By Soumaya Ben Rochd
Soumaya Ben Rochd lives at Rue El Mouahidine, Oujda, Morocco. Graduated in English Literature from the Faculty of Letters and Sciences, Mohammed I University, Oujda City Morocco, she is currently doing her MA in Gender, Society and Human Development. She was co-editor of the annual e-newsletter Metaphor (2008–2011). She speaks and writes in Arabic, English and French.
Alex Haley is a journalist whose next task is to convince Malcolm X to tell his life story for publication. In the “Foreword” of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley relates the circumstances in which Malcolm X comes to accept the very idea of a book about him. After several meetings, Malcolm X would not unfold any details of his personal life and his past. Alex smartly tries the subject of women.
“Whatever else a woman is, I don’t care who the woman is, it starts with her being vain. I’ll prove it, something you can do anytime you want, and I know what I’m talking about, I’ve done it. You think of the hardest-looking, meanest-acting woman you know, one of those women who never smiles. Well, every day you see that woman you look her right in the eyes and tell her ‘I think you’re beautiful’, and you watch what happens. The first day she may curse you out, the second day, too – but you watch, you keep on, after a while one day she’s going to start smiling just as soon as you come in sight.” (AMX, p. 17)
The passage seems clear and straight to the point. A hasty conclusion would go that women are vain indeed, or that Malcolm X is being misogynist. The following analysis intends to suggest: first, how the illusion of truth about women is created, and second, why the writer’s position on women cannot be considered clear-cut.
Whether upon the first or the third reading, it seems that the writer believes that women are “vain” and proceeds to “proving” it. A first question concerns the argument put forward. To what extent could it be said to prove women’s “vainness”? Consider the category of women he builds his argument upon. “The hardest-looking, meanest-acting”, one “who never smiles” is precisely the kind of woman who is the least expected to be “vain”. When such a woman changes her attitude just because a man has kept praising her physical appearance, then she and all women must be “vain”. At this point, we should ask what “vain” means. The “proof” the writer offers shows that a “vain” woman is one who, even when thought to be extremely serious, ends up smiling to a stranger who approaches her several times and flatters her physical appearance. The meaning of “vain” reposes thus on two assumptions, first that a “hard-looking” and “mean-acting” woman is not supposed to feel attracted to men, and second, that smiling to a man who insists on saying she is beautiful is the indicator of her “vainness”, which gives the impression that no other interpretation of her attitude is possible.
Both assumptions could easily be refuted. Is it imaginable that a common woman would never feel attracted to a common man? If yes, does feeling attracted to him mean she is “vain”? If yes, then, is not a man who feels attracted to a woman equally “vain”? As to the second assumption, the woman’s “typical” reaction to praise is the indicator of much more complex psychological, social and cultural interactions, rather than an indicator of “vainness”. Let me put this question: do you think a man would not end up smiling to a woman who, each time she passes by him, tells him she thinks he is beautiful? It might look ridiculous to even think about doing it, let alone to expect such an “unrealistic” reaction. Yet, consider what women are—culturally and socially—conditioned to believe is their best asset: “beauty”! Women who are “beautiful” have the privilege of social recognition and admiration, while less “beautiful” women tend to be symbolically rejected, or at least marginalized. Beauty standards are not the same everywhere and throughout history, but no one denies the effect of their propagation by the media, and also how they are—in part—socially constructed and maintained. No wonder then that to be called beautiful within this context signals to a woman that she is privileged and recognized as a person of value, as long as beauty is considered to be her most valuable quality. Further, would not this man’s insistence on approaching her trigger the thought that he might be interested in her person (her beauty being what counts most in her person)? Would not her insistence on cursing him every time he approaches her (and doing the same with any other man) call her sanity into question?
The idea that such a reaction on the part of women is invariable indicates how women and men are conditioned to think about themselves, rather than indicating their natural predispositions (notice: “it starts with…” in the passage). Natural predispositions could not be determined independently of the predominant socio-cultural context. Suppose women were made to think that beauty is a quality equally important to all the other qualities of her self. In such a case, would not a man who everyday tells her she is beautiful the one to be considered “vain”? Consequently, the meaning of “vain”—as used in the passage—cannot describe a woman’s true nature. The “proof” offered is based on a stereotype that the “investigator” already has in mind before conducting his “experiment”, rather than on an objective or neutral attempt to discover what a woman’s nature is.
To further expose how the illusion of truth is created in the passage, it is interesting to consider now elements of language. The word “whatever” for instance introduces a claim to universality, which is reinforced by “I don’t care who” and later with “it starts with”. Notice also how the “proof” the writer gives seems like a scientific experiment, in the form of: whenever you do (a), you get (b), which leads to conclusion (c). Consider the expressions “I’ll prove it”, “something you can do anytime you want”, “I know what I’m talking about”, “I’ve done it”, which are all assertions that what is being proved is “scientifically” true. “You watch what happens” further gives the impression that a natural phenomenon immune to change is being described. It is as if you said: “watch what happens whenever you put oil and water in the same recipient.”
The language used, along with the writer’s pre-discursive assumptions contribute together in creating the illusion of truth about women, namely that they are intrinsically “vain”. Could it then be concluded that Malcolm X in being misogynist?
If we take into account the socio-cultural context mentioned earlier and how the attribute “vain” came to be attached to women—in the light of the analysis, there is no objective reason to think that Malcolm X is being misogynist.
Further than this, de-contextualizing the passage will be shown to render such a judgment unfair in the light of other passages preceding and following it. Haley tells us:
“I somehow raised the subject of women. Suddenly (…) he vented his criticisms and skepticisms of women. ‘You never can fully trust any woman,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the only one [his wife, my clarification] I ever met whom I would trust seventy-five percent. I’ve told her that,’ he said. ‘I’ve told her like I tell you I’ve seen too many men destroyed by their wives, or their women.” (AMX, p.17)
This is still not enough to make any hasty conclusion.
“I don’t completely trust anyone,’ he went on, ‘not even myself. I have seen too many men destroy themselves. Other people I trust from not at all to highly, like The Honorable Elijah Muhammad.’ Malcolm X looked squarely at me. ‘You I trust about twenty-five percent.” (AM, p.17, his emphasis)
His opinion of women is clearly bound to the social context and to what he heard and saw about men supposedly destroyed by their women. Yet, this is in turn a subjective conclusion based on the subjective ways in which people’s realities are reported and how the writer interprets them, again within the reigning socio-cultural context. Many women could just as easily and readily say they were destroyed by their men, without necessarily being objective. Overall, it is more a question of competing perceptions than a question of brute realities.
Consider how the second quote illustrates the relativity of Malcolm X’s judgment when he affirms he does not even trust himself, since he has seen many men destroy themselves. This affirmation renders relative the previous assertions about women, as well as about men and the self. In this second quote it becomes clearer how trust is the criterion upon which Malcolm X gives credit to people, and that his degree of trust of anyone could vary but never become complete, since he cannot even trust himself. This puts everybody on fairly the same level in Malcolm X’s perception.
The fact that women are mentioned separately and criticized particularly shows that women are considered as “other” and as radically different. Female speakers would, in the same logic, think of men as their “other” and treat them as radically different. A more objective view of humanity would reveal that men and women share more human similarities of reason and emotions than differences. On many levels of human experience, the dissimilarities among women or among men are sometimes much more important than the dissimilarities between a man and a woman. So, again, the view that the “other” is radically different is bound to mainstream thinking and differentiation.
In another passage, Malcolm X’s attitude shows that his opinion of people is based on personal experience and intuition, which explains the gradual shift in trust he has for Haley, who relates:
“One call that I will never forget came at close to four a.m., waking me; he must have gotten up in Los Angeles. His voice said, ‘I trust you seventy percent’—and then he hung up. I lay a short time thinking about him and I went back to sleep feeling warmed by that call, as I still am warmed to remember it.” (AMX, p.26)
As to his model, it is interesting to reveal that the “Honorable Elijah Muhammad”, whom Malcolm X trusted most in the world, turned out to be his best traitor.
“I felt as though something in nature had failed” (AMX, p. 414, his emphasis)
“The thing to me worse than death was the betrayal. I could conceive death. I couldn’t conceive betrayal (…) That was how I first began to realize that I had believed in Mr Muhammad more than he believed in himself.” (AMX, p.416)
Malcolm X’s position on women cannot be said to be misogynist in the light of what these passages reveal; indeed, they illustrate the complexity of human judgments and how personal experiences acquire meaning and have actual effects only within the dominant socio-cultural discourses.
As we have seen, the passage of analysis creates the illusion that the “vainness” of women is a true fact. On the other hand, to de-contextualize the passage would suggest that the writer’s position on women is unfair or misogynist. Thus, discourses—through language and representation—create “realities” in the form of perceptions; the minds translate these “realities” into actions, which in turn shape and reshape perceptions of “reality”. Which one precedes the other—thought or action—is still a philosophically unsettled question.
Malcolm X. (2001). The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley, with an Introduction by Paul Gilroy. (First published in the USA 1965) Penguin Books.