If I Were You is a comedy advice podcast where a comedic duo, Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld, give sometimes-sincere, sometimes-silly advice to people who write in asking for it. They’re open about the fact that the show aims for humor first, often cherry-picking ridiculously improbable submissions to play off of.
The two sometimes answer serious questions in positive, healthy ways. The are generally accepting, sex-positive, and analytical of the situations they are presented. But at times I have found myself frustrated with responses to questions, especially about relationships, that either miss the obvious answer, lead the person astray, or perpetuate a bad culture.
I know, I know, I know, I know. It’s a comedy improvisational podcast. But much like Anita Sarkeesian says in all of her new videos, we can comment on and critique something without completely disparaging or devaluing it. I hope that if Jake or Amir read this, they will understand a few things: that I am very much a fan of their comedy; that I am simply recognizing their influence and outreach; and that I believe there are areas where some additional information and a new perspective could improve the show. The way notable people talk about these issues definitely has an effect on the audience.
I’ve long thought about writing better, more constructive answers to questions I feel the duo get wrong or not quite right. But in the wake of Friday’s events and the sexist culture they highlight, the following question and their responses pushed me to really write out my thoughts. Here it is, the first question in episode 79, “Persistence“, transcribed by me:
Hey guys, I’m 19 from Sydney Australia. I’m told I’m reasonably attractive. Anyway, I get a lot of compliments, looks, etc., which is totally fine and flattering, but the problem is that breed of guy who take it further and start outright hitting on me when I really don’t want to be hit on.
I’ve been in a happy relationship with my boyfriend for two years. I know that you’re probably thinking, “What a bitch; get over it.” But it’s actually a major issue. For instance, this morning I was trying to study some Chinese vocab on the bus for a test, and a random guy came up to me and started hitting on me really loudly. It was so embarrassing! Because I’m one of those girls who automatically blushes when a guy looks at me, and I didn’t get any studying done at all! It kind of happens to me a lot! I also have trouble with guys at work hitting on me when I’m just trying to do my job. It’s distracting and makes me uncomfortable.
My question is: how can I signal politely to guys that I’m taken before I waste half an hour while they engage in cringe-worthy chit chat and get up the courage to ask me out? …So I can finally say I have a boyfriend. I don’t want to be rude, but I’m a busy girl with things to do.
I started this blog post after hearing Jake and Amir’s initial reactions to the question, which were very dismissive and insinuated the listener was bragging. I amended the post as I listened further when the hosts brought up actual good advice and consideration, which I was happy to hear. Specifically, to Jake’s credit, he describes flipping back and forth in his thoughts on the situation, even later apologizing for his first response. He begins to elaborate a bit on how being an attractive girl is more challenging than what he might experience. The following question in the episode elicits a somewhat better response, with Amir mentioning the dangers of “romantic persistence” when used the wrong way. I was very happy to hear that. But since it was something of a mixed bag, I felt laying out the full picture would be useful, since a lot more can be said on the subject that would be beneficial to both the listener who wrote in and others.
The frustrating aspects of the question above that these two don’t ever directly address are the sexist undertones to each and every situation she describes. They treat as a sewn-in fabric of society that women will be approached and their attention will be taken by men. They don’t recognize this unfairness to nearly the degree is necessary before questioning her humblebragging or suggesting mitigation strategies.
There isn’t a perfect answer to this question, but several points needed to be said to even have a decent attempt at a good response. Jake and Amir hit some of these, which I’ll point out:
1. It must be acknowledged that what is happening in these situations is that men feel entitled to a woman’s attention. Men are socialized to think this way, and women are socialized to be more submissive and tolerate it. (If you’re interested in evidence pointing to this, as a small example, consider this 1998 review that found men interrupt women significantly more than the reverse.) This should be at the core of the entire discussion.
2. It must be established that if the listener doesn’t want to give her attention to someone, she doesn’t have to. No, sometimes that doesn’t follow the social norms we are conditioned to expect, and it might feel rude, but the men approaching her and not reading any signals of disinterest are violating social contract first. Jake and Amir do eventually mention this.
It also has to be mentioned that while it is an (unfortunately) useful strategy for a woman to mention her male partner (whether real or fake) to get an unwanted man to leave her alone, it should never replace the real reason for why men should leave her alone. Men should leave a woman alone if she wants to be left alone. Full stop. (Same for anyone!) People should have the right to their autonomy respected. J&A also say this, thankfully. I emphasize this because the listener’s question doesn’t explicitly mention this idea, focusing instead on the boyfriend excuse as the primary reason men should leave her alone, which isn’t the right picture.
3. It should be said that lots of women deal with this issue. Felicia Day wrote on her Tumblr that she gets very frustrated being “dropped like a hot potato” at the mention of her boyfriend. The disingenuous nature of men who approach her shows itself as their true goal is found to be unreachable. This is a sign that she is being treated as an object, not as an full person worthy of respect.
J&A miss a lot of subtlety when they get to this and the previous point. It’s not so simple to tell the listener to just be assertive and not play the boyfriend card (even though that may be what some women do). All too often that is not sufficient for dangerous men, and when it’s a stranger, there’s not always an indication what kind of man is talking to you. Will he accept “no” as an answer? Is it worth the risk?
And yes, being “mean,” as J&A say, is a defensive mechanism that attempts to quickly dissuade the attention of men. But again, that needs to be couched in the larger context of a society that contains sexism. This is a learned response to a culture stacked against women. It’s an unfortunate consequence when it misfires on a nice fellow, but it should be an understandable one.
4. It would have been nice to hear a discussion of how being indirect, burying the lead, and not being straightforward causes these situations, even between mutually interested conversation partners. The norm in dating a lot of the time is being as subtle as possible in admitting attraction or one’s true aims, when that can just lead to confusion or misunderstanding.
There’s an effort in feminist circles to encourage more direct dialog in these situations. This more easily creates verbal consent when it becomes the norm to ask someone directly to sleep with you, rather than offering the vague “coffee at my place?” which means different things to different people. People can be on the same page, and talk can be just as flirtatious and sexy. This can stymie the disappointment that Day describes above.
5. Once all this context is understood, we can more freely discuss mitigation techniques. My partner has shared her experience with being assertive, stern, and curt in saying she does not want to be bothered, which Jake and Amir mention. The listener could also use shorter and shorter answers to questions, look away increasingly, and return her attention to her studies or work to signal a preferred end to the conversation. And of course the boyfriend bomb can be deployed at any time.
I’ve also heard that things like headphones make it harder for people to, within the confines of politeness, get one’s attention. So even if they’re not playing anything, the listener could feign not hearing someone.
In the wake of Friday’s misogynistic massacre, everyone can benefit from looking at the #YesAllWomen hashtag on Twitter, where women are sharing the experiences that men may not be aware of and not see. It’s a counter to the defensive response of some men who balked at the idea that sexism and misogyny played a major role in the death or injury of a dozen people.
What would be amazing would be to learn that Jake Hurwitz or Amir Blumenfeld read (or even skimmed) this post and just stopped to consider it. I’m a 25-year-old guy, similar to them, I’m a feminist, and I’m a fan (see above). And all guys, including Jake and Amir, should totally be feminists.
There are parts of this post it was a little uncomfortable to write, since I’m only working from second-hand experience (not being a woman and all). Women do speak up about these issues quite often themselves! But I’m of the impression that the majority of Jake and Amir’s listeners are male, and so someone has to be talking about this, to start this conversation. So I hope readers, and maybe the hosts if they catch wind, will think about this!
I’m pleased that as I listened more, the aspects of the question that I feared J&A would miss (and have admittedly in the past) were actually covered. I sincerely hope this continues, because I want to trust and enjoy the show completely to be funny, positive, and progressive.
Oh, and Jake: dinner tonight?
Featured image from BustedTees.com