Friday, January 15, 2016

Womanness Is Not a Negative

The following quotes have been weighing heavily on my mind:

1.      In Things I Should Have Told My Daughter, Pearl Cleage critiques an interview with Joan Didion that appeared in The New York Times (June 1979).  Part of the interview focuses on Didion’s cooking and her desire to make a new set of curtains.  Cleage writes:

“It bothered me a lot.  Couldn’t figure out why.  Thought it was because [the interviewer] seemed to be making [Didion] a woman not a writer… a wife, a cook, a serene domesticated pussycat. [Didion’s] real life seems very far removed from how and what she writes, which is not serene, not womanly, but extraordinary, passionate, hyper-conscious, controlled, cynical.” 

2.      In The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, Anna Wulf refers to menses and, quite possibly her vagina, as “The wound inside my body, which I did not choose to have.”

When I first read these passages, I was irate!  Why does Cleage place domesticity in opposition to being extraordinary, passionate and controlled?  Why does Anna Wulf refer to menses and/or the vagina as a wound?  Although Cleage and Lessing wrote these pieces around 1979 and 1969, respectively, their words reflect a ubiquitous social perception that womanness is a negative.  We can all recount stories of men disrespecting women through verbal and physical means, but we scarcely ever acknowledge the disrespect women inflict upon other women.

It’s such an old argument that I’m tired of reading about it, and I’m tired of talking about it.  But it’s such a rampant problem that we clearly still need to talk about it.  So here it is.  We all play a role in this internalized gender oppression.  We pick sides as toddlers: the “pretty” girls on one side; the “smart” girls on the other side.  Since we’re toddlers, we really don’t know what the fuck “pretty” or “smart” means.  All we know is the adults said “pretty” girls do certain things, like play with dolls and make-up, and the smart girls do a different set of things, like play with building blocks and word games.  At this nascent stage, we are largely subject to our family’s biases.  We either align with their biases or we don’t.  Whatever the case, we come out knowing that “girly” girls and “brainy” girls don’t mix.  Even if we switch sides, we know that we must criticize our “opponents.”  Transgender women are just as susceptible to this bullshit because you can’t be a woman without being sucked into this dominant social paradigm.  We all know what that paradigm is (We live it): Womenness is minimized, dehumanized, tortured or monolithically sexual.  

The “girly” girl versus “brainy” girl wars exist at every stage of our lives (Women with children call them the “Mommy Wars.”).  These wars prevail because we both despise and cling to the dominant social paradigm.  We kinda want to support other women, yet we kinda want other women to bow down.  We want to acknowledge that men have set this paradigm into motion, yet we don’t want to believe that they still have that much power over us.  

Only in the last fifty years have we (i.e., the collective we, not the women we) begun to accept the idea that a woman should not need a man to apply for a credit card, to purchase a vehicle or to lease an apartment.  But some women were perfectly okay with that system.  Others weren’t.  They wanted to earn their own money.  Others could not focus on financial-sexism without focusing on racism and/or homophobia.  They knew that money ain’t worth shit if your life is in constant danger just because you are who you were meant to be.    

It took a while, but we finally started to realize that it was all connected: work and finance; gender, race and sexuality.  Yet, the perceived negativity of womanness persists.  I think the above passages shed light on a simple reality of our everyday existence, a nasty belief that we all (I’m still talking the collective we) pretend that we do not possess: the idea that womanness is a dismal, unconscious, out-of-control existence—a wound.

It’s true that women are often limited to the dominate stereotypes that we must enjoy domesticity and all things related to children.  Yes, these stereotypes annoy the fuck out of me, but I also reject the notion that my ability to bake or sew stands in direct opposition to my ability to be an extraordinary, passionate and controlled writer [or insert profession here].  I reject the idea that I, or any part of my body, is a wound simply because it’s doing what it’s meant to do.  As a child-free woman, my period is one of my best friends even though she sometimes annoys me.  My period signals that my life is going according to plan, that both my husband and I are cautious during sex because we don’t want children.  My period is a symbol of freedom to me.

Let me be clear, I do not think Cleage and Lessing were trying to start shit or be hateful.  I don’t think they dislike women; on the contrary, their bodies of work reflect a commitment to the female experience.  I do think that we must evaluate how internalized gender oppression permeates every facet of our lives, and we must be unyielding in that evaluation.  Otherwise, we will never learn to eradicate the womanness-as-negative mind-fuck.

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