now:
I sometimes feel embarrassment, or even scorn, for people who speak intensely about a cause, because apparently that’s my default knee-jerk response. Thanks, junior high!
I sometimes choose to talk about myself, rather than about people who are harming other people and should be stopped, because it’s too awkward.
I routinely neglect to help people in need — or ask others to help people in need — because it’s too awkward.
There we go. First obligation, fulfilled.
The second obligation, I’m assuming, is to figure out how to reconcile my inherently awkward privilege with the needs of a profoundly desperate world. I intend to tackle that just as soon as I’m finished creating sheer pandemonium with this orange wedge.