I grew up watching mainly “boy” movies–the Die Hards, the Terminators, the two-white-guys-warring-for-reasons-we-don’t-totally-get-and-oh-the-one-lady-doesn’t-pass-the-sexy-lamp-tests–because it was mainly at my dad’s house that we rented movies and it was two against one. Surely the girl can watch the boy movies but heaven forbid the two boys have to watch a girl movie. I can remember going to the video store (remember when that was a thing?) and just bypassing everything that I knew wouldn’t appeal to my dad and brother.
In fact, I remember being sick one day at about 10 or 11 and my dad going to get two movies for me to watch. One was a pretty boy-ish movie (Dante’s Peak) and one was definitely a girl movie (Sleepless in Seattle). I was honestly baffled. What the fuck did I want with a romantic comedy?
I was taught, through ways both subtle and obvious, to denigrate and hide femininity. To champion masculine traits and interests and to hide and be ashamed of feminine ones. (Yes, I know I’m speaking in overly hetero and cis normative ways, but this is what it was like growing up, and how it remains for large swaths of society.)
And my parents were “liberals!” My friends often called them “hippies.”
I grew up a tomboy not out of gender exploration or a calling to my true self but out of a lack of other options (and a healthy dose of body shame that was better addressed in baggy sweats than dresses).
I can remember as a late teenager, having discovered make-up and loved it, my mom rhetorically asking “how are you my daughter??!” Not in an unkind way, understand, but a sincerely baffled way.
I think the great project of my twenties (as I go excitedly into my last year of them) has been learning to love women. Learning to trust women. Learning to find friends and role models and novels and movies that celebrate women. Hell, they don’t even need to celebrate women, they just need to centre them.
So much of the media I’ve consumed in my life has been about and for men. Rebecca Solnit has written, recently, on the problem of this:
You read enough books in which people like you are disposable, or are dirt, or are silent, absent, or worthless, and it makes an impact on you.
And of course she’s had a cadre of devastated white men clamouring to show her not just that she’s wrong about them (NOT ALL MEN) but wrong in general (NOT MEN). Because, as she says,
Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don’t know it (see: privelobliviousness). They just think you’re wrong and sometimes also evil.
The truth is, it is devastating to be a bit player in your own life. Not because I was focused on others (though that emotional labour thing is a whole ‘nother issue), but because I didn’t know myself. I didn’t even know there was a myself to know. Because all I had been shown was white men’s experiences, with (white) women in supportive-but-interchangeable roles. Even in romantic comedies, the genre supposedly meant for us, the women are interchangeable and serve only as a means for us to practice for our highest possible achievement–snagging a man. A handful of films aside (Obvious Child being one of my favourites), romantic comedies do as much-if-not-more damage than your Jason Statham vehicle of the week. At least those are pretty transparent in the one-dimensionality of the one female character. But romantic comedies, as a genre, our genre, reinforce every nasty, oppressive, regressive heteronormative notion about women in our society.
So where was I to find these women who would teach me how to love women? How to treasure women and thank whatever is out there for my many wonderful, nurturing female friendships? How to find myself as a woman and learn that femme is an option? That so many of the things I like about myself are those things coded “feminine?” (And that so many of the things about myself that I like that are coded “masculine” show up far more often in the women I know than the men?)
The answer for me was Women’s Studies and feminism and various jobs in the anti-violence movement. But the specifics aren’t important. What is is that I surrounded myself with women. I actively-but-unconsciously worked to remove the undue influence straight white cis men have had for the majority of my life and it was revelatory. It remains revelatory. And while there are men in my life who are wonderful (cis, straight, white, or (usually) not), it is women who nourish me, who challenge me, who get me. I am so grateful for the women in my life, the women in my extended circles, the women I only know through their writing on the internet or in novels. I only wish I’d known how to find them sooner.
Note: My love and respect for women includes all woman- and femme- identified folks with the caveat that not all femmes identify as women but provide their own strength and nourishment in their femmeness.