by Eleanor Goldfield
About a month ago I lost a friend to flirtation. And it’s not what it sounds like.
We had been friends for more than a decade before he called me up to tell me that I was too flirtatious with him, that it made him uncomfortable and that he didn’t feel that our friendship was healthy. Now, this blog is obviously not the place to outline more than 10 years of friendship but here’s the basic scoop. We had dated very briefly when I first moved to LA because we were both so passionate about music. We had both moved there to “make it” and it seemed obvious then that we’d be a good romantic fit. In order to describe what that was like, just close your eyes and imagine making out with your sibling or a close cousin. Awkward, right?! So we let that slide into history and went forward as friends – as very close friends in fact. We became roommates and bandmates. We built and buried two bands, more than a couple of spinal tap moments and countless bandmates – well, we didn’t actually bury them but damn, sometimes we wanted to.
Throughout this time, I had several relationships. At first some of the guys ruffled their peacock feathers at this very close friend of mine who wasn’t a boyfriend and also wasn’t related to me. In time, however, their feathers smoothed out and several of my boyfriends actually became good friends with him as well. It was clear that to feel insecure around us was to suggest that a man and a woman couldn’t possibly be friends unless they’re either related or also fucking.
And this brings me back to the moment a month ago when our friendship came crashing down. How the hell have I been flirtatious? By hugging you when I see you? By smiling or laughing during a conversation? By putting my arm around you in photographs? He wasn’t able to answer the question except to say “I don’t like being touched.” That was certainly news to me as he had never shied away from a shoulder to sleep on during a road trip – or a group hug after a show or indeed a shoulder to cry on when either he or I needed one. It also felt rather odd and out of place as the next sentence commented on how uncomfortable I made his girlfriends…I should pause here to add another layer to this drama: he had just gone through a terrible break up with a younger woman who had always felt uncomfortable around me (the younger qualifier comes into play later). My friend and I had previously discussed it many times and I knew that it was a problem in their relationship, not just with me. However, as I was the best friend of her man, I was the biggest problem. I also recognized the foundation of her discomfort as insecurity – takes one to know one. She’s about 8 years younger than me and I recognized those 20 year old insecurities shining like an illuminated mirror into my past. Indeed shards of those insecurities cut me still to this day – particularly as a woman who has worked in the entertainment industry in LA, I understand it – I empathize. And as I’ve gotten older, I have tried more and more to build women up rather than fall in line with the consumerist sexist patriarchy that cuts women down.
But for his now-no-longer-ex, I was always a threat: a woman that could at any moment shove my tongue down her man’s throat and he would be powerless to stop it. It wasn’t good enough that we were friends because fear and mistrust framed my existence in her life.
But OK – why am I detailing this drama?!
Well, at first I had thought about writing an angry diatribe about how men should fucking know the difference between flirtation and kindness (which I’ll get to in a minute) but then I realized that I need to write this for and about women as well, not just men.
Women are raised to think of themselves in relation to a male counterpart, regardless of their sexual orientation – be it romantically, in business, even in friendships. Our self is built on the presence of this other, this man. And I’m not saying your parents instilled that in you – many parents are woke af and don’t subscribe to that patriarchal bullshit. But that doesn’t change the fact that you grew up in that patriarchal bullshit. Even just something as simple as the number of ads showing women in victim-like positions, lying prone clutching nothing but a handbag; or being towered over by a well-oiled brute. The objectification of women sells – and women buy it – subconsciously or otherwise.
Through this path, women learn to not only mistrust men but to side-eye other women. It’s rare that you see women talking about other women in an uplifting way; complimenting their looks, their style, even their brains. And these days, the “feminist” battle against trans-women has added yet another woman v. woman hammer to the patriarchy’s toolkit.
The ladder to a woman’s self-love must be littered with the hollow shells of “lesser” women. Or so it seems. Through this practice of tearing down, we inevitably and so ironically, fall all the way down the ladder and wallow in an abyss of insecurity and self-loathing. I know because I’ve sat down there.
We’re jealous of other women unless we deem them to be “safe,” i.e. not attractive, smart, talented, etc. We don’t trust our partners because we don’t trust our own worth as a person, much less as a person in a relationship. The idea that a man and a woman could be friends without being related or also fucking is just rubbish – because women are dangerous and men can’t be trusted – or some other vicious blend based on mistrust and/or fear.
And while I never personally struggled with jealousy, I sure as shit struggled with tremendous feelings of self-worthlessness. I was ugly, I was fat, I wasn’t talented or smart, etc. etc. My insecurity never manifested in screaming matches about my boyfriend sleeping around but it manifested in being an outright bitch to some women who had done nothing wrong but be attractive or smart or god forbid both. My friend’s girlfriend, on the other hand, was always outwardly polite to me but would unleash the hounds of hell on my friend as soon as I was gone. Insecurity looks different for different people but it is toxic however it looks.
And despite the fact that she has been able to convince my friend to cut off our friendship, I don’t hate her – I feel sorry for her. And not only because she is consumed by self-doubt and insecurity but because the man she has is a weak ball of clay molded by mistrust and fear. I really do think she broke him – and a broken person does not a good partner make. Which leads me to my final point, a note to all the men out there: a woman being nice to you does not mean she’s flirting with you.
Let me write that again but bigger and bolder: A WOMAN BEING NICE TO YOU DOES NOT MEAN SHE’S FLIRTING WITH YOU. Feel free to copy and paste that onto your desktop for future reference.
I am so fucking sick and tired of being either a cold-hearted, unapproachable bitch or a flirt. This may be the worst and most destructive time I’ve been accused of flirting when I sure as shit haven’t been but it’s not the first. I’ve been accused of flirting when I laugh at a joke, or offer to buy a guy a round after he bought me one. I’ve been accused of coming on to a guy after a great conversation at a party. I’ve been accused of asking for it when a guy pushed me up against a wall and tried to force his tongue down my throat. And I know I’m not the only woman who can share a story like that.
I’m also not the only woman who can share a story of being called unapproachable for being quiet or withdrawn, in my own thoughts or slow to make friends. I’ve had people walk up to my band members – who at various times were big dudes with long hair and tattoos and claim that they were afraid to walk up to me because they were afraid I’d be a bitch. Why? Because I’m strong? Because I scream into a microphone like men do? Because I didn’t smile at you when you smiled at me? Well wait – if I did smile back, would I be asking for it? Would I be flirting?
I refuse to exist in the extremes marked for me by men who are either trying to cover up their own damn fucked-upedness or project it onto me. Women don’t owe you a smile because you smiled – and they don’t owe you a blow job if they smiled at you.
Now, my friend’s flirtation excuse is of course just that – an excuse to move me out of the way so that his girlfriend can feel more secure, which she ironically won’t until she deals with her own relationship with herself. But outside of that instance, if you want to know if a girl is flirting with you, try flirting back and see what happens – or better yet, start by asking yourself whether or not you think a woman can smile without that being the facial equivalent of throwing her thong in your face. If the answer is no, you need to sit and rework some brain matter before you talk to a woman. And if you’re quick to think a woman is a banshee just because she appears withdrawn, consider two things: One, that there are about a million reasons why anyone, regardless of gender, might seem withdrawn – from social anxiety to a rough day; from just being a quiet, observant person to not wanting to engage with you. And two: women have another million reasons to be a bit stand-offish when it comes to men. Anyone who has considered their wardrobe for the day based on whether or not they see the “cat-callers” out their window in the morning can attest to sometimes not wanting to deal with anything that has a penis. Respect that and don’t take it personally. Instead, take it personally that the patriarchy perpetuates this behavior amongst all genders and work in your way to fight it.
Women lift up women lift up men lift up men lift up women lift up non-binary lift up women, you get the idea. There aren’t any shells of “lesser beings” on the ladder up to self-love. And that ladder is more like an undulating, perpetual wave – navigating through life with a churning blend of wtf, wow, fuck this, fuck yeah, smh and lol. It is a viscous and messy blend – complete with friends, accomplices, lovers, art, books, music, solitary moments in silence, affirmations in the mirror and that random person at the coffee shop that you complimented for no particular reason. And it is a wave that insecure women, weak men and everyone in between and beyond must ride in order to build love and worth for themselves – and others.
Self-love is an act of dissent in a system built on our insecurities – our fear and mistrust. It is essentially a bowling ball balancing on a pool cue and yet we hold that pool cue steady, afraid of the weight of our own self knowledge, of our self governance and power. And yet, it is only through confronting our own fear and mistrust that we can confront the fear and mistrust in society. We have to snap the pool cue in order to roll forwards. As self-helpy as it sounds, we can not love the other until we love the self. From that self-love, that inner shift we can begin to manifest real outward change. But if our foundation in ourselves is shaky, well, then we will build this change like a bowling ball balancing on a pool cue.