This is a complicated topic for me so I’m going to mull rather than follow my usual M.O. and pronounce! I’m really interested in knowing what people think – and please, a real conversation, not a bandwagon holler from one POV or the other. I’d have written this as an op ed piece for one or more of the places where my writing usually appears, but I just didn’t feel as though I’d sorted things out enough myself to opine with any real clarity so here I am: thinking aloud more than saying anything definite, setting a few thoughts down.
From Elizabeth Wurtzel’s most recent nerve-irritating, naval-gazing rant on one end and the lifting of the ban on women in combat at the other, and Ann Sheybani’s musing on why men don’t want you to kick their ass, I’ve been dwelling on the matter of what it means to be female in America, a very different variety of female than is found, say, in Sri Lanka.
The Pentagon ruling, in particular, has made me think deeply about what is expected of women – which is very different from what they are physically capable of doing should the need arise. I acknowledge that there are some who agree with Loudon Wainwright III and the sentiments expressed in his classic, ‘Men,’ (listen below), but I wonder if they are the majority. Maybe they are.
NPR has a quick, five-point run down on the basics of the ruling here, so I won’t go into the technicalities around the decision, I am more interested in talking about what our collective consciousness is about women, particularly as it relates to their sense of worth and the realization of their potential.
I’ve been following the posts following Wurtzel’s piece on Facebook, where 40 something, serially heart-broken women claim she is articulating their particular angst, and where the vast majority of women simply want people like Wurtzel to quit whining about their bourgeois troubles. Elsewhere, there are people screaming about how women in combat positions will have to deal with having to relieve themselves in public, and others – mostly women already in combat – swearing that they have what it takes to fulfill their mission in the military.
In my piece for VQR on feminism I spoke about what it meant to grow up in a culture that expected everything from girls/women – an “everything” that was large enough to include both professional success and a joyous embrace of femininity. And though I take exception with some of what Ann Sheybani’s advocacy, (mostly because it is a predominantly heterosexual dealing with of our gender), I understand exactly what she is talking about. I can find a stool and climb up to fetch myself some vast tin of, say, olive oil from the upper reaches of a supermarket shelf, but I routinely glance around and ask for help from the nearest guy (or a taller woman). If I rent a car and cannot figure out the half a dozen new-fangled operations, I find a guy who can do it for me. A full 100% of the time the men to whom I turn for help oblige with charm and a certain self-conscious delight. I am pretty sure it is not that different from the happy feeling I get when a guy turns to me and says “which shirt do you think might look better with this tie?” When a man runs ahead to hold a door open for me and I turn to smile in thanks, I know there is a moment of mutual recognition that we are both playing a role that is as natural as breathing – where I am grateful for being cared for, and he is grateful for the ability to be a caregiver. And it lasts even if I keep walking on and hold the next door open for him.
We talk so much about the fact that there is violence perpetrated against women and yet we seem, as a culture, more often than not, to ask men not to treat us with any gentleness. To be saying, I can look after myself, you don’t need to. I wonder if this world view reduces us, more than it ever has before, to being simply bodies with female parts, rather than human beings with a feminine air, an air that softens the eye of the beholder and thereby protects us from the body with male parts?
Okay, so I know that all sounds very old-fashioned, Southern-belle, conservative, Republican – none of which I am, ack ack – but I hope that I’m getting close to getting at what I’m thinking here. And before somebody starts throwing the phrase “blame the victim” at me, let me categorically state that I am a strong advocate of all of our usual progressive causes surrounding violence against women in any form.
Some things to ponder: many American men of my generation married non-American women; many women of my generation remain terrifyingly accomplished, impeccably turned out, and alone; a disproportionate number of men end up unhappily married to dreadfully shallow women who are, nonetheless, undoubtedly female; the number of wonderful men married to equally wonderful women is alarmingly low. It’s a WTF moment. And it is particularly true for the young girls and boys whom we are raising right now, the ones who will go off into the future imagining that, somewhere down the line, they will be able to make the right partnership (whatever their sexual orientation), with the right person, that it will all just “happen” because it should, even though nearly everything we are teaching them to be right now stacks the odds against that eventuality.
I’m thinking also about two guys I know, Shann Ray, and Elliott Woods. Shann’s reflection on the women he is surrounded by, for Poets and Writers, captures some of the what I imagine “femaleness” means to a man. And Elliott (who served in the US military and has since returned to cover the war in its aftermath), and I have had many conversations about American masculinity, what has become of it, a conversation that skirts (sorry) the issue of what has become of American femininity. Both of these guys are men among men: solidly in thrall of women, appreciative of their immeasurable gifts and strengths, yet also aware of what they, as men, bring to the table, a warm, care-giving, courageousness that is as humble before fragility as it is brave before challenge.
It makes me think about war. About women heaving 200 pound men fallen in battle back to safety as a way of life, not in a time of dire necessity. About men fighting to “protect a homeland,” yet wondering (setting aside the political discussion of wars and invasions undertaken on a whim), what there is to protect if it is nothing more than themselves. It makes me think of the kids that Sonia Nazario speak of in her book Enrique’s Journey, the ones who say, repeatedly, “yes, she can send us money, but we’d rather have our mother with us here.” About what we create as a culture when we say all of can do everything, yet forget that if all of us do everything then there really is no need for the creation of meaningful relationships with each other, or for the establishment and nurturing of a collective community to which we bring what small or great part it is in us to bring to it.
It makes me think about an exchange with an old friend who has been undergoing a lot of turmoil who said, when I congratulated her on her strength, how tired she was of being strong, how ready she was to embrace that part of her that was fragile and have someone else (in this case her partner), carry her through the tough times. It makes me think of the junior prom, and the beautiful, smart, absolutely amazing girls who went alone, and the equally wonderful boys who also went alone, because the girls did not know how to let the boys know they cared about being asked, and the boys were too intimidated to do the asking of girls who never looked like they needed anything from anybody that they couldn’t get for themselves.
So there’s my thinking for this Sunday. How about you?