Friday, May 4, 2012

Learning to feel unsafe

Kirstyn McDermott has an interesting post-- Girls and Consequences-- delving into her childhood revulsion for femininity and one of the possible sources of that revulsion. The post was inspired two other posts, one by Stina Leicht on why boys court risks more than girls and by and the other by Kate Elliott, on how, at the age of twelve, she completed a sentence beginning "I wish..." as "I wish I was a boy." The expression of this wish didn't come from a sense of gender dysphoria. "What it meant to me," Elliott writes, "was that it wasn't worth being a girl." How many of us could find that feeling in our own emotional history? I know that I certainly could. The bit from Leicht's post that McDermott quotes resonates powerfully:
It’s because girls run head-long into consequences much, much sooner than boys do. They are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female — not because I thought I was mistakenly born a girl, but because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females. In fact, society at large might even hate females.
As it has probably done for any woman reading the post, this sent my thoughts back to my pre- and early-teens. I never told anyone I wanted to be a boy. But I did want, oh so much, to be Beethoven, and everyone around me let me know that it wasn't possible to be Beethoven unless you were male. And though I wasn't a tomboy, I did things like cut my hair short (shorter than I ever wear it now-- something not much more than a buzz cut) at a time most of the girls in my high school wore their hair long and ironed it, making myself the Complete Freak, got myself a boy's cap (never worn by girls back then), and often passed as a prepubescent boy when I was wearing a jacket or coat, and wore pants whenever I could (though girls were never allowed to wear pants to school back then, not even in sub-zero weather). McDermott writes
Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl. (Once or twice, when I was being particularly gross, she might have expressed an exasperated admonishment that I wasn’t being very ladylike. Huh? Who cared about being a lady!) I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. And the consequences stuff? Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . . I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish.
These days I’m constantly unpacking my thoughts about the colour pink, and my newly rekindled love of cooking, and whether or not to keep shaving my legs, and so many other things. Trying to work out how much of what I love and/or hate comes from a genuine personal response rather than a habitual reaction to/against The Feminine. (A process which, of course, is complicated by the recognition that those anti-feminine reactions are really just as “genuine” or otherwise as anything else I feel.)
McDermott then goes on to pose disturbing questions thinking about what all of this raises for her anent her preferences in footwear. And she arrives at this gut-wrenching conclusion:
Because, in my head, wearing spiked stiletto heels isn’t safe. Because being a girl isn’t safe. And that’s precisely the sort of unconscious internalisation I’m talking about. Now, it’s not as though I go about my days with ears pricked and eyes darting about like a gazelle en route to the watering hole, but this is a genuine psychological underpinning that has helped define my choice of footwear as much as it has influenced my decision never to accept an invitation to an otherwise all male NFL drunken victory party.
Because being a girl isn’t safe.
Reading this suddenly made me remember not just some of the occasions when I definitely didn't feel safe "being a girl" (particularly in my teens), but also how I was taught to believe that. You see, I flashed on something that I'd totally forgotten-- something that sort of shocks me now, because in a way it's a strange and jarring memory that I don't think I've ever before consciously recalled. The memory I flashed on was of one of the black and white short films my (small) eighth-grade class were specially shown. Very occasionally the whole school (small, parochial) would be shown moves in the gym-- movies that were in some way instructional-- about, say, missionaries in faraway lands, fire safety, how to give first aid, and so on. On one such occasion, all the students were sent out except for those in the eighth grade. There were about 30 of us. We were shown at least two additional films that the rest of the school didn't see that day. One was on the dangers of smoking pot and taking drugs (yeah, something like Reefer Madness-- it could, actually, even have been Reefer Madness), the other on the dangers of sex. Only, though they didn't say so, it was really on the risks of getting raped and getting pregnant. (I.e., the dangers were for girls only.) Mind you, we hadn't had any sex education in my school. It was a fundamentalist Lutheran school, after all... In high school we had sex education, which was at least partly about the dangers of pregnancy, and partly about venereal diseases, which not only girls, but also boys were at risk for. This film was basically about what terrible things kissing boys could lead to. (Just as pot was the first step to becoming a "dope addict," so kissing was the first step to getting raped or pregnant.)

I obviously don't have a really distinct recollection of all that was shown (though I do, oddly enough, remember the girl who got raped wearing bobby socks for godsake-- though I suppose, given that this was the 1963-64 school year, the film could have been made as much as ten years earlier). But I remember being really upset by the violence of it-- because it showed the girl in a situation, basically, of date rape (though it didn't show the rape itself-- only showed her afterwards, with her clothes ripped, crying, and then the consequence of pregnancy supposedly following her rash behavior in kissing this boy in the first place. What strikes me half a century later is that this little "instructional" film had an effect on me that rippled through the next five years of my life-- even though the showing of the film was never framed by discussion or reinforced through mention at any time afterwards by my teachers or peers (any more than other such "instructional" films ever were). With all that silence surrounding it, I'm sort of shocked to realize that it nevertheless lurked in deep memory, with just a few images burned into my brain. In hindsight, I'm sure it heightened my fear of a scary boy in my neighborhood a year or two later, a boy with whom I had several really scary encounters and who was notorious because it was "known" about him that his father constantly beat him, his parents sometimes made him sleep in the garage, and finally, because he was a runaway who had a juvie officer checking up on him. (Now that I think of it, I recall that that juvie officer was the father of one of my brother's friends (a boy who, himself, was something of a delinquent creep.)

The cues telling them they're not "safe" are always there for girls, regardless of whether they are explicitly warned. (And of course now, any child who grows up with 21st-century television can't possibly escape the din of the constant subtext about violence against children, girls, women.) I'm sure if I began looking for more traces of this education (socialization), I'd find them.
Interestingly, this remembering-- the process McDermott plunged into with her boots-- reminds me of a marvelous book that Verso published in 1987, in translation from the German, Female Sexualization, ed. by Frigga Haug, recording the work of German feminist collective doing what they called "memory-work." Here's Haug:
The book records a collective's attempts to analyse women's socialization by writing stories out of their own personal memories: stories within which socialization comes to appear as a process of sexualization of the female body. In the first chapter on what is called 'memory-work' (Erinnerungsarbeit), the reader is introduced to the method of collective work undertaken by the group. Described as a method for the unravelling of gender socialization, this involves choosing a theme connected with the body--legs, hair, stomach, height--and calling on members of the group to write down their memories of past events that focus on this physical area.
In the second chapter, we pursue the process whereby the stories are circulated amongst the group, discussed, reassessed and rewritten. The group searches for absences in the text, for its internal contradictions, for cliched formulations covering knots of emotion or painful detail.(13)
Theirs is a complicated process (and fully theorized). But the key, as Haug says, is that "we looked everywhere for traces of situations in which we had either voluntarily submitted to our own subordination, or, conversely, in which we had developed early forms of lived resistance."(50) Perhaps most interestingly, this collective saw writing (rather than speaking) as key to their process, because of what happens when we write down memories as personal history (as opposed to informally telling them as anecdotes). I think also, as someone who writes fiction, that this difference also shows up when delving into a memory by using it as a moment in a fiction-- it gets separated from the ego (to use both general and Freud's parlance) in a way that frees it for a less-emotionally fraught consideration. Anyway, thank you, Kirstyn McDermott, for such a provocative post. You've left me with much to think about.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Timmi, this is powerful stuff, both the posts you linked to and your own comments as well. I have more to say on this subject than I can put in a comment; I may have to do a blog post of my own or perhaps something for CSZ on the subject. But here are a few thoughts.

Stiletto heels put women off balance in a very obvious and literal way. An off-balance woman looks vulnerable and is vulnerable. You'd think that would be a bad thing, but, in fact, vulnerable is considered attractive in women.

So part of the reason the world isn't safe for women is that our very definition of physical attractiveness in women includes looking and acting vulnerable. This might also explain the regular tendency of fashion to tout clothes for women that look like they were designed for children. Children, of course, are also vulnerable.

I never wanted to be a boy, but I very much wanted to do things that were supposed to be only for boys. I suspect a lot of the misery of my high school years (and the trouble I had in my adult days of serious dating) came from the fact that I was determined to act in a male world and was also working at not being vulnerable, making me not sexy in traditional terms.

It might have been easier to become a boy, now that think about it.

I know I was exposed to the same lessons on dangers to women that Timmi and the others mention. The not unreasonable fear of rape; the very real consequences of sex (the fear of both pregnancy and of being a slut); the idea that I could not protect myself.

Learning to protect myself helped a lot (I've spent 33 years studying martial arts, mostly Aikido). So did good contraception and the legal victories for women's reproductive rights. Someone wrote recently about the importance of that victory, putting it right up there with going to the moon. Given the current climate, it may take as long to become completely accepted as it will take us to develop real eploration of the rest of the universe. But the knowledge that I was not condemned to pregnancy, that I had choices, made a difference in my life, and in most of our lives.

There's much more to say, but I'm in an airport waiting for a plane that i hope is leaving soon. And the comment box isn't big enough for everything I want to say, nor can I say it without lots more thought. It's an excellent topic for further discussion, and I hope we keep having it.

Cynthia Ward said...

Yeah, I wanted to be a boy. They got the cool toys, they got to have careers besides wife and mother (I was born in 1960), they had - though I didn't have the words for it then - power which, it was very clear, I didn't and wouldn't have as a female.

Fortunately, I had parents who said I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up, and thanks to my best friend, not to mention all the people who'd say "you're a feminist, so you'd like X," I came to embrace my gender and my feminism in my early 20s.

NancyP said...

(born 1956) No question, I wanted to be a boy. Instead, I thought of myself as "not-a-girl, but unfortunately not-a-boy", a rather isolating position. Externally enforced femininity was an unwanted exercise in drag performance for me until a few years ago. The "sex equals danger" message directed to girls meant not just fear of rape and pregnancy, but fear of losing an identity as a scientist and a person. My girlhood model woman was Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. The only sexual status compatible with being "me" and not "just a girl" was asexuality, with consequent rejection of the body in favor of the mind. I have never gotten beyond that barricade, despite some measure of professional success.