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.
May 30, 2013 § 4 Comments
On the front cover of Shann Ray’s book of short stories, American Masculine, two bison lock horns.The week I read it, friends on Facebook posted photos of bison as they drove past them on road trips. I have never been in bison country, and did not know that the herds are still so prolific. Tucked away in cities, I rarely come into contact with the wildness of nature, minus attacks from small insects.
Shann Ray’s stories deal with men grappling over their western roots while facing life in the modern world. There are memories of rodeo’s, bottled up emotions that lead to rage, and the sense that when you leave the country behind, life is a barren wasteland.
I was drawn to read Shann Ray’s stories because my husband, Michael, is writing a novel based on his childhood in Texas. His father was wound tight, a Vietnam vet, uncontrollable, massive, simmering, abusive, senseless, always waiting on the border of explosion. I have never met my father in-law, and never will.
My own father was not a man of the West (more like Midwest). He grew up in Chicago, the city where cows were shipped in to be processed at the Union Stock Yards.
My dad was tiny – more suited to gymnastics than football. His father’s blue-collar dream was for my dad to become a horse jockey at the races. The Barnhart’s revolved around the track. Great grandmother spent hours figuring out which horses to bet on. On the weekends, my grandfather watched the horses fly. Their ability to run to nowhere, a constant reminder that there was no way out from his treadmill of a job. Life was hard work. But the horses brought glamour, excitement, and beauty to an otherwise difficult existence.
Even in Chicago, horses were a part of the daily fabric. It was about being a man (a big man), not getting cheated, not getting beat up, not revealing your vulnerability; silent at home, boisterous at the bar.
When I was a kid, my dad was intimidating, stressed out, and probably a little depressed from having to work so much. Whenever I was alone with him, I was never sure what we would find to talk about. His own father (who died when I was eight) never said one word to me.
Silence was my first impression of men. The little boys on the block played with me until I was five, and then they went quiet. It was no longer cool to play with a girl. Now they had to feign a crush or show aversion. Chasing me on their bikes, the only sound I heard was shifting gears and wind.
Boys only spoke if they wanted to add to my list of insecurities. It seemed that everything about me, as a girl, was wrong to them. I began to fear my need for their approval and attention.
After my sister and I left the house, my dad learned how to be a really loving father. He’d done his job raising us, and he let go of the fear of failure. He listened to his co-worker and friend, Bruce, talk on the telephone with his daughters. Bruce listened, said, “I love you,” and encouraged. He wasn’t afraid to cry. As my father grows older, he becomes softer, more vulnerable, more loving.
My husband, Michael, is quite a bit like Bruce. But there is another side to Michael that is just like his Texan father. He blows a fuse every now and then. He can be irrational, highly emotional, extremely sensitive. These are things his father tried to hide, which resulted in explosive behavior.
Michael is obsessed with the hero’s journey. He’s been a lifetime devotee of comic books. He lives in the plot. No matter what he goes through, he’s never a victim, always the hero.
He escaped his father at fifteen years old. From then on, he was homeless, until the Marines recruited him when he started boxing at a gym. For three years he was a guard at the London Embassy. After his discharge, he received a Master’s in English (though he only went to one day of high school). He also traveled around the world for a year on his bicycle. I’ll never get to see quite as much of the world as he has.
Shann Ray paints a sinister, sad, hopeless picture of the American male. Almost all of his men are the sort you’d want to escape. If it isn’t the man, it’s the woman involved. The men struggle to grasp with life in the office after the farm, the rodeo, or the reservation.
“He wants and doesn’t want to say how right she was, how poor a man he is, has always been, … like most men, same poverty of mind, same darkness. Hidden, unknowable. I tried, he says aloud as she sleeps. But he knows he didn’t (Ray, 59).”
But what about the tenacity of the American male? The will to fight against the odds? The drive? The ability to turn poor circumstances into positive opportunities?
Quite possibly, the average person does not achieve this, and I am just living with an exception. For every brother that breaks the pattern of the father, there is always another brother left behind who becomes the father. All of the men in my family are the ones that got away.
Shann Ray’s characters pine for the lost sense of being a hero – lassoing cattle, riding horses, working with their hands. Their large bodies feel like a waste at tasks that have no physical value. Academia is vacant, the desk a torture of monotony. Sex or violence is the only savior from boredom and oncoming death.
It is hard for me to relate to Ray’s view of the western man in the modern world. His characters are all victims, fragile, emotionally weak, lacking in awareness. I am much more interested in people who take control of their lives, striving to find their own personal place of fulfillment. Life is hard, and you have to fight to not let it weigh you down. Do what you love to do, and happiness follows, even if that means going back to the farm. I know plenty of people who are doing just that.
The issue is not even about the farm verses the office. There is a lack of vision in the characters – humans blindly going through life, unable to change, afraid, stuck. Frustrating intensity, with no answer to the riddle, and the brother’s that are left behind.