A three-week-old tweet about Taylor Swift’s supposedly giant vagina by Jennifer Mayers, a Baton Rouge woman describing herself as Christian Trump supporter, received fresh traction yesterday. The tweet is probably a joke — targeting the outlandish misogyny of Donald Trump and (in some people’s minds) evangelical Christianity — but it comes off because most people, even those who make fun of outlandish misogyny, have no problem laughing at women.
Either way: in the tweet that made the rounds yesterday, Mayers shared a photo of a two ham sandwiches clutched vertically in one hand. The hoagie on the left, which the tweet alleges “represents Taylor Swift’s vagina,” is overflowing with broad flaps of ham that spread out from the roll’s folds. The sandwich to the right (get it?) represents Mayers’s “daughters”: barely a sliver of ham is visible in the tightly clenched crust of the white bread. The implication, I guess, is that large labia — if we want to give any anatomical credit to the hoagie’s representation — are produced by promiscuity. The nearly invisible ham labia, on the other hand, follow a disciplinary logic — a proper woman should have no external genital to make her seem in anyway forward, or like a man. Slut-shaming by means of pressed pork: this is not kosher, especially coming from a hate-spewing Trump supporter on Twitter this week. It’s unpalatable even when considered as a parody of the misogyny of hate-spewing Trump supporters on Twitter: someone still assembled those hoagies, imagining his or her way into their ham-labia logic.
As it happens I’ve been thinking about giant vaginas recently. This was a spiraling thought, a long-delayed reverse tracer of sorts, emerging from conversations I’d been having with friends and my therapist: trying to sort the jock/tomboy self of my first 22 or so years with the relatively later-breaking feminist self into which I’ve grown. I’ve been trying to square these selves with what I’ve come to realize was an unsettling streak of internalized misogyny. This is where the ham sandwich on the left comes in.
Internalized misogyny is when you smile and laugh and retell, for years, a joke the guys in your college eating club liked to perform, the one about the girl — your fellow clubmember — with the supposedly giant vagina: “so I’m walking around [classmate’s] giant vagina, can’t find my way out. I run into Matt and ask him if he knows how to find the opening. He says I dunno, but if you help me find me keys we can drive out.” Internalized misogyny is not realizing until over 20 years later, when your feminist friends point it out, that the joke’s narrative hinges on how tiny Matt’s dick must be, how tiny too the dick of the guy telling the joke. What dicks they themselves are — what tiny, inconsequential men — to be lost in, afraid of, overwhelmed by a vagina. Internalized misogyny is never having it occur to you that jokes redound upon the ones telling them.
Internalized misogyny is feeling flattered rather than insulted when one of those same guys says “you’re the only girl smart enough to talk to, Hester.” It is walking into a room, whether a graduate seminar or a party or a family reunion, and telling yourself that you are directing the majority of your attention and intellectual energy at the men in the room because of some kind of sexual interest or affinity, rather than because you have been conditioned to think that the men will be the only ones who are sharp and funny and challenging. If I had been asked to give a definition of internalized misogyny in those years I would have said that it is a condition in which a woman believes that she is less worthy than men, less able, less smart, less successful. It could never have applied to me, I would have thought, because I had no consciousness of any doubts about my own capabilities, and was lucky enough to grow up in an environment that reflected back to me my confidence. If I had been asked if I were a feminist I would have scoffed. Why would I need feminism? Feminism was for women who were weak.
When I was 13 the Iditarod, a 1000-mile Alaskan sled dog race, was won by Susan Butcher, a year after Libby Riddles had triumphed in the same race. Riddles was the first woman ever to win, and Butcher would go on to become a legendary multiple champion musher. The summer after Butcher’s first victory my family had driven to Alaska in our motorhome. I bought a bright red t-shirt that read “ALASKA: Where Men Are Men and Women Win the Iditarod.” The first — and only — time I wore the shirt, my dad, who generally told me I was awesome and strong and smart, suggested that my feminist Iditarod t-shirt would “alienate people.” I tucked it away. Like the lefty ham, it must have seemed too excessive.
Emptiness and superfluity: the vagina around which the college boys wandered in their cruel figuration is imagined by misogyny as both a void and too profuse to manage. In the various representations of women that our age concocts we see the direct relationship between internalized misogyny and the externalized forms that female genitalia and sexuality take, to the distaste of far too many: whether menstrual blood, body hair, milk, labia, or capacious vaginas. And the contiguity of “Jennifer Mayers’s” attacks on Taylor Swift —an emblem of white femininity — with Mayer’s exceptionally racist tweets in response to the police murders of Alton Sterling and Philado Castile reminds us that the violence of white patriarchy descends most horrifically on bodies much more vulnerable than Taylor’s. It reminds us, too, of the ways that misogyny is racialized.
I learned about the ham labia tweet from my friend Amanda Mancino-Williams, who in circulating it confided, hilariously, that her own vagina is represented by the “cheap shelving unit in the background” of the double-fisted ham sandwich picture. Amanda composed a song to the ham vagina to the tune of “Heart of Gold.” “In Trump’s America,” she wrote, “a woman’s worth will be calculated by where her vagina falls on the ham sandwich scale.” In Trump’s America, yes: but elsewhere too, in the places — including my own mind — where the ham sandwich scale too long has been freighted with force.
And thus if Jennifer Mayers’s tweet is satire, a joke, it’s hard not to see my friend Amanda’s ham sandwich scale proposal as something too close to the truth. If the ham labia tweet makes a mockery of Trump supporters, it also mocks women (“Jennifer Mayers”) for internalizing an order that is far too hard to escape. I’m grateful for Amanda’s searing humor, which — unlike the gags of my college club, and unlike even the parody of “Jennifer Mayers” — help us see and speak that force for what it is.
Hester Blum: Long time listener, first time caller.