I haven’t been following @renay on Twitter, but a lot of people I know follow them, and this thread caught my eye last week. The science-fiction world has been one of my worlds (and one of Laurie’s) for a long time. She’ll be selling jewelry and photography at Worldcon 76 in San Jose next month, and I will certainly be going at least for a short time, because it’s so close and so many of my friends attend.
Renay is on the Hugo ballot, up for an award.
So Worldcon sent me this in an email: “We ask that everyone attending the ceremony wear semi-formal dress, as we are striving for an elegant, professional looking event.”
And so my response is gonna be to wear jeans and sneakers, because fuck this nonsense.
— Renay (@renay) July 19, 2018
Check out the thread. They go on to explicate both why “semi-formal dress” is likely to be expensive, classist, and gendered, all of which I agree with. (Also anxiety-creating, because of having to figure out what “semi-formal” means and what will fit in.) They go further, however, and interrogate the phrase “we ask,” because (surprise!) someone in comments said, “The email you got said ‘We ask.’ That’s a request.”
Clothes are gendered. Requests to dress a certain way are gendered because the expectations for people who present as female are more intense and come with more consequences.
Men: stop doing this to women.
In high school, when my admin told me “we ask that you wear a dress under your gown”, it was not a request. In college, when I was invited to a job fair, it said “we ask that women wear close-toed shoes” it was not a request.
Again, check out the thread. Renay explains with a great deal of patience (not kindness, just patience) why this is not a request, and why “requests” directed at women about clothing/appearance have virtually the same effect as demands.
Renay’s plan to wear jeans and sneakers sounds great! I also (as do they) wholeheartedly support anyone else’s right to wear semi-formal attire, for whatever gender, that they feel good in.
This storyis directly connected to the national conversation about civility, which erupted in June. Like semi-formal dress and like “asking” women to wear a particular kind of outfit, almost all civility is gendered. In a wide array of situations, “asking” a woman, or a trans person, or a person of color, or a disabled person to do something is asking “down.” People who are one down have been well trained in what they have to do when they’re asked.
Asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave a restaurant may or may not be “civil.” It is certainly gutsy. Stephanie Wikinson, owner of the Red Hen, received death threats, lost two weeks of income, and had to leave her position with a local business group. Defending family separation, whether or not you do it in a polite tone, is not classified as “uncivil.”
When I heard the story, I was interested in why Sanders chose to leave. As both Wilkinson and Sanders are female, it’s entirely possible that Sanders has been socialized to hear”requests” as demands. But Sanders, who has objectively more power than Wilkinson, doesn’t seem to have suffered ill effects beyond whatever she felt (embarrassment? resentment? defensiveness?) when the incident occurred.
If you’re a cop, asking a black man to lie face down on the ground is an order, even if the cop is superficially polite. I would never claim that asking women to wear semi-formal dress has anything remotely like the power of an order from a person with a gun and virtually complete immunity from prosecution. That is, of course, why most cops don’t actually ask; they don’t need the deniability.
Renay will probably not experience anything worse than pushback and clueless/stupid responses on Twitter from refusing Worldcon’s request. However, when they invoke high school graduation and job-seeking, they are indicating one level of consequences that women expect when we don’t obey. They don’t even go into the circumstance where women are in most danger if they refuse a request: “would you take off your clothes?” “please suck my dick.”
Because it’s all about power, regardless of framing, a request is only genuine when it’s made among people who are treating each other as equals.