Thursday, 21 April 2011

On Celebrating the Mythic Feminine

Eve Ensler (intentionally or unintentionally) chooses the mythic feminine, the way of the chalice, in the writing of her masterpiece, The Vagina Monologues.

The idea of the mythic feminine, represented by the symbol of the chalice, is that traditionally (in myth and other stories and in all relationships and social interactions), a feminine approach has been inclusive, open, collective, collaborative, and pluralistic (while the mythic masculine approach, represented by the blade, has been singular, conclusive, and hierarchical).

By incorporating many voices, styles, modes, stories, and fragments, Ensler chooses the mythic feminine. To tell this story, she relies on the power of many, including herself but also much beyond herself.

I love how Ensler's form imitates and reflects her content; this very pluralistic message thereby becomes even more powerful because it both promotes and practices pluralism.

A New Paradigm: Real Beauty

In her closing chapter of The Beauty Myth ("Beyond the Beauty Myth"), Naomi Wolf, as Wollstonecraft did, calls for a revolution. One of the points on which the revolution will hinge has to do with women choosing to see, love, appreciate, and celebrate other women. I'm encouraged. We can do this. Women I know already do this. Actually, all through the last chapter, I was thinking of my mentor, Gaby Edwards.

Gaby is the embodiment of "seeing other women as allies rather than competitors" (282). She has "compassion for [herself] and other women for our strong feelings about 'beauty,'" and is "very gentle with those feelings" (276). She makes "joy, rowdiness, and wanton celebration as much a part of [her] project as hard work and bitter struggle... by rejecting the pernicious fib... [that is] called postfeminism, the pious hope that the battles have all been won" (281). Her sexy performance in the famous red dress at Breakthrough comes to mind!

Gaby helped me see and believe that: "The best that 'beauty' offers belongs to all of us by right of femaleness", that "A woman wins by giving herself and other women permission", and that "A woman-loving definition of beauty supplants desperation with play, narcissism with self-love, dismemberment with wholeness, absence with presence, stillness with animation" (285, 290, 291).

She constantly mentors and supports colleagues and friends--male and female--acknowledging that "it is also in men's interest to undo the myth" (289). Gaby started a Gender Task Force, bringing women and girls together through the Independent School Gender Project and later bringing men and women together on gender issues as part of that action-based Force.

Gaby lives out Wolf's appeal to do with "what we decide to see when we look in the mirror", choosing to see a powerful, beautiful person, and in doing so, inspiring others to choose this way of seeing ourselves (291).

Most of all, I think of Gaby when I think of Wolf's call to:

"explore[e] more useful role models than the glossies give us. We are sorely in need of intergenerational contact: We need to see the faces of the women who made our freedom possible; they need to hear our thanks. Young women are dangerously 'unmothered'--unprotected, unguided--institutionally and need role models and mentors" (283).

She has been my personal mentor professionally and personally for years and the mother (not to mention wife and grandmother), friend, teacher, supporter, colleague, and mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women, boys and girls for decades (which would sound ridiculous if it weren't just TRUE), changing one life at a time, inspiring collective, loving, collaborative relationships, and thereby changing the world by shifting what is often a toxic paradigm towards one that is whole and lovely for all of us. 

Other lines I love:
--"Let us start with a reinterpretation of 'beauty' that is noncompetitive, nonhierarchical, and nonviolent" (286). 
--"To protect our sexuality from the beauty myth, we can believe in the importance of cherishing, nurturing, and attending to our sexuality as to an animal or a child" (279).
--"Let us charm one another with some of that sparkling attention too often held in reserve only for men: compliment one another, show our admiration" (287-288).

Thursday, 7 April 2011

On Violence: "The Numbers Are Staggering"

Wolf shocks me every time with this part (154-162) of her chapter on "Sex" (131-178).

She quotes Margaret Atwood on asking "women what they feared most from men" and "men the same question about women", to which women replied, "'We're afraid they'll kill us'" and men, "'We're afraid they'll laugh at us'" (153).

We're afraid they'll kill us?!  (Death strikes me as much worse than humiliation, though I recognize that no one wants to be humiliated.)

Could this really be how things are?

I'm sorry to say that I think Wolf and Atwood are right in this reflection of women's fears. I have seen (and felt) it all my life with at least two close friends as victims of sexual violence in high school and even more in college, including an encounter with Rufinol myself--thankfully, a close call from which I was generously spared (though I woke up with stitches in my face and no memory of hours of the previous night's party and after hours).

The shame and fear and guilt for women and girls around issues of sex and violence has pervaded my life and the lives of women and girls I know and have known.

I wish I could say otherwise.

The memories, encounters, humiliations, sufferings, and other manifestations dwell in a part of my mind that is mostly fragmented, nonverbal, and full of images:

The electrical tape around women's breasts in the first porn film my sister and I accidentally saw.

My mom giving me my first razor. Slicing one leg along the shin.

Walking around Boston late at night in my grad school neighborhood, clutching pepper spray.

Seeing girls pinned and zipped and painted into tutus and makeup and buns as a kid in ballet.

My friend (and our graduation speaker) in high school getting raped while visiting her sister at college.

Hearing about 'the date rape fraternity' freshman year at college.

Hearing freshman girls referred to as 'fresh meat'.

Wolf saying, "[Women] cannot discuss this harm without shame" (148).

My sister saying,  "God was punishing you for wearing that outfit."

Wolf writes: "It can change so that real mutuality--an equal gaze, equal vulnerability, equal desire--brings heterosexual men and women together" (152).

She also says, "Love freely given between equals is the child of the women's movement, and a very recent historical possibility, and as such very fragile. It is also the enemy of some of the most powerful interests of this society" and "Women who love themselves are threatening; but men who love real women, more so" (142, 143).

I share her concern about what has "[made] women violent toward ourselves", about men's and women's "separate versions of loneliness", about the selling of "sexual discontent", but I do believe we can undo (with hard work and a lot of gumption) much of the training that has brainwashed us, that we can choose to see and learn to see other men and women and ourselves as richly complex, authentically beautiful, and increasingly free human beings (142, 143).

Friday, 1 April 2011

On Being Complicit Most Days

Growing up in the Southern Bible Belt of the United States and in a fundamentalist sect of Protestant Christianity (although it was lovely in plenty of ways), I found myself constantly frustrated and undermined by manifestations of patriarchy (at home, in church, and in society) and eager to rebel... but I didn't rebel--at least not very drastically or admirably.

My default mode is to comply. (Isn't everyone's--or nearly everyone's?)

I dreamed of writing a (dystopian) short story I still haven't written, one in which all of the cultural norms I grew up with were exactly the same but the genders swapped. Guys in the story, not girls, would wear tight clothes, get groped, looked at, commented on. Girls, not guys, would inherit the family name and ring (from their moms), complete with the Roman numeral at the end. From time to time, stories about guys, not girls, getting raped would abound--and girls getting off the hook as the perpetrators because of their powerful moms in courtrooms and government offices. Preachers would be women. Men would be silent in church. And on it would go.

I was angry, and I think anger was appropriate. Sometimes I'm angry still... but on my better days, I want not a world that counterattacks and counter-assaults men but a world that honors and protects both men and women. THIS is why, I would say, Margaret Atwood's narrator in The Handmaid's Tale prizes "forgiveness". (Perhaps in order to begin, we must forgive others and forgive ourselves.)

I haven't read Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth since college and wasn't sure what to expect from it nearly a decade later. And I must confess, I'm still pretty smitten.

Reading this, I am reminded of something visiting writer Nii Parkes said to my Modern World Literature: Africa class last semester: "We are impoverished by thinking in one dimension."

Wolf reminds me of many ways in which, unwillingly, unknowingly, I am still a slave, still limited by a single perspective on beauty, femininity, and womanhood. (What does it mean to teach this book while wearing lipgloss? Why do I feel less duplicitous when I'm wearing Converse (though still part of mainstream culture) than when I'm wearing heels?)

"Women are so well schooled in the beauty myth that we often internalize it," Wolf writes. "Many of us are not yet sure ourselves that women are interesting without 'beauty'" (84). Am I guilty of this? If I am really what Wollstonecraft would call a "rational creature", would I seriously have read The Beauty Myth while getting a pedicure the other day?

Part of me longs to be the kind of woman I encountered here and there while living in Colorado and California: smart, articulate, sporty, confident, makeup-free, flats-wearing, ever at home in the core of my own body, ever the owner of my own body. (I'm talking Lisa Holmes. I'm talking Gaby Edwards.)

But, as Eve Ensler reminded me some weeks ago at a lecture in Nottinghill, I am much more complicit than that in our culture of violence against the body, as most of us (maybe all of us) are complicit in much of the violence around the world. (Ensler pointed out her own complicity in being addicted to her iPhone while the wars in the Congo have been brought on by competition over the materials in our computers and phones, yet both ironically and admirably, Ensler has been working with victims of rape in the Congo.)

In her "Culture" chapter, Wolf describes the insidious, toxic dual nature of women's magazines: on one hand, they empower and inform and bring together, while on the other, they covertly but aggressively deliver a subconscious assault on women and girls, leading us to hate our bodies and ourselves.

Wolf writes, "The obligatory beauty myth dosage the magazines provide elicits in their readers a raving, itching, parching product lust and an abiding fantasy" (70). And near the end of the chapter, she calls it a "beauty addiction" (85). I can't pretend to be free of this. Nor, however, can I use guilt as an excuse to leave texts like this out of the curriculum. So for all of my students out there, I know I'm hardly a model of singular commitment against the workings of the beauty myth, but I want you to know what it is, to know that it exists, and to see it--even if that means seeing it yourself or seeing it in me.

Thanks to Wolf and others, I can see how guilt has been systematically engineered into the myth itself, effectively silencing us further. So as Jean Kilbourne enjoins at the end of "Killing Us Softly 4", I can "choose" to move beyond guilt. We all can.