Silverback Boys, Ballerina Girls – Devon Price


He says he would be pissed if his wife bought their infant son a doll. If the boy asks for it, fine. Maybe. But to push that on a boy is tantamout to abuse.

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Content warning: This piece discusses sexual harassment and sexual assault.

He says he would be pissed if his wife bought their infant son a doll. If the boy asks for it, fine. Maybe. But to push that on a boy is tantamout to abuse.

I ask him why. He says because in his field the alpha male wins. You have to be the silverback gorilla. He says he wants his son to be set up for success. Maybe it’s bad, maybe it’s neutral, but that’s the way it is.

This man’s realism is unyielding. He’s the type of person to talk about how harsh the “real world” is, not realizing that he’s one of the reasons the world continues to be that way. He thinks that someone asking for greater softness or more compassion is in some way delusional. He doesn’t seem to realize that with this kind of attitude, no boy of his would ever have the courage to ask for a doll, even if he desperately wanted it.

He works in business, consulting mostly with firms in the financial sector. His wife flaps her hand at him and tells him not to use too much jargon when he talks to me about it. She and I toss around social science jargon like pieces of popcorn into one another’s mouths. We’re more educated than him, know more than him about a great many topics. But confusing him is no problem because he does not listen when we talk. I do attempt to listen when he turns away from football to erupt with sound in my direction, so comprehending him matters.

His company has dozens of lawsuits related to sexism, racism, and, what’s the word, he verbally staggers, sexual orientation discrimination?

Homophobia, I tell him.

He says, an ex employee claims I called her a little bitch.

Did you say that? I ask.

No, he says. There are problems in my field, he allows. But people try to make every little thing into a lawsuit. And once the company investigates it and finds out what’s true and what’s not, everybody has a gag order. So you can never know what actually happened.

So everybody thinks he said those things, his wife explains. And he can’t ever disprove it. She seems pained. In this moment, in her eyes, he’s a bit of a martyr.

It’s hard to change a culture, he says. There are a lot of things you can’t measure. But when it’s like this — where if you have a complaint you get two hundred thousand dollars just to walk away, well…

The one guy, Matt, we had him over to our house! His wife says. He claimed later there was a bias against his sexual orientation, but we were friends!

He nods. I treat every employee like my little brother or sister, he tells me. They are like family.

As the man sips his beer, I think about the time when I was eight and I tried to choke my sister out. And the time she jumped up, at three years old, and bit me on the nipple. Comments she made two or three years ago about my hairy werewolf legs. I think about older brothers who have to be sat down and told that they are too big and strong now to keep throwing punches every time their little sisters annoy them. I wonder if he is that type of older brother to his employees.

He says again, I know there is trouble in my field. We’re all learning so much. I know we have a long way to go.

But, his wife cuts in, people see him and they think that because he is white and was in a frat that he’s some kind of —

It’s like reverse stereotyping, he says. Then he sees how I’m looking at him, and he corrects himself: If that were a thing.

I lean back and look at the bar and recite a very social science-y definition of what a stereotype is. An assumption about what traits a person has, based on how they look, or what group they’re in, or how they act. That’s all it really is. People have been hurt by men who look and act like you, I say.

He allows this. He allows a lot of things these days. He used to be more pushy, when I was younger and he routinely got drunker, and I didn’t have a PhD and a deep voice. It’s hard for him to pretend to be superior to me these days.

Men like him are always trying to win my approval, now. The PhD made a big difference, and my gender transition surely helped. Men like this, men who are ignorant but kind of liberal, are scared of me these days because they want me to think they’re good men. I deny them this relief as often as I can. Having that kind of power feels good, if I’m being honest. Sometimes I abuse it. Sometimes I go out of my way to be hostile to these men, to make them feel bad. It’s my own little breed of toxic masculinity.

Photo by Nihal Demirci on Unsplash

But years ago, before I looked like this, he called me a ballerina because I was thin and demure and wore skirts. He used to think I was adorable and harmless and feminine. He used to say women sexually harassed men more often than vice versa. Now he has a four-year-old daughter. He has softened, or learned to obscure the worst of himself.

I say to him, I think a lot of these people who are lodging complaints have experienced a ton of shit. Small things that hurt them, over and over again, and the one day they blew up.

I agree, he says. I don’t doubt it. There are problems. But is this the way to solve it? Lawsuits?

I don’t know, I say. And I don’t know that I believe him. Did he really not call that woman a bitch? Or did it come out like a breath and he didn’t even hear himself saying it? Does he really know there are problems? As much as he says it, does he believe it? If it’s a problem, you at least try to solve it.

He goes to fill the sound system with dollar bills and his wife tells me she appreciated a thing I wrote. In it, I said I didn’t feel like a woman. She tells me she resonates with that. She never felt too feminine, kind of a nonbinary woman, she is, near the middle but willing to take the “girl” option when options are so simplified.

I’m thankful for her saying that. She says that until recently she didn’t know there were more options. I say something about how the options are endless.

We talk education. How to make the classroom welcoming to students whose identities are not what you might assume, looking at their name on the roster, looking at their body, their face. Normally a forceful and strong person filled with ideas, she asks me for advice. She listens. Sometimes she says the wrong thing but she is great at just rolling with the punches, saying oof, that was fucked up, that thing I just said, and then moving on.

After a while, she tells me there is a boy at her daughter’s school. Short hair, so obviously a boy as far as her daughter perceives such things. He wears dresses to school every day. The daughter does not know how to integrate this into her understanding of the world.

At this school there is also a transgender girl. All the parents were informed about this girl, evidently. There were meetings. How does she explain it? I tell her that one is easy: A girl is a girl is a girl. Or rather, every girl is just as different from her daughter as this particular transgender girl is.

Photo by Juliane Liebermann on Unsplash

But the boy in the dress. The daughter is perplexed. The woman explained to her daughter that boys can wear dresses. And that maybe the child is not a boy. Who knows.

The girl said to her, that is strange. Is it? The mother asked her. It does not have to be.

The husband walks back up, making the table teeter as he sits down. Is that boy being forced to wear dresses though? He asks. Is his mom maybe a… a Susan?

His wife cringes.

Susan is a mutual friend who has raised her child in a gender neutral way. The kid wears dresses and overalls. He likes trucks and baby dolls. But does he really like it? The man has his doubts.

Susan makes her kid dress like that, he says. Just like she makes her husband stay at home with the kids, just like she made him take her last name. She wants to push this political agenda and uses her kid as a symbol for it.

How do you know, I ask him. You don’t know. You don’t know that she forces him to wear that.

He’s five, his wife says, taking my side. You cannot control what a kid that age wears every day.

But, the man says, voice veering into lecture cadence. I cut him off.

Maybe his mom does subtly encourage him doing non-steretypical things, I shout over the music that he turned on. Maybe she is excited or encouraging in a way that slowly, implicitly, you know, encourages him to try out all kinds of things, and that influence builds up —

Exactly, says the man. She’s manipulating —

And you do that too, I say. It’s the same as what you do with your son and wanting him to be masculine.

Yes, he says. That’s how it works. I agree completely. That’s all I’m saying.

And then he leans back in his chair, satisfied.

He is not such a terrible guy, that is what’s vexing. He can see the strings that pull at all of us. He just chooses to go along with them anyway. He resents the people who try to cut the strings, because he thinks everything will fall apart.

In that moment, I feel like progress has been made.

And then his wife continues to drink and her face does this thing where it falls and she looks incredibly, frighteningly tired and kind of puffy. Standing and gesturing become harder for her, slower. She’s all red. She mumbles a sentence about needing to go home.

And her husband makes the joke. It happens, I swear, every time the three of us hang out and there are drinks. And there are always drinks. He makes a joke about taking advantage of her. He tells a joke very specifically about fucking her when she’s passed out.

She laughs with the ease of a spouse who has heard it a hundred times before. And gives her stock reply. Don’t wake me up, she says. Just do it, and I still get credit for it.

She looks at me, her eyes watery and unfocused, and she is laughing. It still counts, she tells me. Even if I’m asleep.

It ‘counts’. Because it is currency. Because it is a thing that he is owed. A duty she must fulfill. They have a daughter. They have a son.

I look behind her, past them both, past the other patrons, and the arcade machines, and the bar, past the rows of liquor bottles, above all the shelves, at a hoola hoop hanging on a hook near the ceiling. In the summer this bar has a small, dusty patio in the back. Patrons at the bar go outside with the hula hoop, laughing in their shorts or sundresses, and swivel, swivel, swivel with it, spilling beer on their sandal-clad feet. I hang my heart up on that hook, let all my attention dangle from it, hold firm until their laughter subsides.

In this world there are ballerinas and silverback gorillas and all kinds of confused people who live in between. Nobody knows what to make of us, that awkward majority in the middle. We don’t even know what to make of ourselves. So we play by the rules in order to survive, only challenging unfairness in a theoretical way. We say snide little things about the evils of privileged people, but if those people show one ounce of regret, we’ll gladly dine with the enemy and hope that it is progress.

This guy has succeeded by being a silverback gorilla, an alpha, a total fucking pig with just enough conscience to make himself appealing to people like me. His wife has succeeded by drinking until the dissonance sinks somewhere deep inside her that cannot be easily found. And I have succeeded by giving these powerful rule-players a handful of interesting things to think about. Things they will sometimes put into practice, but mostly not. And like them, like everyone, I tell myself that what I’m doing is okay, or that there is no avoiding it — that this is just the way of the world.

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