Can I Be A Feminist and Still Support Joe Biden?
When I first saw the images of Joe Biden suggestively hugging and touching the shoulders of women my thoughts were conflicted. Is this real? It could be. Where is it going? Why have I never seen this before? Am I wrong?
I knew enough about the internet and clickbait culture to know I needed to do more research and to question everything, even my own gut reaction.
In the wake of #MeToo I’ve been thankful for a lot of things that are hard to describe. I’m thankful that the platform has brought the realities of women to the forefront, and like in so many instances, compiled enough stories so that men finally believe us. Sort of.
The hardest part about #MeToo has also been the unavoidable shame in how I’ve processed my own experiences or given passes to men (and some women) who have been inappropriate with me because of the generation they come from or the trauma they’ve suffered themselves. Pass may be a strong word. But in a time when everything feels like it has to be black and white, it feels like not condemning a person is the same as supporting everything they’ve ever done. In a direct contradiction to the binary thinking we’re actively trying to dismantle, we leave no room for such fluid thinking when it comes to call-out culture.
Because of my history of having strong public opinions, it came as no surprise to me when I was immediately asked for my take on Joe Biden. And if I had to respond with my first reaction, it would be really fucking hurt. But not the reason you might be thinking.
I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating. There’s no win for women in the aftermath of violation. The only way we can make people believe we have been violated is to publicly appear as an inconsolable victim. The very moment we respond to a violation with anything less than condemnation, the validity of our pain evaporates. We are viewed as in a state of dehumanization no matter how we actually feel. Our violations have to look like devastation. Our healing has to look like a courageous book tour. Women have been surviving for-fucking-ever through private conversations, humor, empathy for our abusers, or brushing it off altogether so we can live our lives. We disregard the incredible nuance of survival instinct and cultural context in almost every hot take on sexual assault.
To me that disregard is very scary and painful. It’s scary because we need nuance and critical thinking in order for prevention. We need to believe people can and can want to change for the better. We also need to consider it’s possible that all of us have committed some kind of violation within the context of our generation and privilege.
I think any time an inspirational public figure like Joe Biden is in the spotlight for something like inappropriate touching, our guts immediately start scrambling for the “right” take, sickened by the idea that there may not be one.
I’ve been asked whether or not you can still be a feminist, an ally or not a hypocrite and still support a potential candidate like Joe Biden.
First of all I cannot stress enough, we absolutely must be critical of all our Democratic candidates. We also must get Trump the fuck out of office. Take that where you want, and don’t @me about it.
I asked myself what I would want to hear from any one of the people who have violated me. Many people feel like his avoidance of actually saying “I’m sorry” is a deeper slight. To me personally, “sorry” is okay, but doesn’t cut it. I have an association with the word “sorry” from childhood, which is that when you say you’re sorry for doing something, it means you will never do it again. Think about how audacious that statement is. No one can guarantee that as we evolve, any of us will never violate someone by making them uncomfortable with our actions or touch. In this context, “sorry” feels disingenuous and obligatory. I rarely trust it.
Personally, when I watched the original video of Joe Biden addressing his actions, I wasn’t looking for “sorry” or groveling. I’ve been in enough toxic relationships to know that is a surefire sign that the person actually does not care about the impact they’ve had, and only seeks forgiveness rather than improvement. I watched a 76 year old white man take accountability for his actions and vowed to be better and more aware moving forward. He did not run away from his impact or trivialize the women who he made uncomfortable, like so many men have in my personal experience.
Thinking of a few who have apologized to me, I get emotional. Because “sorry” is usually an ending to the event, including your right to still be hurt by it. Sorry is easy. Holding yourself accountable to actually unlearn toxic behavior and be better going forward is really fucking hard. Most defense mechanisms we develop to withstand abuse are inherently toxic. We all have unlearning to do.
I empathize with unlearning. I grew up in an Italian family, where hugging, kissing, gesturing, loudness and shrugging off pain was normal. In early adulthood I was part of social scenes where everyone hugged. It wasn’t until I started doing comedy when I had to unlearn this behavior. I had a male comic once tell me, “I actually don’t like hugging” and I immediately felt terrible. Not like, sorry for myself, but that I had been assuming for so long that everyone was okay with the way I was interacting with them. It made me think of uncomfortable touching in my past. Men who took advantage of the fact that “everyone hugged” to linger a little too long, or casually let a hand rest on my lower back, etc. It made me think of how I let it go, because I thought maybe I was giving off the impression it was okay to touch me that way, or convinced myself he didn’t mean anything by it.
I’m not saying it’s the same, but I am saying if we aren’t satisfied by a willingness to unlearn, what hope do we have for any of our leaders? What hope do we have for ourselves?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Beastie Boys and their long history of preemptively apologizing and self-reflecting. I was never a huge fan but I didn’t deny that they were fun. I would sing along to “Girls” knowing it was a silly joke but also cringing at the boys who put a little too much passion behind it. I was in junior high when they acknowledged their past lyrics were sexist and homophobic, and denounced the type of culture that allowed the rapes to happen in the crowd at Woodstock ‘99. I remember thinking, “Wow, they didn’t have to do that. It’s cool that they did.”
To me, authenticity exists in statements that aren’t popular or expected. I was 24 years old in 2010 when I graduated from UPENN with a Masters in Social Work. Joe Biden spoke at the ceremony. As corny this sounds, he said something I’ve never forgotten. After speaking on the thankless and often unseen work that is necessary for true advocacy, he said something to the effect of, if you ever stop loving this work, stop doing it. It was biting, and uncomfortable, because it was true. I remember wondering how many people hated hearing that, because it was so honest.
Considering this, and his “comical” history of not having a filter, I’m inclined to feel that his statement was authentic. I could be wrong. Maybe it’s my history of seeing dudes brag about “offending everyone” with their “edgy personality” often be the least authentic or consistent when getting called out for something. Maybe I’m in a world where we have become desensitized to a president who “grabs women by the pussy” which is completely and utterly terrifying. Maybe I’m remembering the Obama-Biden presidency which was progressive, but still left room for justifiable critique from the like-minded left. I want that again, from whoever can get us there.
Everyone doesn’t have to agree with me, and in fact, I don’t want you to. My point to sharing this is that we should actually embrace the way we feel, and use that energy for prevention. We most certainly should be criticizing our Democratic leaders. We also need to think of this election like a game of Chess, not War.
At the risk of being trite, most politicians are grossly corrupt in some way. IT DOESN’T MAKE THEIR ACTIONS OKAY. It unfortunately does mean we have to settle. Based on my own experience with trauma, my instinct is to acknowledge what is real, and also what is realistic for thriving. It gets tricky as a society of folks who are at various levels of healing and toxicity. We aren’t going to reach a warm and fuzzy conclusion on how to collectively feel about some of these people. But I DO believe we are capable of thinking critically during this upcoming election. I believe we are capable because we are survivors, and it’s what we fucking do.
(Editor’s Note: This article does not touch on the allegations of Joe Biden’s sexual assault of Tara Reade because it came out before they were made public).