A Feminist's Dilemma

Aviva Ariel
August 31, 2005

Feminists, I've come to understand, are very much like boats: they come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own preferences and peeves in the vast, rocky waters of life. And it has been my recognition of this diversity that has allowed me to feel comfortable with my own sort of make-it-up-as-I-go-because-I'm-way-too-young-to-know-all-the-answers version.

It wasn't until this summer, however, as I was living on a small catamaran with 11 other teens working on community service projects in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), that I realized my indecision on certain feminist issues could, well, leave me out to sea. I had ventured out on the trip in the spirit of wanting to help others, but it is my impression that I might have been the one who needed the real help.

Throughout my education on feminism (one that could hardly fit into a course on a Sea-mester), I have heard about what my grandmother calls "hardcore feminists" -- those who believe that allowing a man to open the car door or slide out your chair (under the guise of being a gentleman, of course) only perpetuates the sexist mentality of the opposite sex. For years, I've struggled to determine where I stand on this position, and just like a young sailor attempting to verify some truth in the story of Black Beard, I was unable to settle on a conclusion.

Throughout the first days of the program in the BVI, with my enthusiasm stronger than the sun over Saint Thomas, it became apparent that my inability to clarify the unmapped line between courtesy and patronization would be even more important to me on the trip than staying hydrated in the heat.

The first time we attempted to raise the sail, I leapt up, ready to pull lines and tug ropes until my muscles hurt worse than my skin after a day without SPF 60, but after multiple unsuccessful attempts, I was not-so-subtly nudged off the line by one of the boys. I stood looking at my male replacement, half-angered but mostly bewildered, and wondered if I had just been voted off the island of strength early in the game. Or did he simply think that I, like the majority of the girls on the boat, would prefer to lie out tanning while the real men did all the work? (Really though, I would hardly call a bunch of skinny, white 17-year-old boys from the suburbs "men.")

Despite my unease, it wasn't until the next morning, when we had to pull up the anchor, that the impact of my uncertainty about seemingly courteous acts from the opposite sex became clearer than the water surrounding us. I eagerly offered to help, pulling on my personal floatation device with the zest of a sailor about to discover hidden treasures, but was kindly told by another male shipmate that I could just sit and watch. So again I observed the action, this time the blood rushing through my body to the beat of my own angry little steel drum band. As four of the boys tugged our boat free, I couldn't help but wonder whether this was a simple act of kindness or a subtle slap in my feminist face.

As the trip continued, I considered my interactions with the boys of the ship and found that, with regard to the notion that women should never accept help from men, the attraction was stronger than the seagulls' to the food on our boat. I began to see Dan's assistance as we tied up the dinghies as a sort of silent move to prove his male dominance. And even Andrew's support while I made dinner one night seemed to mean he found me too incompetent to light the stove or thoroughly cook the meat on my own. I was overwhelmed by a feeling that I was being undermined by the boys, like the captain of a crew about to mutiny.

Looking back, I'd like to say it was too much sun or lack of sleep that made me unreasonably judgmental. Now, in my landlocked home in good ole Ohio, it seems impossible to me that the boys' assistance as I got off the boat could have been a sign of their lack of faith in my abilities as a woman -- Lord knows my little legs couldn't have made that big jump alone without risking an unwanted dive into the ocean.

I think it was my insecurities, however, that pushed me to group all polite moves as chauvinistic. Sometimes it's hard to gauge the motivations of overly gracious guys (hell, even the meaning behind a simple 'Hey' from a boy can be difficult to decipher), so it would undoubtedly be easier to consistently refuse all commonly encountered courtesies.

Although I thought I would no longer have to worry about the true man behind the manners by denying all ambiguous interactions, it has become evident to me that being a strong female is more about trusting yourself than overanalyzing kindness. If a man's attempted politeness feels degrading or condescending, I'll speak up faster than the program director after seeing kids breaking the rules onshore, but I don't believe allowing a man to open my door will ever make me less of a tough teen.

Despite the fact that I'll never know their real intentions, in the end I've realized that the boys on my trip could've offered their help simply because they felt overly friendly. I mean, who can resist a spunky little redhead? And if they weren't just being friendly, I just spent three weeks being pampered by my pubescent peers while living in the Caribbean. Either way, I am now officially the most relaxed teenage feminist in the world, and just as empowered as ever.



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