October 22, 2020

The women are telling the truth: sexism and “The Princess Bride”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:30 pm by chavisory

I did not get to watch the Princess Bride virtual reunion recently; I was elbows deep in a copy editing situation on the night of the event, but I followed along a little bit on Twitter, and much like any number of sporting events I was not listening to but could pretty much tell what was happening from the enthusiastic noise of my neighbors, I could basically tell where in the script we were by the state of Twitter at any given moment throughout the evening. Like most people my age, I’ve seen that movie so many times I can more or less recite it from memory with very little prompting.

Though I have encountered assertions of the movie’s sexism before, I have tended not to entertain them seriously, and was a bit taken aback when one appeared in the course of the event.

And while I can entertain the possibility that like other works I loved in childhood whose faults were brought to my attention later, it’s possible to be so familiar and so in love with the Princess Bride as to have become oblivious to its deeper problems. On reflection, though, in this case, I don’t believe it’s the case here. While there are a lot of criticisms of his movie I think we can fairly make in this day and age, that it is sexist is, I thought, a one-dimensional or at least insufficient assessment.

People love this movie the way they love it for more than the exceptionally quippy dialogue, after all. And they didn’t turn out in the numbers they did to watch a table read, over Zoom, for a state-level Democratic Party fundraiser, 33 years after it came out, for a movie that’s just irredeemably sexist.

But I decided to examine the issue closely, at the end of which, not only did I not conclude that the Princess Bride is a sexist movie, but I wound up loving it even more deeply in ways I had never quite articulated to myself.

*

While I’ve never felt much commonality with Buttercup, I’ve never really felt, either, that she’s useless or just “silently beautiful,” and I think that’s because closer examination reveals it not to be true.

In fact, she does, more than once, try to effect her own escape. She doesn’t succeed, but she doesn’t simply wait for rescue, either, and I think what many people mistake for her passivity or inaction is actually her judiciousness in awaiting opportunities in which she even has a chance. She takes those when she has them, and when she doesn’t think they’ll only result in injury to someone else she cares about: when she first tries to jump off the stern of Vizzini’s boat and swim to freedom while his back is turned, and when she takes advantage of the Dread Pirate Roberts’s distraction with the approach of the Prince’s search party to just shove him down a hill.

Yes, Buttercup spends a lot of the movie being carried around by men. But then, on reflection, so does Westley.

Image is of Westley being propped up on a castle rampart by Inigo and Fezzik, too weak to support himself because he’s been mostly dead all day.

It is often noted that the few prominent female characters in this movie inhabit certain stereotypes about female characters: The beautiful but largely decorative princess in need of rescuing, the shrill and demanding wife, and the old hag.

Admittedly, this is not Buttercup’s action story. She is not an adventurer or a swordswoman or a particularly ambitious person. But that she is not those things doesn’t make the character or the movie sexist, and to understand what Buttercup is in this story, I think it actually helps to compare her to everyone else in the ensemble.

The Princess Bride looks like a fairy tale you think you know. It has all the familiar characters: Prince and princess, pirate, giant, scheming trickster, swordsman, magician. It goes through many of the same motions. But it is not telling the same story.

And the characters of the Princess Bride inhabit familiar tropes, but they do not accept helplessness within those tropes. All of them are resourceful, all of them make use of the knowledge, and the power, that they have access to.

In some cases, that is not a lot. These are not the people most valued or empowered within their society. Nineteenth-century Florin is a beautiful country, but it is not a progressive one.

A friend mentioned resenting Buttercup getting the Penelope treatment, and while on one hand I think that’s a very fair thing to be annoyed by, on the other, I also think it’s kind of implicit in what the movie is doing. The story of Odysseus and Penelope is one of the resonances being played with in this one. We’re supposed to resent it. Westley, for all his good-heartedness, doesn’t seem to grasp in certain ways that Buttercup doesn’t have a choice in the position she’s in. None of what’s happening is her fault, and we should be annoyed for her when Westley questions her faithfulness because he doesn’t 1000% understand how little power she really has in the situation, how vulnerable a woman of humble birth is in his own society. It is annoying, but I think it’s more a statement about sexism than it is an expression of it, even though it’s not explicitly called out in this moment.

Buttercup occupies a constrained social role within the world of Florin and Guilder, but that is no more the movie’s stance about her than it is about any of the male protagonists, as I think we’ll see.

What all of the protagonists say in some way is “This story does not have to go the way somebody else already decided it has to go for us.”

I saw Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure for the first time recently (I was slightly too young for it when it first came out), having heard a friend say (interestingly enough, in a discussion of the depth of influence of Richard Matheson on American storytelling), that given the ludicrousness of the premise, it works because the funniest possible choice was made at every single opportunity. And the Princess Bride is now such an immensely familiar movie that I think it’s possible we’ve all lost sight of it—but it is the movie it is because at every single opportunity, somebody makes the most unexpected possible choice, which all turn out to carry vastly more power than the choice they were expected to make in the fairy tale we assume we’re in, and sometimes that the characters themselves assume they’re in.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

“I didn’t have to miss.”

“We’ll never survive.
Nonsense. You’re only saying that because no one ever has.”

What does Buttercup ever do that’s useful? Well, if she doesn’t stop Westley from dying for her right when she does, there’s no rest of this story. The first truly powerful thing Buttercup does isn’t an act of physical prowess, but it’s utterly in line with the actions of the male protagonists in this way. She fundamentally alters how we all assume a story like this is supposed to go. Including Humperdinck and Westley, to the extent that her interjection “Will you promise not to hurt him?” into their first confrontation prompts them both to exclaim “What was that?!”

There isn’t a daring, romantic, against-all-odds sword fight right in this moment because Buttercup decides “You don’t die here like this.”

These characters always undermine how the story supposedly has to go for people like them, either because it’s what’s expected of them or because it’s what somebody more powerful decrees.

*

In truth, I felt a new respect and empathy for Buttercup when I rewatched the movie most recently. (Unbelievably, I think I hadn’t actually seen it for at least 16 years, since that’s how long it’s been since I last had access to a VCR at home.)

I never really knew how to identify with Buttercup. I wasn’t pretty growing up. I’m not now. Nobody was ever going to cross an ocean for my beauty, or even for my love.

Humperdinck, of course, doesn’t love Buttercup, but it turns out he doesn’t even desire her for her beauty. He’s holding her up as a symbol to Florin’s populace before he sacrifices her to his own political whims as leverage to go to war with Guilder.

And she as an individual has so little power in the face of Count Rugen and Humperdinck’s machinations, but it still matters that she makes use of what she has. She can’t free herself from Humperdinck, she can’t free Westley from Rugen, but that she refuses to let Westley die for her in the first place buys time until all the other threads of the story can come together. In that moment on the other side of the Fire Swamp, she personifies not destroying what you hate, but saving what you love. Westley will ultimately make the same choice. When he could kill Humperdinck, he instead leaves him impotently, comically, tied to a chair. (And in another interesting parallel, it’s Buttercup who forestalls an actual duel between Westley and Humperdinck near the beginning of the movie, and Westley who does it at the end–once again because he’s in a situation in which he cannot succeed with superior violence.)

We, like Buttercup, in this moment, are being abused by a regime of utter self-absorption and capriciousness for its own wealth and glory, which enjoys using the American people as a symbol and excuse for its abuses of power, but cares nothing, in actuality, for our lives or well-being. And there is so little that she, individually, can do about it, but she still does it, even when it’s only to call Humperdinck out for being exactly what he is—and even though she has no hope of succeeding on her own, it still matters that she does. It matters that her stalling helps buy time for Westley to get into the castle. Even when Humperdinck severely abridges the formalities of their wedding ceremony to attempt to effect their marriage without her consent, it matters in the end that she didn’t just go along and say the words—that she didn’t consent. It matters that the combined effects of her stalling and the friends’ assault on the castle force Humperdinck to dispense with even the appearance of legitimacy of their marriage.

“You didn’t say it, you didn’t do it,” Westley notes, somewhat redeeming himself from his earlier suspicion of Buttercup’s loyalty. She and Humperdinck aren’t married; she’s legally free to abscond with Westley if she can get out of the castle with him. She couldn’t free herself by herself but it mattered until the last minute that she would not provide her assent to what was happening.

“Many people outside the loop think that it’s too late to do anything, which, as premature despair always does, excuses us for doing nothing. Though there are diverse opinions quite a lot of insiders think that what we do now matters tremendously, because the difference between the best and worst case scenarios is vast, and the future is not yet written,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark about continuing to act against climate change even when it seems already too late to prevent or reverse it entirely, because the difference between the worst case scenario and a merely bad one can be vast, and the future is not known. That continued resistance in the face of probable failure increases the chances for success of an eleventh-hour effort, or at least mitigation of damage or destruction.

*

The villains in this movie are all fakers: Vizzini fancies himself the cleverest man alive; he is far from it, as it quickly turns out. Though we know he doesn’t really love her, even Humperdinck’s desire for Buttercup’s beauty isn’t real. While he convincingly portrays himself as an upstanding ruler, he’s actually planning to plunge his nation into war. Count Rugen, while genuinely probably the cruelest character, only turns out to be unflinching as long as he’s facing a child or an incapacitated man.

The heroes, on the other hand, all inhabit duality in that while all of them are extraordinary or even freakish in some way, they succeed, actually, when they make choices in line with their humanity, their conscience, their ordinariness. Westley/the Dread Pirate Roberts, with a reputation as one of the most feared and murderous pirates on the high seas, is also just fundamentally decent enough not to kill two henchmen who aren’t actually the people he has a gripe with in his pursuit of Vizzini and Buttercup, and they turn out to be his salvation.

The men in particular, Fezzik and Inigo, who would be the sidekicks in any other movie but to whom the bulk of action in this movie belongs, specifically undermine typical expectations of male heroes grounded in toxic masculinity. We love them for their vulnerabilities, their humor, kindness, sense of fairness, and open affection for each other much more than for their physical strength or skill with a sword or capacity for violence.

And what are the women in this scheme?

All of the prominent women in this story—Buttercup, Valerie, the old hag—are the truth-tellers. And moreover, they tell the truth about who the other characters are.

Buttercup doesn’t hesitate to name the Dread Pirate Roberts for who he is when she realizes, though he’s known as one of the most dangerous and deadly pirates of the seas. Once she realizes that Humperdinck has lied to her about looking for Westley, she calls him out unsparingly for the exactly the cowardly slimeball he is. She doesn’t even realize she’s probably saving her own life here; she has no real reason to think she’s in mortal personal danger from Humperdinck himself, as opposed to him just being a possessive, entitled coward (indeed, she’s very openly planning her suicide). For all she knows, it would be safer to remain beautifully quiet. She doesn’t.

Valerie gets Westley’s life saved by refusing to tolerate Max’s dissembling and avoidance of the situation at hand and by telling the truth about what Humperdinck did to Max.

The old hag of Buttercup’s dream (or “the Ancient Booer,” as she’s credited) is a more difficult case. She isn’t real, for one. She doesn’t turn out to be a powerful fairy, evil queen, or trickster goddess as in other familiar incarnations of such a character in other tales. She’s Buttercup’s nightmare, and she isn’t actually right. She is what Buttercup fears about her true character and her motivations.

But what she does accurately is call out the ugliness and corruption underneath a seemingly beautiful public façade. She’s not right about Buttercup but she’s honest. And Buttercup does go to the Prince, tell the truth about her feelings for Westley, and try to call off the wedding, if not for which she never would’ve detected Humperdinck’s lie about having returned Westley to his ship, or having sent the four fastest ships in his armada to retrieve him.

The women are all telling the truth about who other characters are and about the corruption of a situation that no one else is willing to acknowledge or deal with. It is such a consistent pattern that while the spoken thesis statement of the movie is “Death cannot stop true love,” the unspoken one could virtually be “The women are telling the truth.”

And I am forced to think about Christine Blassey Ford, Stormy Daniels, Hillary Clinton, and Elizabeth Warren, whose testimony mattered when they told the truth about the character of a man, even when they couldn’t stop what was happening from happening anyway. Although in at least one case it did:

And if “The women are telling the goddamned truth” isn’t a sufficient message for a progressive movie in the 21st century, it seems to be one we could still stand to learn.

*

I also feel the need to return to an issue I noted before, in considering the alleged ableism of The Shape of Water: The character espousing the views often attributed in criticism to the movie is in fact the villain. Strickland, who devalues Elisa because of her disability, femaleness, lack of beauty, and poverty, who sees her and the Amphibian Man as monstrosities who don’t belong to this world—is the bad guy.

Prince Humperdinck, likewise, is the bad guy in this movie. His views are the ones that we are supposed to challenge, not accept. And he is he one who believes that Buttercup is nothing but a pretty but passive and empty-headed girl who won’t raise a finger in her own defense. We’re not supposed to.

Humperdinck also discounts the possibility that she’s important enough to anyone else that they might come after her and spoil his plans. After all, there’s not that much special about her aside from her beauty.

That’s part of the point. Again, all of these characters are coveted by someone else because of how they’re extraordinary. They become important to each other in the ways that they aren’t, and not merely as a means to an end.

And Westley loves Buttercup, and that’s enough that he would go to the ends of the earth to rescue her.

*

I didn’t realize initially just how appropriate and timely the choice of a reading of the Princess Bride specifically was to this present political situation, as opposed to just being fun, nostalgic, and also guaranteed to draw an outpouring of enthusiasm and support from people of a certain age who otherwise are not the most enthralled with the Democratic Party or Joe Biden as a candidate. But it’s the story of a very imperfect collection of faulted people coming together to defeat a cruel and petty despot because of their willingness to help each other reach an intertwined set of goals.

“It is what it is because you are who you are,” Joe Biden told Donald Trump in this past week’s first presidential debate, as is the sham and failure of Humperdinck’s rule because of who he is, and in a sublime and subversively beautiful way, the happy ending of the Princess Bride is what it is because its central characters are exactly who they are.

The stubborn and the stupid can work the weirdest miracles if we just don’t think too much.

And while in many ways it is not a particularly groundbreaking or innovative story as far as its portrayal of women, but neither does it consider them inferior or helpless, rather than central to the conscience and thesis of the film, and so, in my estimation, anyway, I have a hard time considering it fundamentally sexist.

And on that note, given the season, I’ll just leave you with this sentiment.

August 17, 2017

Letter to my representative on H.R. 2796

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:16 am by chavisory

This is my letter, going in the mail tomorrow, to my congressional representative regarding H.R. 2796, the Civil Rights Uniformity Act of 2017, which you can view here.

Dear Representative Espaillat,

I’m writing to ask you to vote against, and take any action possible against, H.R. 2796, deceptively titled the Civil Rights Uniformity Act of 2017.

From what I understand, this bill was written specifically with the intent of excluding transgender people from protection under existing civil rights law.

While I am not transgender, this represents quite literally a matter of life and liberty for trans people I know and love–a matter of access to employment, housing, and public life.

Furthermore, in this bill’s reliance on a poor understanding of the science of sex and gender–biological sex is extremely complex, and most individuals do not know or have any documentation of their “genetic sex”–it represents a potential invasion of privacy and serious access barrier to anyone at all who fails to conform to simplistic and repressive ideals of what a man or a woman should look like.

I thank you for your time and thoughtfulness on this issue.

December 15, 2014

Self-knowledge and invisible identities

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 5:10 pm by chavisory

This post actually started on Tumblr in a discussion of The Hunger Games and the various interpretations and identities that people project onto Katniss, and carried over into a question of how people of the demisexual/gray-ace spectrum can accurately perceive other people’s levels of sexual attraction and where they as individuals fall on that scale, which I wanted to expand on a little bit.

Obviously, we can’t ever know fully and objectively what is in another person’s head or internal experiences. So how can demi or gray-ace people know that we’re different, and that we aren’t just arbitrarily deciding that we’re different?

Conveniently, there is already a whole body of writing and experience from another population of people who have had the experience of knowing that they were different somehow, in frequently invisible, subjective ways, often in the complete absence of having been explicitly told so or possessing any language to describe how or why—indeed, often even in the face of other people relentlessly insisting on the contrary—and turning out to be right–

Most autistic people who were diagnosed later…say, after age 18…talk about having always or almost always known that they were different, whether or not they could effectively describe how they were different or how they knew.

A while back now on Tumblr, a parent who was considering the best way and time to talk to her kid about his diagnosis, asked the autism tag approximately when people knew somehow that we were different from our peers.  Not necessarily when we knew our diagnosis, but when we felt or knew we were different. Self-reports ranged from ages 3-10.

This is actually one of the earliest realizations about myself in relation to people around me of which I even have explicit memory (I was about 3).

But how can we really know that other people don’t (for the most part) share our sensory reactions, our cognitive differences, our difficulty with speech and language?

Well, we have pattern recognition. Most people don’t walk around acting or speaking as if they share those experiences on a pretty consistent, everyday basis.  Our reactions make sense to our experience of the world. Other people punish and shame and decide horrible and untrue things about us on the basis of those reactions. Disabled and neurodivergent advocates have amassed decades’ worth of writing, media, and activism at this point in an attempt to convince parents and professionals that we aren’t just broken, we’re operating in a hostile environment, and most of them still don’t believe us.

There is a burden of evidence, at some point, that becomes overwhelming, that other people are not experiencing the world like you do. Other people aren’t just hostile to the way we react to the world, they’re often baffled.

Unless I’m supposed to believe that the non-autistic 98% of the population has just happened to build a culture, educational system, and set of social and employment expectations that is just as torturous and awkward for them, but they’re all just pretending that it’s more or less tolerable and manageable?  And they overwhelmingly do this without ever being instructed to?  Or that somewhere between 1-2% of us simply missed out on this instruction?  And that most other people really do have the same level of difficulty and discomfort, but we’re the only ones not pretending otherwise, at devastating cost to ourselves?

(And yes, there are people who do go a very long time pretending that things aren’t that difficult for them.  The stress of which causes midlife burnouts.  If not young adult burnouts.  Which again, we don’t see masses of non-autistic people having.)

Likewise, there is a point at which the overwhelming amount of information available to me about how most people interact and live their lives, does not suggest that demisexual or ace spectrum people aren’t really having experiences fairly different from other people’s.

The alternative explanation I’m left with is that both autistic people, and demisexual/gray-ace people, are just the only ones being honest about our experiences, and everyone else is lying all the time, in such a way as to make the world really painful and difficult for themselves, and everyone knows that that’s true except us.

Which still would not explain the downright confusion and bafflement that I’ve gotten, not just in relationships but in health and sex-ed classes, from teachers, when the whole set of expectations from other people regarding sexual relationships does not match up to mine, in a “looking in a mirror and seeing nothing” kind of way.  I could imagine an entire set of societal and relationship expectations being built on a lie, and authority figures or romantic partners expressing displeasure when I defy expectations to uphold the lie, but not just confusion.

Are the vast majority of people just pretending to be deeply confused about how the interplay of emotion, physical comfort, and sexual attraction works for them?

Or when people go “Ha ha, you’re not different, you’re just like everyone else.  Everyone feels like [total distortion of what I even just described].”

You know how obnoxious it is when non-autistic parents go “We’re all a little autistic!  Everyone is on the spectrum!” Because no, they’re not.  I did not grow up feeling inhuman because 98% of the population is really just like me.

Likewise, I have a hard time buying that 98% or more of the human population is really just like me with regards to comfort and emotional needs in relation to sexuality, but are pretending not to be to the extent that I can’t even take part because it just doesn’t even make sense to my most basic physical experience.  And that really I’ve spent this long feeling this incompletely human and left out and lonely because I just didn’t realize that everyone else is lying really, really well about their most basic experiences of physicality and attraction?

You see how that strains credibility?

(I don’t actually think that’s true; I don’t think that badly of either non-autistic or non-demisexual people.)

Would you tell a gay person “No, you’re not really different, that’s really how everyone is.  How do you know that it isn’t?”

Demisexuality is a difference not necessarily in who you’re attracted to along the gender spectrum, but in how attraction works. In some way, shape or form, either a strong emotional bond has to precede sexual attraction, or emotional attraction is prerequisite to sexual attraction.

We walk around every single day of our lives, for decades on end, seeing and hearing messages that attraction works, or at least is supposed to, in a way that it actually doesn’t work for us.  You notice after a while.  You notice that you don’t feel and react in the ways that other people act like you’re supposed to.

Or, if everybody else is really lying in countless, tiny, casual, everyday ways about what attraction is like for them, and not only lying, but living out their lives as if something that isn’t true, is true…to the detriment of their own happiness, comfort, and quality of relationships, and that’s the only reason why people like me think we’re different….maybe they should stop.

Or else stop telling me that I can’t accurate perceive that what I’m experiencing is qualitatively different from what I’m being pretty consistently told that other people do.

Maybe then we’d also have an honest, accurate view of the true scope of human sexual and emotional diversity and no one would have to feel inhuman or alone or wind up thinking that they’re just not capable of having relationships.  But then what do I know?

October 14, 2014

“Men suck.”

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , at 1:50 am by chavisory

It was for this statement that I felt I had to unfollow a Facebook friend recently. It wasn’t the only thing that made the absolutely screwball, back-asswards social justice discourse on Facebook unbearable during the week in question, but it was kind of a breaking point with regards to my ability to not say anything about it.

And according to some people, if I were really enlightened about sexism and oppression, or had the right belief system about those things, I’d know I was supposed to take it someway other than at face value, but I’ve never been any good at tests like that, where I fail some ideological standard by taking people seriously for what they say.

And according to certain formats of discourse about feminism and privilege and stuff, it isn’t supposed to bother me. But it does, and this is only part of the reason why.

See, when you say this, I think about the men who have also been betrayed and hurt by our culture, who already get told that they fail as people, or fail as men, or can never be real men. Not the self-described entitled “Nice Guys,” or cat-callers, or murderers. But the truly gentle men. The shy men. The feminine men. The trans men. The men who would never knowingly or avoidably hurt another person or creature. I think about the disabled men and autistic men, men who have suffered rape and domestic violence, men who work to undermine the exact same forms of discrimination and violence that you do, in any way they can, every day that they’re alive.

These men are already told that they suck by the very same system that tells women and people of every other gender how much we suck.

I think about the men who when they were boys were some of the very few people who treated me like a person. They aren’t perfect people, but like some days I made it home from school not hating myself, and some nights I didn’t cry myself to sleep because no one said a nice thing to me that day. The chubby kid who wore the same clothes to school most days whose locker was above mine in 6th grade? The other kids didn’t treat him better than me for being male. The girls in the gym locker room weren’t more careful than he was not to step on my feet or kick me in the head.

I think about the men I work with on a daily basis—the actors, directors, choreographers, assistant stage managers, and technicians. Whose work I depend on to make a living, and who depend on mine, because they’ve made it their life’s work to fill the world with beauty and tell better stories.

I think of every man hamstrung and violated and disregarded by this culture’s stupid, cruel expectations of manhood. Those men are already getting told that they suck a thousand times a day. I think about the men deciding what kind of men they really want to be, and how they could be good ones, in a society that doesn’t show them a lot of good options. I didn’t think “No, you’re right, there aren’t any,” was the lesson we were going for.

I think about the boys I know who are going to grow up to be disabled men of color, and what kind of chances are we going to give them to do that, who are already so vulnerable from almost every other possible angle? What kind of people are we telling them they could grow up to be? When we tell them “Men suck?”

I think about the men whose writing or music or art has healed and sustained me.

And when you declare that “Men suck,” you are talking about all of those men, too.

I think about the girls who may grow up to be men, and what they’re hearing in this, and the boys who may or may not grow up to be men. What are we telling them about what their choices are? You can be a man, or you can be a person who doesn’t suck, but not both.

The culture of masculinity that all of these men are coming from has already declared them worthless and wrong. Are we accepting refugees from that entire way of thinking, or are we just perpetuating it under a different name?

What are you telling a child about whether or not he can grow up to be a person you can love and approve of?

I thought the point was that we don’t do that to people.

I thought we were supposed to be the ones who didn’t attack and devalue people for involuntary factors intrinsic to their personhood. I thought we were the community that didn’t leave people with no feasible way to be an acceptable human being.

If I was wrong, if that’s not the case, somebody let me know. Because I can’t be a part of it.

February 11, 2014

I have really complicated feelings about exhortations to tell girls they’re smart instead of beautiful, and also why I’m not a Ravenclaw

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 4:16 pm by chavisory

complimentmybrain

{Moving image depicts Dr. Christina Yang from the show Grey’s Anatomy, gesturing dramatically and proclaiming “Oh, screw beautiful, I’m brilliant!  You wanna appease me, compliment my brain!”}

The title of this might be me at my most inarticulate, but I’ve got some complex emotional history here.

I’ve see this screencap from Grey’s Anatomy flying around Tumblr a lot lately, with kind of conflicted feelings.

And I want to cheer for it.  I want to agree with Christina in this scene.  I want to clap.  I do.  I can’t.  My heart sinks a little instead.

When I was growing up, I was over-appreciated for my brain—or what people wanted out of it—and not much else.

And I get why, for a lot of women, so much importance has been placed on physical beauty and a very narrow definition of sexual desirability by culture and media that to be told you’re beautiful can be diminishing, or a denial of any other aspect of personhood as vital or valuable in a woman.

But another kind of woman got written off early and entirely in the department of physical desirability, and got told intensely and persistently that our intellect was the only valuable thing about us.

And that can be just as objectifying as the inverse.  To be treated as if your body, your sexuality, is a mistake, is off limits from being considered an asset or a real and true aspect of our personhood or something we should even like about ourselves.

Because my physical experience of the world is as totally intrinsic to the kind of person I’ve become as my intelligence is.

There’s not really any aspect or component of a person of which it’s alright to say, “You may be valued for this alone.  This is all of you that matters.”

So yeah, I can understand the frustration of other women at being called beautiful as the highest possible compliment, when though that may be what society values, it’s superficial to what they see as their true selves.

That’s exactly how I feel about being called “smart.”  It’s the only way I was ever allowed to be valuable or worthwhile, but it’s almost completely superficial to what I actually value most about myself.

When I was growing up, it was my intelligence that was made a commodity to other people.  And that was all of me that mattered.

For a long time, I was resentful that intellect and insight were not valued or celebrated anywhere near as much as superficial beauty or things like athletic talent—by society, by the media, by the school system—because it was all I had going for me.

And then a time came when I was so, so sick of hearing how smart I was.

In retrospect, a lot of my academic accomplishments feel like stupid human tricks, compared to the qualities that I’m really proud of nurturing. And yes, I was actually proud of them, too, and wanted recognition for them.  But on some level even at the time, I knew that they were just the game I could play.  They were the game I could win, the hoops I could jump through.

In an end-of-the-year Thespian troupe party my senior year of high school, we had a ritual where the whole troupe sat in a circle, and we were supposed to go around one by one, and use one word to describe each one of our classmates.

I forbade anyone to say I was smart.  I frakking knew that already, and getting told what you already knew wasn’t the point of the exercise.  I knew that ad nauseum.  Tell me anything else.  Prove you know me better than that.  Tell me that something about me matters to you.

People said it anyway.

(Our teacher, blessedly, did not.)

There’s also this thing that happens where, once someone has gotten the impression that I’m so intelligent, expects me to not have a soul, a conscience, a sense of fairness, or a heart, and winds up really confused and disappointed when I do.

Other people’s perception of my intelligence has been over-leveraged as a survival tactic and bargaining chip for autonomy and personhood, for me to really be able to treasure it much for myself anymore.

***

I value my physical beauty now, idiosyncratic though it may be.  I love finally feeling at home in my body and the way it moves.  That’s a wondrous thing to me.  I love being made to feel beautiful by someone who really means it about the way that I really am.

I like looking in the mirror and liking what I see.

And I won’t feel that it’s some kind of a betrayal of womanhood to actually value that about myself.  After so many years of having that ability discouraged and confounded in so many ways, I get to have that.

***

Just as valuation of a particular standard of beauty above all other female attributes both devalues girls who can’t meet that standard, and devalues everything else about girls who do…how is valuation of intelligence above any other personal attribute not likely to devalue girls who don’t meet some conventional, one-dimensional standard of that?

I wish we could just stop hacking people up into pieces that are valuable and not valuable, acceptable and not acceptable.

I fear that this trading valuation of physical beauty for intelligence, really just winds up telling some girls “You do not count in this way.  Your physical experience of the world and your sexuality aren’t really things that deserve to be taken into account, because you’re a brain, and that’s what matters about you.”

September 9, 2012

Let’s talk about sex (education)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 1:21 am by chavisory

So apparently school started again this past week, and (in)appropriately, I ran across this article on Salon.com (Americans Want Sex Ed), summarizing a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.  The report presents the seemingly paradoxical findings that while a solid majority of both adults and teens in the United States believe that teenagers should be taught about birth control, and also that anti-abortion leaders should support the availability of birth control, and also that they (teens) themselves have the information they need to avoid unplanned pregnancy…a somewhat scarily large percentage of teens then go on to report knowing little to nothing of contraception methods.

But I suspect that the discrepancy obscures, at least in part, a disconnect between the fairly binary way in which we conceive of what “sex education” can and should be–either abstinence only or abstinence plus safety and contraception–and the nuances of students’ real lives, or how well what students are taught about contraception does or doesn’t match up with how they really need or want to be educated about sexual relationships.

If, for instance, you’re a 15-year-old lesbian, it may be true that you know what you need to about contraception at the moment even if that isn’t very much.  Or if you’ve genuinely decided to wait for sex–till marriage or just till you’re older–you might not be wrong that you don’t need to know everything about possible contraception methods right this minute.  Or if you’re on the asexuality spectrum and not seeking a sexual relationship…this information might not be taking up space on your hard drive, but you know where to find it if or when you want it…or if, like some students taking this survey, you’re 12 years old.

Or imagine how profoundly unhelpful a group role-playing game full of scare tactics about the dangers of promiscuity is to someone desperately trying to figure out how to have one good, safe, physical relationship.

It’s also easy to mistakenly think you know everything it’s possible to know, when what you don’t know is what you aren’t being taught.

I was, probably unsurprisingly, one of the kids who thought that I knew what I needed to know.  I’d been through fairly decent classes on what to expect from puberty.  I’d been given information on available contraception.  (In a totally brilliant move on my mother’s part, one day she had picked me up Seventeen magazine’s Environment Special Issue, which she said she thought I’d enjoy, environmental activism being my primary obsession at the time.  It also had Your Complete Guide to Contraception in the back of the issue.  It was years before I realized that handing that over had probably been deliberate and not an oversight on her part.)  I was a biology wonk and already knew more about disease transmission and risk than what was in the health class videos and graphic slide shows.

And, for reasons that turned out to be a good deal more complicated than I even thought they were at the time, I’d taken a stance that I was delaying sex…pretty much indefinitely.

In this state of affairs, I wound up, despite my protestations that the requirement was insulting, in my school’s “Health and Family Wellness” class.  In which I somehow managed to be continuously stigmatized for the very choices that the class purported to be encouraging, because the ways in which I’d made them did not comport with the core presumptions of What Teenagers Are Like or How Dating Works.  At the same time that I did indeed think I knew what I needed to, as far as what I saw available, I felt this gaping absence of anyone anywhere accurately describing how I actually experienced myself or my desires, and how to build a life or be safe and respected in those things.

Now I look back and know that I cannot have been the only one experiencing this, because people who were not represented as having sexual or romantic relationships worth talking about included gay people, queer people, trans people, disabled people…so also disabled queer people…any kind of gender fluid or gender variant people, people on the asexuality spectrum, or now that I try to think of it, very many people of color or of cultures other than Normal American Teenager.  Let alone any of those people having relationships with each other.

What worked for other people was clearly not going to work out for me, but there were no examples of what would.  Or of how to talk about what was true for you, if that wasn’t what was presumed to be the default.

There’s a quote from Adrienne Rich that I think of more and more often:  “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”

So…not getting pregnant was actually not my biggest problem.  The ways in which our school’s sex ed didn’t have much to offer me went way deeper than “I already know all about contraception, this is a waste of my time, and I’d rather be taking art.”  But that was all I was able to express—in no small part because of the poverty of education or language available about relationships, sex, and gender that went beyond the very superficial.  And so I sat in class day after day, feeling more and more alienated from my peers and from how adults presumed I should be treated based on the fact that I was 15 and not much else, being told by unqualified teachers “I’m sorry you think you’re too good to be here,” rolling my eyes at badly produced educational videos, and learning most of what I really knew about love and respect from Mulder and Scully at home alone on Friday nights.  (And I’m not the only person I know who says that I learned what love was supposed to be from those characters.)

How would I have answered a survey question “Do you feel that you have all the information you need to prevent an unplanned pregnancy at this time?”  Yes.  But it would’ve been a stand-in answer for the fact that the question didn’t address anything real in my life.

I can well imagine that if you go to a school in which the name of your sexual identity is literally a bad word (“Don’t say gay” bills have been introduced in both Missouri and Tennessee), or a subject that faculty feel forbidden to address, up to and including when you’re being violently victimized for it, that you might reasonably feel that your ability to name risks and benefits of five different kinds of contraception is a little bit beside the point.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t teach comprehensive information about birth control, obviously, or work to ascertain whether kids feel they have the information they need about it, but I think in the common conception of what sex education is, this is widely thought of as the ultimate question: whether to teach abstinence only, or whether to teach risk management methods.  But even the seemingly right answer to that question is misleading and even counterproductive when contraception as risk management is taught without a bedrock of positive and healthy attitudes about sex, real-life examples of all types of healthy sexual and romantic relationships, a vocabulary to describe what’s true and desirable for yourself individually, and knowledge and respect for your own sexual identity and those different from you.

Without that kind of knowledge, which should be basic and not controversial, I suspect it may be hard for students to draw easy conclusions about whether the health information they have matches up to the realities of their lives.

March 29, 2011

Remembering the girls of Triangle

Posted in Reflections tagged , , , , at 11:01 pm by chavisory

For the vast majority of my life, I never felt like I had much in common with other girls.  Most of the people who ever tormented or abused me were girls or women, and so before I was very old, I didn’t have much desire left to have anything in common with them.  I could never call myself a feminist.  I read Mary Pipher’s much-discussed book about the emotional lives of adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, in high school, thinking “surely this expert will be able to articulate what’s really wrong with my life and then I’ll be able to explain it to everyone who’s getting it wrong (and not least of all, to myself).”

I was bitterly disappointed.  It was a marvelous book (and I still think so), but it was like reading a very fascinating book about a completely alien species.  Not me.

Then there was a sequel of sorts, Ophelia Speaks, a compilation of teen girls’ own responses and reflections on their lives and the original book, seeking to let girls speak for themselves about their lives and somewhat fill in the gaps they felt were left in Pipher’s book.  I ran out to buy it.  “Now someone will tell the truth for me, surely now someone will get it right!” I thought.

Nope.  It was another fascinating book, this time in the words of the fascinating aliens themselves.  But I recognized myself nowhere among them.  I started to accept that either there were no girls like me anywhere, or I wasn’t a real girl at all.  I don’t even remember there being any women who made me think “I could grow up to be like that.”

And then (to make a very long story short), I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and in reading the blogs and books of other autistic women and developing supportive relationships with them, I found a way to identify with other women at all for the first time.

***

I don’t write much about my work, for a variety of reasons, but it’s been no big secret lately that I’ve been working on a particularly difficult production, which has taken more or less everything out of me in the past couple months.  It was a choral music piece called From the Fire, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which had its 100th anniversary this past week.  On March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, mostly teenage girls and young women, either burned or jumped to their deaths because they were locked in on the 9th floor of the factory building near Washington Square when a fast-moving fire broke out in a bin of cotton scraps.  The tragedy proved a watershed moment in the social history of America, for workers’ rights and unions, mandates for workplace safety, and voting rights for women.

Within the first couple weeks, the rehearsal process had become so hard that I felt myself starting to shut down emotionally and detach myself from any real feeling for the show, which was the last thing in the world that I wanted, since what this kind of show can accomplish is exactly the reason that I wanted to work in theater in the first place.

Then one night in vocal rehearsal, I sang along silently in my head as the chorus of girls sang a line of a song: “Blessed are you oh lord our God who made me a woman, yes, a woman who can work.”  And it hit me: I am one of these girls–the ones in front of me.  I was there to look out for them, backed up by a strong union, in no small part because of what happened to the girls of Triangle.  Performing artists are still a vulnerable population in many ways, and I was one of them, and as hard as things were still going to get, my job was to protect them.  I was there to be on their side.

***

In the final song of the show, a cascading canon of voices sing out the names of girls of the Triangle factory, both survivors and the dead.  The performers had been directed to abruptly face outwards, to an individual member of the audience, as each one sang her line.  It wasn’t until the third performance, which happened to fall on the actual anniversary of the fire, that I realized that one of the student actresses, in the down right corner of the stage, was turning directly to me (where I was calling the show from an improvised platform) when she sang “Lizzie will be remembered.”  I teared up.  I couldn’t hold her gaze for more than a moment.

I could practically feel the ghosts of the Triangle girls around me.

And they were all my girls.

***

More on the production:
From the Fire production homepage

Remembering the Dead as They Were (NYT City Room blog)

Dept. of Commemoration: Echoes (The New Yorker)