The Toronto van attack targeting innocent people – predominantly women – compelled me to return to the subject of sexism after my first blog about it, to explore the root of this painful subject.
It’s no coincidence that the news isn’t full of examples of women going on killing sprees of innocent people. What happened in Toronto was not just one mentally ill, angry man, but rather a reflection of what we do not discuss enough – toxic masculinity. And it needs to be ripped out from society at its roots.
Sexism is a poison of many degrees of toxicity. And like a poison, it can result in an uncomfortable stomach-ache, or, as we see all too often, even death. Most women – myself included – take a daily dose of this particularly insidious poison, be it mildly irritating or deadly.
Toxic masculinity did not die with #metoo. The movement brought awareness; it encouraged and gave women a safe space to speak up, but at the same time, it threatened fragile masculinity. There are men who feel endangered by strong women demanding equal rights, pay parity, respect. They conflate women gaining rights and equality with a loss of their own rights and status or ‘men’s rights’.
Before #metoo, whenever I expressed feminist opinions, most men just ignored me, as my words didn’t threaten them, but now, with #metoo gaining strength, the fear, anger, and resentment coming from a particularly virulent and violent cohort of men is also gaining strength.
I started receiving weekly comments from some of my social media followers and even some colleagues, ranging from “Stop whining and stick to wine.” to “Your political opinions are unbecoming, you should just talk about wine.” and “You (women & their allies) declared war on men, to shame us”.
Apparently, these men have become far too comfortable with women – even women sommeliers – as strictly ornamental. She can open the wine, even pour the wine, bonus points if she looks good doing it, but she should keep her opinions to herself, especially any she may have on politics and feminism.
Pulling toxic masculinity out at its roots will take some digging. For us as a society, within the wine industry, and for me in particular, it may start with pushing back with that client who decides to listen to his friend, who has no wine training or experience, when he said the wine was off, rather than to me. I mean, I am just a sommelier so how much can I actually know about wine, right? Or that Facebook follower, who shared my wine notes with the comment, “Trust me - she knows her stuff.” Do I really need a man to vouch for my professional qualifications to be taken seriously? Should I even care or should I be flattered? Would he have felt the need to add that proviso for a male sommelier? This is wobbly terrain and wobbly terrain is more difficult to take a stand on. Those constant comments, combined with sexually suggestive or aggressive glances when I’m on the job, leave me angry towards men in general and privileged-white-older-men in particular.
With the #metoo movement, it became clear just how many women like myself, were assaulted and remained silent for years. And then this; an angry misogynist in a rented van running down pedestrians – aiming for women, killing (at time of writing), 10 – from a promising young woman in her early 20s to a beloved neighbourhood lady in her 90s out for a stroll. This act of extreme violence toward women, has made my anger turn to hate. Not a noble emotion, I admit, but natural for me and many other women, under the circumstances.
Still, it’s not all bad news and backward thinking; recently, when I told a client, while opening his wine, that the wine suggested is not based on my personal preferences or even my palate, but about his; his highly inappropriate comment was “That’s what I love to hear from my women.” Perhaps before #metoo, his friend would have laughed and expect me to join in on the joke, but after #metoo his colleague shut him down, telling him my gender had no bearing on my abilities or opinions as a professional sommelier. Allies of women, such as the sexist man’s friend, do make a difference, and are a vital force in the movement. Unfortunately, as human beings we have a tendency to generalize and not to see the exception; we tend to go for revenge and fall into hate, and that just creates more hate. I too can fall into this trap.
For months after I truly became aware of the extent of the persistent sexism all around me, I unconsciously directed my anger towards my biggest allies, just because they are men: my partners and my best male friends, who had actually shed their privilege, and do fight misogyny on a daily basis. I put them all under the umbrella of #allmen – as in all men are sexist; all men are guilty; but even more importantly, all men must take on this fight too. I’m working on my anger, and trying to generalize less, but with all due respect #allmen. Seriously #allmen!
Anger is necessary to make change, in the same way that the #allmen hashtag is necessary, but when we just cling to a hashtag or tagline; when a soundbite becomes the basis of our inter-gender communication, the original point and problem can be lost.
What took me some time to realize is, the waves of change come in on winds of responsibility. Building strong, long-lasting change, is really men’s work, not ours, but we must help show them the way and offer guidance. We women have to build our own confidence to lead - we are capable of supporting ourselves; are willing to put in the hard work, and won’t depend on men, even when it’s uncomfortable for us. I’m troubled by the idea of equality à la carte; we mustn’t cherry-pick our feminism.
Hate creates more hate, history proves that. Asking questions, debating, talking and listening, leads to a deeper understanding of each other and of where we want to take things from here. We need to dismantle toxic masculinity, and even the non-toxic kind, if indeed we could even apply one agreed upon definition to it. We know what toxic masculinity is and what it looks like, but do we have an understanding and consensus on what healthy masculinity is or could be?
How, in our own workplaces, do we encourage masculinity: with bullying in the kitchen, on the floor, in the wine cellar, or even on menus and wine lists? Is it time to abandon certain long-accepted wine lingo? When we describe strong wines as masculine, and delicate ones as feminine, is this a problem? And what about non-binary people? If the wine industry doesn’t update its language and attitudes, we risk becoming irrelevant and downright insulting to the next generation of wine consumers.
Wine marketing is also rife with gender-biases and outdated stereotyping. Why do ads for cheap rosé more often than not depict pretty, lighthearted young women, while it’s more often a man who’ll be clutching that glass of ‘serious’ (read: expensive) Cabernet Sauvignon? Sure, the seller is trying to appeal to who it believes its target market is, but, when the public is constantly fed a diet of this sort of gender-based wine marketing it sends and perpetuates a dangerous message: women aren’t to be taken seriously in the wine world.
The wine industry is still a celebration of masculinity. From the depictions of male wealth and status in wine marketing – older white men drinking in exclusive clubs and steakhouses – to treating the women in the milieu with disrespect, demonstrates how much power they wield; that they are allowed, or even expected, to behave that way. No wonder there are so few openly gay or gender-fluid sommeliers; it would threaten the fragile masculinity of many patrons.
My colleagues keep telling me; this is tradition and wine is tradition. It is how it is. This sounds too much like ‘boys will be boys’, for my taste, but I’m not giving up just yet. Two steps forward, one step back. But forward we must go. My hope is that this blog is just the start of a lively, ongoing conversation – not a fight! – between us all. I hope, that by really listening to each other, we can share ideas on how to deal with and perhaps one day, banish, toxic masculinity, anger, hate, and sexism. We need to understand that language does matter. Those little off-colour jokes, sexual micro-aggressions, disrespect and belittling – it all matters. Perhaps in Toronto, today more than ever.