Two quotes about men being rejected by women, one of which meant a lot to me growing up, and one of which moved me more deeply than I expected.
The first, from Stephen King’s classic horror novel Christine, in which the unpopular and awkward Arnie discusses how he found the nerve to ask out the beautiful new girl at school:
…Ned was telling Lenny that he’d asked her out and she’d said no, but in a nice way… like maybe if he asked her again she might try it out.
The other thing that got me was that Ned didn’t sound pissed off or… or ashamed… or rejected, or anything like that. He tried for a date and got turned down, that was all. I decided I could do that too. Still, when I called her up on the phone I was sweating all over. Man, that was bad. I kept imagining her laughing at me and saying something like “Me go out with you, you little creep? You must be dreaming! I’m not that hard up yet!“
There were two things that struck me deeply about that passage growing up. The first was the profound decency of the Ned character, complimenting Leigh behind her back on how gracefully she’d turned him down. I’m a real sucker for basic human decency.
The second thing, though, was that heavyweight of a line He tried for a date and got turned down, that was all. That is a transformative notion when you’re an awkward kid who has declared allegiance to the nerd tribe. The idea that one could simply get turned down and roll with it… well hot damn, that was a road-to-Damascus moment. It came in handy, too, as I’ve gotten turned down plenty over the years.
That brings me to the second quote, from Norah Vincent’s marvelous book Self-Made Man, about the year she spent passing as a man to find out what masculinity feels like from the inside. In chapter four, after a lifetime of dating women as a lesbian, she attempts to date women as a man and gets shut down hard. Later, she muses on this:
As Curtis and I said goodnight and walked away, I found myself thinking about rejection and how small it made me feel, and how small most men must feel under the weight of what women expect from them. I was an actor playing a role, but these women had gotten to me nonetheless. None of these interactions mattered. I had nothing real at stake. But still, I felt bad.
So how must men feel when it’s a true encounter and everything in the game seems stacked against them? They make the move, or the women bluff them–without tipping their hands–into making the move. The guys step out (stupidly, it now seems to me) into the space between, saying something irreversible and frank–a compliment or an outright indication of interest–and most of the time the women step away, or laugh disdainfully, and the guys are left with their asses in the wind.
Now, I do think Ms. Vincent overstates a bit for dramatic effect, but when I first read that passage, a chill went through me. The act of empathy Ms. Vincent had performed was one I’d never seen before, and I felt that strange and powerful sensation of seeing one’s own experience reflected back from another’s words.
One of my girlfriends had a terrible experience in high school: she summoned the courage to ask a boy she liked out, only to have him recoil in horror and yell “What are you doing? Boys are supposed to ask girls out, not the other way around!” That’s the kind of thing that leaves a permanent scar on an adolescent mind.
It’s not always as obvious, but we mostly all learn that same lesson growing up: guys have to initiate contact, dating, whatever you want to call it, and women’s role is to wait for this to happen, and then decide whether to permit the contact. It ties in closely with the transactional model of heterosexual relations, wherein women are the gatekeepers of sex. One walks up to a gate, it doesn’t walk up to you.
And yet again, we see this flawed gender model resulting in terrible pain for people in the real world. Always having to initiate is a hell of a lot of pressure to deal with, being socially commanded to lay bare your ego and offer it up to be kicked in the teeth. It’s a pressure a lot of guys can’t handle; they just withdraw and try to make what peace they can with loneliness.
The fact is, when you make that approach, when you lay your sense of self-worth on the chopping block like that, you’re going to fail a lot. Especially if you’re not very good at it. You’re going to be rejected, and rejection fucking hurts. It is damn near impossible not to take it as a referendum on your worth as a human being. Yes, some learn to roll with it, but just because you roll with the punch doesn’t mean it isn’t a punch.
This is an area where I think most women genuinely don’t understand what men go through. I’ve known a few women who routinely take the initiative in going after men, but most grew up in the same culture I did, and learned the same lessons. Those who do pursue men often learn how “No” somehow rhymes with “You’re ugly and disgusting and repulsive and will die alone in a ditch and be eaten by wild dogs.”
I bet some of you reading this think that sentence was an exaggeration, huh?
Part of the problem is the cultural stories we tell, the images we see in TV and movies, wherein the only guys who ever get rejected are bad guys and total failures. There’s no such thing as a basically-decent fella getting turned down, not in the stories we absorb growing up. That was a big part of why that Christine quote hit me so hard: nobody had ever told me that before. Nobody’d ever said that a woman could turn a guy down without him being a loser or her being a bitch, or that a person could take that rejection as something other than a denial of their humanity. Ironically, it was a book about teenagers that gave me my first hint that it was possible to act like a friggin’ adult. That helped me with a lot of the rejection that lay ahead; I’d been told it was possible to deal with the pain, and hoo boy, there was pain.
That pain is part of the origin story of a lot of misogynists. If you think, as it’s all too easy to think, of Women as this monolithic block of undifferentiated Smurfettes, then when you get rejected, when you feel that hurt and that pain, it’s easy to formulate that experience as Women hurt me. Unprovoked and unkind, 51% of the population lashed out and wounded you. From there, it’s a very short walk to out-and-out misogyny.
More musings on the nature and structure of rejection, and some proposed solutions, to come in part two. In the meantime, share your experiences in comments.