Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Today at lunch, J and her little friend M, both 8 years old, were gleefully telling me how they had seen T “dancing and twirling” down the street to school the other day. They showed me how he had pirouetted “like a ballet dancer” and then giggling, remembered how some “big, strong boys” on skateboards who were going by on the other side of the street must have thought that T “looked like a girl”.

Wouldn’t that have been a good thing? I asked them. They stopped laughing and looked at me, confused.

Girls are great, right? I said. They tentatively nodded.

You two are girls. You’re pretty great. Aren’t you? Emphatic agreement.

Isn’t being a girl a good thing? Yes, yes, nodding heads.

So why is it a tease to be called a girl?

Then a flurry of discussion.

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norah200x150 I have managed to read four chapters of A People’s History of the United States and it is a very interesting book, but I got sidetracked by Norah Vincent’s Self Made Man. It’s a journalistic account of one woman’s experiences in her eighteen months undercover as a man. I’d heard a blurb about it on the radio, when Norah was being interviewed about her latest book, an account of her investigations into three mental health institutions. What tweaked my interest was that Norah ended up being admitted into one of those institutions as a result of her time spent in drag.

That’s  a gross oversimplification of events, and there were probably a myriad of confounding reasons for Norah’s mental breakdown, but the interviewer suggested that it was the cognitive dissonance related to inhabiting a different gender that resulted in her psychiatric collapse, which made me try to imagine what it would have been like to act as someone else, convincingly, for such a long period of time.

I started reading the book to get a sense of who the author is and what her motives were, but soon found myself transfixed by her take on what it means to be male in the United States. I don’t know if men reading this book would agree with Norah’s conclusions, but it sure was interesting to read about Norah’s experiences and her interpretation of them. She spent time at stripper’s clubs, joined an all-male bowling league, lived in a monastery and worked in a high-pressure/low-pay sales job to try to get a feel for life as a man. She undertook the experiment thinking that she would gain freedom, gain power, and gain options as a man, but found that she was forced to lose more than she gained by giving up womanhood. I found it interesting to read about a woman’s take on what it’s really like in groups of men when women aren’t around, and it was also very interesting to read about the reactions she got when she eventually divulged her secret. How the men treated her when they thought she was “one of them”, and how they treated her after they found out she wasn’t.

In the end, it was a book about how trapped we all are to some degree by our gender roles, and it was a reminder for us to try hard to look beyond those roles to see the individuals within.

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On  my run today, while thinking on the discussions about gender bias and expectations, I heard this by Ani Difranco (from 32 Flavors).

And God help you if you are an ugly girl
Course too pretty is also your doom
Cause everyone harbors a secret hatred
For the prettiest girl in the room
And God help you if you are a phoenix
And you dare to rise up from the ash
A thousand eyes will smolder with jealousy
While you are just flying past

Ani Difranco is quite an inspiring woman. She turned her back on the big record labels because they wouldn’t give her creative control, and founded her own record company, Righteous Records (now Righteous Babe Records) with just $50. I admire her for the way she believed in herself, and for her courage in living a life of her own choosing, critics be damned.

Those particular lyrics speak to me, because they’re about the way women in particular are judged, often by other women. It’s bad to be ugly, but it’s just as bad to be “too” pretty (or for that matter, too opinionated, too smart, too successful, even too “perfect”). Only somewhere in the middle are we safe, because that way we’re no threat. Can’t be calling attention to ourselves now, can we?

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A male friend of mind said to me that he understood what I was saying in my post about having lost my voice, but he disagreed about the whole gender thing. He thinks that it is just as common for men in our culture to change from feisty to meek as they make the transition from childhood to adulthood, and that we’re all taught to keep our opinions to ourselves in order to keep the peace.

I still think that it’s more acceptable in society, and probably in many families, for men to have dissenting opinions, and that it’s easier for men to be leaders without the fear of being called any number of the derogatory adjectives usually reserved for strong women that I bolded in my last post. He brought up Margaret Thatcher, and reminded me of some of the shark-like female lawyers that I’ve had a chance to meet recently.

I had to agree that there are examples of strong women in our culture, and that there are more of them in public positions than there were even fifty years ago, but I still think that there is a cultural bias regarding the expectations for behaviour based on gender. I think that even if a man was called a ballbreaker, he would take that as a compliment, because it conforms to the masculine stereotype of men as being powerful, whereas women would be more likely to feel shamed, because women are still “meant” to be kind, conciliatory, and gentle.

He says I’m full of s**t, and while that may have been the case a few decades ago, it isn’t true today.

Any opinions?

What has your experience been?

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Any closet Oprah magazine readers out there?

I had an “Aha!” moment today.

I was out for lunch with my parents, and conversation turned to my current situation. I said that in conflicts my overwhelming desire is always to opt out. That it always seems like less of a hassle to give in, forget about whatever it was, and concentrate on moving forward. I had my reasoning all sorted out, and even felt a measure of pride in my ability to transcend the pettiness of meaningless squabbles that ultimately wouldn’t matter to me when I was dead.

My mother said that she thought of me as a person who sticks up for what she believes in. You’ve always been pretty stubborn, she said.

I said, no, I’m actually a bit of a waffler.

She said, well maybe you waffle for a day or so, but you’ve always been so determined, so strong, such a fighter. You know what you believe in, and you stand your ground.

I thought, huh. Maybe when I was a kid. Which made me think back to myself as a pre-teen, and now that think about it, I remember that I was pretty scrappy. I was a loud mouth at the dinner table, I hogged all of the air time during group conversations, I held very strong opinions (sometimes based on not much more than blind conviction), and I never hesitated to stick up for kids being bullied. As a skinny ten-year old I threw rocks at a gang of older boys who were taunting another boy, and so frightened them with my flailing arms and red-faced, hoarse-voiced over-the-top shrieking that they turned and ran. That same year I was so frustrated with the relentless teasing of a different boy, who in retrospect I think simply admired me, that I punched him in the face. I also remember being so angry at someone once because of the way he was mocking my friend that I broke a bone in my hand by smashing my fist into his back.

Not the actions of an even-tempered, peace loving, let-bygones-be-bygones kind of kid. If one of my children punched someone else in the face,  I would make an immediate appointment with a well-trained child psychologist. I would be horrified by such an out of control reaction, because it’s pretty darn extreme.

And yet, here I am, 30 years later, thinking of myself as a peace at all costs kind of person.

Why is that?

Here’s the AHA! realization. Not really earth shattering to anyone else, but to me, in connection with myself, it’s a profound shift in my thinking.

I have internalized a feeling of shame about speaking out, about making my voice heard. Somehow, over the years since puberty, I’ve disowned the part of my identity that was willing to take an unpopular stand. Somewhere along the way I internalized the cultural messages that have effectively silenced women throughout time. I had no desire to be seen as pushy or as a loudmouth or as unfeminine or as a bitch or an emasculator or a ballbreaker so I sat down and shut up. Without realizing that I was doing it. To make things worse, I’ve managed to justify my actions, or lack of them, to myself all of these years. So much so that I am now in a situation in which every single person I talk to is basically telling me to GET A BACKBONE! and I am whiffling and waffling and on the verge of sweet-talking myself out of taking the stand that is very, very clearly the stand that I need to take.

I know what I have to do. I have to reclaim that lost bit of self. Go back and rescue that brave and foolhardy girl who knew what she believed in. I have to recognize the ongoing temptation to fold in on myself and when I feel myself going in that mental direction, realize that it’s just a sign that I need to do the opposite.

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There is never a resting place in the struggle for personal and political integrity. When anxiety is high, and resources appear scarce, some individuals and groups will always operate at the expense of others. But we can long for and work toward that unrealized world where the dignity and integrity of all women, all human beings, all life, are honored and respected. More to the point, we can live today according to the values that we wish would govern the world in the hypothetical future we are working for. To honor diversity, complexity, inclusiveness, and connection in our lives now is to widen the path for truth-telling for everyone.

~Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D (from The Dance of Deception)

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In lieu of any of the zillions of other things that she could have done with her afternoon, Junior Miss Twelve got into character. She took great pleasure in swooping around in her cape, vanquishing forces of doom and swiping drinks from her sister’s lemonade stand. I took special delight in her masked mania because I had just read Blue Milk’s post on Disney princesses, and by following her links and some of the discussions, had gone on a whirlwind tour of the princessification of the young girl nation that has many thinking parents concerned. I reflected on my budding teen daughter’s early years, trying to remember if she’d gone through a pink, frilly stage, but I have to say that I don’t think she did. The younger sister certainly had a love of all things pink that is just now starting to fade, but it never extended to a love of princesses.

I do remember being concerned about the girls being exposed to the objectification of women, and I did have an issue with the way women were portrayed in Disney cartoons. I also felt strongly that the majority of shows on television presented gender roles and relationships between the sexes in a highly simplified, rigid way. Commercials in particular bothered me, and I was concerned that if my children were exposed to this sort of stuff regularly that they would absorb it all as fact. It was one of the reasons that I ultimately made the decision to get rid of the TV. One less thing to worry about, one more way to help create a space in which those unique young imaginations could flourish with as few external images as possible. It made me sad when I saw three and four-year old children role-playing characters from TV shows when they could have been inventing their own characters, and I was pleased when my own TV-free kids did exactly that. It also saved me from having children begging for the latest toy, or the newest fashions. I had kids who, when asked what they wanted for Christmas, were unable to think of anything other than crayons.

Ditching the TV was one decision that I’ve never regretted. It probably isn’t the only reason that I have a superhero for a daughter, but I’m betting that it’s one of them.

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