November 16, 2013 § 6 Comments
When I married, I lost some of the respect I had gained as an independent, single woman. It was a change that I hadn’t seen coming. Strangers, without fail, defer to my husband. Servers only talk to me as an afterthought. We just had an experience at a steak restaurant, where only the men were given complimentary Port after dinner. It’s not only with strangers – I’m often asked by friends and family, “Is your husband okay with that?” As though I have a master waiting for me at home, rather than Michael, who loves me most for my strength and individuality. In fact, that is what I love most about him as well.
Michael can tend to be larger than life, and I often have to remind myself to step up and not fall into his shadow. As I’ve acclimated to our life together, I’ve learned I have to work much harder to earn the respect of everyone we meet. Instantly, it seems, people look up to Michael; whereas, it could take me years of being around the same people to receive affirmation.
Just in my lifetime, enormous strides have been made towards gender equality. But there is still so much of our culture that is steeped in Puritan roots. It is in our words, in our archetypes, and in the way that we view each other.
Within the patriarchal language of the church, woman is “the other.” “Society as we know it has a perverse need to create ‘the Other’ as object of condemnation so that those who condemn can judge themselves to be good (Daly, 60).”
It was doubtful at one point in history, whether or not women could actually be “saved.” Ideologically, she exists only as the property and projection of her husband. All other incarnations of women become a risk to the establishment – such as Joan of Arc who was burned alive by the church for the sentence of being a witch in 1431. Once hundreds of years had passed, she was then declared a saint in 1920.
Joan of Arc was a woman who could not be possessed in life, though the church has tried to claim her in death. In the symbolic paintings of Franz von Stuck, we see many versions of two men wrestling or fighting to “possess” a woman. Concurrent to Stuck’s era, this was a concept that Darwin explained, though obviously, he wasn’t the first to think so. It’s an ancient concept, having less to do with biology and more to do with a patriarchal power structure. Men projected their identities onto women, and displayed them as the prize of their success. Hence, we feel a little bit ill when a man trades in his wife for a younger version. Or, for example, when the leader of a cult has more wives than anyone else in his group – the ultimate sign of power.
I had the unfortunate experience of once dating a man who actually told me that he wanted to “possess” me, and said, “You are mine.” His general confusion led to death threats and court orders and drug abuse. For months, I was watched by people he hired, scared that he would turn up at my door. I understood, then, that a person’s desire to possess can turn into the mutilation of the thing they can’t have. In other words, I was an object to be claimed, rather than a human being.
Throughout the midcentury, it was commonplace for husbands to shut away their wives in mental institutions for displaying too much dissent over prescribed roles. In the tremendous shift towards liberation, women were no longer accepting their lives as a mere projection of their husband’s. Over 50,000 lobotomies were performed in that time, the majority on women.
“On February 24, 1972, Dr. Breggin’s article, ‘The Return of Lobotomy and Psychosurgery,’ was read into the Congressional Record. Discussing the remarkably large proportion of women who are being lobotomized, Dr. Breggin explains that it is more socially acceptable to lobotomize women because creativity, which the operation totally destroys, is in this society ‘an expendable quality in women (Daly, 65).'”
In Mary Daly’s Beyond God The Father, she challenges, “That language for millennia has affirmed the fact that Eve was born from Adam, the first among history’s unmarried pregnant males who courageously chose childbirth under sedation rather than abortion, consequently obtaining a child-bride (Daly, 195).”
From this myth, we gather that the male is the dominant sex. But in biological truth, all mammals begin as female. Even for those who inherit a male sex chromosome (XY), throughout the embryo stage we all remain and develop as female (XX). At the eighth week, the male embryo begins to produce testosterone, veering off course from the female starting point. If an embryo doesn’t respond correctly to male sex hormones, it will revert to being female.
The idea of a dominant sex is false. You can’t have one without the other. We are all individuals, with unique traits that in the past have been repressed by prescribed gender roles. Of course, there are many places in the world where these roles are still in place. Those regions are all governed by extremist religion. I have noticed that no matter what, religion is always extreme. It consumes the lives of people into false ideologies, and an “us verses them” mentality, which leads to violence and genocide.
“The symbol of the Father God, spawned in the human imagination and sustained as plausible by patriarchy, has in turn rendered service of this type of society by making its mechanisms for the oppression of women appear right and fitting. If God in ‘his’ heaven is a father ruling ‘his’ people, then it is in the ‘nature’ of things and according to divine plan and the order of the universe that society be male-dominated (Daly, 13).”
As a result, women have lived in submission, with no recorded history. I wonder over all the untold stories; the women inventors (where men took credit); artists, writers, composers we have never been given the experience of enjoying. For example, Fanny Mendelssohn, sister of the famous composer Felix was an enormously talented composer in her own right. Yet in 1820, her father wrote to her saying, “Music will perhaps become his (Felix’s) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”
Our society has experienced a tremendous loss for the fault of not allowing women to be human beings in the past, and we are barely aware of it. We have forgotten, because we were not allowed to know in the first place.
In their representation as “the other,” women have been dealt implausible archetypes such as the virgin mother or the ruinous Eve. A mother is shamed for remaining a sexual being. A young twenty-something is glared at for being too beautiful. It’s her own fault if she is physically attacked. If you are a woman, you will experience some form of these instant judgments on your life.
Joan Rivers is a perfect pop culture example of this. Watch Fashion Police just once, and you will see her non-stop tirade against women. She represents the worst aspects of patriarchy embodied in a female. Most of her jokes revolve around slut-shaming and the idea that if a woman wears a skirt that’s too short, she is dirty and diseased. Rivers never directs a single unkind word towards men, and if she does, it is directed at their fashion rather than their perceived lifestyle.
“Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace (An Essay On Liberation, Marcuse, 8).”
The “obscene woman” is often used to create a distraction. The battle against abortion raged while 4 million civilians were being killed in Vietnam.
When Hilary Rodham Clinton ran for candidacy in the 2008 presidential campaign, she was referred to as “The Bitch,” and “Her Thighness.” She was berated for showing cleavage while talking to the Senate. Rush Limbaugh asked the question, “Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”
I remember the exact sense that we were being distracted from her achievements by attacks against her female body. These attacks seem to be the reason why she turned down a Vogue cover shoot for the risk of appearing too feminine. How can you blame her, when her body seemed like the biggest obstacle to winning the race?
“The power of presence that is experienced by those who have begun to live in the new space radiates outward, attracting others. For those who are fixated upon patriarchal space it apparently is threatening… Such women are no longer empty receptacles to be used as ‘the Other,’ and are no longer internalizing the projections that cut off the flow of being. Men who need such projection screens experience the power of absence of such ‘objects’ and are thrown into the situation of perceiving nothingness (Daly, 41-42).”
Mary Daly wrote these words in the early 1970’s. She considered the sexual revolution of the sixties to be a failure. The illusion of liberation hid the fact that though they attempted to go beyond life as a possession, they remained as objects to be claimed along the way. Like Hilary Clinton’s stance on the Vogue cover shoot, women of the eighties fought against objectification with the power suit. One of the first fashion memories I have of my mother is her shoulder-pads that could Velcro in and out of sweaters, dresses, and suits. They gave her the instant look of a Quarterback.
In the nineties, every week there was a new battle being fought. Sexual harassment lawsuits were a new concept. Rape culture was exposed. Coming forward became more acceptable, and there was a slight chance that you wouldn’t be told you were lying, or that you caused the rape. Very slight.
In my Christian high school, we all ridiculed a girl for fighting against an issue of sexual harassment. We felt embarrassed for her. I too was harassed, but I kept silent because I was afraid. I felt powerless. I sat pressed into the wall of the bus, while a football player’s son leaned all of his weight into me so I couldn’t move. He ran his hand up my thigh and whispered things that made me cringe. Everyday, he waited for a chance to torment me, and he wasn’t the only one.
A year ago, I listened to women at an art talk say that they are genderless. They are sick of Feminism. I am too. We all are. It’s tiresome to fight. We’re so close to being equal, that we can almost ignore that we aren’t.
The truth is we don’t have the right to be sick of it. We wouldn’t have our lives as individuals without it, for one. We wouldn’t even get to have the elitist idea of being genderless if it hadn’t been for the women who fought for a century and more, before us. Older women are very confused and upset by the statement of being genderless. At the same talk, they reminded us, that they had to pretend to be a man to find any success in the art world. They used their initials instead of their first names just to get a gallery show.
To say genderless, though, has some positive aspects. It says “no” against sex role stereotyping.
I do not want women to rule the world, and I do not want men to rule the world. We deserve total and complete balance. There is a sense, that if Hilary Clinton runs for President in 2016, she will not face the same abuse and slander that she dealt with the first time around. More and more, we see women running companies, becoming scientists, lawyers, and politicians, following their dreams and finding success.
The next generation is an entirely different breed than my own. Young women that I meet really impress me. They make more money in one year than I’ve made in a lifetime, and are buying houses at the age of 23. They’re not wasting time. They have goals, and I have no doubt that they will meet them. I will never exactly be that sort of person. The society I grew up in treated me as “the other.” But it’s enough to see the magnificent change.
March 25, 2013 § 2 Comments
As women, especially, we carry our mothers within us. We carry our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers and so on. Beginning life through their looking glass, we interpret from their experience. As adults, we hopefully bring something new to the equation.
In The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd shares how she went from being the good Southern Baptist wife, to an awakening of the anti-female language in the church and the traditional roles she had fallen into without question, causing her to become the many breasted woman. She takes a precarious journey towards finding her own true voice, fearing that she will lose her husband or that her kids will be too shaken. But what results instead is a total awakening that greatly improves her relationships and her life.
I go back and forth between two worlds on a consistent basis. Living in downtown Seattle I am surrounded by strong-willed, independent, mature, and passionate women. They hold themselves tall. They’re never looking at the floor, but straight out into what they can learn and how they can grow. They earn respect from their peers, and are active in their community.
Being around them long enough, I can forget that there is another world, the one that I come from, where women live beneath a patriarchal religion that tells them they are unclean and not worthy; the downfall of humanity beginning with Eve who tempted Adam with an apple; a Bible with so few mentions of women, that as a girl I clung to the stories of Ruth and Esther for dear life.
It’s a struggle to still see this mindset in my family members. I am often held to the same standards as the mothers who went before me, even though my husband and I do not share the same value system as my family. Trying to gain their respect as an independent human being, apart from my husband, is difficult. I often feel that for them, a husband is the replacement of your father, and my decisions are like a child’s whims that need to be reined in.
My mother was raised in the fifties and sixties in the Midwest. The negative messages she received about being a woman were manifold. She began to believe that she was dirty, ill equipped to handle life, unintelligent, not worthy of a college education the way her three brothers were. She says that her greatest achievement is having given birth to my sister and I, and raising us well. My mother did the best that she knew how. Though within her, I always sense an untapped potential – creative talents lying inert, a lack of belief in her value. She wonders out loud, “I’m already sixty something, and what have I done with my life?”
She was always with us, always there when we got home from school. But as then, and even now, there is a sense that she is often absent. Maybe it is the trait that my sister and I both share with my mother – we all have a tendency to get lost somewhere up in our heads. My nieces also share this trait, with their wild use of the imagination and sudden bursts of wit. With this up-in-your-headness, there is the danger of retreating from a fully functioning life. All of us women in the family are artists whether we express that or not. Maybe the problem lies in wondering whether our expression is valid or valuable.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter – A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine, she writes, “I like the way Clarissa Pinkola Estes says it: ‘When a woman is exhorted to be compliant, cooperative, and quiet, to not make upset or go against the old guard, she is pressed into living a most unnatural life – a life that is self blinding… without innovation. The world-wide issue for women is that under such conditions they are not only silenced, they are put to sleep. Their concerns, their viewpoints, their own truths are vaporized (Monk Kidd, 21).'”
I want to know my mother from before I was born. In photos she looks mischievous and carefree. She wears dark eyeliner, with funky 1960’s hairstyles, and mod clothing. She plays the piano, or munches an ice cube in old film footage at the racetrack with my dad. In photos, they goof off with their Old English sheepdog, Big Boy. They are young and beautiful, and life is rich with possibility. She worked for the telephone company, and he was an engineer. On the weekends they took random road-trips, not sure where they’d end up.
As a child, her mother was bipolar and overwhelmed by raising five kids. Grandma preferred her three sons to the two daughters. She never really liked women that much, and she also wasn’t very happy with her emotionally distant husband. But she did love fashion, expressing herself, and working in retail.
On my father’s side, my history of mothers only exists in photographs. His mother died of cancer when she was my age. In photos, she is always laughing with friends. She looks like the center of the universe. Her face is a strangely familiar territory of my eyes, and my sister’s lips. So many aspects of her have been passed down to us, but what they were (outside of photos), we’ll never know. I cling to these images – a grandmother, only visible in stills of black and white. I build up stories around her that only make her more beautiful, more daring, more carefree.
I quickly flip past the photos near the end of her life. She is washing dishes, with my dad (a toddler) playing at her feet. The lines beneath her eyes have turned purple, her shoulders slump towards the sink, exhaustion is written all over her failing body. I choose to forget this, though it lingers in my subconscious, and I wonder if like her, I could possibly die young.
My history of mothers didn’t have the opportunities that I do. Through everything that I do in my life, I celebrate them. I celebrate my right to speak, to write honestly and openly, and leave a record of myself that goes beyond old photographs found in a shoebox. So much of what my mothers really felt, was never spoken.
As I think about opening my life to the possibility of motherhood, I understand the importance of a line of mothers. I see the magnitude of knowing, before I take that step, my own value as a self. It’s painful to me when my mother writes off her life as not being very important. All I can really do is make up for it, everyday, with how I live my own life.
When she lost her mother, I was nine years old. Mom lost her luster as a distant perfect goddess, always washing dishes at the sink. She became a human being. Our family was split down the middle at the time, mid-move from Chicago to Seattle. She and I were still in the old house. She was afraid, scared, hiding boos in the back of the refrigerator (she never drank). Every night we stayed somewhere else, or a friend stayed with us.
Suddenly, it seemed that I was becoming the mother. I resented her for it. I didn’t know how to control my anger. That was when mom began to say that I reminded her of her mother. I was scared that like grandma, I was bipolar too, and maybe diabetic. No one really painted a positive image of grandma, though she was always nice to my sister and I. And it was my aggression that brought up the comparison.
“Most of my life I’d run from anger as something that good daughters and gracious ladies did not exhibit. Perhaps the thing most denied to women is anger. ‘Forbidden anger, women could find no voice in which to publicly complain; they took refuge in depression,’ writes Carolyn Heilbrun. Her words came true for me. Without the ability to allow or the means to adequately express the anger, I began to slide into periods of depression (Monk Kidd, 74).”
You could say that depression runs in my family, but I broke out of a habit that descended down through the women for generations. It was a long, painful process, letting go of that mindset and way of being. But then one day I woke up, fully in charge of my own life, fully capable, and fully expressive. The sluggish, then raging, suicidal thoughts were completely gone. I cracked the code. The answer was within me all along. As long as I face life with no fear, give what I have to offer, and value my gifts, I am happy. It’s a simple equation. But there was nothing simple about how long it took, and difficult it was, to figure it all out.
In life, there is always what we are, and what we were. They live together simultaneously. Some people catch up to who we are now, and some never do. But we all manage to learn from each other. Though my parents raised me, their daughters have raised them as well. My family speaks a different language through an opposite worldview, but we can still connect with laughter, good food, and the stories of our interconnected lives. Everyday, we grow in awareness of ourselves in relation to each other.
November 25, 2012 § Leave a comment
A year ago I went to Susie Bright’s reading for her memoir, Big Sex Little Death. She signed my copy “Lauren, Clits up! Susie Bright.” She told some interesting stories about traveling through the country on her book tour while I sat wondering what the Puritans would think about her book title – if you have big sex, there’s bound to be a little death, or maybe even a lot.
“One brother killing his other half, his soul mate, was sensational enough – but add “hardcore” to it, and it was as if everyone in the sexual counterculture were on trial.
Reporters called me: “Did you see it coming? Were you pressured? Were you afraid? Did you get high with them, take it up the ass before the guns came out? Their questions were crazy because they all assumed that sex had led to violence. Not despair, not religion, not the empty bottle of abandonment (Bright, 303).”
Artie had been on a violent binge, and Jim shot him – the Mitchell brothers behind the famous O’Farrell theater strip club in San Francisco where Susie’s friends worked.
In life, there is death. The religious right would have us believe that death equals sin. But all of life is merely a cycle that our egos strain against.
In the same way, movements are born and then die. Manifestos have flaws, so we build off the old to create the new, hopefully improved, trains of thought.
Susie Bright has been at the forefront of movements in our history – grabbing life by the balls since she was a teenager running rampant in the Communist party. She was attacked, dodged bullets, and sacrificed her individuality for the cause. But amidst a shift, she was accused of betrayal and kicked out, most likely for not being a drone.
Several years later, she was influential in forming the lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, with a group of strippers. For years they struggled to stay afloat amidst political battles of the Andrea Dworkin/Catherine MacKinnon variety. At that point, many feminists were joining with the religious right in the fight for anti-pornography laws, and the magazine found more support from gay culture.
“We were too obscene to glue together. All of us, the women in erotica and in sex education, ended up paying what amounted to enormous bribes to be printed at all. And the printer’s risk? Zero. The U.S. attorney general’s office, to this very day, has the same attitude toward women’s sexual potential as that held by the Victorians: They really don’t believe lesbians have sex (Bright, 259).”
Blatant, in your face, unapologetic women who don’t need the male gaze to feel beautiful or sexual is apparently, a frightening thing. The women at the magazine received death threats and accusations of every variety. Eventually, the pressure to stay afloat amidst so much opposition and lack of funding literally broke the magazine’s back. Susie’s life reached another movement, that of motherhood, teaching, writing, and sunshine in Santa Cruz.
“I had to Protect the Baby, but I ended up Protecting Me… Malingerers, fakers, and self-destructive impulses were red-tagged and booted (Bright, 287).”
I am not a mother, but I relate to this feeling from my experience of being a wife. Through my husband’s love for me, I came to love myself in a new light, and suddenly had no patience for the crazies, the neurotics, or the people who take me down a notch for no reason. As I became aware of someone else’s needs, I became more aware of my own. Love transformed, turning the past into stories, rather than painful emotional ties.
Like Susie, I have that desire to capture my personal history and encapsulate it – not only because it tells of my life, but also because it celebrates the people I have known, the cities I lived in that have changed since then, the zeitgeist that is no longer. We have all evolved, and it’s one of the reasons why we need to write it all down, or paint it, or film it, or photograph it – so we can remember how far we’ve come, and see more clearly, where we are going.
November 19, 2012 § Leave a comment
““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.
March 29, 2012 § Leave a comment
Imagine you are living in a universe where everything is pink, every girl is a princess, and men are vague figures on the periphery, only appearing when a girl needs saving. This to me sounds like a nightmare, and yet little girls are taught that this is a dream come true. A few weeks ago I saw Peggy Orenstein give a lecture based off her new book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, defining exactly what is wrong with princess culture in girl land.
“… princesses avoid female bonding. Their goals are to be saved by a prince, get married… and be taken care of for the rest of their lives. Their value derives largely from their appearance. They are rabid materialists. They might affect your daughter’s interest in math. And yet… parents cannot resist them (Orenstein, 23).”
In the Disney Princess franchise, for the first time we are allowed to see the Disney Princesses grouped together as long as none of them are looking at each other. They each exist in a universe, all their own. They only make friends with those who are not on equal footing; such as crustaceans, raccoons, birds, dwarves, fairies. No one is as special as they are.
Not only does princess mentality isolate girls from other girls, inspiring competition and a lack of empathy; but it also creates a huge divide between girls and boys. Boys are given active toys that include all the colors of the rainbow. They are encouraged to be doers, and to learn through play with tool sets, chemistry sets, etc. For girls, however, there is a major emphasis on primping and materialism – spa day, shopping, and make-up for your six year old. The girl’s version of a chemistry set revolves around learning to make perfume. In the Monopoly Pink Boutique Edition, girls can go on shopping sprees, buy a mall or a boutique. This all teaches them to strive to be spoiled and valued on the basis of their appearance.
At a toy fair, Orenstein observes: “The preschool girls’ section was decorated with a banner on which the words BEAUTIFUL, PRETTY, COLORFUL were repeated over and over (and over) in pink script… In the next room, a banner over the boys’ section, scripted in blue, exclaimed, ENERGY, HEROES, POWER (Orenstein, 51).”
Words used for girls are passive descriptions of how an object looks. Boys on the other hand get all the action, the doing, the winning, the leadership. Over and over boys and girls are ingrained with these perceptions at an already difficult stage of social development where they are first coming to terms with categories of gender.
“By the end of the first year of preschool, children spend most of their time, when they can choose, playing with others of their sex. When they do have cross-sex friendships, they tend not to cop to them in public – the relationships go underground (Orenstein, 68).”
Some of my earliest memories are of playing with my friend Patrick. My dad’s favorite story to tell is of me at around age four playing football with Patrick and his little brother Freddy. Apparently I pushed Freddy down and he went crying to his dad. His dad turned to him and said, “But that’s how the game is played, son.” At a later age, I can assure you, I would not have had the guts to push a boy down.
Since I was the second child, my parents were a little lax with teaching me a few basics, so Patrick taught me the alphabet and I taught him a few ballet moves. I loved playing Heman with him and I was convinced that boy’s toys were better. Barbie was fun, but all she did was primp and go to parties. Her big climatic moment was when she danced with Ken. They would fall in love and begin to fly. Then they would go home, take off their clothes and lie naked on top of each other in their Barbie bed. My neighbor friend and I would gaze at this mysterious act with awe. All the effort went into making Barbie look as beautiful as possible so that Ken would sleep with her.
Heman was active. He was a hero. There was something more empowering about being a boy. I was jealous. I was also jealous that Patrick didn’t give a shit about what people thought of him. One day he pulled down his pants and peed right on the sidewalk. It didn’t matter that there were ten other kids playing around him when he did it. I couldn’t imagine ever feeling that free.
As soon as we entered kindergarten, though, Patrick rejected me. He wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a girl in public. I felt heartbroken. I realized our friendship could only exist in my mind as a memory. But I still admired him from afar. Matters were made worse when in the first grade we were all lined up to go in after recess. I was at the end of the line, Patrick was up ahead, and the boy in front of him (who I didn’t like), yelled out, “You like Lauren?!” It was as though the most embarrassing thing you could possibly do was like me. Everyone started laughing. Patrick looked humiliated. I wanted to disappear. It was hard to understand why this was such a horrible thing.
So then we entered a new phase. Since Patrick “liked” me, I now had a crush on him. This explained to me why we were no longer allowed to talk to each other. Everything became secretive, underground. It was now all in the non-verbals, like when he silently chased me on his bicycle. I pedaled as fast as I could, laughing hysterically over the excitement of the chase. For a few short moments, he was actually acknowledging that I existed.
At that point the major gender separation in toys was really just beginning. It was the early eighties, that big bust of consumerism. My Little Pony, Strawberry Shortcake, Care Bears – all inactive toys that were cute and had no real function. I barely knew what to do with any of them, but of course wanted them all.
Much more memorable is the summer when the girl next door and I decided to make a mud factory out of the piles of dirt behind the garage. We made mud pies and even mud hot dogs, which my aunt told us, looked more like poop. Then there was the year in grade school that I started an icicle hunt at recess – a game that spread like a virus till the whole grade school was involved in a battle of who could collect the most icicles, as well as the biggest. I felt like a HERO. I felt POWER. I felt ENERGY. It felt good!
When Peggy Orenstein finished her lecture on princess culture, the audience was invited to ask her questions. Every woman that went up to the microphone bumbled through her words, skittishly made apologies, and skipped backwards through the aisle like an uncertain little girl. Then a young man got up to ask a question. He spoke directly with authority. When he was finished he calmly walked back to his seat with assurance. Just in that moment, it was easy to see, how we are all shaped by society’s messages on gender.
It’s time for women to create a new female archetype for the future – heroic, intelligent, with guts, courage, charisma and empathy. She is prepared to fight to protect the right to be anything she wants to be. A woman who doesn’t need saving, yet understands that we are stronger when we unify. She is the best in all of us.
March 14, 2012 § 1 Comment
In Alix Kates Shulman’s 1972 novel, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, Sasha fights against the traps of being a woman. As a child, the boy’s are pure enemies. She is attacked, held down and pantsed so the boys can stare at her vagina with a ‘seen one, seen them all’ look on their faces. As an adolescent she is lured into a ride home by a group of boys, only to be driven to a remote location where they can force her to touch a boy’s penis.
Her first boyfriend cares less about her than about getting laid, though she knows that if anyone finds out she’ll be expelled from her sorority and shunned by her classmates. Her first job backfires when the cook threatens her to try and get her to sleep with him. In college her dream of pre-law is put aside when she falls in love with Philosophy and the Philosophy professor. By the time she’s playing with the big boys, attempting a PhD at Columbia – she is treated with so much disdain for being a woman in the program that she stops speaking in class and flocks to the safety of the wives in the kitchen. She begins to panic that she’s getting too old and too educated. So she marries the first guy who treats her well.
As soon as they’re married, of course, he stops talking to her. He can’t hide his contempt. His life has a grand purpose, while she supports him at menial jobs. Her mind is no longer stimulating to him or to herself. All he wants is his dinner.
“Why was everything nice he did for me a bribe or a favor, while my kindnesses to him were my duty (Shulman, 5)?”
She embarks on a series of affairs, but every time she leaves her husband she falls into the same man traps wherever she goes. A lover in Spain, in Italy, and then eventually a second husband and two kids. Completely dependent on a man who secretly hungers for carefree youth, she is constantly afraid he will leave her.
Interesting too, are Sasha’s musings over her physical self. At fifteen she is crowned Queen of the Bunny Hop. By twenty-four she fears that she is old, and that people would find it laughable to think she was once considered beautiful. There is always that disconnect between how others see her, and how she feels she looks.
“Could it be that the prettier I grew the worse I would be treated? Much likelier, I thought, I wasn’t really pretty (Shulman, 49).”
You have to wonder, though there were many disadvantages to being a woman at that time, did Sasha’s beauty add to her disempowerment? Beautiful women are rarely ever noticed for their minds. Sasha hates a come-on as much as she loves it. On one hand it proves she’s still beautiful, on the other it reminds her she is vulnerable, even to possible attack. Being valued for her looks is also emotionally damaging as age removes her worth.
Forty years since this book was published, the ultimate value of a woman is still judged on the basis of physical beauty. A woman in the public eye who is not attractive is torn to shreds (for example, Hilary Clinton), while a beautiful woman is adored by everyone (Angelina Jolie). Success and accomplishment are no protection from the scrutiny. But will we remember Angelina Jolie for her excellent screenwriting skills, or will we remember her more for how hot she looked baring her leg at the Oscars? Being beautiful, unfortunately, is a distraction from the accomplishments you weren’t born with.
I can vouch that when I was in my physical prime (early twenties), no one was really interested in hearing my poetry. They just wanted me to wear hot pants to a party, and I was more than willing to flaunt it. I never felt valued for who I was on the inside. But I enjoyed all the attention otherwise. And eventually I learned to lead with my personality rather than my appearance.
Beneath this was an insatiable need for affirmation. Growing up in school I had been completely invisible. I was always quiet and up in my head. I was a dork – ugly, awkward, insecure, with bad grades and braces. My quietness made the other kids uncomfortable. Boys never talked to me unless it was to mock me or scare the shit out of me with sexual threats. Maybe it was that total and complete lack of control that turned me into a control freak. All I knew was, someday I wanted to be in charge.
If I had remained in the church, men and the life in general would have most certainly been a trap. But outside of the church and those old fashioned values, men were my freedom. In fact, the men I fell for brought my dreams to life. For a long time I lived in a fantasy. All of my relationships were open with no responsibilities involved.
Marriage and monogamy, however, are so based in reality, I have to admit, I’m still struggling to get used to it. It’s hard to keep marriage exciting – especially when you are living with your best friend. Sex is not the first thought, it’s the after-thought. And it is sometimes difficult to not equate marriage as an institution akin to the church. When I left religion, I celebrated all of my freedoms from repression. But then when you get married, there are parts of yourself that inevitably become repressed to protect your relationship. It’s like a catch-22, because you’ve never been happier than with your partner, but in order for that to survive, you can’t just do and say whatever you want. You can no longer be selfish as you begin to think through this other person and their feelings.
But for the first time, I am finally loved for who I really am, and my husband embraces the free spirit in me. He brings warmth and brightness to my life, whereas before, life was dark, edgy and unpredictable.
In Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen Sasha bemoans the traps of womanhood, laughing it off as all her fears come to pass. There is always the clock ticking, the beauty slipping, the value falling down. She runs from her own brilliance into the arms of man, where frets and responsibilities distract her from dreams that became insurmountable.
Memoirs was written from the standpoint of a very different time – but every time has its pitfalls and struggles for the sake of biology. The balance between men and women is precarious and difficult. Alix Kates Shulman based much of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen off of her own life. Though her life story is such a great success (even helping to lead the famous protest at the Miss America Pageant), Sasha’s story ends in defeat. I prefer to look beyond the book’s ending into Shulman’s inspiring example, trailblazing for women, allowing nothing to hold her back.
November 29, 2011 § Leave a comment
Remember the nineties when rape and sexual harassment were everywhere? There were all those televised court cases such as Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. In Modern Novel class in college, every book we read had a rape scene in the first chapter. Wherever you turned, there was some outrage over the untamable impulses of male sexuality – that evil creature that for one second is the boy next door and in the next is that gang rapist in the fraternity at 3am on a Saturday night. The problem was that young women grew up thinking that men were evolved spineless teddy bears. But feminism is no match for nature.
I’d forgotten about the rape preoccupation until I read Camille Paglia’s collection of essays, Sex, Art, and American Culture. To be honest, the book is outdated and repetitive. But Paglia’s voice more than makes up for it and her rich knowledge from ancient history to pop culture is passionate and invigorating. She loves to tell it like it is. “American feminism has a man problem. The beaming Betty Crocker’s, hangdog dowdies, and parochial prudes who call themselves feminists want men to be like women. They fear and despise the masculine. The academic feminists think their nerdy bookworm husbands are the ideal model of manhood (Paglia, 5).”
Paglia embraces nature and our natural impulses to understand why we behave the way we do. When it comes to survival in nature, you must always be aware. “Feminism keeps saying the sexes are the same. It keeps telling women they can do anything, go anywhere, say anything, wear anything. No, they can’t. Women will always be in sexual danger (Paglia, 50).”
I still hate admitting that this is true, even though I have learned from many bad experiences that it is. And of course, Paglia tends to contradict this statement as well. I’ve been mugged, and more humorous than scary, once I was on my way home from work in my sweats and a guy in an SUV from the suburbs mistook me for a prostitute. He asked me how much for a blow job, and was embarrassed when I rounded the corner and entered my building. But it still left me shaken, because he was following me in his car.
Most recently, I was walking home from dinner and on a street corner a man asked me the time. “10pm,” I said. The light changed and I started walking. He followed me for six blocks – up the bridge, over the freeway, through the dark foliage of the side streets. My heart was pounding as I felt his presence behind me, keeping close watch on his shadow. Then he said something, which I couldn’t hear. I turned and snapped, “What?”
He goes, “How would you like me to rub my penis up on you?”
“Fuck off!” I yelled, “Do you want my husband to come down here and fuck you up? You need to respect women!” I shook my finger at him, inflamed.
Immediately he stepped back four feet, struck by the sheer force of my anger. He held his hands up in surrender. Just at that point, I reached the well-lit entrance of my building where my neighbors were in the lobby getting their mail. My hands were shaking, “That guy was disgusting.”
“Welcome to the neighborhood,” they cheerfully replied. I tried to keep myself composed as we rode up the elevator, but as soon as I was inside my door, I melted onto the floor and lost it. In a rage my husband ran down to the car, circling the neighborhood to find the guy – someone who could be almost impossible to recognize, slipping in and out of shadows, a faceless loner in the night.
Feminism’s biggest mistake was in denying nature, history, and the archetypes of our mythology. Utopia doesn’t exist, and we live in a world of risk.
At some point in his journey towards maturity, the average man will reject his mother and his dependence on women. He will join the pack mentality in a rite of passage and succumb to his most basic nature, the nature that society tries it’s best to refine and suppress. But when a man relies on assault to overtake a woman, he becomes a pathetic figure, weak and inept, revealing all of his vulnerability as a man. If you need to take something by force, then you will never really have it at all.
So why did the rape and sexual harassment propaganda get out of control in the nineties? “The theatrics of public rage over date rape are their way of restoring the old sexual rules that were shattered by my generation (Paglia, 52).” It always scares me when women want to return to an infantile, protected structure lacking in freedom. In the end, I don’t see that this preoccupation with fear won out. The young twenty-something women of today don’t remember a time when they weren’t equals. Overall, they seem to be well informed, prepared and strong.
I relate to Paglia’s warrior mentality, “Rape does not destroy you forever. It’s like getting beaten up. Men get beaten up all the time… If it is a totally devastating psychological experience for a woman, then she doesn’t have a proper attitude toward sex (Paglia, 64-65).” I have experienced sexual violence, and I would have to agree with this. It was physically and emotionally painful, and it came from the pain my attacker had suppressed. That is the way of nature. A pain-free world does not exist. We must all be trained to fight, to be fit, ready for what comes. But through it all – take the risk of being open and free to all human experience. Lacking in fear – but full of awareness.