““You don’t really want to be a poet. First of all, if you’re a woman, you have to be three times as good as any of the men. Secondly, you have to fuck everyone. And thirdly, you have to be dead.” – a male poet, in conversation (Jong, 43)”
I recommend the poem that follows in Erica Jong’s book of poems, Fruits and Vegetables, first published in 1968.
The other day a photographer, James Arzente, came to my apartment to photograph me for a book he’s doing on artists and writers. After a long email dialogue, we came up with a concept, and piled all of the physical remains of what it took to write my memoir (piles of notepads filled with chicken scratch, journals, photographs, music, books, costumes, pens, mementos, and postcards) onto the kitchen table. The photographer wanted to get at what’s inside my head, and I pulled out as much physical evidence as I could possibly find, but it wasn’t even the half of it.
He pried further and further to figure out what makes me tick. On one hand, it made me understand the intensity of what it must feel like to be a celebrity. On the other, I was exhausted by it, and exhausted of being the sole focus. I grew sick of myself, ill with the knowledge of my current unsatisfactory state.
“You will never really be understood,” he said, “And you have to be okay with that.”
We talked about what it means to be a woman and a writer. I want to celebrate my womanhood, but being female has always felt like a strike against me. I’m working through it, towards a love and acceptance of my own gender. It’s difficult when I’ve been attacked for being a woman, not only by strangers, but also by friends and lovers. My healing comes from strong female role models, who repair me through their wisdom and our shared stories.
“Who do you feel you are on the inside?” James asked me.
“I feel like an outlaw. I feel like I’m fighting against the roles prescribed for me by others. I feel invisible. I’m in a chrysalis phase, and working non-stop to create my body of work. It’s killing me that my book isn’t out there yet, when I have so much more to give. I’m waiting for recognition, when in my mind, I am already known for what I do. In reality, I’m a drifter that no one really knows all that well.”
The truth is, I feel more like a Hunter S. Thompson, a Henry Miller, a Charles Bukowski, a Norman Mailer than a woman. None of my heroes understood women at all, and didn’t care to understand. But women inspired their stories. They almost had an unhealthy worship of the women that castrated them in a sense. Scared to death of the great goddess that might reach up and snuff them out.
Right now, at the Seattle Art Museum, the Elles exhibit of twentieth century women artists, is here from the Pompidou in Paris. Everyone seems to have a strong opinion about the show. Some are angry over the feeling that women’s art is segregated. Some felt it was too political. Some were disturbed by the empty pockets of history, where women really weren’t allowed to fully partake, as in the Bauhaus movement.
For me, I found the exhibit to be enormously invigorating, and at times disturbing. Throughout history, women have been told that their life should be a sacrifice for the family. In much of the art, I found that same sense of sacrifice, but it was an angry outcry against prescribed roles. A gigantic woven bee hive/cocoon – enormous and frightening, like death hanging from a hook in the ceiling. A film of a naked carefree woman on the beach, hula hooping with barbed wire, each turn ripping her abdomen to shreds. Marina Abramavic’s performance piece, “I must be beautiful, I must be beautiful, art must be beautiful,” as she rips at her scalp with a brush.
Grouping all of this art together is enormously satisfying and powerful. It tells a narrative, fighting to redefine what it means to be a woman, determined to have equality and a voice.
“To create is an act of liberation and every day this need for liberation comes back to me.” – Louise Bourgeois
I think as well, it would be impossible for the art to not be political. In an article by Robin Held in City Arts Magazine she states, “Only 5 percent of the art on display in U.S. museums is made by women, although 51 percent of U.S. visual artists today are women.” And this is the current state of the art world. Just today I walked through the art section at a bookstore, and the only female artist I saw on the shelves, was Georgia O’Keefe. I never even noticed the disparity before.
All this week, I have been enmeshed in talks with women artists on how they feel about the exhibit, and how they feel about their role in art today. The women of the sixties and seventies had a lot of wisdom and history to offer. One woman spoke of how she couldn’t sign her real name to a piece, because if they knew she was a woman, she wouldn’t get a show. She used her initials instead. To be a success, she had to deny the feminine. But now, because of political battles that have been won, she is free to sign her real name, and wears her womanhood like a badge of honor.
Strikingly, the women of my generation said that they don’t identify as women. One felt that anything written before 1980 was a “dinosaur text.” They were firmly planted in the here and now, living dangerously outside the context of history. I sensed abhorrence within them of their femaleness. The same abhorrence that existed in society in the 1950’s, when my mother was raised to think that being a woman made her unclean – doomed to keep cleaning, just to make up for it. Back then, household appliances were sold as devices to cure psychological ailments.
Young women artists want to shed their femaleness like a dead skin. And then they are shocked when those issues subconsciously come out in their art. One was disturbed when people found the feminine in her art. It made her angry. She might clothe herself with male-dominated activities to feel stronger, but she is still facing the unavoidable fact of her existence as a woman.
This same aversion to the female, I believe, has created a large disconnect among young women. I know I am at a difficult stage of life for female friendships – babies, work, lack of money, flakiness, geographical distance. But even so, all of the women I know look at each other with a deep sense of mistrust until proven otherwise. I am just as guilty as everyone else, and I’ve practically given up. Yet when I do find that closeness with other women, I find my confidence blossoms.
Women seem to feel sick of the issue of equality, and what that means. The issue has always been there, and it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s a constant struggle. And if we let go of it, there are plenty of men waiting in the wings to take back their control over our bodies. If your own body makes you ill, and you want to avoid it, then why not hand over the control?
In the young women, I saw myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. This week has changed me. I want to embrace who I am within this body within this world. But I also demand that society embrace my mind even more than the visual elements that I might express. Yes, I am a woman, but first and foremost, I am a human being.