Tell Me Everything

Hey again everybody. As I told you, I had surgery a week or so ago. Since then I've been too distracted by pain and the weird pain medication I'm on to concentrate on my own thoughts, so I've been reading like a demon to keep myself company, and I find it interesting to note that for some reason, the type of writing I have the biggest appetite for right now is short-form memoir. Short-form memoir by women, that is. Women who are writing about grief and love, illness and death, their bodies and their families and their drug of choice. The blood and guts of their lives. And god almighty, is there a lot of that kind of writing out there. I've been reading poorly edited junk on xoJane, the guilty pleasure web magazine I feel the need to "check" at least once a day when I'm bored. (Current headlines include: "I Hooked Up with Someone's Boyfriend, and I Don't Feel Guilty." At least someone doesn't feel guilty!) I've been reading better essays on similar (and similarly gendered) subjects in Lenny, Lena Dunham's frankly excellent feminist email newsletter. In today's issue the actress Amanda Peet has a smart, touching piece about her fear of aging, and the admiration she feels for her less-vain sister, who's a physician. Plinking around the internet with no real destination, I discovered an Australian journalist named Julia Baird who writes for the New York  Times' OpEd section, and I read a bunch of her stuff, including a recent piece about the cancerous tumors she had growing in her abdomen. I'm not usually much for medical details but I read all the ones she laid out in that essay, and it was pretty good. The writing, I mean, not the subject matter. That was pretty bad.

From there I found my way to a writer and Moth storyteller named Tara Clancy, who I hadn't heard of before. She's good too! I got a huge kick out of the essay she wrote about the neighborhood bar her dad took her to when she was a kid, and the oddball, loving community they found there. And just this minute I remembered about Samantha Irby, who is one of my new Internet favorites but who I have so far failed to write about on this blog. Not long ago I discovered hers, and found her to be one of the most refreshingly frank and funny writers I have ever read. I plowed through her book of essays, Meaty—it is hilarious and totally original—and am waiting (sort of) patiently for her to finish her second one, which according to Facebook she is writing this very moment. Keep at it, lady!

Let me be clear: I have always been more interested in women's stories than in men's, and I also favor autobiographical work to novels, though I do read a ton of fiction. Memoir is the kind of writing I do myself, in my essays, zines, and books. These stories give me life, as both a writer and a reader. In the week or so since I got sick I haven't had the energy to read much long-form writing, but I have started one book: Eileen Myles' Chelsea Girls, which she calls a novel but is understood to be based on her own life. It's as wonderful as I expected it to be, and even more unusual.

But I'm surprised to find how much I've needed it now, this female company. Why do I find it so comforting, and so useful, to hear women talking truthfully about their own lives? Maybe I don't have enough female closeness in my life (though honestly, I talk to my mother so much, and so exclusively, that a pair of walkie talkies would be as useful to me as my overpriced cell phone). Maybe it has to do with, ya know, SOCIETY, and the fact that women's behavior is so circumscribed that we don't often say how we feel in a day-to-day kind of way. Whatever causes it, I have the the most intense longing to hear people tell the truth, and it never goes away.

Memoir is tinged with a certain sense of inferiority, at least in the eyes of the kinds of writers who think they need an MFA in order to be writers—though there are plenty of folks who break through the stigma of it in order to be respected as serious artists, as Myles has. (But then, she's a poet first.) Writing fiction "from life" is looked down on, too. I think this attitude is stupid, and I have developed a pet theory about it as well: I think it's sexist. So-called domestic fiction, "personal" essays—hell, anything where the writer cops to having, like, FEELINGS—these are so often the areas of expertise of women writers, and that is the only reason they are considered less worthwhile, less intellectual, less important. Don't tell me it's because there are so many bad memoirs. There is so much bad EVERYTHING, and you don't rule out whole categories of experience because you didn't like that one thing you had that one time. I'm not gonna stop eating pizza entirely because they make it too greasy at the place around the corner. STRETCH YOURSELF, PEOPLE.

Lucky for me, I don't give a flying fuck on a rolling doughnut—I got that from the comments section on xoJane!—about literary careerism and elitist nonsense. That's why I know that good writing is all around us, waiting to be discovered—because I'll read literally anything, just to see what I think. Some of the best things I've read have been in zines and on blogs that few others have read, and were written by people who will most likely never find a large audience for their work.

Anyway, when all's said and done, reading other people's personal discoveries—whether they arrive at them within a perfect poem, or in the shimmering moments of a beautiful, lyrical novel, or at the end of a painful essay, like a birth—this gives me more joy and wisdom, entertainment and company, than almost anything else. It feels fucking good to write the truth, too. It's like Myles says in Chelsea Girls: "I always think it's such a secret story, this one, I just need to tell this story for me or else I will burst." (Me too.) "It's lonely to be alive and never know the whole story. Everyone must walk with that thought. I would like to tell everything once, just my part, because this is my life, not yours."

And it does, it feels like a secret, it is a secret until you tell it.

 

Storming the Castle

Well THAT was a fucking letdown. JEEZ. When was the last time someone you greatly admired gave a talk that made you feel so confounded and pissed off and disappointed that you literally ran out into the night but still missed your train, and then in your pain and confusion got on the wrong train and ended up in a suburb you've never even heard of even though you grew up taking these stupid trains because the one you got on by accident was an EXPRESS, and then you had to call home for a ride cuz it was cold and you were wretched? What, that hasn't happened to you? Well I guess you were smart enough not to place your emotional and psychological well-being in the hands of the Penn Humanities Forum last night.

I've been looking forward to hearing Terry Castle give her talk at Penn for months now. It was initially scheduled for November and then got pushed back to February. No problem, my calendar flips by at an alarming rate these days anyway, so I decided I could handle the wait. But this is thing—I really, really looked forward to this. I love(d) Terry Castle. I have thought of her as a genius. She is so funny, and has such a fine, nuanced, unusual mind that she's one of my favorite critics to read on contemporary culture and queer and gender issues, and one of my favorite writers, period, when it comes to the even more personal stuff that she writes about, i.e., her own life. She teaches at Stanford in California, so getting to see her at a university right here at home (the one I graduated from, go Quakers!), was a rare treat. She was appearing as part of a yearly, academic-year-long conference called the Humanities Forum that is open to the public and pretty reliably excellent. Every year I look through the schedule and choose a few lectures that I am excited to attend, and this year I hit the ceiling when I saw one of them would be given by one of my personal writing heroes. I could go hear Terry Castle say surprising, funny stuff in person, for free! Lucky me.

Maybe I should tell you that I gave some thought to what I'd wear to this lecture, because I think, rather a lot, about what I'll wear every time I go anywhere, and about what those clothes—and other aspects of my physical appearance—might communicate to the people who will see me. In the end, I chose my trusty skin-tight black jeans because I think they're becoming AND cool. I wore a little makeup, too, like I usually do. None of this was a very big deal and it didn't take me away from my more SERIOUS, INTELLECTUAL interests for any longer than, say, I don't know, putting on aftershave or organizing my fucking fishing lures would have done. Just so you know.

The talk was held in Penn's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, which happens to be one of my favorite places in the world. We knew the subject of the lecture: "I'm not a woman, I'm a not-a-woman," which was Castle's own coinage (obvi) to describe that unusual sort of woman who manages to live outside of the constraints of expectations of behavior and attitude that are typically placed on women. People who "fail" to "be women," either willfully or because they can't help it. It's an interesting idea, and one I've given a lot of thought to myself.

Castle's list of Western women through history who met these criteria—most of them artists or dramatic performers, since that's her own personal bent—was a kind of queer history, but it was more complex than that. Claud Cahun, Eleanor Roosevelt, Madonna, Susan Sontag, Susan Boyle, H.D., Gertrude Stein. What do they all have in common? They are "not-a-woman" women. Some of them are gay, some aren't. Some are cross-dressers, and some are skilled at and interested in cultivating the kind of female beauty that appeals to straight men. Some do not possess those skills but seem basically unaware of this fact, so uninterested in it are they. In one way or another, all of them have managed to circumvent, ignore, flout, or knowingly use to their own purposes the traditional gender role of a [heterosexual] woman.

It's an interesting and provocative topic, though I'm sorry to say I didn't find what she had to say about it especially deep or enlightening. I kept waiting for her to surprise me with these points, and she didn't, much. This didn't make me want to throw rotten eggs at her, though. That impulse came later, when Castle got to the part she prefaced by saying "You may want to get out your rotten eggs to throw at the stage now." That's when she read a passage from Karl Abraham on the female castration complex that frankly stunned me. I wish I could share the damn excerpt but I haven't been able to find it because I don't know what she was reading from. Abraham was Freud's collaborator and best student, and Castle herself admitted to being a mostly unreconstructed Freudian, so brace yourself: She read two paragraphs in which Abraham explained that women wish they were men, whether they realize it or not. It's like a penis envy thing, ya dig?

Does this seem true to Terry Castle? It does, yes. Does she think that an attraction to masculinity or a masculine presentation indicates a desire to be a man? Yep, she thinks that too. Hideously, Castle's (admittedly anecdotal) evidence that all women would like to be men is that, when she has asked some women whether they would have chosen to be born male, if they had been given that option before birth and all other things being equal, they either said yes, perhaps they would, or they threw up such "walls" of anger or denial that they must simply be kidding themselves, and on some down-deep, sublimated, fucking Freudian subconscious level do actually wish they were men. So here we have Castle gas-lighting the people who disagree with her, which I must say is very ... manly of her. She gave the weirdest little half-apologetic, half-angry, "what do you want me to say" sort of smile after she said these things. Like, Don't get mad at me! It's nature! Or perhaps, This is awful and I feel bad, but I'm saying it anyway. Also, fuck you!

Castle's penis envy idea struck me as boring and dumb and wrong, since I—a real person, who was sitting right there—am a woman who likes being a woman. Theory debunked, dog! And you know, what exactly does Castle mean by "being a man"? She never really said. I assumed she meant having access to experiences, or to a way of being in the world, that women have historically not had (though some of us do now, sort of). But maybe she meant having a penis, plain and simple. Do you wish you had a penis, those of you who do not currently have one? Yes? No? If you answered yes, would that prove Castle's point? Does the penis make the man? Aren't these questions kind of retro? I grow tired.

But not too tired to go on complaining about this, because I had another problem with Castle's talk, and that was the way she discussed gender vis a vis transgenderism. As I understood her, she seemed to be saying that she considers a person who is making a male-to-female gender transition to be a sort of polar opposite of her because of their desire to be a woman, or perhaps an exaggerated example of a cisgendered woman who really enjoys "being a woman," in the sense that she likes those social markers of, maybe, wearing long hair and / or makeup and / or pretty "women's" shoes. Like, no. Not all transwomen like those things and want them for themselves, first of all. And as I understand it, that's not the fuck at all what being transgender is about. I mean, being a transwoman might include desiring to "look like" a woman and / or enjoy girly things like experimenting with different types of makeup, and maybe in a larger sense also gaining membership to the sisterhood of understanding and sharing those things with other women. MAYBE. SOMETIMES. Just as many cis-women do not wear makeup and / or subjugate themselves to men in order to attract them (you're not the only one, Terry Castle!), many transwomen do not do those things either. Anyway, as I understand it, a transwoman is a person who was assigned the gender identity of male at birth but who knows that they are actually female, and any outer expression of this (via manner of dress, a name change, or a change in bodily presentation that may or may not be surgical) is an expression of the gender that was already there. I winced down to my toes listening to her talk about these "men" who "want to be" "women." Did I misunderstand her? I might have, that's totally possible. Please tell me I did.

She brought up Caitlyn Jenner a couple times, once to say that some comment Caitlyn made in an interview that she just wants to share makeup tips with her girlfriends (or something to that effect) was incomprehensible to her. Which, okay, fine, it's a big world, there's room for Caitlyn Jenner's AND Terry Castle's differing attitudes toward makeup in it. But she also said that she considers this kind of activity to be so pointless and degrading that she can't understand why anyone would choose it. Huh? This is gender studies? Sounds more like some Cool Girl shit to me.

One of the ideas Castle brought up that I rather liked was her suggestion that some Not-a-Woman women are Femme Fatales: She named Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich, Madonna and Lady Gaga. (Interestingly, these Femme Fatales are all also "gay icons," a fact I don't remember Castle bringing up.) She considers them to be outsider women, but ones who are interested enough in worldly gain that they knowingly, self-consciously amp up those feminine markers in order to get what they want. (Unlike lowlier, regular, yes-a-woman women, I guess, who just brainlessly, helplessly participate in some master-slave set-up every time they look in the mirror and put on their lipgloss.)

Is this feminism? Hahaha, nope, but then Castle didn't say it was. It's not scholarly either, a fact she also acknowledged. So what is it then? A personal, idiosyncratic, mostly eloquent disquisition on the subject of gender. There's a place for that, for sure. Furthermore, I greatly appreciate a little controversy in these kinds of conversations. After all, her talk got me writing this blog post, trying to articulate my own ideas, and I'm thankful for that. Nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned conversation starter. I just—I'm shocked at how poorly thought-out her ideas seemed to be, and how insulting her perspective on the topic was. Sitting there, I felt humiliated, as though she'd tripped me just for the pleasure of watching me fall down.

There are two more things to say about last night's lecture. First, Castle told us that she's only presented the ideas in this talk once before (she didn't say where), and there were some prominent feminists in the crowd, Vivian Gornick among them. Apparently she was ENRAGED. Second, Heather K. Love, the Penn professor who was the Topic Director for the Humanities Forum this year, introduced Castle by saying that she agrees with the people who have called Castle our greatest living critic. Hearing this made me smile, since I've been so admiring of Castle too. Then, after Castle had gone off the rails and wrecked her train right there in the auditorium—and during the Q&A—Love chimed in with something useful. She said that she has long been interested in the same women Castle mentioned, for the same sorts of reasons, and that she personally sympathizes with Castle's lack of interest in makeup (or whatever; I'm having the damnedest time encapsulating the "regular woman" category), but she likes to keep her personal taste separate from her politics and would like to see enough change in the world that no one should have to conflate wanting equality with wanting to be a man.

So thank goodness for Heather K. Love. But I still have so many thoughts.

I am reminded of a talk I heard last year, given by the extraordinary war photographer Lynsey Addario. She has made beautiful pictures of, among other subjects, Afghan women living with extreme restrictions on their daily lives. Addario is interested in, and actively seeks, justice for women around the world. And yet someone in the audience asked some question or other about these women, and Addario reminded us that many of the women she met in Afghanistan are happy and that, though they were all too well-mannered to say such a thing, she knew many of them felt sorry for her, putting herself at risk to do her work, alone; what some of us see as personal liberty is viewed by some others as the unfortunate circumstance of a person who has no one to care for them. Make no mistake, yours is not the only way of looking at the world.

I'm also thinking about the Barbara Pym novel I read a few weeks ago. It's one of her first, Excellent Women, a hilarious and touching comedy of manners that deals with midcentury, just-after-the-war-and-still-all-bombed-out-and-deprived England. More specifically, the England of bachelor vicars and their quirky households, "nice" families with comically impeccable manners, socially awkward lonelyhearts, blazing eccentrics, and spinsters. OMG, spinsters. There are few topics dearer to my heart than that one. Spinsters, bluestockings, Pippi Longstockings, Ramona Clearys, Jessica Vyes. Tomboys! I'm straight—and now I'm married, to a man—and I have aligned myself with all of these identities for at least some part, but more or less all, of my life.

In Excellent Women—in the Jane Austen tradition—we have a main character who is an unmarried woman over the age of 30 and who ponders that situation pretty often. Mildred Lathbury lives alone in a flat with a shared bathroom in a boarding house, and because she is churchy and not married, she finds herself lumped in with a category of women who can always be counted on to help her married friends with their more sophisticated problems. She is one of the condescendingly-referred-to "excellent women" who are always on hand serve the tea. In a piece on Pym for The Guardian, the novelist Alexander McCall Smith writes, "Men, young and otherwise, were to form a major focal point of [Pym's] writing; men, wryly and sometimes wistfully observed by a single female character, bring both excitement and disappointment - and mostly the latter - to the heroines of all her books. Excellent Women is as much about men as it is about women; the excellent women who populate this novel are excellent because they have been described as such by men."

The wonderful joke of the book is that Mildred doesn't view her life as dire at all; if anything she seems to feel a bit above the silliness of romance. She has almost-romances, though, and goes on dates, and her observations of these are hilarious. She sometimes feels lonely or left out, but she also seems curiously undriven to get to the social place where her married friends dwell. The wistful thing that Smith mentions is also certainly there; she has a touch of the kind of admiration of men that Castle talked about, though Pym's treatment of it was vastly less ham-fisted than hers. Mildred is a type of woman that has always interested me, probably because, in my commitment to singleness and the vocation of my writing, I was so much this way myself for such a long time. Why do these ladies not want to do what most women want, or feel obliged, to do? In what way are they different? Why do some women remain different in these ways even after marrying? (Frida Kahlo, with her bisexuality and separate house away from her husband, comes to mind; she was incidentally one of Castle's not-a-woman women too.) The answers are as varied as there are types of individuals, and failing to acknowledge this on a deep level seems like simple misogyny to me, which feels like the worst kind of treachery coming from a woman who loves women.

I don't know, dude. It was bad enough to make me get on the wrong flippin train. Maybe I should stay in tonight.

That girl, she holds her head up so high I think I wanna be her best friend

Years ago, when I was trying my hand at internet dating, I made friends with a guy from one of those sites, and we'd sometimes talk over the chat function. I asked him whether he'd ever gone out with a girl from another website, and he told me no, because "There are too many sluts on there." "WOW, I can't believe you just said that to me," I answered. "I don't like that word. Don't say that about anyone." In response, he sent me a girl's profile photo from the site, in which she was leaning over toward the camera with the word "slut" written across her chest.

Huh.

Showing me that photo didn't excuse his calling her (or anyone else) a gendered slur, especially when he was talking to another woman, in my opinion. But it was thought provoking. What does it mean when a woman calls herself a slut, as opposed to when a guy calls her that? How about when other girls are the ones saying it, and everyone involved is 11 years old? Or when it's the 90s and it's Kathleen Hanna, and she's performing on stage and she's mad as hell?

slu*t

And what about now? Where do we stand with the word slut? I think it depends on who you ask.

In 2011 the Slutwalk was born. If you're unfamiliar with that event you can read about it all over the internet, but in a nutshell, a group of women at a college in Toronto were enraged when a cop who had come to their campus to share self-defense techniques with them suggested that women could avoid physical attacks from men by not dressing in a "slutty" way. It wouldn't have been the first time they'd had that idea run past them, I can tell you that. But I guess they were wishing it would be the last. They organized a rally that they called the Slutwalk, and the idea--and, I daresay, the name--caught on all around the world. We did a Slutwalk here in Philadelphia that year, and I was proud to participate in it. I met up with everybody in a small park downtown, and we marched with our signs and chants through the streets to City Hall, where speakers addressed the crowd.

But I had such complicated feelings about that name. I liked the idea of angrily taking it back--a la those riot grrrl punks who I so admired as a teenager trapped in a Catholic school lockdown--but, I don't know, I didn't really want to say it. I surely didn't want to write it--not on my sign, which bore the slogan "DON'T PARTICIPATE IN GIRL HATE"--and not on my body.

I had to take the subway to the rally because I have to take the subway (or the bus, or the train) everywhere, because I don't drive. Staying safe in public is something I spend a portion of every day thinking about, and that day was no different. Riding public transportation alone with the word SLUT anywhere on my person seemed like a bad idea.

I'm not mad that the event was called the Slutwalk; I get it, and more than anything I appreciate being asked to think about these ideas in more, and more nuanced, ways. But I was far from the only one who had issues with it. That day at City Hall, one of the speakers was the filmmaker Aishah Shahidah Simmons, who said that she initially planned to skip the protest altogether because of the name, but decided to agree to speak about that very idea. She explained that many Black women in particular felt alienated or attacked by that word because they don't have the same privilege white women do to "reclaim" it. What I heard was that the use of the word SLUT is one more way in which non-white women are made to feel ostracized from Feminism with a Capital F, which is so often, and so destructively and annoyingly, a white, middle-class, ivory tower sort of thing. Simmons' talk (and other voices as well) made a big impact on me, and on the rally's organizers too. The event has been renamed (somewhat clunkily) The March to End Rape Culture, and it's still going strong. We'll be marching again on October 3rd, which is why I've been thinking about this damn word again.

I've been reading SLUT, a play developed by Katie Cappiello, Meg McInerney, and the members of The Arts Effect All-Girl Theater Company. It's a fictional story about a rape that was inspired by true events (which ought to go without saying) and is told in the realistic voices of girls in high school. In the print edition I'm reading, the play is preceded by several teenage girls telling their own stories of victimization around this word and its ideas. It's one story after another of bullying, school-administration bullshit, humiliation, confusion, coercion, and sometimes physical attacks. These stories are disturbing because they are so very ordinary. They're coming-of-age stories, in a way. I'd go so far as to say that no girl gets to grow up without being initiated into the SLUT mindset, and for many of us it's a violent introduction. It makes me so angry, thinking of older women having gone through this stuff before me, and young women dealing with those same things now, but some days it just makes me feel blue.

But you know, the heart is a muscle the size of your fist: keep loving, keep fighting. The organizers of the March to End Rape Culture have been selling original art to raise funds for the event, so I spent a couple weeks embroidering the words NO, NOPE, and NO SIR! onto pretty floral tea towels. I'm going to make another sign and march again. (I think this year's one will read TRUST GIRLS on one side and BELIEVE WOMEN on the other.) I've got my TRANS-INCLUSIVE FEMINISM ALWAYS badge to wear, and I'll sew my self-defense patch onto the back of my sweater: It's a picture of a woman kicking a dude in the crotch. I like it because when I first saw it, it made me smile. Once in a while, though, it makes me cry.