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Posts Tagged ‘women’

Breaking, Not Yielding

So, I convinced Chris to watch Nanette , which is Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special. (Here’s the trailer.) I had heard from a number of women that it was remarkable, and I assumed that they meant remarkably funny. And I was reminded of the show when this image popped up in my Facebook feed:

Seriously, this is my kind of humor, and now, I will never look at a beautiful bald baby without assuming they are a feminist. What a lovely gift from Gadsby to me (and everyone really).

And Nanette is funny, but it is also so much more.

***

Before I go on, please note that the rest of this post will have SPOILERS for the show, so abandon ship now if you don’t want to be spoiled.

I’ll even give you until the count of three to ignore this post and pretend that you never actually received it.

1…

2…

2 and a 1/4…

2 and a 1/2…

2 and 3/4…

3…

Okay, so that’s way more of a warning than I give my kids.

***

So, Nanette is remarkably funny, rife with jokes about sexual identity, the difficulty of coming out in a small town in Tasmania, feminism, the privilege of straight white men, trauma, and also art history. But, Gadsby shifts gears on the viewer in the second half and you can kind of, sort of, tell what’s about to happen. There were glimmers and glimpses. And yet, I wasn’t entirely prepared and neither was Chris. We hadn’t expected her meta-discussion of what comedy can and can’t do. Or her devastating critique of comedy as a genre that focuses on beginning and middle but never really lets us see how a story ends. Or that instead of laughing our way to the end that we would actually be shocked and crying by the time Gadsby walked off stage.

I finished Nanette, and all I could think was: Holy shit, I was not prepared.

I was not prepared for Gadsby’s realer-than-real discussion of trauma, assault, and the attempts of men to annihilate women. I was not prepared for her to dwell in the tension of what seemed like a joke but to never deliver a punchline. I was not prepared for her masterful critique of deprecating humor and how it further marginalizes already marginalized groups of people. I was not prepared for her jokes about Picasso to reveal the nasty truth of misogyny. I was not prepared, and Chris and I had to pause Nanette often to take a breath and process what we just heard. At the end, we looked at each other shell-shocked and decide we were done for the day.

I tried to escape into a paranormal romance novel to no avail; he picked up Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning (an excellent book that also deals with personal and historical trauma and what it means to survive).

What I found is that I keep thinking about a particular line from Gadsby. Near the end, she says, “To break and not yield is strength.”

When I heard her say this, those words resonated in my head, To break and not yield is strength. There’s truth in her words that I’m still grappling with, even as I want to embody what she’s saying. I kind of want to have her words tattooed on my forearm as a reminder to myself that we can break but we can also not yield. Something I can glance at as I make my way through a world that encourages men to break and annihilate women just because they can. Just because women appear as objects not people. Just because we still have to fight for our humanity.

To break and not yield is strength, I think and remember a conversation with a friend last week. He told me  that I have managed to write about mental illness and trauma in a way that refuses to center on brokenness, my brokenness in particular. Somehow, I keep telling stories about my experiences that avoid the pervasive narrative of brokenness as a story all of its own. Even when I write about how people attempted again and again to break me or tell a story about my broken brain, I don’t appear broken; that’s not the center of my story. And I wondered how I managed to do this.

His insight astonished me because I used to think that I was broken beyond repair. I spent years believing that I was an irreparable, deeply flawed person. My biological father and his mother, my grandmother, needed me to feel that way, so I did. Until I didn’t. It’s no coincidence that I feel more and more compelled to write about my early life and shape my story from one of supposed brokenness to survival.

I might have broken, but I never yielded.

Gadsby gave me a new way to think; she gave me words that I didn’t know I needed. Breaking but not yielding is strength, and moreover, it is a hugely powerful way to interpret those stories that we tell ourselves over and over about the things and people who break us and all the damage we manage to survive.

Admitting how we break and how other people have broken us is not weakness. Rather, we show that their attempts to hurt us—to annihilate who we are—aren’t the end of our stories; they might be the beginning or the middle, but they aren’t the end. We get to decide where our story begins and ends. We might break, but we are also unyielding. We get to find and understand our strength. We get to tell our story, not them. Never them. We can’t control what breaks us, but we are narrators of our own lives, not those who harmed us.

Gadsby’s Nanette made me stop and consider the place of trauma in my stories and the stories of other women that I can’t help but read. In Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay wrote how she loved stories about girls who survive some shit, and I do too. There’s potential and power in survival and stories of survival. We, they, survived other people trying to break us, them, beyond repair. We are always reparable, if it doesn’t seem so at the time. Stories of survival show us the way.

But, what really struck me about Nanette is how a supposed comedy show gave me clarity about my reticence to detail all of my trauma in essays. How I don’t want to catalog for readers all the ways I’ve been broken because I would rather focus on survival. How I would rather write about learning not to yield. How I would rather document what it is like to repair myself, all those jagged edges, and how those repairs made me who I am today. Maybe, my story of survival helps too.

My trauma isn’t up for an any audience’s consumption. The horrors I’ve faced aren’t yours; they are mine. I decide what to share. I decide whether I can make suffering into art. I decide whether writing about what broke me is useful to me or whether it will do more damage than good.

Writing about trauma, and also mental illness, is my method to shape my own story. I attempt to make sense of what happened and what I continue to struggle with today. Some editors of some publications urged me to appear more broken and less reparable. More trauma and less survival is supposedly what I need to be publishable. And now, Gadsby gave me the language to respond to them: I broke, but I also didn’t yield, and that is strength. Show my strength alongside my wounds, not just my wounds and scars.

Not yielding is, perhaps, the crux of my story and maybe yours too. It’s where our strength lies.

Thank you, Hannah Gadsby, for helping me, us, realize that.

***

This post was originally a TinyLetter from August 15, 2018, the day I turned 38, for real this time. If you want to subscribe to my TinyLetter, Cold Takes, you can right here.

Sexism Ed Redux

*The academy has a gender problem. And it’s not new.*

So, Sexism Ed has been out for 28 days. (Who’s counting? I am clearly.) And there are few things that I want to direct your attention to.

First, The Revealer published an excerpt recently, which is one of my favorite essays on all the men who pretend to be allies, but really aren’t. Here’s a glimpse:

A man, who claims to be an ally and/or a feminist, has become a red flag for me. Especially if he loudly proclaims to be an ally. Especially if he looks around to see if everyone is paying attention to him. Especially if he insists on telling me about his feminism in detail while ignoring my arched eyebrow.

Second, David Perry was kind enough to interview me about the book and sexism in higher education more broadly at The Pacific Standard.  We talked about the push back I received for even bringing up sexism in academic circles:

I received emails, comments, tweets, and messages from academic men, who wanted me to know that sexism wasn’t a problem in academia. They told me about how their universities (or colleges) had women presidents. Or how their departments had a lot of women. Or how there were women in their grad programs. Or how they knew a women academic once. They sent me anecdote after anecdote about how women were doing fine in the academy to tell me that I was wrong. It was bewildering to see so many men try to shout me down for mere mention of a gender problem, which really just seemed to prove my point.

Previously, David also hosted my cover reveal, in which I wrote a whole essay (of course!) about how I came to write the columns for Chronicle Vitae that eventually became the foundation for the book:

What I found instead was that I would write about sexism, and later contingent labor, in the academy for the rest of my life. The limits that I thought I would encounter were not there. The academy has a gender problem. And it’s not new. This shouldn’t have surprised me. We live in a patriarchy, but I had hoped that academia was somehow better than the culture surrounding it.

Third, I am guest hosting this week at Nonfiction Fans: Illuminating Fabulous Nonfiction over on Facebook. I’ll be giving away a copy of Sexism Ed and a copy of Grace Period later in the week. So, make sure to pop by and ask me questions. Here’s part of my interview that started off the week:

You’ve written books on very different subjects. How did that happen?

Oh, boy, I do *write* on very different topics from white supremacists to zombies to sexism, which tends to surprise people, who, I guess, think writers stick to one topic or two. I write about what interests and fascinates me but also I write about topics that make me nervous and uncomfortable. It’s kind of like, “What’s keeping me from sleeping at night? Yes, I’ll write about that.” But, I also like to write about topics, in which we already assume we know the shape (narrative) of the story, so that I can show how the topic is always more complicated than the popular assumptions about it.

Check out the full interview here.

And finally, I wrote about my very complicated feelings about this particular book in my most recent TinyLetter:

An author is supposed to be elated when her book is published. She’s supposed to shout from the rooftops (or tweet or email or message) about her accomplishment. She’s supposed to be beaming with pride. She’s not supposed to look weary when you congratulate her about her new book. She’s not supposed to seem bummed.

(If you haven’t signed up for my sporadic newsletter, you can here.)

Lovely readers, I have a small request for you. If you pick up Sexism Ed (or any of my books), please let me know. It is the best feeling in the world to know that someone is reading my book or books.

 

The perils of writing about white supremacy

*I research Klan newspapers; I’m not supposed to appear in them.*

On Sunday night, I received a notification from Facebook that someone had posted to my page for Gospel According to the Klan. I set up the page for my book before the book launched in 2011 to point folks to coverage, reviews, and events. When I noticed the notification, I had to suppress a shudder. These days, the only people who post on my poor book’s page lately are white supremacists who don’t realize the page is dedicated to an academic monograph or the occasional person who threatens to “beat my ass” for me being a Klansman (I’m not a Klan member or a man, but that’s often beside the point).

Sure enough, someone posted a racist meme with images of Donald Trump, hooded Klansman, a white Jesus, and Hitler. The accompanying text declared, “Join the Clan! Vote Trump! America Was Founded As A WHITE NATION! TRUMP 2016! It Is Not Racist To Take Back What God Gave Us!” I took a screenshot and deleted the post. I now have a file with screenshots of racist memes and threats from that page alone, just in case I need a record. I don’t want to think about what that just in case would include.

“I have to deactivate this page,” I tell my partner, “I can’t take this anymore.” (more…)

Motherhood and Creative Work

12279060_1151170324908256_2735112922242816204_nDearest Liana,

I keep looking at this quote from Miranda July on motherhood and creativity. It has made the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, and I shared it too. I read this quote 10 days after reading your most recent letter, and I cried in my office while the dogs stared at me and the cat chose to ignore me.

July describes how our culture grants men the freedom to pursue their work, their careers, and their creative projects without much discussion of family obligations. “We give fathers all kinds of permission to focus on their work, to be creatively consumed,” she writes. Mothers, unsurprisingly, are not granted the same privilege. When mothers are creatively consumed, we face cultural pressures about what mothers should and should not do. (Often, these are pressures we’ve internalized and assume are the way things are.)

Creative work, like many other forms of work, comes with a host of gendered expectations, which I’m still learning to navigate.

In October, I did a series of public lectures that kept me away from home for six days. At the end of my last trip, I was riding in a cab on the way to Fargo airport and making small talk with the driver. He was telling me about the money he was saving by living in the nearby Moorhead, MN, where I just lectured. He asked if I traveled much for work, and I admitted that I didn’t. I let it slip that I had two children. He took his eyes off of the road to stare at me and asked increduously, “Who is watching your children?” I explained that their other parent had the situation under control, but he looked skeptical. I kept the conversation going until I arrived at the airport, but I was unnerved by his question. All of a sudden, I felt remarkably guilty about my trip. My kids were at home while I was off on my own. I was living my life without them. My mood soured. I was annoyed at my reaction to his question, but also his assumption that mothers were the sole caretakers of children. The mommy guilt appeared and remained with me. My trip was no longer as enjoyable as it had been. I ate Skittles for lunch in protest.

For mothers who want to pursue creative work (and any other work), July notes, “The guilt is unreal.” (more…)

Writing Motherhood

While finishing an essay on the Tooth Fairy and childhood beliefs earlier this week, I realized that I’ve been writing more about motherhood than I have before. At first, I was unnerved. Why was I suddenly writing more about my life as a mother? What was to be gained, or lost, by presenting my understandings of my children to the larger world? Why was motherhood looming large in my writing? And why was I bothered that my writing had taken a new direction?

I’ve mulled this question all week because Mother’s Day is upon us. Yesterday, my son’s preschool hosted Muffins for Mom (dads get donuts for Father’s Day). E and I ate muffins and played on the playground together. We climbed on tires, in boats, and on cars. We had fun. There’s even a souvenir picture.

Today, my daughter’s Kindergarten class is hosting a Mother’s Day Tea. She was beyond excited about this event. She was up early to get dressed in a fancy red tutu because her teacher instructed all the students to look nice for today. Motherhood is celebrated on one day despite all our struggles and efforts through out the year. We tend to ignore what our mothers do for us in the day to day.

I’m ambivalent about the holiday that celebrates an idealized vision of moms and our supposed sacrificial natures. Mothering is complex, as our relationships to those who mother us. Our parents cannot always be easily celebrated in cards, gifts, or meals. Many have lost their mothers. Others have strained relationships. Celebration of motherhood is not an inherent good.

I also chafe at the suggestion that motherhood is the sole force that defines me. I am a mother, but I’m also more.

Why, then, am I writing so much about my experiences as a parent? Being a mother feels unavoidable in what I’m writing. My relationships with my kids are making me think about different things than before. I want to figure motherhood out. I want to dwell with my children’s questions and observations. It is just where I am right now. I look forward to where it takes me.