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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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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T and J have been busy sewing clothes for their stuffed animals lately. They ask me to thread the needles, and occasionally still ask if I can help sew a hat or something, but for the most part they’ve accepted the fact that their mother has no interest and no aptitude when it comes to textiles. I must say that I do feel a measure of pride, though, in having a house in which my 9-year old boy and his friends make oufits for their teddy bears. No gender-assigned tasks around here.
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