safiri (safiri) wrote,

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Women's Studies 101--long, but with narrative arc

So I'm back from the Nabokov conference at Oxford (did you know I'd gone there?), and the conference was largely delightful: I met some charming, interesting people, and saw other charming, interesting people I already knew, and learned some very valuable pieces of information (like the location of Nabokov's notes on relativity -- they're in the Berg collection! how could I not know that?).

But I also had a rather remarkable pair of interactions with a Moderate Figure in the Field. His name (and all others) will be withheld to protect the innocent -- in case there are any of them around. Call him the Figure.

There was a dinner for the speakers at the conference, a posh invitation-only event held in St X---'s Hall, at a long table with many silver forks and place cards telling us all where to sit. We're all wearing our little conference name badges, which are a special color -- white -- to indicate that we're speakers; non-speakers got red or blue borders on theirs. It was a remarkably Oxonian event, to my uninitiated eye: Pimms punch and canapés in the garden first, followed by a roasted lamb supper (pasta for the veggies) and multiple bottles of claret going the rounds. Only I didn't drink any, because I was so jet-lagged. This is important.

I was seated to the right of one of the two main conference organizers, Wl, a grad student, maybe 25-28 years old, a very smart and interesting guy with whom I hardly spoke because he was so busy being a good host. On my right was a man I already know and like, a good-humored, twinkly-eyed British professor who's a friend of my mother's and a comparatist. (People at VN conferences are generally either Russianists or Comparatists, although there are a few who are strictly VN-ists. I respect the first, am the second, and fear the third.) Let's call him Papa Smurf, for the acceptable yet slightly lascivious delight he took at being seated between me and another young woman. The Figure was sitting across from Papa Smurf.

During dinner, Papa Smurf had a high old time, drinking the claret, telling me about his latest book, and helping me figure out which fork to use. (I didn't really need to be told, but I'd made a joke about it which ended up being sustained throughout the evening.) We sustained one of those fun, pretending-to-flirt-because-there's-no-risk-of-flirtation talks for most of dinner, touching on such topics as absurdism, postcolonial theory, and the characters of people at the other end of the table--all good fun.

Towards the end of them meal the conversational groups shifted, as they do. I found myself briefly talking with Wl, then staring calmly into space wondering how soon I could go back to my room and go to bed. That's the point at which the Figure addressed me:

Figure: So, are you Wl's, uh..?
Me: No, I'm quite my own.
Papa Smurf, slightly drunk: Don't you know who she is? She's PM's daughter!
Figure: Oh, is she here?
Me (and Papa Smurf, in unison): No.
Figure: So you're here to read a paper for her?
Me: No, I'm here on my own behalf.
Papa Smurf: No, no, she's here on her own! She's--
Figure: Oh! So you're in graduate school?
Me: No, I'm teaching faculty.
Papa Smurf: She's faculty! At--
Figure: What, really?
Me: I'm up for tenure in the fall.
Papa Smurf: She's up for tenure in the fall!
Figure: But you're only 17!
Me: Maybe if you're thinking in Base 20.

The Figure continued to speak for a while on the theme of my extreme youth, Papa Smurf continued to delightedly contradict him, and I continued to wonder aloud what base I'd be 17 in. Then eventually the evening ended, and I went off to the pub with a bunch of the gang before finally managing to get home and in bed around midnight.

At 5 AM I woke with a start and went through the following thought process:
1. God damn it, it's base 25, you idiot. Take my age (32), subtract 7, and what remains is the base in which my age is 17. That was easy--however could I have gotten it wrong?
2. I wish I'd gotten it right.
3. Why do I wish so much that I'd gotten it right?
4. Because... this... was... classic. He wasn't surprised only at my age, however young he thought I was. He was surprised at my gender. If I'm old enough to be Wl's girlfriend, as was his first guess, I'm old enough to be giving a talk -- after all, Wl organized the whole conference! And gave a great paper! So it's not that I'm too young; it's that I'm too young and too female. Clearly I must be present only in my sexual capacity.
5. Jesus, and then when corrected he compounded the error by presuming that if I'm not at the conference to sleep with someone, I must be there as someone else's sock puppet. Delivering a paper on someone else's behalf? How bizarre an assumption is that?
6. I now can't decide which of those reactions is more insulting. But they're both clear ways of saying, "Given that you evidently don't belong here, why are you here?"

I didn't manage to get back to sleep.

I spent a fair amount of the day debating whether or not to allow myself to say anything to him. Something good and punchy like "So next time I'll grow a long gray beard to avoid confusion." But it was a difficult debate. On the one hand, I teach at a women's college, and I can't possibly look next year's first-years in the face if I let that twerp condescend to me. On the other hand, there are all kinds of good reasons not to make a fuss -- not the least of which is self-interest. On yet a third hand, or possibly the second double-dipping, I know that I will hate myself whatever I do.

My paper was the last one of the conference, followed by a round table of Important People in the Field. The Figure didn't come to my talk, but showed up for the round table. I was looking at him, debating what would make me despise myself the least, when someone asked about the future of Nabokov criticism, and one of the panelists, a man I like greatly, responded, "I'd like to see more feminist criticism. There's been strangely little, and Nabokov has said a lot of things that would get any other male writer's favorite parts cut off."

And Figure, sitting behind me, laughed. He was one of about three who did.

That was the last straw.

So after the round table I dashed after him as he was headed towards the bathroom, and here is the tragedy that ensued:

Me: "I'm sorry, but can I just say something? The next time? you meet a young woman? at a conference? Don't ask her if she's there as someone's date."
Him: "Oh, gosh, I was just trying to read the body language."
"Oh, yes, I know," I said, lying, since if anything the person whose date I could have been mistaken for was Papa Smurf's, "and I know you were just being friendly, but I thought I'd tell you, because being asked that, it's hard not to hear it, uh-- I mean, I'm not trying to be, uh, uh--"
Him: "--confrontational?"
Me: "Right, I just mean, it's sort of distressing to hear that, and, uh, as a native speaker of feminist discourse, I thought I'd translate."
Him: "Oh, I understand."
Me: "Oh, well, thanks, thank you so much for being so nice about listening to me."
Him: "No problem."

And then we both fled in opposite directions.

So. Two questions for y'all, if anyone's made it this far:

1. Have I let down the side through excessive meekness, or perhaps, conversely, acted unnecessarily?
2. Men Who Read This Blog (there are, what, three of you?): Has this kind of thing happened to you? Have you ever been asked if you were present at a professional event purely as someone's date? And how often have you been told that you are too young for your work? (I'm presuming you've all been told the latter at some point, O my prodigious friends. But how often?)
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