What fresh hell is this? Some feminists are upset at First Lady Obama for not, uh, feministing enough?
The article itself is pretty well-balanced and raises some good points. I have no beef with the overall tone of it. I guess I’m just annoyed that there even needs to be an article like this. Once again, folks are looking around on the front lines and going “Well, I’m way more feminist than that woman over there.”
Seriously. Stop it.
So First Lady Obama likes gardening. And being a mother. So freaking what? I highly doubt the solution to the struggle that women face – really to any of the struggles that anyone faces – is to point to someone and say “She’s letting down the team!” “She’s not a REAL feminist!” “She should be feministier!”
When are we going to get it through our heads that what works for us might not work for everyone? That looking down our noses and pooh-pooh-ing the work of others is part of what reinforces the kyriarchy that holds us all back from living full and engaging lives? Accepting that everyone has a right to live life on their own terms means accepting that some people like to garden, that some people like being mothers, that some of us actually enjoy makeup and clothes and fashion magazines. That doesn’t make those people any less feminist.
Hell, the days I do wear makeup, I consider it a radical act of feminism. That’s because I’m wearing it for no one’s gratification but my own. I don’t wear it to please the men around me; the only ones I care about couldn’t give two shits about my makeup or lack thereof. And I certainly don’t wear it to please the feminists who would call me out as a traitor for doing so. That leaves… just me. I do it because I like it. I figure, if I’m ever late to work or an event because I simply couldn’t leave the house without a full face on, then I’m no longer doing it for me. Till then, the “must reject feminine things to be a feminist” camp can bite me. I’m not here to please them, any more than they’re here to please the men in their lives.
“Are fashion and body-toning tips all we can expect from one of the most highly educated First Ladies in history?” asked author Leslie Morgan Steiner in an online column last January.
Well, yeah, if we have a highly educated First Lady who’s passionate about fashion and fitness. What’s the problem there? Or, sorry – did you want to try and force her into a preconcieved model of what your ideal woman should be, regardless of her individual talents, passions, or circumstances? Hmm, that sounds familiar somehow…
Of course, the same writer then generously throws the First Lady a bone.
“I’m sure there is immense pressure — from political advisors, the black community, her husband, the watching world — to play her role as First Black Lady on the safe side.”
Ah, yes. She can’t show interest in something because she’s interested in it; it all has to be engineered by The Man. She’s only conforming because she’s being pressured to conform. Poor soul. If Michelle Obama could really be herself, of course she’d drop her interest in her children and her garden and run off to… I don’t know, become a radical butch dyke polyamorous oil rigger? Or something? She can’t like that stuff just because she likes it, right? She must be bending to pressure somewhere. Nobody actually likes raising children and gardening and getting schoolchildren to eat healthier.
Look, it’s easy to fall into the trap. The system we live under now has us believing that in order to get to the top of the dogpile, we have to throw someone else father down. It’s easy to forget that the only way we win is by walking away from the dogpile altogether. That’s what equality is, right? Equal footing, level playing field?
Let’s stop sneering down our noses at each other, okay? Let’s stop trying to pretend like our way of life is the only one that works. We talk big about acceptance; let’s start by nurturing that seed of acceptance within ourselves. No one will take our demands for acceptance seriously if we’re just as prejudiced as the folks we want to accept us.
I don’t care what the First Lady likes to do with her time. She has every right to do it without being criticized as “un-feminist” for it. It’s her life.
So here’s an awesome thing.
I’ve been reading feminist blogs for like a month straight – I seriously can’t tear myself away. And while there’s some really horrible, sad, make-me-want-to-cry stories of things women have experienced (not to mention several that come uncomfortably close to my personal history)… there are also some really happy, lovely, empowering messages out there.
So here I am, enjoying all these happy lovely empowered feelings, and kind of simultaneously surfing Facebook… and I’m like “Wow, that picture of the gal from that burlesque troupe I was in for a while is really gorgeous. And she was like super good at it, and kind of an inspiration. I’m gonna tell her that.”
And then I was like “Wow, look at all my friends from different periods of my life that are meeting senators and doing awesome science things and having babies and starting their own businesses and going to Japan and making hilarious video-game-based Christmas decorations and getting rad tattoos… I know a lot of really awesome people and it feels cool to be in touch with them. I think I’m going to announce that to the world.”
And within literally moments of those two things, I got messages back from some of those friends, saying how much those comments meant to them and how happy it made them to hear it. And that made me really happy – and it was this neat little Happiness Feedback Loop (thanks, Pervocracy, for the term).
And I’ve just realized, just now for the first time in my life, that this is what friendship is like. I mean, real friendship. It’s not spending every moment together, or loving every little thing about each other, or even knowing every little thing about each other… it’s just, being happy that the people you’ve met and cared/still care about are happy. I used to think that I was a bad friend, or at least bad at keeping friends, because I was terrible at keeping touch and way too good at letting people drift away. Now I realize that drifting is okay, it happens, and that’s not a bad thing. As old friends drift out, new ones drift in, life goes on. You don’t have to frantically allocate all your time to maintaining friendships as if they were porcelain bowling pins you had to eternally juggle, lest one drop and shatter to pieces because you were so damn negligent and now that person probably hates you. Friendship just… is. It exists, comfortably, a background hum through the din of everyday life. Friendships aren’t rare, delicate orchids that wilt and die the second you forget to pay attention to them; they’re tattoos. Tattoos you can choose to remove if you want to, but that don’t fade away just cause you haven’t looked at them in a while.
And every once in a while, you do look at them, and just go “Goddamn that’s beautiful.”
So, the other night I went out on my first-ever official date with a woman.
And it was different. In a very nice and refreshing way. It was much more relaxed and groovy than many of the dates I’d been on with men – no nervous back-of-the-mind commentary on a constant loop of “Oh my god what if he kisses me? What if he doesn’t? Am I pretty enough? Am I being too loud? Am I eating too much? Am I not eating enough? What does he expect tonight? Is he going to ask for sex right away? Will he stop seeing me if I say no?”
Get this: we talked. Like friends do. We got to know each other. Shared stories. Laughed, a lot.
It was awesome.
And because there were no scripts to follow, there was no fear of overstepping one’s imaginary bounds – of somehow ruining the evening by not living up to expectations. I didn’t have to worry about fitting myself into a role within the date: it was all about What Do We Want To Do Next? Where Do We Want To Go? OMG Did I Tell you About That One Time When I XYZ? It was like a night out on the town with a new best friend. Only difference being, I got to hold her hand now and then; and occasionally my brain would interrupt the conversation with a quiet Hey, Wouldn’t It Be Fun To Kiss That Girl? (Shut up, brain, I’m trying to listen. Take your fantasies and go play in the other room.)
How is it that I’m only learning what a good date is supposed to look like three years after getting married? Who is supposed to be teaching this stuff? Because seriously – someone is dropping the ball here. How much heartache would I have saved if I’d really figured out how to get to know a dude as a friend before jumping into boyfriend-girlfriend mode? Or even after that? Hell, I’ve moved in with at least one guy before figuring out whether or not we were actually friends. (He was manipulative and controlling, so short answer: no, we weren’t.) I’d had the “first comes love, then comes marriage” narrative drilled into my head so hard, I never really stopped to think rationally about how to approach relationships. I was just looking for someone, anyone, to love me. And with the cultural ruts worn so deeply into our gender identities, it’s really easy to trip and fall into a relationship almost by accident.
She and I get to create our very own, special kind of relationship from scratch. It’s sort of terrifying. After all, that means I am actually responsible for thinking through my actions and reactions; no knee-jerk gender roles to fall back on. For the first time, when I’m out with her, I am realizing what it means to be at least partly responsible for someone’s safety and well-being. Since there’s no social script for us, it means I have to do things like say, “Hey, I’d really like to kiss you goodnight, but I think it would be better if we waited. Is that cool with you?” and hope she doesn’t think I’m a total dork for asking. It means being conscious of my emotional baggage, and remembering that it’s mine to manage, not hers. It means asking ourselves questions like: Who takes the lead? Who makes the first move? What responsibilities do we have to each other? To the others in our lives? To ourselves?
But it’s freeing, too – for the first time ever, I don’t have this weight of expectation pressing down on me. I can trust she’s not just there to get laid. I can trust that she actually likes me for who I am. That I’m not just a pretty face, or another notch on the bedpost, or a trophy or an arm decoration. The fear is gone, in a way it never has been in the early stages of any of my other relationships. I’m allowed to just be myself – she likes me that way. And I get to delight in this kindred spirit I’ve found, to discover her and learn about her. We’ll get around to the physical stuff, I’m sure. There’s undeniably an attraction there – my heart gets all fizzy when I think of her and my brain has been sent on time-out for inappropriate interruptions on more than one occasion. But the impetus for sex-right-now-to-seal-the-deal just isn’t there. There’s no “This is what we’re supposed to do next, this is what we have to do next.” There’s no pressure.
We’re enjoying the experimentation, the newness of it. We’re reveling in the Choose Your Own Adventure style of romance. (If you kiss the girl, turn to page 4. If you announce your intention to kiss her at a later date, then run away in a whirl of giddy anticipation, turn to page 13.)
Taking it slow is awesome. Why have I never done it this way before?
So, another person calling herself a feminist has posted another public rant, filled with hate and abusive language, targeting a minority group (of women, no less!) lower on the totem pole than herself. I found pieces of it – along with a well-written and delightfully snarky retort – on Consider The Tea Cosy . (As of yesterday or so, the original article was taken down and an apology posted – though I believe one of the Tea Cosy commentariat posted a link hosted elsewhere, if you really feel like slogging through the schoolyard name-calling vitriol.)
It got me thinking: What is the goal of feminism, exactly?
For some, it seems, feminism is about raising the status of women in the world. For some it is about taking power back from men, away from men. For some, it is about the expression of sexuality, gender identity, conformity or non-conformity to societal norms. For the writer of the article in question (a self-described “militant feminist”), it seems to be about pointing out all the ways men have more freedom than women – even people described as men at birth who would prefer to live their lives as women, who have a need and a desire to live as women – and how unfairrrrr that is. As tempted as I am to go into that more, I think Ms. O’Riordan has already covered it wonderfully. Instead, I will say this:
I think feminism is about freedom. And here’s the thing: if we can’t all be free, then none of us are free.
Feminism is about basic human rights. The right to be oneself. The right to live free of hatred. The right to live free of violence. The right to live free of shame. Feminism is more than just a women’s issue. And if I accept that feminism is a human rights issue, then I accept that feminism is about supporting the rights of those around me.
Feminism means supporting the rights people of color have to be seen always as equals, as peers, as who they are and not their racial history. It means supporting their right to be free of hatred, shame, persecution, prejudice, bias, violence. It means supporting their right to have a voice. I lend that support gladly.
Feminism means supporting the rights the LBGTQ community has to live life in the open, to seek and find and celebrate relationships as freely as the straight community does. It means supporting their right to be free of violence, hatred, shame, persecution, prejudice, bias. It means supporting their right to have a voice. I lend that support gladly.
Feminism means supporting the rights that trans people of all genders have, to be called not by the gender they were assigned at birth but by the gender they have always known themselves to be, to live life openly, at home in their own body. It means supporting their right to be free of bias, violence, hatred, shame, persecution, prejudice. It means supporting their right to have a voice. I lend that support gladly.
Feminism means supporting the rights that women have, to be treated as human beings and not decorations or toys or children. It means supporting their right to be free of prejudice, bias, violence, hatred, shame, persecution. It means supporting their right to have a voice. I lend that support gladly.
Feminism means supporting the rights that men have, to be treated as human beings and not cavemen or animals or simpletons. It means supporting their right to be free of persecution, prejudice, bias, violence, hatred, shame. Yes, it means supporting their right to have a voice. Yes, I lend that support gladly.
And I hope I can rely on that same support in return.
Feminism is about educating oneself. It means not just pointing out the privilege of others, but examining one’s own privilege and realizing the ways in which we, too, are flawed and prejudiced. It means re-structuring our beliefs to be more inclusive. Feminism is not about taking away rights; it is about extending them. It is about recognizing the humanity in every living soul; it is about respecting that humanity. It is not enough to support the rights of those like us or those that agree with us. Believing in equal rights means believing even in the rights of our oppressors. That does not mean supporting their presumed “right” to oppress us; but it means recognizing the humanity even in those we consider the enemy. It means understanding that the system, the kyriarchy, The Man, screws us all up; it implants false belief systems and skewed world views in all of us. It means realizing our jailors also live in a cell.
Regardless of who we are or how we live our lives, we are all in this together. Screaming angry slurs across lines drawn in the sand will not get us anywhere. It doesn’t matter which side of the line we’re on. We are all human. We are all in this together.
Until all of us are free, none of us are free.
I am a bisexual woman. And that’s okay.
I look like a straight woman. I wear my hair long and conventional, in a natural color. I wear feminine clothes, high heels, makeup, lingerie. I’m femme. I have a husband (who fully supports this journey I’m on). And that’s okay.
I want to meet a girl. I want to look up and see her across the room, and feel like maybe I’ve been struck by lightning because suddenly my limbs don’t work properly and I’m all shaky and oh jeez am I making a weird face? I want that nervous crush, the excitement of awkwardly flirting, of testing the waters and navigating slowly from the safe bay of mutual acquaintance out into the open waters of friendship and the possibility of more. And that’s okay.
I want to have a girlfriend. I want to go on dates, go see movies together, go out to cafes and restaurants and bars and karaoke maybe. I want to snuggle and watch tv on the couch. I want to play games together, and take her on creative dates, and surprise her on anniversaries and birthdays. I want to introduce her to my husband and hope they get along. I want to introduce her to my friends and integrate her into my social circle. I want to be the shy new girlfriend at the parties she brings me to; I want to meet the people that are important in her life and gain their approval. I want to walk down the streets holding hands and not care if people are staring or not. I want to open my heart to her, and invite her in to snuggle up and get comfortable. I want to be steady and dependable for her, and know that she can be there for me, too. And that’s okay.
I want to explore a sexual relationship with a girl. I want that first kiss, the first time we get frisky, the nervousness and excitement of new lovemaking. I want to break all the rules and make our own. I want to create a relationship from scratch, one that fits the two of us perfectly because it’s custom-made. I want to try new things, new toys, new positions. I want to take my time discovering what she likes. I want to watch her lovely face as she responds to my touch, my body, my words, my kiss. I want to surrender myself to her, too, and know she’s watching. And that’s okay.
I want the fights, too. I want the disagreements, the days when we seem to be at odds, the nights when we’re just not feeling it and we end up talking for hours about what’s not working instead of sleeping. I want to work through problems, to step carefully through the landmines and pitfalls, to draw back the veil and see the parts of our hearts that are ugly, bruised, hurt, and tender. I want to put my trust in her, tell her about the pain in my past, hear about the pain in hers and hold each other through the darkness that comes with it. I want the deepening connection that can only come when we’re fully honest with each other – even if it risks hurting or disappointing our partner. And that’s okay.
I know that it doesn’t come that easy. I know that attraction is unfair, and finding someone is hard, and takes time, and that this perfect girl I have in my head may not actually exist at all. I know that I will have to date, and be heartbroken, and love and lose, and take risks that don’t pan out. I know that the more pressure I put on myself to find someone, the harder it is and the less likely it’ll happen. I know that I need to make friends and let it develop naturally, the way any other relationship does. And that’s okay.
I want to tell the world, to put my intentions out in the universe: I may not be fully prepared, but I’m ready to make a start. I’m open and looking. I’ve been longing for this for some time, and I’m doing my best to put myself in a position where it’s possible and simultaneously stay out of my own way. There is a guilt, a voice inside me that says it’s selfish, it won’t work, it’s not right, no one will want you anyway, what you’re looking for can’t be found.
But I want it anyway. And that’s okay.
It is the heart of winter.
The snow is falling but the grass is green.
My heart has been ailing.
I have come down with a bad case of the aches.
I am afraid to show her this congestion.
Afraid to be seen in this state,
coughing up my insecurities, sniffling,
afraid I’ll sneeze and spray her with something disgusting.
My hair is a bird’s nest, untameable.
My voice is hesitant and rusty.
I am weak. I am recovering.
I sip her poetry, her letters, like a tonic.
They are Alka-Seltzer fizzing in my chest.
I can see sunshine when I close my eyes.
My breath comes easier now.
Climb out of bed, heart. It’s a new day.
You can hear the birds in the backyard singing.
The sun’s peering in the window
and she’s smiling at you.
Throw back the covers, heart.
You are not too sick to go outside
and a little fresh air would do you good.
The snow is falling, but the grass is green.
The world is cold, but the birds still sing.
I have tucked you away
with foods I don’t like to eat
and restaurants with bad service.
the cold mass of linguine
molded to the bottom of the Tupperware,
no longer individual
noodles, the sauce congealed;
no microwave in the world
can make this good again.
the apathetic waiter
who leaves my glass totally empty,
and who forgets
to bring the side dish;
and comes in halfway through my dinner
reeking of smoke.
You nearly break the plates when you plunk them down.
I know life must be disappointing for you.
You don’t have to make it disappointing for me.
So you’re in that cobwebby corner now,
staring out from dusty windows
with what you imagine is a sad and forlorn expression
and as we wander by you
(my musings and I),
one says “Let’s go in, I’ve heard about this place,”
and I can say,
“No, I had a bad time there once.
I’m not going back.”
I’ve felt for a long time that the name I was assigned at birth (let’s say it was… Jenny) doesn’t fit me. Jenny wasn’t a word that described me; it was just a label tacked on so people would know what to call me. It was a name that carried with it all the associations of my childhood, all the expectations of parents and relatives long before I came into this world.
Jenny is the name attached to the person my parents want me to be.
Almost exactly a month ago, I posted this brilliant post by Cliff Pervocracy to my Facebook feed along with a comment that simply said “Hey, internet, I think I wanna be called Penny* now. Is that cool?” The three folks who responded (none related to me by blood) all said that yes, that was in fact cool. Since then, my husband and the friends I see in person have been doing their best to call me by my chosen name. I’ve been doing my best to introduce myself under my chosen name. (Not making the change legal, however, makes for some awkwardness around the employment area. Still working on that.)
A couple days ago, in accordance with the New Year and fresh beginnings and all that, I changed my Facebook name. (It also forced me to put in my full last name, instead of just the initial I had in there when I started the damn account.) By the time I got up the next morning, I already had a message from my mother asking “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”
I replied that I was still here, thank you, just making some changes. The response to that was, “Don’t change too much, we like you the way you are.”
Maybe I’m snatching an insult out of the jaws of a compliment, here. I’m willing to admit that’s possible. But if I don’t like me the way I am, shouldn’t I be allowed to change as much as I deem appropriate? I don’t even want to ask how much is too much, because that implies that I care if I change “too much” for my parents’ tastes. Truth is, I don’t. They’re going to love me or not love me however much and in whatever way they decide. It’s taken me decades to realize that I don’t have control over whether or not they love and understand me. It’s not my responsibility.
I have a problem with “we like you the way you are.” The way I am is not the way I am – it’s the way they think I am. And that is a lie; that is a trap. The way they think I am is a prison cell, and I have been confined my whole life. It wasn’t until I moved away that I first breathed free air.
It’s for reasons like this that I sometimes resent our technological age. A hundred years ago, I could have conceivably cut all ties when I moved away. I could have run off to join the circus, literally or figuratively. I could make all the changes I want and never worry about whether or not certain people find out. But in this day and age, everyone leaves a trail. Everything leaves a string attached. There are no more ways to simply disappear – not without severely disadvantaging yourself. There will always be the expectations of others, hovering like a cloud around my head.
If I am choosing a life free of the expectations of others, then I must enable myself to choose a name that is free of those expectations, too. And simply the act of choosing is an act of power, an act of agency.
As Cliff puts it:
I like the idea of a chosen name. In my despotic utopian fantasies, everyone would have to change their name (or consciously and explicitly choose to keep their birth name) upon reaching adulthood. (Or better yet, every ten years. This would result in a lot of middle-schoolers named Rocketship Dinosaur McExplosion and that’s awesome.) It’s such a big and important part of your identity, it seems odd to just go with whatever you were handed.
I have a theory that everyone deserves more choices. Imagine being that middle schooler, being given the opportunity to choose your own name for the first time ever. For some kids, it may be the first choice they’re ever given concerning their identity. This is actually brilliant, because in this despotic utopian fantasy, a person’s right to choose is recognized and celebrated. In this dreamworld, every ten-year-old child has their personhood and right to self-identify affirmed and uplifted. What a powerful feeling that would be – to make a choice about your identity and have it respected. How many more of us would have chased how many more dreams, if only we’d known our choice to follow those dreams would have been respected?
This touches on another point, also eloquently stated by Cliff:
Honoring our own desires is not something we’re taught to do. It’s assumed that kids are balls of cheerfully self-indulgent id already, that all you have to be taught is how not to eat everything and hump everything and name yourself Rocketship. The lesson on “actually, indulging yourself in safe and considerate ways is not just okay but necessary” never really comes.
I’m changing because I want to change. Part of that desired change is my name. Part of it is how I honor my sexuality. Part of it is how I treat my body. Part of it is how I adorn my body. Part of it is the type of work I do, part of it is how much or how little I share of myself, part of it is the boundaries I set and the ways I deal with the things that have happened in the past.
All of it is about being allowed to want. All of it is about letting go of the shame I feel at wanting things. All of it is about gaining the confidence to be really, truly, 100% myself.
And that starts with a new name.
*Penny is not actually my new chosen name. It is, however, my Superwoman-esqe alter ago. And I will answer to it just as happily, because I chose it, too.
So it’s an hour and a half into 2013, and here I am watching The A-Team with the people I love best in the world. I just wanted to take a moment to wish you all the very best in the upcoming year. I don’t know about all of you, but 2012 was a total douche to me. For once, I say Good Riddance to all that I leave in the dust of this past year, and welcome a better tomorrow with open arms.
I’m hoping 13’s my lucky number.