|Winter Formal, 1988|
Some thoughts about a Huffington Post article that's been bugging me:
"Why You're Not Married" by Traci McMillan
First, did you get a look at my 16-year-old self? Some of you who have known me a long time might remember back that far. For the rest of you, I am the third young woman from the left, in the dark blue dress, with the fabulous hair. I promise myself that I will have curves like that again someday--my friend @cubanitabean has invited me to Zumba--won't that be something? I bring you this photo, because I want you to remember when you read McMillan's article that so many of the people who will read articles like that are girls, young women, vulnerable human beings already beat up by this world.
To sum up McMillan's argument, if you are a woman who is not married (but wishes to be), these are the six reasons you are single (her words, not mine):
1. You're a Bitch.
2. You're Shallow.
3. You're a Slut.
4. You're a Liar.
5. You're Selfish.
6. You're Not Good Enough.
After detailing her destructive loathing of women, McMillan offers some hope--every woman who wants a partner can have one as long as they don't aspire to happiness.
"Because ultimately, marriage is not about getting something -- it's about giving it. Strangely, men understand this more than we do. Probably because for them marriage involves sacrificing their most treasured possession -- a free-agent penis -- and for us, it's the culmination of a princess fantasy so universal, it built Disneyland."In other words, my princess fantasy castrates free-agent penii. Nice.
About fifty-eleven of my closest friends on Facebook and Twitter posted this tract with some variation of the following comments: "Truth." "OMG, LMAO, LOLOL, FTW, HAHAHA!" or my personal favorite "Hey, what do you all think of this? Wow." I have to confess that this made my unfollow finger itch and twitch a bit, but I held back.
I held back and kept my friends because I remembered that when I was 18 or so I wrote a list with a friend that we called "The Rules of the Game". We printed it in red ink and laminated it. For a while that list was posted on a wall in my apartment for all to see. It was a list of how to play the game between the sexes as best as I and my girlfriend understood it in our first years in college. I thought it was funny and clever. Although I haven't seen it in years (I looked, but it's buried in a box somewhere), I can assure you it was full of sexist, misogynist, heterosexist assumptions. It was probably homophobic. God only knows what I had to say about race or ethnicity. I shudder to think.
I think my point in all this is that our U.S. culture is so steeped in stereotypes and labels and rules of a game that damages us without our knowledge or consent, that our girls grow up to think that if they don't have a man it's because they are a bitch, or slutty, or a liar, or shallow, or selfish, or not good enough. We grow up thinking that if we want a man we have to play nice nice. "You'll catch more flies with honey than vinegar, sweetheart." "Who wants to marry the cow when you can get the milk for free?" "One must suffer to be beautiful."
I look back at my 18 year old self with a great deal of compassion, because otherwise I will become bitter and paralyzed. That girl (who is still with me) was just a girl like many others. That girl in the picture up there thought she was ugly. That was the girl who thought her hair was "dishwater blonde." Later I had a love who told me my hair is the color of honey, but in 1988 I hated my hair. I thought I was fat. I thought I was responsible for my own rapes and sexual assaults--and yes there were several. I didn't know how I was going to catch a boy, but in reading through (atrociously bad) poetry I wrote back then, it appears I was very focused on catching one. And I was sure I had to act a certain way, look a certain way, be a certain way.
The tragedy of McMillan's post is only partly her attack on women and girls. What strikes me as truly a waste is that McMillan has been married herself--three times. I believe a person who has been married three times has much to teach us all about life and love, conflict and desire. It would take courage and strength to sort through one's life experiences and offer some meaningful insight into the institution of marriage, societal structures, love and desire, and how women fit into all of this. But that is the story I'd be interested in.
As I was reading for class this last week, I stumbled across a passage in Jessica Benjamin's The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. In her chapter on "Woman's Desire" Benjamin muses about how women's desire is so tightly bound with men's desire--as in women do not have desire of their own. Benjamin's text seems to make cissexist assumptions about what constitutes womanhood, but certainly both trans and cis women have experienced being objectified by sexual partners (and others).
Woman is to accept the abrogation of her own will, to surrender the autonomy of the body in childbirth and lactation, to live for another. Her own sexual feelings, with their incipient threat of selfishness, passion, and uncontrollability, are a disturbing possibility that even psychoanalysis seldom contemplates.
In any case, once sexuality is cut loose from reproduction, a goal the era of sexual liberation has urged upon our imagination, womanhood can no longer be equated with motherhood. But the alternative image of the femme fatale does not signify an active subjectivity either. the "sexy" woman--an image that intimidates women whether or not they strive to conform to it--is sexy, but as object, not as subject. She expresses not so much her desire as her pleasure in being desired; what she enjoys is her capacity to evoke desire in the other, to attract. Her power does not reside in her own passion, but in her acute desirability...If woman has no desire of her own, she must rely on that of a man, with potentially disastrous consequences for her psychic life. (Benjamin, 89)Our desires are not our own. What we desire is our partner's desire. Well certainly this is a generalization. But there is something here that resonates with my own experiences and the stories I hear other women tell.
I remember in that first year after my divorce that I decided to redecorate my bedroom. Perhaps this sounds like a simple project, but I didn't even know what colors I liked. For as long as I could remember I had fit my own preferences to my partner's desires. It didn't matter so much to me, I thought. But as I worked on my room it occurred to me that it did matter--a lot. And I wondered what else I didn't know about myself--what else I felt strongly about but was afraid to vocalize.
So forgive this bitchy, slutty, selfish, shallow response to that HuffPo article. My relationship plan is to keep on with my brassy self, full of vinegar. I plan to cultivate my own passions and desires, to know ever more deeply what I long for in life. And if there are people along the way who delight in my scandalous self, then perhaps we might keep company while it suits us both. And in the meantime, I don't plan to spend even an instant thinking about my "naso-labial" folds, which (by the way) is the fancy word McMillan uses for laugh lines. But I bet, if you're worth my time and effort, that you think my laugh lines are absolutely gorgeous.