Disparaging the Feminine

STORY2012-site

On Thursday and Friday of last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Story conference at a large church in Downtown Chicago. It’s a conference aimed at Christian creatives, and while I don’t know that I got much out of the actual talks I heard, it was absolutely wonderful to connect again with Rachel Held Evans and Alise Wright, and meet for the first time Matthew Paul Turner (after nearly 2 whole years of being friends!), Danielle of From Two To One, Ed Cyzewski, Sonny Lemmons, and Caris Adel. (Not name dropping, just attempting to acknowledge everyone I met and spent time with). I heard some great talks by Rachel and Anne Lamott, and music video director Isaac Rentz. But the talk that sticks with me is one by Erwin McManus, whom I was unfamiliar with prior to his address on Thursday morning. Unfortunately, the speech stuck with me for the wrong reasons.

You see, McManus did have some good stuff to say, about how creativity is about making the invisible visible, and God as the source of creation and so on. But I don’t remember much of that, even though I was taking notes. What I do remember, word for word, were his comments that subtly disparaged the feminine. He did so multiple times throughout his speech/sermon, and every time, the group of bloggers sitting around me turned to look at me as we feminists went, “Did he REALLY just say that?”

The first comment came when he was talking about this encounter he had with God. He “heard” God speak to him and it broke him – it was this intense spiritual encounter. It made him “feel like a girl.” It was clear from McManus’s tone and context that “feeling like a girl” was not something he liked to associate with God. He wanted to run from that feminine feeling as much as he possibly could.

Strike one.

The second comment came when he was telling a story about learning to let go of the old and embrace the new. He’d be raised drinking coffee swill – stuff full of caffeine but not actually good tasting. And he describes his first ever cappuccino, and the barista apparently did “a feminine thing with the milk.” Again, the tone and context signaled that this wasn’t good, this was a challenge to his manhood, that by drinking this “feminized” drink, he was giving something up.

But I’m nitpicking, right? These aren’t that big of a deal, right?

Not really.

You see, when McManus said those things, I lost track of the rest of his story. All I could hear was him asserting – however subtly – the fact that he is a man and does manly things and the idea that he may have to connect with some sort of feminine side wasn’t good and he should figure out how to stay a man.

By the end of the speech, my friends and I were counting his comments about the feminine – there were only three total, but they were spread out throughout the speech and distracted us every time. And what bothered me most is that they were completely unnecessary - the comments about "feeling like a girl" and "the feminine thing with milk" were rhetorically superfluous. There was utterly no need for them to exist within the speech, but their presence distracted and detracted from his main point.

Even if I wasn’t a feminist, I would have noticed them. They not only seemed out of place and random, but made me, personally, feel out of place for, y’know, feeling like a girl all the time. The audience was a pretty good mix of men and women from all different backgrounds, and those sexist comments served as a subtle reminder that, to some men, aspects of my gender are things to be avoided. I spoke with coworkers and bloggers afterward, and those comments were the center of discussion, not the thesis of his speech – even though he had good ideas!

This is why pastors – especially male pastors– have to be careful about their speech. This is why speakers have to take extra care with their words. Not so they don’t “offend,” but so they do not distract entirely from their larger point. It is rhetorically counterproductive to insult a good chunk of your audience in the process of making a point.

I’m sure Erwin McManus is a fine gentlemen, and there are all sorts of excuses for why he would say the things he did. But all I had to go on was that speech in those moments, and I came away knowing that the fight for women in the church was far from over, especially when “feeling like a girl” is still seen as a bad thing, as proclaimed from the virtual pulpit.