I have a cold so I’d cried off from an event I was invited to on Tuesday night, but no one felt like cooking so we popped up the road to our local Japanese restaurant. It was early, about 6.30pm and my daughter, husband and I were seated next to two men. The tables were close together. It’s a small restaurant, but we paid no attention to them and, for a while, they paid no attention to us.
To be honest, I had completely forgotten about the men beside us as the three of us enjoyed one another’s company. My youngest daughter lives with her husband on the other side of town and we generally try to share a meal one night a week. It was a pleasant evening; no cross words, no raised voices. We shared a bottle of wine and enjoyed our food.
Perhaps I was peripherally aware that the two men beside us were getting quite pissed, but it wasn’t my business, so I paid them no mind. Suddenly, towards the end of our meal, the man next to me – we shared a banquette seat – suddenly leaned into my field of vision and began pulling peculiar faces at me.
He used his fingers to pull his mouth, cheeks and eyes up and down. I recoiled – as you would – particularly as he then started loudly referring to me as ‘Mum’. Say what? I might be ‘mum’ to my two daughters, but I am not ‘mum’ to anyone else – not even my sons-in-law. Being identified as a generic ‘mum’ strikes me as intrusive, aggressive and belittling. I stop being seen as a person and am reduced to a form of reproduction.
I don’t know about you, but when something like this happens – something completely unexpected and out of the realms of normal behaviour – my brain takes time to catch up. My emotional response got it immediately, I was under verbal attack and – given the face pulling – attack by mimicry – and I went on alert. But my brain was just scrambling, it took me a while to realise that it was my refusal to behave as he clearly thought a ‘mum’ should, that was the problem.
Given the pleasant family evening I had been enjoying until that moment, I was at a loss to understand what he was objecting to. He then launched into a hard to understand, drunken rant about how I needed to be ‘protected’, how I should ‘respect’ my daughter and how women were ‘up there’ (on a pedestal, his gesture appeared to indicate) and men ‘down there’.
When I protested that we were just equals, he then became quite hostile, pulling away from me, turning his back and expressing exaggerated disapproval. His equally pissed but much friendlier companion, kept trying to calm everything down.
We left, followed by the profuse apologies of the poor, young Japanese women who have just bought the business. They need not worry. We will not hold the poor behaviour of one patron against them.
But I was furious. How dare some complete stranger take it upon himself to impose on our evening for the express purpose of telling me I was not behaving in a way he approved of for – as he made perfectly clear – mothers? I was sober and cheerful, not that it would have been his business if I hadn’t been. But if deferring to my husband and child was what he was expecting – no, I don’t do that. I regard myself as having an equal right to speak, laugh, agree, disagree, exclaim or protest as anyone else at the table, depending on how the conversation develops.
I was so furious, I sent out a tweet on my return home asking men in general how often they got a lecture from a stranger about how they should behave with their family. Just to add insult to injury, a bloke immediately responded asking me why I was accusing ‘all men’ of behaving like that. (What I would not give for people to read what I actually write rather than what they think I have written). As I tried to explain that I hadn’t accused all men, I’d merely asked if they’d ever experienced such behaviour, he went on a bit, digging a deeper hole for himself and eventually blocked me! A relief all round, frankly.
Most of the responses I received were sympathetic and horrified – from men – or women and some gay men shared similar stories where unwanted advice from straight blokes they did not know was given to them about the way they ‘should’ behave (physician heal thyself). But it wasn’t until this morning that I unravelled the point of the weird face-pulling that began the incident.
I have an expressive face. I use facial expressions and gestures when I talk and I express my emotions when I listen. When I was on The Gruen Transfer the director told me that if they ever needed a reaction shot they cut to me. It was clearly something about this that infuriated the man with whom I shared the banquette.
On some level he saw my expressive responses as inappropriate to my station, my gender and maybe even my age. This may be partly cultural, but it is also sexist, particularly as he tried to explain that my – perfectly unexceptional – behaviour was inappropriate because I was a wife and mother.
What was also deeply sexist was that he felt entitled to tell me what he didn’t like. He can think what he likes about me; so can you, so can anyone. You can like me or hate me. I can attract or irritate you – that’s your business. But when you try to impose your opinion on me? Get over yourself.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me how many people – many of them men – feel that it is perfectly okay for them to police female behaviour. We are constantly told what to wear, how to walk, what our voices should sound like, how we should smile more and speak less, how to sit (don’t open those legs), be safe (don’t walk the streets after dark), how much to drink, or, it seems, how expressive we are allowed to be. And don’t get me started on the judgements visited upon women who are pregnant. Women are perpetually vulnerable to public scrutiny, sometimes loudly and rudely expressed.
Frankly, if you are overwhelmed with a desire to tell a woman how she is doing being a woman wrong, here’s my (no doubt unwanted) advice: find a mirror, stand in front of it and give yourself a hard slap. It’ll save the rest of us the trouble.