I’m Still Here! (And Calling for Your Input)

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Hello, Bloggersphere!

I just wanted to let you all know that I haven’t abandoned ship. As the holiday season gets into full swing, I’ve been really busy with the usual: planning, shopping, and rehearsing for my show with the Alexandria Singers (if you live in the Northern Virginia/DC Metro area, please consider coming to see Reflections on December 9th or 10th!).

Of course, one of my New Year’s resolutions will be to write more and write better. What have been some of your biggest New Year’s resolution successes or failures?

I’d also like to take this short post as an opportunity to solicit your ideas! I’m looking for writing topics, questions, or inspiration: absolutely anything would be great, but some of my favorite topics to write on are current events; feminism; history; mental health (I’m particularly familiar with depression, anxiety, and addiction); and politics.

What questions do you want me to answer? What do you want my take on?

I’m hoping to write before Christmas, but in case I don’t, Merry Christmahanukwanzakah to you! I am so grateful to you all for reading, following, sharing, and commenting. It means the world to me.

 

Our Shallow Vision of The Strong Woman

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I love Rosie the Riveter. For those who do not know, Rosie the Riveter was an image used in propaganda encouraging housewives to take on factory jobs during World War II to make up for the deficit of male workers (who were off fighting in the war) in munitions manufacturing. This and similar propaganda were largely successful. In 1943, women composed 65% of the workforce in the U.S. aircraft industry. Rosie’s image can be seen to the right in my blog layout (if you’re on a computer. It doesn’t appear in the mobile version).

Rosie is the first typical archetype one may conjure when thinking of “strong women.” One feature of Rosie’s likeness is a prominent flexed muscle. Rosie is the woman who can do all the things a man can do, and arguably can do it better. She rises to the challenge, does what needs to be done. In short, she kicks ass. Similar fictional and real women fitting this archetype include Joan of Arc, Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Katniss Everdeen, Wonder Woman, and lesser known Deborah Sampson (known to her fellow American Revolutionaries as “Robert Shirtliffe” until her gender was discovered by a doctor and she was discharged from the Continental Army).

Another prominent (although I would argue less valued) archetype of the strong woman is “the brain.” She’s brilliant, she makes connections that others overlook, and without her presence, all plots, plans, and intellectual and philosophical progress stagnate. My personal favorite hero in this archetype, and I think of all time thanks to a childhood shaped by the Harry Potter saga, is Hermione Granger. Also included in this category may be figures like Simone De Beauvoir and Marie Curie.

Then there is my personal favorite class of strong women: the political ones. Fictional and non-fictional personae fitting this category include President Mackenzie Allen (from Commander and Chief), our beloved Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler in Parks and Rec), Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Margaret Thatcher (for better or for worse), Eleanor Roosevelt, Condoleezza Rice, and Michelle Obama.

You’ll (hopefully) notice that from this list of archetypes, and even my self-professed favorites, there’s a deficit of women of color, with only two recent exceptions who I think would be considered universally well-known and popular. My omissions here are deliberate, because I believe that the overwhelming majority of strong women archetypes are white, which is a gross deviation from the real composition of strong women in our world. Where we think of Susan B. Anthony, we omit Sojourner Truth. While we all know Marie Curie, we’re just now learning about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan thanks to the upcoming film Hidden Figures (scheduled only for limited theatrical release). Perhaps Emily Dickinson is more likely to come to mind when pondering female poetry, while Maya Angelou falls to the wayside. And frankly, it’s difficult to find a universally popular black female action hero aside from Halle Berry’s brilliant depiction of Catwoman (later given to Anne Hathaway in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series).

Aside from our overwhelmingly whitewashed vision of female heroism in the U.S. and other W.A.S.P-y countries, what actually prompted me to think about our vision of female strength was criticism of the character Queenie from the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film. A pop culture article that appeared on my Facebook news feed professed that clairovyants (Queenie) are dumb:

Does she [J.K. Rowling] think people like Queenie Goldstein and Professor Trelawney who use legilimency are dim when it comes to dealing with people because of their psychic gift?

For those who have yet to see the film, Queenie is a “legilimens” (mind reader), depicted on the surface as a stereotypical 1920’s floozy. The assertion by whoever wrote this article (fraught with errors, by the way; Trelawney was not a legilimens) that she is daft and has little depth drove me insane. In fact, I argue that Queenie represents an archetype of the strong woman that we prefer to ignore and often consider to be at odds with feminism: that of a woman who uses her sexuality and the shallow perception of herself by others to her advantage.

A similar figure would be Marilyn Monroe, who alongside her often overlooked acting and modeling chops, carefully leveraged  her sexuality and manipulated the world’s perception of her to build a wildly successful career.

Consider also Lena Horne, who used a combination of talent, beauty, sex appeal, and determination to rise to prominence in Hollywood, a status that typically eluded African American performers and artists in her day. Lena also is an example of the brilliant minds that propel the success of women who are often dismissed as simply “a pretty face.” A testament to her brilliance, she ended up being blacklisted for her political activism in the Civil Rights Movement.

We should recognize this strength and talent as what it truly is: a subcategory of “the brain.” Queenie and her real-life parallels are proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s easy to write these women off as hopeless flirts good for little but some entertainment — beauty with no remarkable talent to back it up. This is a huge mistake.

My hope is that as we become increasingly aware and celebratory of the diversity of women’s strengths, our vision of the strong woman will expand to include not only the action heroes, the “I can do anything a man can” women, the smart women, and the politicians, but also the mothers, the romantics, the “silent but deadly” ones. Most importantly, beyond recognizing a broader array of archetypes, we need to recognize that women of all colors and races, women of all sexualities,  women of all levels of ability/disability, women of all ages, and women of all walks of life are strong simply by virtue of being women.

The Self-Consciously Intellectual Mind

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It’s a criticism I’ve heard my whole life: “You think you’re better than everyone else.” “You’re a know-it-all.”

It started before I hit middle school, and it wasn’t long before the impact became clear. Dumbing myself down. Achieving less. Talking back to teachers. Not paying attention. Not doing homework.

If I could go back in time, I would give my younger self the words to explain why I constantly talked to people about ideas and things they did not care about, or why I used ridiculous words. I want to tell her to stop being ashamed and saying, “I’m sorry,” when people conveyed that she was an annoyance. And I want to explain to everyone who criticized her that she was just trying to connect.

I still carry that complex with me. Following social interactions, I worry that I said too much, too frantically. I constantly feel the need to explain, “I’m sorry, I’m just excited about this,” or that the strange word I just used is actually a genuine part of my vocabulary. When I’m in the middle of talking and the people I’m with stop listening, it’s devastating. Then comes the self-deprecation: I was boring; I was annoying; I was unlikeable.

In the feminist vein, it’s generally accepted that I’m not alone in feeling self-conscious expressing intellectual ideas, discussing the esoteric, leading a discussion, or asserting myself in a formal or informal debate. This especially comes into play in the workplace and in politics. Women are trained to beware of seeming bossy, stiff, know-it-all, and arrogant. This manifests in a muting of their true capacity to speak and lead with force. Worse, this manifests in their avoidance of stepping up to lead at all.

Looking at our most timely example, these competing tensions have played out constantly in Hillary Clinton’s career. Last year, Jimmy Fallon joked with Clinton, “Is it possible you have too much experience to become president of the United States?” Much like all comedy, Fallon’s quip strikes the heart of a real problem that defined this election again. Hillary’s extensive resume could not overcome her “likeability” deficit. Meanwhile, Trump, who is neither experienced nor conventionally likeable, will be our next president. Hillary fell victim to the “double bind” that all smart women do at some time, if not many times, in their lives.

Women who are competent and forceful… are seen by both sexes as unlikable, unfeminine, aggressive, conniving and untrustworthy – what Heilman called “your typical constellation of ‘bitchy’ characteristics.”

Studies have found that this hypothesis sticks. In one experiment conducted by professors at Columbia and NYU, an extensive resume was distributed to survey participants. Half of the resumes indicated the applicant’s name was “Heidi.” The other half called the applicant “Howard.” The resumes were all identical.

After the survey participants read the resumes, they concluded Heidi and Howard were both competent, but described Heidi as “overly aggressive, selfish and not someone you’d want to work with.” Howard was described as “likable and a good colleague.”

The likeability dilemma may soon come into play for all “intellectuals” as a (frankly terrifying) anti-intellectual attitude becomes prevalent in our general culture and, most disconcertingly, our Executive Branch (with the impending power accorded to climate change and evolution deniers, xenophobes, and white supremacists). I implore my fellow bookworms, geeks, nerds, and brainiacs to have the courage to refuse to fall in line.

If we want a role in civic life, we will perhaps all need to learn the tedious and exhausting balancing act that is “likeability politics.” But please, please, do not abandon your books. Do not abandon your inquisitiveness. Do not abandon your debates, your writing, and your experiments. I have felt the pressure to do this my entire life but increasingly recognize that if I succumb, I am shortchanging myself, my family, and frankly anyone who may gain even just a spark of wisdom or the slightest factoid from me.

A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down

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I know I’m not the only one who has gone (or attempted to go) on a self-imposed news media blackout since the election. Personally, I think it’s a great idea. This election pretty much swallowed us all whole, and we need to be reminded that there is a world going on around us that isn’t in print.

My typical news media consumption is (was?) as follows:

  • Facebook: all… freakin’… day
  • Twitter: Less often, but still all… freakin’… day.
  • The Express: When I get to the train station in the morning to go to work, I grab a copy of the free Washington Post newspaper, the Express, and read it on the train. It’s the perfect length to take me from departure to arrival.
  • MSN.com: It’s my homepage at work and I can’t help but read a few pieces from the headlines.
  • Apple News: I intermittently skim the headlines on my iPhone and if something is particularly interesting/breaking I read the article.
  • Comments sections on items 1 and 3 (danger! toxic! turn back!)

On item number 1, I’ll openly confess I failed miserably. For the rest, I started by beginning to refuse my daily Express. This in itself was difficult, because the workers who hand out the Express seem so excited to hand you your paper in the morning. Turning it down felt like a personal affront to them (though it was a bit easier when the worker said, “It’s not Hump Day; it’s Trump Day! Get your Express!”). From there on, I’d say I did pretty well avoiding all the other outlets.

But today, exactly one week from the election, I’ve terminated my media blackout, completely without any preexisting intent to do so. It ended exactly where it had started: the Express. This morning, I came down the stairs at the station and the worker said, “Good morning, young lady!” and handed me the paper. I could see a little tuft of Trump’s hair printed on the cover, so I knew immediately that receiving this particular edition completely quashed my intentions of “phasing” myself back in. It was like intending only to stick your feet in the shallow end at the pool party, when some big bully comes along and pushes you right into the deep end with your clothes still on.

I kept walking toward the train, trying to decide whether I’d toss (recycle!) the paper or read it. This was a particularly difficult decision, given the cover was a picture of Trump, Stephen Bannon, and the headline “Trump’s alt-right right-hand man.”

I read the paper. And there were things I already knew in there that made me angry. There were things I didn’t already know in there that made me angry. But there were also things I didn’t know in there that made me happy:

  • The three year project to rebuild the Capitol’s dome is finally complete. Bonus: during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was put under pressure to delay the construction until the end of the war, but he insisted construction proceed, in order to display faith in the Union.
  • High school students in Maryland organized their own protests and took to the streets and returned to class after. D.C. is planning the same for today. Wow! These are teenagers!
  • A bookstore in Wyoming requires customers to put away their laptops, phones, and tablets in the store, with a sign in the store saying, “Take a break! Live like it’s 1993, emails can wait.”
  • Oreo has come out with a chocolate bar!
  • Ed Sheeran and his mom have donated a bunch of his outfits and memorabilia to benefit East Anglia’s Children’s Hospices in the U.K.

To some, items 3 through 5 might seem trivial – “well that’s nice, but so what?” But what I noticed in reading this paper is that truly balancing my reading is what made the bad news (i.e.: Stephen Bannon) bearable. And being able to bear the bad news means that I was able to avoid being completely consumed by it.

I think one of the reasons I shunned the news after the election is because I was really afraid of being regularly consumed by the fear and grief that I felt on election night, and frankly the entire fiasco of the “campaign” leading up to it. But placing some weight on the good news, and yes, even the fluff news, helps us to digest the bad and troubling news. And once you’ve digested the bad news, you can move forward to decide how you will react to it, and what action, if any, you will take.

Am I okay with Stephen Bannon exerting influence at the White House? Absolutely not. Does being happy about the Oreo chocolate bar make my disgust for him any less valid? Absolutely not. Does it impair my capacity to react to what I see as bad governance/a storm up ahead? Absolutely not! In fact, bringing Bannon back to the forefront of my consciousness early in the morning was probably a good thing, as unpleasant as it may have been.

So my message today is balance. Balance your consumption of media. Balance your disgust with your joy. Balance your pauses and your action.

And don’t be afraid to read the paper.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

More Than the Sum of Your Parts

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This morning, a former classmate of mine from high school posted this article on Facebook: Dear Liberals, Here’s The Letter You Can Give To Your Daughters. This old classmate supported Trump in the election and has expressed frustration with the derogatory labeling of Trump voters as racists, sexists, xenophobes, etc. She is among one of the bright, friendly, and ordinary people I know who voted for Trump. I would never call her, or most of the other Trump voters I personally know racist, sexist, or xenophobic (although, some of them definitely are, but let’s face it; in certain ways we are all racist, sexist, and xenophobic). So seeing this article, I was eager to see if it would lend some of the insight that I’ve been looking for. It did not provide that vital insight into why women vote for Trump that I was looking for, but demonstrated once again that whether Right or Left, no side “gets” the other.

The article of course attacks Hillary as a liar, self-interested, etc.; it predictably attacks liberal policies as raising taxes and getting cuddly with terrorists. I’ve grown to accept those characterizations will not go away. But what really gets under my skin, like a god damn splinter right under the fingernail, is the following passage:

Hillary and her slobbering feminist followers thought you’d only vote on certain issues and certain issues alone. They wanted to believe that you only care about abortion, access to birth control, parental leave and the mythical gender wage gap. They think they’re empowering you, but they’re not. They’re demeaning you. They’re assuming that you– a fully capable and competent citizen who happens to have a vagina– only care about issues related to your reproductive organs. That’s demeaning to you. They assume you don’t care about policies unrelated to your gender. What about the unemployment rate? Taxes? The national debt? National security? Fixing the VA? Immigration reform? Welfare reform? Regulatory reform? They automatically assume that you couldn’t care less about those issues.

If I wasn’t in the middle of a chorus rehearsal when I read it, I would have screamed, “No, no, NO!”

Not only do I resent being called a slobbering feminist (although I don’t take myself so seriously that I can’t admit to slobbering in my sleep), but I also am deeply troubled that the feminist movement is reduced to a small itinerary of issues (stereotypically revolving around sex and reproduction), not only by men, but by women too.

I want to take this out of the context of the presidential race just a moment, because I want my points to be made, unattached to Hillary Clinton and the gender dynamics of this race. To me, it has always been evident that feminism (as a philosophy) is the only logical road for me to be on. Why wouldn’t I want women to be empowered to chase their dreams and given the same tools and freedom men are to pursue them? Feminism as a political movement is a bit trickier because of how exclusionary of minorities and LGBT women it has been. But I still have felt an intimate connection with feminism, so long as it continues to evolve toward greater inclusion and intersectionality.

But what I have never, ever felt as a member of the feminist movement is reduced to my reproductive organs. In fact, it is because I am so much more than a vessel for reproduction that I feel a commitment toward advancing “the women’s agenda” (as if the “women’s agenda” is uniquely beneficial to women alone). Advocating for reproductive rights is a huge part of my personal agenda. Granted. But it is precisely because I think women are so bright, diverse, and such valuable civic participants with wildly untapped potential that I am a feminist.

Now, deciding which candidate to support (once Bernie was out) was easy for me, because in terms of policy, I am staunchly on the Left to begin with. That’s not my gender; that’s just who I am and what I think government’s role should be. But the thing that’s really heartbreaking to me about this article (or infuriating, depending on what you think the intentions of the author are) is that the writer wants her readers to believe that feminists and liberals think women only care about issues related to their gender. This is simply not so.

It is because I believe my fellow women have just as much capacity to think about and form opinions on these issues as men that I proudly call myself a feminist. Though our participation in political life is strengthening, women are still vastly underrepresented in political leadership. Women account for approximately 50% of the population, yet we occupy only 19.4% of seats in Congress and 24.4% of state legislatures. The figures are even more disappointing for women of color, occupying only 6% and 5.4% of seats in Congress and state legislatures, respectively.

Reproductive rights, the gender wage gap (which is not mythical), birth control, and parental leave aren’t on the feminist agenda just because they affect women. They get a lot of attention on the feminist agenda because our legislatures, primarily composed of males, are voting on these matters that disproportionately affect women, without sufficient direct participation from women. And it further seems that many legislators tend to take stances on these matters that are to the detriment of women.

So as a feminist, do I think these matters should take precedence above all other policy considerations? Of course not. We all come from different places and are colored by different experiences that form our priorities. And perhaps your prioritization of matters will dictate that you vote for candidates on the Right. I accept that even though I may not always understand it. But I will not accept the accusation that I, and other feminists, boil a woman down to nothing more than a container for her womb. It is precisely because we know that every woman is so much more than this that we take the name “Feminist” at all.

I’m angry. There, I said it.

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Accepting a Trump presidency is “painful,” in the words of Hillary Clinton.

At first, I treated the pain as the kind I experienced when I fell into a hole at my condo complex and twisted my ankle. I’d previously noticed the hole, but didn’t really respect the fact that it could hurt someone until I was feeling the pain. “Wow, I totally did not see that coming!” was the lie I told myself. And then I got angry.

I was angry that someone didn’t properly maintain the pavement and fill in the hole. Some unknown, invisible someone.

But now I realize how futile and frankly, childish it is to treat this injury (and Trump’s victory) as one I had no possible way to see coming. I am no longer angry at someone else for neglecting the pavement and leaving a hole there for me to trip in. I am angry that I did not personally approach a maintenance authority and point out that hole. And if the maintenance man didn’t listen to me, I should have organized my community to demand action together until what we needed was provided.

I not only failed myself by neglecting to do this, but I failed my community, because that hole is still there to hurt other people who truly don’t see it. And once an ankle is broken, the person to whom it belongs will always be changed even if the ankle ends up healing just fine despite fears of future difficulties posed by the injury. In parallel, Trump may not end up inflicting legal harm upon all the populations he has threatened and disparaged. But the damage created by his victory and all the fear attached to it will forever change each affected person. Even if they end up being okay, they’ll never be the same.

We should have seen it coming. We should have done something. If right now you’re saying, “But I did do something,” my simple response is that, “But clearly you — we — did not do enough.”

I am angry because I did not appreciate or respect my own agency. Departing from the metaphor of the hole in the pavement, I mistakenly believed it was enough to cast my ballot on November 8th and move along. I believed I would go home to watch my vote and others like it define this election. When that outcome did not materialize, I was in shock. I was speechless beyond the cardinal phrase I could not help but repeat that night: “Oh my God.” I woke up the next morning and it was then that I truly realized there was nothing I could do. And in retrospect, had I appreciated and respected my own agency, there were things I could and should have done. I have no excuse, as much as I wish I did.

Last night, I applied to join my county’s Democratic Committee and am waiting for word on my application. Because what I should have been doing this past year or two was participating and organizing. I should have taken every Facebook post and share I made and put my “likes” where my mouth is. How could I have been so lazy? How could I have been so careless? How could I have slapped right in the face every bright and strong female mentor, friend of color, and gay or transgender classmate I’ve ever known by not acting as I knew I could?

I am obligated to respect my own agency to compensate for the fact that other vulnerable citizens feel (perhaps correctly) that they have diminished agency, or none at all. I don’t have much money, and frankly as someone who is chronically ill, I don’t have very much energy. But what I do have a lot of is time to be better spent. And although Lilly Allen truthfully sings, “It’s hard out there for a bitch,” I know that the challenges of being a woman in a man’s world are things I have already faced from the cradle to this very minute.

I’m angry like a bullet is, having been fired from its safe and familiar magazine — impossible to push back through the barrel; put in motion toward its long-anticipated trajectory by one final defining moment. A last straw. The pull of the trigger.

But back to the present. As it stands right now, I may just be a BB or rubber bullet. But boy, can I sting.