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. 

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