Growing Up Feminist, Part 3

Just how troubling is it to come to the realization that you’re just not the person the world wants you to be, and you don’t want what the world wants from you?

Very — even when you have a strong support system through your family. You may know you’re loved, but at the same time you know that being true to yourself means being an outsider, and directly or indirectly you’ll be made to feel as though something is wrong with you.

Before I entered my tweens I, like most little girls, loved to play with dolls. I had many an apple-cheeked plastic baby to cuddle and caress. I gave each one a name from my list of favorites-of-the-moment, and I imagined personalities for them that went beyond babyhood. One of my favorite play-pretends was to rescue my babies after they’d gone missing. I always succeeded. It didn’t register with me then that these kinds of stories don’t always have happy endings.

Not only did I have the right toys, but I also read the right books, or at least the ones I knew about at the time. My picture books were full of mother bears, mother tigers, and mother rabbits doing motherly things like feeding and tucking-in and even scolding their (usually male) offspring. Moms didn’t have adventures They were anchored to the home to which the (almost always male) child adventurers had to return. All well and good, I suppose — except that these moms made up approximately 70% of all the female characters I saw.

As I noted in my previous post, the only female character in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories is Kanga, Roo’s mother, and “mother” is the beginning and the end of her personality. The first of Kipling’s Mowgli stories, “Mowgli’s Brothers,” features a much cooler mother figure, Raksha, the wolf who adopts the human toddler and terrifies the ravenous tiger Shere Khan away from her den; sadly, after that first story she disappears, leaving Mowgli to be guided through his formative years by male mentors. Charlotte, the titular spider of Charlotte’s Web, fascinated my younger self far more than either of these, since she was active and clever and played a much larger role, but even she is essentially Mom, and when she has fulfilled that biological function, she perishes.

It’s little surprise, then, that I spent a large part of my childhood thinking that being Mom was just part of being a girl, that one went with the other. Nor did that idea come only from stories; I saw very few non-moms among the grown women I knew. I had no reason to question it, and I wasn’t conscious of any discomfort I might have felt at the prospect of becoming a mom myself. That was so far in the future. I could wait, and put off considering what being a mom would mean for me.

Then, when I was in my twenties, something small planted a seed — a leaf through an issue of People Magazine in the optometrist’s office. One of the articles profiled former tennis champ Chris Evert and her life as a mother. The article’s first line was her answer when the interviewer asked her what books she’d read lately: she had no time for reading at all, because, as she put it, she was too busy watching Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers with her kids.

The comment was meant to be light-hearted, but it struck right at my heart. No time for reading? For my favorite thing in the world? If being a mom left no time for reading, how could it leave time for writing? How would I stand such a life? True, I had seen my own mom reading aplenty when I was small, but my feelings about Evert’s little jest impacted me as much as the jest itself. If I was more horrified by the prospect of not being able to read than charmed by the description of Evert’s life as a mom, maybe I wasn’t as maternal as I was supposed to be. Maybe I didn’t have quite the right heart for motherhood. As the seed took root, I started to wonder — did this make me a bad person?

After all, I couldn’t recall reading or seeing a single story in which an admirable heroine decided she didn’t want children. All good girls and women wanted them, if the question came up at all; only shallow, materialistic shrews turned up their noses at motherhood. Nor did I see or read about many girls and women whose work meant to them what reading and writing meant to me, save Anne Shirley and Jo March (which may be why I’m passionately devoted to these characters to this day). Girls in stories, for the most part, had no concrete ambitions, no passions or callings. They were concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with their relationships with others, as if this was where their only real value lay. I know now I should have read the work of Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, whose brave and purposeful heroines would have been a welcome alternative to uninspiring TV characters like Mallory Keaton. But I didn’t know about Pierce or McKinley at the time.

So it fell to my own mother to help me understand my feelings about having children, and to assure me I wasn’t defective or mean for not wanting to become a mother. If I changed my mind later, that would be okay, but if I never did, that would be okay, too. Yet again, my own family helped me by counteracting the messages of popular culture and arming me against them. In the intervening years they’ve stayed on my side. But not every girl or woman is so lucky, and the messages that made me wonder about myself back them have persisted, to pressure new generations. Remember the reason the late comedian Jerry Lewis cited for thinking female comedians weren’t funny?

Jurassic World, anyone?

The sad truth I’ve come to understand is that a lot of people are afraid of women like me. To them, a woman who opts out of motherhood spells the doom of the human race. If she can choose to remain child-free without facing condemnation from the world around her, pretty soon other women will do it, and then all women will do it, and we’ll have a population crisis on our hands. If we open the door to a choice, we can’t control how many people will walk through it. It’s the same fear that once drove the argument against women’s suffrage: if women have the vote, and have options other than depending on their husbands, they’ll soon defect from their domestic duties.

If this is true, then motherhood must really be the worst thing in the world, something no woman would choose if she had any alternative. But in fact, motherhood is a choice multitudes of women embrace with open eyes and hearts. I may be child-free, but I don’t expect other women to be like me. I’m grateful for the women who aren’t. In back of nearly every A student I teach is a mother or mother figure who has done her job well. And few things make me happier than going to Dragon Con and other conventions, seeing the nerdy moms and dads with their kids in full cosplay. Those youngsters might be my readers one day.  (My husband and I once saw a family cosplaying as the family from My Neighbor Totoro.  We both properly geeked out from having our hearts warmed.)

It seems to me that a woman makes a much better mother when she bears and raises children out of genuine desire rather than a sense of obligation. Through such women, the human race will survive and even thrive. Yet we need to understand, once again, that women are not all alike, we’re not all good at the same things, and one woman’s happiness may well be another woman’s Purgatory. Demonizing women who choose not to have children is just one more of our culture’s attempts to impose a sameness on women, to undermine that glorious variety that is all humanity’s gift.

This, then, is the heart of my feminism — to examine, question, and defy those expectations of sameness. To claim individuality and variety for all people, not just a privileged few.

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Growing Up Feminist, Part 2

“It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility; they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;. . . it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more and learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” — Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Star Wars burst onto the scene when I was eight years old. I remember sitting in the theater mesmerized, gazing with awe at the galaxy far, far away, falling in love with R2-D2, and grieving the loss of Obi-Wan. My sister, two years older, also loved it, so naturally we wanted to stage our own Star Wars adventures in our backyard. The problem: which of us would be Princess Leia? Leia was so cool, with her blaster and her white dress and her weird hairstyle, so of course we both wanted to be her. In contests between siblings, the older generally wins, so I ended up having no idea who I would be, since I didn’t want to pretend to be a boy. Apart from Leia, there was no girl character into whose shoes I could happily imagine myself. I don’t recall exactly what I ended up doing, but in the version of Star Wars that ran in my head, R2 was always referred to by female pronouns. I mean, why not?

I understand now that I was searching for something that the stories I grew up with were rarely willing to give me. I wanted the most interesting character in the room to be female, so I imagined a female Water Rat, a female Eeyore, a female Bagheera, a female Fiver. I was happy with these alterations, but far less happy with the characters who were actually female. Either they were the only girl in the galaxy, like Princess Leia, or bland, unadventurous caregivers who spent most of their time on the sidelines, like Kanga in Winnie-the-Pooh, or absent from the story altogether. One striking exception appeared on HBO in the early 1980s: Fraggle Rock, whose two major female characters were funny, frenetic, quirky, and flawed. I would have been happy being either the wild, competitive Red or the dreamy, artistic Mokey, and at different points in my life I’ve identified with each of them. But by that time my sister and I had outgrown our backyard adventures.

It may have occurred to me then to wonder why there weren’t more Reds and Mokeys in my life, why there weren’t more female characters who were as active and engaging as their male counterparts. Mokey and Red were special because 1) there were two of them, which matters more than some are willing to admit; and 2) they had a uniqueness about them, an individuality that not many female characters in my favorite children’s books, movies, and television shows seemed to have. Since then, I’ve made a point of seeking out female characters with that wonderful spark of individual life.

My value of individuality forms the core of my feminism. Behind the concept of strict gender divisions, whether those who advocate them realize it or are willing to admit it, is the notion that women, simply because they are women, share the same set of basic traits that fit them for a range of possibilities far narrower than men’s. A society that demands adherence to these gender divisions only works if all women are nurturing caregivers, all women are content to be relational (daughter, wife, mother) rather than individual, all women are followers rather than leaders, and all women are “not quite as good” as men at any task or skill that lies outside their designated sphere. Men may be politicians, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, inventors, engineers, writers, artists, church leaders, law officers, and film and stage directors, but women must be women first and foremost, as if the gender itself were a calling or occupation. For centuries, in order to make this system work, girls growing up were taught not to think of themselves as too unique (as a character from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall puts it, “You see what it is for women to affect to be different to other people”) and to value themselves in purely relational terms. Yet always, some women have managed to break out of their narrow room, and now we’re starting to wonder just how much potential has gone unfulfilled, unrealized, over the long, long years.

The core of my feminism should be simple common sense. Not all women are alike. We don’t all share the same daydreams, hopes, and ambitions. We don’t all share the same interests, skills, or talents. Each of us has a passion of her own that springs from her uniqueness, and being of a certain gender should not hinder us — any of us — from following that passion. It astonishes me that even now, some folk still have so much trouble accepting this notion.

Yet while I may grind my teeth in frustrations at all the signs of how far we have yet to go, my heart leaps with joy at every sign of progress I see. After all, nowadays, girls who act out Star Wars in their backyards have a number of characters to choose from, girls who move in the thick of adventure and save lives and who are, quite often, the coolest in the room.

Next week: Part 3

 

 

Growing Up Feminist

Part I

“Let husbands know/ Their wives have sense like them. They see, and smell,/ And have their palates both for sweet and sour,/ As husbands have. What is it that they do/ When they change us for others? Is it sport?/ I think it is. And doth affection breed it?/ I think it doth. Is ‘t frailty that thus errs?/ It is so, too. And have we not affections/ Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?”       Othello Act IV, lines 99 – 107

(I can’t help but laugh at how much like plain common sense these words sound, yet how radical they must have seemed to the audience that first heard them.)

I’m not sure how it all started. It may have been once I began to notice all prospective parents in the books I read and movies I saw seemed to long for boys, as if, even in the very womb, girl-children weren’t good enough.

My parents do all they can to ensure my sister and I knew we are loved and valued and they wouldn’t have traded us for a thousand boys. But an idea so deeply ingrained in our culture as the preference for boys can seep through the cracks of the safest house, like toxic smoke. It’s everywhere — in the Bible (in the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, as well as all those women in the Old Testament who prayed desperately for sons or competed to see how many sons they could bear), in history (remember the story of Henry VIII and his quest for a male heir?), and especially in popular culture, in those classic movies on which I cut my teeth.

I couldn’t name every example if I tried; the ones that stick most fast in my memory come from movies I otherwise admire or even love. 1934’s Little Man, What Now? has pregnant Margaret Sullavan (pregnant of course in a 1934 way, so that her figure is maidenly throughout) told repeatedly to pray and hope for a boy because “girls are useless.” In 1939’s Made for Each Other, as James Stewart and Carole Lombard gaze enraptured at their newborn baby son, a cabbie asks them if the baby is a boy or a girl; Lombard replies simply, “What do you think?” as if no girl-baby could possibly inspire such joy as he sees in their faces. In 1941’s Penny Serenade, Cary Grant and Irene Dunne suffer the loss of their adorable adopted daughter, but they’re consoled with a happy ending, as they’re on the phone with the adoption agency and hearing that the boy they wanted in the first place is finally available. Peter Marshall of A Man Called Peter and Dr. Noah Praetorius of People Will Talk, both brilliant men, insist the babes their wives are carrying must be sons. (The latter goes even further and insists that all their future children will be boys.) To have “all boys” is heavenly, as 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips makes clear. For a less admired example, we have comedian Eddie Cantor making a whole career out of jokes about his desperate longing for a son and bitter disappointment at having so many daughters — clearly a laugh riot back in the 1930s, but I wonder if any of Cantor’s daughters ever felt happy and secure in their father’s love as I did in mine.

For me as a young girl and then later a young woman, the worst of it was that it seemed this lust for boy-children, expressed again and again in different ways in different stories, was never critiqued or even called into question. It was presented as natural, as right. Of course boys were preferred. Boys were a sign of a father’s virility (a backward idea with no basis in science), and they just might grow up to change the world. Girls, apparently, had nothing to offer the future, except the promise of more boy-children. This idea may be a remnant of the past, a reflection of a certain time and place, but it nonetheless got under my skin and made me wonder exactly what about me was sub-par, at least in the eyes of the world beyond my own home.

Moreover, the preference for boys isn’t as much a relic of decades gone by as I wish it were. When I read about countries and cultures in which female infanticide is common, or read a statistic stating that men who have sons are less likely to abandon their families because they’re more invested in their boys and anxious to provide a role model, or see an episode of a popular TV show in which a woman, already the mother of two boys, terminates every pregnancy once she learns the baby will be a girl (because “girls are nothing but trouble anyway”), or overhear a conversation at a restaurant in which a mother with three sons tells a waitress how “happy and relieved” she is that none of her children are girls, I get that familiar tense, angry feeling. They still get to me, these signs of the notion that girls, and by extension women, are not and can never be good enough.

When you’re loved within your own family but the outside world sends you messages that you’re less valuable, less important, because you lack a Y chromosome, there are three ways you can respond. You can give in to it, accept the idea that you were born inferior. You can laugh it off. Or you can take the sense of pride and self-worth that your family, against the odds, fostered in you and fight. I’ve gone with the third option. I’m still fighting, in the ways I read and write and teach.

Coming next week: Part 2