kaigou: pino does not approve of where the script is going. (2 pino does not approve)
[personal profile] kaigou
I can forgive a lot (okay, up to a certain degree) when it comes to storylines between a man and a woman, because I know an author can only push the gender structures so far before the average reader would start to balk. That's just a fact of how we, as people, internalize the gender constructs of our society. (This goes for most societies, not just Western, so I don't think it's a massive over-generalization.) What I can't forgive is when an author is trying to tell me a character has a dominant personality, but picks the wrong way to illustrate this and ends up writing the character as a jerk, instead.

Recently I was reading a story by an author who usually has a decent sense of characterization; her plots tend to be straightforward, but she has a good handle on pacing. That combined with a deft hand for the psychology can make up for a lack of complex plotting, but then, I suppose not everyone reads for unexpected twists. Plus, this author usually does a pretty good job of exploring the psyche in power exchanges, whether these are the implicit kind or explicit as in BDSM. But a recent release by the author had me gritting my teeth. One tiny -- but oft-repeated -- detail underlined a subtle but crucial behavior that is not 'dominant', so much as a sign the character is a damn prick.

It's all in the nickname.

Main female character, we'll call, hmm, Elizabeth. A solid name, not that unusual. She introduces herself as Elizabeth, and in narrative and in dialogue, is referred to as Elizabeth through most of the story. (I believe there's even a snippet of dialogue where her manager calls her by her full name, as well.) In walks Mister Dominant, who's been wanting a chance to convince our dear Elizabeth that he could be The One.

And then he calls her Bethie.

No, she corrects him, it's Elizabeth.

He just smiles... and spends the entire rest of the story calling her Bethie.

Dear reader, I wanted to punch him.

It's the first time this author has written a character that I so completely loathed, and the hatred didn't exist until he opened his mouth and disrespected the heroine so thoroughly. I do like the author's work, and it hasn't led me terribly wrong before, so I continued to read, in hopes that eventually Elizabeth would give the prick what-for, or maybe the prick would wise up and realize just how offensive he was being -- but she never did, and he never did, and I ditched the story with only about fifteen pages to go.

I'd rather go with a DNF and pretend that the story ended with him being put in his place, rather than read and know for certain that it'd never happened. I wanted to be able to respect the characters, but I couldn't respect her if she couldn't stand up for her own identity, and I couldn't respect him for treating her like she didn't have the right to assert even this most simple, basic, aspect of her Self.

Gee, you might say, that sounds like something really stupid to get hung up on. Well, it's not, but never fear, I shall explain if you aren't getting it.

For starters, think about the men you've known -- at school, at work. Think of any colleague with a name that could be shortened: Michael, Christopher, Robert. After long enough in the semi- to all-adult world, you've probably had a new coworker introduced. "This is Rob, everyone," and the coworker may say, "actually, I prefer Robert" -- or Bob, or he may demur and say he's fine with Rob. The shortening of the name is a mark of informality, and a subtle (if unconscious, in that it's usually not intended to be malicious or belittling) way to put the speaker on the same level as the person being introduced, and vice versa. A variation on the "we're all on a first-name basis, here."

I'm familiar with the reverse, since my given name really is the diminutive of a more common formal name. I'm used to teachers (and less frequently, bosses) who think to introduce a 'formal' air by calling me by that longer version, which happens not to be my name. I've learned to purposefully ignore that long version, even when I know it's meant for me, because I've spent my entire life explaining to people, sometimes multiple times, that no, I am not being rude (that is, imposing informality) by insisting on my own damn name, thank you.

But I've also known plenty of folks who do have the longer name as their given name, and go by that name. Hence the "I prefer Robert" and the "I go by Elizabeth" replies. I've seen those long-name people get tense around the eyes when others insist on calling them a name not their own, and I can completely relate to that. That's not quite what I mean here, though.

Try and think of any time you've seen a (male) coworker call another (male) coworker, Bobby, or Mikey, or Timmy. I ran it past CP, and between the two of us, the only times we'd ever seen an adult man turn another man's name into a diminutive (even when there's a huge age/power difference) is when the two men are very good friends and there's teasing going on. In cases where the diminutive-use gets dragged out, it quickly becomes obviously a bullying tactic on the part of the person using it, and no one misses just how offensive it is.

Now, think of how many times you've probably seen a (male) coworker call a (female) coworker, or customer, or neighbor, or colleague, by a diminutive of the woman's name. Bethie for Elizabeth, Ellie for Eleanora, Meggy for Margaret. That's not a diminutive in the male sense, for which the equivalent would be Beth, Nora, Meg -- notice the lack of the -ie ending. No, the -ie ending is specifically what we call very young children, which is the only time you'll see a man's name shortened in the same manner: Robbie, Jimmy, Joey.

(Note: I'm not saying that grown men, and women, won't use such -y and -ie diminutives of their own choice; I'm speaking specifically of cases where the given name is not the diminutive and the person prefers the non-diminutive.)

My name may be the diminutive, but it's not an -ie version; it's a single syllable in the same vein as Mike, Chris, and Joe. Yet despite the fact that it's been a damn long time since I was four foot or shorter, it's a regular occurrence for me to be asked my name, to give it -- a clear one-syllable sound -- and to have the other person turn it into the -ie version. There are two classes of people who do it to me, too: the first I'll accept, because they're the same generation as my grandparents, so I'm willing to accept that to them, yeah, I am still a kid no matter what my license says.

The other class of people who do it to me are men. This includes coworkers, bosses, even men younger than me, and once or twice men lower on the corporate structure than me -- that's right, a subordinate turned my name into something that I'll only accept if you either gave birth to me, or are old enough to have given birth to my parents. Those are the only people who I'll allow to do what's basically a form of infantilizing.

Let's not beat around the bush on this: to diminutize a person's name -- especially without the person's consent -- is to treat them like a child. Now, I will accept that sometimes it's a slip; even if untrue, I can at least gracefully accept an attempt to cover, on the grounds that you've recognized the offense and are trying to save face while also signaling you won't do it again: "sorry, I had a best friend in high school and everyone called her ____" or whatever variation. In that case, the primary use of the diminutive tells me that you're a jerk, but an unthinking one who's capable of becoming a thinking non-jerk once you realize the mistake.

What's unforgivable, in my opinion, is when the reaction is to dismiss my (or anyone's) right to decide how we want to be addressed. Not that it's much better, as CP pointed out, when the reaction is to act as though it's a joke, and proceed to load a patronizing 'long-suffering' note into any use of my name, like underlining just how much effort it requires to actually call me by the name I use.

That's what we do with children, after all. Either the kid declares that from now on, he wants to be called Rob, and no more Robbie, and the adults just smile and nod and go right on calling him Robbie -- or the adults smile and nod and tell each other in stage-whispers, "he's on this thing about how we shouldn't call him Robbie," as though this is Just a Phase and we should just humor him.

As a kid, that kind of adult-reaction is annoying, but it's not something most kids I've known (myself included) get really and truly up in arms about. After all, when we're kids, there's a lot of our life that we don't control, and our name is one of those things. It's not until we're entering high school that most kids bother to take control of their own names, dropping the first name and going by a preferred middle name for some, while others -- like my cousins -- insisted on dropping the -y diminutive and getting the family to use the truncated single-syllable version. (I never took that path, since my parents stopped using the -ie on me before I even entered first grade, so excepting holidays, I've only ever gone by my given name.)

Getting back to the story that pissed me off so much, now maybe you can see why I found the male character's behavior to be so offensive. But what makes it offensive is the fact that it's not overt rudeness; it's a subtle, little thing, but it's the woman's name, and he repeats it over and over and over: Bethie, even as the narrative continues to call her Elizabeth. If that doesn't highlight that he's doing his best to demean and infantilize her on some level -- even after she clarified that she prefers Elizabeth, and goes by Elizabeth -- then I don't know what would.

It's nothing less than a sign of major disrespect, regardless of whether we're talking baby-names for adult women or truncated names for newly-met colleagues. An alternate example: your name is Erin, you go by Erin, your paperwork all says Erin, and you've got a coworker who insists on calling you Slim. This coworker is not a childhood friend, is not your best friend, is not your boy/girl-friend, is not someone with enough history that such a nickname might have a place between the two of you; this is just a coworker who for some amusement factor of (most likely) his (much rarer for it to be her) own, has opted to ignore the name you prefer and to call you Slim.

Most people would, eventually, start gritting their teeth over this. If other coworkers pick up on it, and think that either the nickname indicates informality or intimacy at some level (or think it makes for a great tease) and adopt it for their own, most people I've known would eventually snap. It's not your name. And, just as importantly, you have the right as an adult to designate what you will be called. In a way, one's name is one of the most fundamental aspects of our identity, how we see ourselves. Having someone else pre-empt that self-definition is both offensive and distressing, because again on that quiet subtle level, it's taking your right to self-identity out of your hands, and commandeering it for someone else to force their own shape on this basic, public, facet of your identity.

Thing is, when men snap and say, "very funny the first few times, but I'm Robert, so cut it out," when I've seen that happen, there's the good-natured if a little embarrassed laughter, and the topic is dropped. When a woman snaps and says, "that's enough already, I'm Lisa, so cut it out," the consistent reaction I've seen (from men) is a sort of condescending embarrassed laughter with an edge to it (and sometimes the men will continue using the nickname, but behind her back).

The edge comes from the fact that when a woman calls a man on it, because of our power structures tied into our gender structures, I think the message comes through, even when unspoken, that the woman is effectively refusing to be infantilized, and she's calling the man on the fact that he's been doing so. She's not an equal demanding to be called what she wants to be called; she's something lower -- like a child -- who's fussing about what adults call her, as though she were spoiled or self-centered enough to think she has a say in it. Acting like an adult without actually having that right, in a sense -- and I think it's the conscious-level awareness that the woman is an adult that provokes the resentment in the man, knowing he has been offensive, so his retaliation is to react as though she's some kind of a bitch for having the temerity to insist on being called as she chooses to be called. How dare she! The nerve!

Still, that kind of behavior is pretty much a clear sign that the guy isn't just an asshole, he's an asshole with no respect for women, unable to give them a most basic self-identity privilege so easily given to men. I've read very few stories where there's a pivot around the woman's name, but the few times I've come across it, the man's willful brush-off is a big neon sign from the author that this man is not the destined hero. He's the jerk who'll be run over by the hero (if not flattened by the heroine) because he has no respect for women, and thinks of them as little better than children.

But it's pretty unusual to come across a story where a) the woman introduces herself and then reiterates that yes, the name she gave is the name she prefers, followed by b) the man continuing to use the -ie diminutive on her, followed by c) the woman accepting the name and showing no annoyance after that one time. That just strikes me as ridiculous, especially if I'm to believe they'd make a good couple.

How could they? He can't even respect her enough to call her by her name. How can I believe he'd respect her enough to listen to anything she says on the big issues, if he can't even manage something as simple as a one-syllable name?

ETA: In the comments, [personal profile] owl noted knowing plenty of adults who go by diminutive-versions, like Jimmy, Johnny, Davey, and so on. But that's not the same thing as what I'm saying here, though it does highlight how the same patronizing response can work in the opposite direction.

The difference is when this is the diminutive that the person himself (or herself) prefers to use. If you introduce yourself as Jamie, and then you new coworker calls you James despite your preference otherwise, the message there is that you're being too informal, and it's up to the other person to impose formality on you (with the implication that this is "since you can't seem to be mature enough to do it yourself"). It's exactly what teachers are doing in classrooms, when the teacher takes a diminutive name like "Evie" and insists on calling the child "Evelyn" -- it's a subtle but pointed statement that diminutives are child-names, and in this classroom the teacher expects a bit more maturity, so the names are changed to reflect that. (It's also riffing on the way parents will use full name to bring a child to heel: "Robert Joseph Williams, come down here this instant!")

It's not really any better, I think, whether the imposition is of more-formal (full version) or less-formal (diminutive). One way, the person is calling you by a child-styled name; the other way, they're all but saying outright that you are signaling you're a child, via your choice of name, but that they expect you to be an adult and thus change your name accordingly without your say-so.

Although there are definite gender-related issues hiding in the way we shorten names (and when we shorten them, and who can do it), the bottom line is that a person has the right to say how s/he prefers to be called. A person who is happy going by, and given options would still go by, "Sallie" or "Timmy" is not necessarily self-infantilizing, though in some cases it may be a result of internalizing. (In fact, I daresay for at least a few women I've known, the use of the -ie form is more a feature of having given up after so many years arguing the name and never having their preferences respected.) Ultimately, though, the form of the name does not have a value in and of itself; 'James' is no more or less a valid name than 'Jimmie', and 'Gwendolyn' is no more or less a valid name than 'Gwennie'.

If one is still struggling with the idea of being all-hung-up on what one is called, try this analogy instead, using degree of physical touch. Some people like to shake hands upon meeting a stranger. Others will gleefully hug nearly anyone. Some people won't even shake hands, but might nod politely. Pretend you're someone who prefers to simply shake hands -- and a new colleague hugs you upon being introduced. You might jump back, or stiffen, or manage to evade, but be honest: on some level, you'd probably feel rather taken-aback, because that's not your style.

For those of you for whom the "not your style" button has been pushed enough by someone, think of when you've tried to assert your boundaries despite the person shoving right past them. "I appreciate the sentiment, but I'm not comfortable hugging people." I want to see hands waving in the air if this statement or similar has gotten you a response as though you're the one asking for way too much; add in jumping up and down if the dynamic was between a man getting too touchy-feely and the woman wanted more distance, and the woman asserting the boundaries got a reaction (if not stated outright) that she must be a bitch, possibly even frigid.

In the opposite direction -- if you're a hugger who had someone recoil when you opened your arms for a hug -- think of any time someone (most likely someone with greater social or actual privilege, given the behavior) may've stuck their hand out to shake, possibly with a look or statement basically saying, "that's not appropriate; here we do this, instead." It's the reverse of the informal name adjusted to formal; it's still imposing another's perception on you, but this time with a message that you need to grow up. It's a correction, and a correction is never just "the person being corrected" -- its dynamic also requires "the person privileged to give you that correction".

No, it's not a perfect analogy, because physical touch has its own set of landmines that don't perfectly correlate to the names we use. It's also not a perfect analogy within the context of the story, which -- given that it includes BDSM scenes -- would therefore contain elements of this "disregard of one for privilege of the other (dominant)" whether this be in personal space or in what one is called. Except that this doesn't work as a defense, because the story does not take place entirely inside a scene; there are plenty of points where the two characters are outside those artificial dynamics. In those, they're interacting as (supposedly) two individuals with their own self-respect and dignity -- and it's in those interactions that the hero's disrespect becomes so much more offensive.

It is, in a nutshell, privilege, and I can't stand it, nor can I respect anyone who plays that game. It's nothing more than belittling or demeaning another as the sole route to making oneself feel greater in contrast. That's not being a Dominant. That's just being a goddamn asshole.

via network

Date: 20 Mar 2010 09:47 am (UTC)
jumpuphigh: Linus (from "Charlie Brown") dressed as The Comedian (from "The Watchmen") (Comedian)
From: [personal profile] jumpuphigh
Agreed. On all of it. Thanks for putting words to a situation I had at a job where everyone called me by my first name except my boss who insisted on calling me something else until I snapped and then he acted like it was my fault. He was a womanizing, sexist asshole who regularly sexually harassed his employees and his customers, even in front of his wife. It felt good to tell him off. Then, he did exactly what you verbalized - oh he suffered so much when I forced him to actually use my name.
Edited (clarification) Date: 20 Mar 2010 09:47 am (UTC)

Date: 20 Mar 2010 03:15 pm (UTC)
theodosia21: sunflower against a blue sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] theodosia21
This was very interesting! I've never really thought about it before- my name doesn't come with an obvious diminutive- but Lois McMaster Bujold sort of plays with this idea in her novel Komarr. The main female character is named Ekaterin, introduces herself as Ekaterin, and thinks of herself as Ekaterin. Her jerk husband calls her Kat. On the other hand, the Hero calls her Ekaterin. I'd never really thought about just the use of names before, because it's obvious in other ways that the jerk husband has no respect for her while the Hero does, but in retrospect it's a really effective characterization device. ^_^

Date: 20 Mar 2010 05:42 pm (UTC)
branchandroot: oak against sky (Default)
From: [personal profile] branchandroot
Yeah, that's a big red flag there. *disgusted* How can an author not realize what they're doing with a move like that?

Date: 20 Mar 2010 06:46 pm (UTC)
owl: Stylized barn owl (Default)
From: [personal profile] owl
Hmm. My (male, decade older) project lead calls me [forename]-io, but I'm pretty sure that I started calling him by his diminutive first (I knew him via several friends of mine before I moved onto his team, and they call him by the diminutive). What's a younger female subordinate creating the nickname signify? (I tend to forget that I'm female in work though; think it's similar to the duckling that thinks it's a chicken because it never sees any ducks.)

I think a diminutive isn't seen as so infantilizing in Scottish/Irish context; I know plenty of adult Jamies and Davies and Robbies.

Date: 22 Mar 2010 10:46 am (UTC)
owl: Stylized barn owl (Default)
From: [personal profile] owl
No, I can see the issue with the owner's preferred name, I just meant that I don't see the Kat vs Katy difference that you referred to above -- even for males, casual informality is as likely to go for Davie as Dave, around here.

Date: 20 Mar 2010 07:41 pm (UTC)
ivoryandhorn: An ornate wrought iron gate silhouetted against a cloudy sky. (Default)
From: [personal profile] ivoryandhorn
*wince* Just...ow. What a way to try to sell a relationship.

Date: 20 Mar 2010 10:21 pm (UTC)
annotated_em: a branch of a Japanese maple, with bright red leaves (Default)
From: [personal profile] annotated_em
*grimaces* Ew. Yeah, huge red flag there. I probably wouldn't have made it even that far into the book.

Date: 21 Mar 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
hokuton_punch: Ichigo from Bleach manga holding his hand up flat, captioned "That's about the level of bullshit I'd expect." (bleach anguisel ichigo bs level)
From: [personal profile] hokuton_punch
Oh word word WORD. There are a ton of nicknames for my given name and I hate ALL of them and I lose so much respect for anyone who can't be arsed to use my ACTUAL NAME. Like, if it offends you that much, use my internet nickname, I answer to it just as well!

Date: 21 Mar 2010 02:58 am (UTC)
firecat: red panda looking happy (Default)
From: [personal profile] firecat
I guess I could see how disrespecting a person's name could be part of a humiliation scene in BDSM/power exchange, but I agree it doesn't make sense as a straight dominance thing.

Date: 21 Mar 2010 07:06 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] wilhelminabenedict
I'm impressed by your statement that you've only seen that previously in villainous characters. Clearly you have better instincts than I. ;_; I see it all the time, and in previously inoffensive works. It always jars me, and it's almost always played off as charming rather than utterly condescending and disrespectful.

Especially in stories where the male character will refuse to do something unless - played as jokingly - she addresses him by [less formal form of address.] It always makes me angry and actually a little sick - it's a strong trigger for me personally - very strongly signaling the lack of respect and regard they have for this person. This is not charming. She wishes to maintain this level of formality, you can damn well respect her wishes rather than steamrollering over them because of course 'the man knows best' and she isn't allowed to abide by what makes her most comfortable, only by what he wants.

Date: 22 Mar 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
angelline: a woman with a map on her back (Default)
From: [personal profile] angelline
Yeah, sorry, I worded that wrong - 'villainous' was definitely not the word to use. What I meant - **headdesk** - was that it was used as a signal in the narrative that wasn't positive and 'oh, look how charmingly interested this guy is.'

I keep my dominance/submission reading to those stories by people I strictly trust, because it can go so wrong and it drives me nuts.

Date: 21 Mar 2010 09:22 am (UTC)
softestbullet: Aeryn cupping Pilot's cheek. He has his big eyes closed. (TO/ I've got my best shoes on)
From: [personal profile] softestbullet
You should post this to [community profile] anti_recs. :)

Date: 21 Mar 2010 08:39 pm (UTC)
billie: (Jess - screwed)
From: [personal profile] billie
I've had the reverse happen to me-- I prefer shortened forms of my name in most contexts for various reasons, mainly that [full name] is what people in secondary school called me, and it's taken on the feel of a slur. Do to this I'm extremely sensitive to mispronunciations and mis-spellings of said full name, too. It's getting better, but only gradually.

It varies according to which code I'm using, though. In Japan, NOTHING offended me more regularly than people jumping to mangle my hard-to-pronounce first name and stick a san on it. Lady, I don't go calling you Atsuko-san, so would you be so good and stick with my surname that you can actually pronounce correctly?

So in a sentence-- I hear you. SO MUCH. I can't comment on the context you set here, but nevertheless.

Date: 22 Mar 2010 02:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mikkeneko.livejournal.com
This reminds me a blow-up we recently had on the wow-ladies community, where one member posted a rant about a stranger in Vent (the voice chat program we use to communicate in real time) who, after realizing by her voice that she was a girl, insisted on calling her "sweetheart" the rest of the night.

Most of the comments were people commiserating or agreeing that yes, he was out of line (although a number of people thought that she should have addressed the problem to him directly, instead of taking it to the raid leader first) but there were a few comments -- as there always are -- who came back with the "You're just overreacting!" line. "Why are people in our generation so oversensitive?"

Without going into all the headache-inducing details of that conversation, the part that really stuck out to me was that this particular respondent said, "Would you object if it were your SO using a pet name?"

So in essence, this girl thinks that every man in the world has the right to treat every woman in the world like his girlfriend or wife, and there is nothing sexist about that at all.


Date: 22 Mar 2010 03:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mikkeneko.livejournal.com
Also, relevant song is relevant: http://www.last.fm/music/Madison+Avenue/_/Don%27t+Call+Me+Baby

Date: 22 Mar 2010 06:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mikkeneko.livejournal.com
Oh, I wasn't thinking that that was the song you'd taken the line from -- but I was reminded of it anyway.

Date: 23 Mar 2010 12:42 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mikkeneko.livejournal.com
Personally, I would have dealt with it by muting that person and going on with the raid. In the unlikely event that he had anything to say that was important, then I would inform the raid leaders that I would keep him on mute until he started respecting me, and let them sort it out.

But we each have our own ways of dealing with confrontation, I think.

Captcha: "Last abuser." Ominous.

Date: 22 Mar 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)
dejla: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dejla
Oh, dear. I did have a male character do that once, but in my defense, it was Gibbs, and Gibbs is and can be a jackass at times...

Date: 23 Mar 2010 04:36 pm (UTC)
dejla: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dejla
If I can actually finish the damn thing, she ends up saving him. She does call him on it, and does react to it -- and in the end, accepts it as a term of affection. It is one of his flaws, although he's not in general sexist -- he accepts women as equals, from what I can see.


kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
锴 angry fishtrap 狗

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