I believe that what rules us is less the material world of goods and services than the immaterial one of whims, assumptions, delusions, and lies; that only by studying this world can we hope to shape how it shapes us; that only by attempting to understand what used to be called, in a less embarrassed age, “the human condition” can we hope to make our condition more human, not less. — Mark Slouka, “Dehumanized.” Harper’s Magazine, Sept. 2009
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.” St. Augustine
George Orwell says “to see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant struggle.” Being a wisdom-seeking single woman in 2011, despite the struggles, is never less than interesting. The constant background noise of all that non-wisdom-seeking shit, inside and outside your head. Novel revisions to finish. Disappointments, happinesses, actions, self-releasings, wearinesses. Noble refusals to break into your fragile savings account to buy those boots on sale at Nordstrom’s although they might be full price — or even gone — by payday. (!) Saturday “Occupy” gatherings in your own little town. The season’s first bike rides in fleece and SmartWool as temperatures drop. The everyday discoveries of life with curly hair and the strange, intuitive feelings of empowerment it brings. Bald eagles cruising over a stream at sunset. And some stuff in the news I can’t let pass without a closer look.
First, the Mississippi “personhood amendment,” which would have effectively outlawed birth control in the state by defining a fertilized egg as a person. (Patricia Williams has a brilliant essay on it here.) Blessedly, it has just failed at the polls, rejected by more than 55% of voters on Tuesday this week, but that it got as far as it did is troubling enough. This is the state that races its neighbors (including my own home state) to the bottom on just about every quality-of-life ranking — infant mortality, child poverty, K-12 and pre-K education — for children who do get born. “Better to build schoolrooms for the boys than prisons and gallows for the men,” remarked 19c poet Eliza Cook. Can we guess which kind of building 26 would’ve prompted, and who’d’ve profited, even as they toddled off to church to celebrate their rescue of all those God-created souls? My Contemporary Literature students, who’ve just read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, were delighted to recognize one Salon comment on 26, “Welcome to Gilead.” They were less delighted by the fact that if Amendment 26 had passed, miscarriages could have come under criminal investigation, or that a woman could have been prosecuted for aborting the child of rape. The UN has defined forcing a woman to bear the child of rape as a war crime. Discuss.
And then there was the notice in Publisher’s Lunch email newsletter last Friday of a forthcoming memoir by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez called Learning to Submit: How Feminism Stole My Womanhood and the Traditional Cowboy who Helped Me Find It. The book-proposal video tells an intriguing tale: former Marxist feminist Columbia-journalism-master’s-degree-holding, Time-magazine-honored woman writer discovers The Real Nature of Womanhood and Love on ranch with conservative cowboy and former Paine Webber investment banker (who is, as my students would say, “super-hawt.”) Provocative images (Gloria Steinem, camo 4-wheeler with shotgun rack) are subtitled: “I’ve begun to think differently about sex roles…My conservative cowboy opened my eyes…2nd wave feminism stole my womanhood, destroyed my relationships…This powerful man helped me find it again.” The background music: Trace Adkins’s “Ladies Love Country Boys.” One chorus later, the captions read, “Submit … all this means is TRUST, not DOMINATION… It’s about teamwork, not control.” But intercut with these reassuring words is a shot of wolves captioned “In nature, every pack has a leader.”
So which is it?
(And why, by the way, blame “destroyed relationships” on “2nd wave feminism” and not on, say, the characterlessness of men who find strong women, in that word so many of us hear so often, “intimidating?”)
Let me be very clear: I’m not trying to diss Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez personally, or rain on her obvious and much-deserved success and happiness. Her video and webpage show her as really smart and really fun –the cheeky shots of the cowboy’s big belt buckle followed by the author’s sly grin made me smile too. In so many ways she’s a role model for all the young women who dream of lives like hers: a self-made author with a super-hot guy who loves her. (Hell, who doesn’t dream about this?) More power to her. I can respect her choice. And I genuinely wish her and “the Cowboy,” as her website calls him, every happiness.
But the mixed messages in this book title and video are not so happy. This culture’s already an anthill of self-satisfied antifeminism, of swarming Palinites* and Bachmannites and half-baked Old-Testament-ites and complacent “we don’t-need-feminism-anymore”-ites who do real harm (see Mississippi 26) to so many women and girls. And this former feminist has picked the sharpest possible sticks to jab that anthill. Yeah, writers deserve to make money from their work, and marketing’s a big part of that. But buzzword-driven public conversation about anything important – love, God, war – just costs us all too much. Those words have consequences. And anyone who has ever benefited from feminism — which is everyone — should think about what they are.
Let’s start with “submit.” Leave aside the role of “submission” in sexual fantasy (hey, go ahead, consenting adults, as long as you’re not in Mississippi), and the inevitable cowboy/horse-training connotations and analogies. (I’ve trained horses. Women are smarter.) Look at the word’s anti-woman theological baggage, which makes it a strange marketing choice for a title from a mainstream house. When fundamentalist Christianity got politically respectable, its self-help and marriage guides for women proliferated, most based on some version of Ephesians 5:22-23: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church, and he is the savior of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”** This, of course, is the “Surrendered Wife” phenomenon, mother of a thousand semiliterate blogs advising “surrendered wives” to “Make sure to love your spouse overall his flaws. Simply, do not criticize his ways, but offer helpful advice making sure not to offend him” [sic]. And it’s the source of abominations like the Quiverfull movement, in which a burst uterus is just part of the price for obeying “God’s will,” or, rather, the will of self-styled patriarchs trying to grow themselves an army of sons. Easy to ignore the line about how Christ will become the “savior of the body” when that body is a woman’s. Easy, too, then, to set up a man as a pampered, petty tyrant at the head of his family, which does nobody any good. Including the man.
Next, “feminism stole my womanhood.” Which I found with the help of a “conservative cowboy.” The more provocative the buzzwords the blurrier the meanings and the sadder the misunderstandings. This buzzy juxtaposition ghosts up all the old familiar false – and profitable – dichotomies: the Heartland versus NYC; the Scary LeftiMarxiSocialiCommuniFeminists versus The Rest of Us; pasty, unsexyLMSCFism versus the Womanly Fulfillment of Letting A Real Man Do His Thing. The Falsely Cultural versus the Blissfully Natural. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Once you’re out of your 20s, this stuff stops being a joke.
Here’s my problem. As an idealistic professor at a small Lutheran college, much less a single woman myself, I can’t be neutral here: I’m surrounded by young people trying to navigate this crap even as it rips them apart from the inside. They flounder between the ball-busting caricature that pop culture has made of feminism and a hookup culture that says their scruples are just prudery (or that old, outdated feminist shit.) Susan Douglas calls this “enlightened sexism.” Hey, girls, if some dude insults you, insult him back but accept it secretly as a tribute to your hotness, because he’s probably coming on to you, and by the end of the episode you’ll be giving it up to him in the corporate restroom because he knows you better than you know yourself. Be a real woman. Meanwhile, dudes: bang that chick. Period.
Grown women, like Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez, can navigate this world with sass and self-knowledge and style. Eighteen-year-old kids cannot. I hear a lot of their confidences in my office, and I read a lot of their stories, poems, and personal essays. Over and over I see their world’s new “rules:” if you don’t give some boy you’ve just met at the club a blowjob, you’re a frigid bitch. If you don’t let him “do it to you,” you’re a frigid bitch, or worse, a feminist. If you ask a boy to go down on you, be prepared for shock, because your desires don’t matter, not as much as his. Girls in particular bounce between this dude-centric hookup culture and its equally unrealistic opposite, an abstinence-only culture that puts the burden and the “shame” of sex on them. The real desires and real fears of real girls and boys get lost somewhere in between, in a world where having sex is usually an option but making love is not. The problem is, so many of us — dreaming of love, whipsawed by desire — let a confusion of the two back us into some really, really desperate corners, throughout our adult lives. And college is so often the place where this begins.
It’s been interesting to watch my male and female first-year students rethinking this stuff as they write about Jane Eyre, one of the all-time great analyses of why you have to become a real person, in your own eyes, before you can find someone who really loves you. For God’s sake (and it is God, in Bronte’s view, who made us all with a precious and unique plenitude of self) why on earth would you “submit” to be treated as any less? Discussing The Handmaid’s Tale and what makes both women and men complicit in the Gilead Republic, young men describe how they were told “real boys” don’t hold babies, don’t cry, don’t really feel tenderness in any form. Raunch-culture and sex-role cliche damage men, too, and cliche runs both ways. One male student pointed out, accurately, that women also lean on anti-man cliche — “like those Hallmark cards for single women to send to each other?” he asked — and pointed me to Maria Bamford’s “Standard Comedy Act.” (Thanks, Sam!) Real differences do exist between men and women. I don’t deny it. But I hesitate to enshrine them in roles, or cliches, that elide the particularities of those people, that time, that place, and to describe differences as “natural” without the greatest possible care.
Which brings me to my last question: what do gender cliches at their worst do to our ideas of love, our notions of how power and desire are made and shared within a partnership? What is a “real woman,” or a “real man,” anyway? What is a “real self?” Our willingness to engage these questions, or our desire to flee from them, sends us into relationships based on inequality and false power and fear — or guides us toward relationships based on honesty and respect and the sensual, loving trust they bring. “It has been said that there is no true person unless there are two entering into communication with one another,” writes Bishop Kallistos Ware. “The isolated individual is not a real person. A real person is one who lives in and for others. And the more personal relationships we form with others, the more we truly realize ourselves as persons.”
Some men bristle up at words like “equality” from a woman’s mouth: “what, you want to be better than me?” No, dude. I want you to take me as seriously as you take yourself. That’s all “equality” means. That’s all “feminism” means. Let’s talk partnership. Really. It all starts with not running from what is inside you. You can’t evade it with “submission” or “domination” or some set of rules about who’s “supposed” to be in charge in a “real marriage.” Become a real person, taking full responsibility for your own emotions and actions, and find someone else who’s done the same. Maybe this is a way to make the world safe for what my feminist-theologian colleagues call, in every sense of the word, good sex.
A lofty ideal, sure. But it’s worth trying. Look around at all the “walking wounded” of relationships based on flights from the self. The steady guy whose girlfriends walk away for a more exciting “bad boy” who makes them “feel needed,” who’s a human rat hole down whom they can pour their codependent love. The woman whose husband is a constant criticizer who makes her walk on eggshells, who bursts into loving emotion only when she threatens to leave. My favorite columnist, Dear Sugar, reminds us all that “real love flows in both directions.” Amen. We don’t have to walk around in masks, in shells shaped like Generic Hotness. We have to be ourselves, worthy of respect, including our own. Which is a whole lot harder. But worth it. Even if we have to spend some time alone. Trust me: there are worse things. Nothing is going to change unless what Sugar calls the “tiny revolution” starts happening in each of us, male and female, and we start acting on it. TV standards are bullshit. Dude culture is bullshit. Anything that hides or elides the search for honesty and complexity and character that has to happen in your own heart — including “submitting” to someone who’ll make all the tough decisions for you — is double, triple, quadruple bullshit.
So this is where I come back to “Learning to Submit.” I don’t question or judge the reality of Ms. Valdes-Rodriguez’s experience and its meaning to her. But I do question her book title’s way of framing this most crucial issue. If women don’t stand up for “feminism” as something that describes the sexy, powerful, loving, AND self-respecting people we are – who see through lies, and who hold boys to the same standards we hold ourselves — we’re making the world worse for our descendants. And we lie to ourselves just as we lie to them. We’ve got to honor the full, unique personhood of every man and every woman, even if there’s no MS 26 initiative to define just what that is. We each have one life. One self. Why give that away, especially in the name of “love?”
* The quintessential image of Sarah Palin, to me, will always be the moment at the end of the 2008 vice-presidential debates when her whole clan swarmed the stage and one of them ostentatiously handed her Trig, the infant with Down’s Syndrome. She slung him over her shoulder like a sack of meal — his head lolling, unsupported — and kept shaking hands, glasses flashing. At one point she hoisted him back into place with what I can only describe as an impatient shrug. The voice of my sainted grandmother burst spontaneously from my mouth: “my lord, that poor baby’s not wearin’ any SHOES!” His little plaid shirt was untucked, his bare feet dangling. If you’re going to parade your mom-ness as a qualifier for public life, then you’d better be sure it stands up to scrutiny.
** This is the same chapter in which you can find the “slaves, submit yourself to your masters with fear and trembling” verse used to justify The Peculiar Institution — which even the Quiverfullers aren’t trying to revive — right up until the Civil War. But isn’t Biblical literalism always a game of pick-‘n’-choose?
*****UPDATE: You can read the author’s response on her blog here.
****** UPDATE #2 (2013): The author is now no longer in her relationship with the “cowboy,” who seems to have been abusive. Read about it here. She is interviewed about it here as well. I wish her all the best in finding her happiness.