Getting Off The Bus

We walk to work on our tiptoes. We self-police our facial expressions, smiling enough to ingratiate but not so much as to risk not being taken seriously. We make sure that our voices are not too “shrill,” that we do not laugh too much. We read articles cautioning us not to show weakness by apologizing, although we know that doing so is a way to accommodate our coworkers when they feel threatened by our expertise. Even when there is nothing to apologize for, we say “sorry,” as if we regret our very presence in the workplace. And for good reason: the truth is that we are unwelcome.

I’ve been haunted the last couple of days by the image of Donald Trump looming over Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate. This has been described as “creeping,” “lurking,” and “stalking,” and Trump has even been called a “walking trigger alert.” As the debate took place, some viewers took to social media to express their fear that Trump might physically attack Clinton during the proceedings.

Add to this the din of the Republican politicians who are suddenly shocked—just shocked!—at the indignity of women’s genitalia being spoken about in vulgar terms, which interferes with their right to conceive of us as their hypothetical and wholesome “wives, daughters, and sisters.” We are construed as extensions of them, not as speaking subjects with a right to have sex as well as to say no. The righteous want to “champion and revere” our genitals, as long as we ask their permission before seeking out the medical care those genitals need.

This messy mix of public and private pussy-mongering played itself out on the stage on Sunday evening. Given Trump’s own habit of treating his business as entertainment, it’s tempting to see his antics as more a personal tic or a boorish embarrassment than as an obstruction of women’s professional activity. That his own “business” has required women to wear evening gowns in the “office” further blurs the line between blithe recreation and self-regulation.  But as hard as it may be to remember that Access Hollywood is a workplace, we do well to remember that what happens on the bus does not stay on the bus.  Indeed, one does not have to work for Access Hollywood or in reality television to encounter aggressive, discriminatory coworkers who seem to think, “I can do whatever I want.”

Back to the image of Trump hovering behind Clinton: of course, he is seeking dominance by aiming to control the physical space, flaunting his physical size, disrupting and distracting from the business at hand. But what is the nature of the disruption and distraction?

Viewed just a few days after the abhorrent video was released, Trump’s belligerent pouting and intrusive pacing have a particular flavor.  His refusal to take the proceedings seriously recalls the way some treat the workplace as a playground. We had just seen and heard that video, with Trump revealing to another man, in private, what sorts of things he thinks women are. Appropriately, the video does not show him talking about “legs” and “tits” and “pussy,” but the video allows (forces?) us to hold a glass to the wall and witness the disgusting—a word Trump used to describe breast-feeding!—words. Only the exterior of the bus, the “wall” keeping us separate, is in view. When Trump and Bush exit the bus, we not only see the men who have been bantering, but we take in their somewhat more public personae: still creepy, to be sure, but with a thin veneer of cordiality over their grabbiness, pretending to their mark that they believe she is something other than a thing.

It’s telling how many headlines purport to reveal “the most disturbing aspect” of this video. And they are all correct. Indeed, as I write this commentary, I run across an article that acknowledges the discomfiting shift from private to public in the video.

Jessica Valenti writes, “In that moment, Bush and Trump are in on a joke and Zucker is the punchline.” And Susan Dominus wonders about Zucker’s experience in that moment:

Maybe Zucker thinks that she is in on the joke. But really, we know, the power is all theirs. It is not just that the two men have erased her as a person, during their conversation on the bus; it is that they share the knowledge that they have done so, silently, collectively, which amplifies their power over her. It is all unspoken, a clubby secret, a male form of control based on exclusion.

Hearing the men within the bus and then seeing how they behave when they disembark is unsettling; it makes one wonder what might be going on behind closed doors, not only on the Bushy Bus festooned with the word “access,” but in the conference room when one is home sick. (And again, we see a woman at work in clothing designed to be worn out dancing. No wonder Donald gets confused about how to behave!)

How often do we act in good faith, presenting ourselves professionally and responsibly, even as colleagues and professional contacts carry on entirely different conversations just out of earshot? Are such conversations about our legs, or about saddling us with legwork? Are they about “grabbing pussy” or grabbing credit for our research? Are they about being a “star” and thus able to get away with sticking one’s mouth on a woman without permission, or about putting words in her mouth, projecting one’s own unaddresssed psychological issues onto her in an email about tax regulations or expenses reports or copyright?  What sort of joke is it?

Trump looms over Hillary Clinton on stage. He paces and lurks like a pre-verbal ancestor lacking opposable thumbs. The differential in the candidates’ physical statures eerily reinforces the unequal statuses men and women experience in the workplace and elsewhere. (Just imagine if Clinton were to hover behind him making faces. This would never happen.)

It’s an Orwellian spectacle: a man interrupts a woman yet again, then, when corrected on it, boorishly disparages her by claiming that he interrupted what she was saying “because she’s got nothing to say.”

It’s not only his efforts to monopolize the physical space, and not only his flaunting of his size and his gender dominance. There is also that pout, the sticking out of the lower jaw. Are there Tic Tacs jostling about in that cavity, “just in case” a hottie in the audience asks him about carried interest and he cannot stop himself from slobbering all over her face? Trump uses his entire body to interfere with his opponent’s right to do her job, but I cannot help but focus on that mouth: the source of those abhorrent words, the instrument of interference, the untamed yapper that keeps trying to shut the woman up.

Having “not seen” Trump demean a woman in private (albeit in a corporate vehicle), only to meet her and pretend to treat her like a human being, I shudder to imagine what this thug, right here on stage, in this debate, might be saying silently. He is not behind closed doors now, but he is behind her, creating a male-only space we, but not she, can see. It’s like the workplace equivalent of cuckold ears (fancy that), or as if he placed a whoopee cushion on her seat. His inane showboating reminds us that she is acting too. If she is prepared, if she exercises self-control, perhaps “she’s not really” who she claims to be (although I for one want a president capable of self-aware behavior, not one who “tells it like it is” in lie after lie). Trump’s interference in Clinton’s presentation breaks the spell and even mocks our belief in the performance. He invites us to ridicule her for daring to assume such a role. She listens to others, takes their questions seriously, responds in complete sentences with enthusiasm and expertise—all with a man behind her silently boasting, “I can do whatever I want. She’s really an it. How silly of her to think we would listen to what she is saying!”

The fact that Clinton looms over him in qualifications, maturity, responsibility, impulse control, and even command of the English language, jars in the face of this display of male dominance and aggression. Watching the reality “star” mugging behind the former Senator and erstwhile Secretary of State eerily reminds us of the ways men are empowered to exploit their unwarranted privilege, even when we cannot see it. Speaking of us in unacceptable terms — sexually objectifying or not — and turning serious business into a circus, such overgrown adolescents hijack the political process, public life, and professional dealings. Before and after the legitimate meetings, made up of staged discussions of promotions and strategic plans, they retreat to their cushy buses with their own kind, speaking of us in ways that reassure them, again and again, that despite our qualifications, expertise, and performance, they are under no obligation to admit us to their club.

As he takes his stalking and sabotage public, Trump flaunts his unearned privilege, but he also reveals the imbecility and desperation of such plays for power. The only power he holds over Clinton is social: he is neither her supervisor nor her special prosecutor. He is certainly not her president. All he has is maleness. But he seems to believe himself her “star” who can do as he wishes, if not with her actual body, with the presentation of her body on stage. If this is how a man applying for the job of governing the country behaves in public, and after he has been caught out degrading women in private (again), one wonders what he, and others, might do behind closed doors when they do hold institutional power. And what women do when they are invited onto the bus cum locker room, only to find they are expected to dress up in skimpy waitress costumes and serve the cocktails, balancing the tray in one hand to give “the Bushy” a mandated hug with the other.

Workplaces seldom have an Anderson Cooper on hand to insist that coworkers answer the question of whether “grabbing pussy” constitutes sexual assault—or to interrogate a worker about whether taking credit for a female colleague’s work is theft. Nor do we have someone to insist that the looming bully hold his tongue when it is his female associate’s turn with the mic—or to ensure that our professional expertise and wisdom is accorded its proper place and monetary compensation. We do not have a Martha Raddatz to repeat the question, and repeat it again, when a bully too big for his too-often-discussed britches tries each time to wriggle out of the topic.

The moderators strove to maintain decorum. They resisted Trump’s apish antics. His dirty mouth was quieted, some, but its visual presence serves as a reminder of the way damaging words are born in the body. His lips expel offensive sounds, but that is not all: that orifice plants itself, uninvited, on women’s mouths, with only a speck of candy to cover over the bad taste. And the same mouth boasts about it later on.  Perhaps that is where we need a wall.

How many of us wish for a Cooper or a Raddatz to keep things in line at work? It might be nice to have a referee who could say, “Please allow her to respond. She didn’t interrupt you.” Or, “Provide the resources and climate necessary for her to do her job. She has every right to be here.” Even better would be to be entitled to say, oneself, “Do not interfere with my right to earn a living, to engage in public life, and to serve the citizenry, including you, with my expertise. You see, you can’t do whatever you want. And, by the way, I decommissioned the goddamned bus.” But we know that all too often such self-advocacy occasions a visit from the henchman attorney general or even a harsh prison sentence. One does not want to risk being thrown under the bus for thinking oneself a person.

It’s been said that one (the only?) positive outcome of Trump’s campaign is that he has exposed the misogyny many of us knew was there all along. The gaslight burns as bright as day. Trump degrades women behind closed doors, yet Clinton is chastised for advocating a distinction between public and private “positions.” (Tellingly, one commentator changes the words around and objects to her promotion of different “personas.”)  Trump boasts that he could commit murder without consequence, yet he implies that Hillary is “the devil,” literally demonizing her. He declines accountability for his objectionable behavior but holds her accountable for her husband’s actions of yore; unable to distinguish between the two partners, he even describes the rape victim whose assailant Hillary defended as a victim of Bill.  His negative projections know no bounds: he gives himself permission to bring his personal biases and flaws into public life, but inverts that for her, making the professional personal by claiming that she, as a public servant, harbors hatred in her “heart.”

Enough man talk. What do we women discuss in private? Do we gloat that we can “get away with” treating our coworkers’ genitals as public property, or do we steal credit for their labor? Do we argue over which colleague is worthy of our objectification, or do we allow personal bias to control which one we award a a promotion?   Do we rate their appearances on a scale of 1 to 10, or license ourselves to devalue the one whose expertise makes us feel insecure? No, we compare notes on how to get by in environments where some men do such things.

—Rose Marie McSweeney