Once upon a time, I lived in a purely utilitarian building. There was a good reason for its existence. Most of the city had been destroyed in World War II, so the citizens of Wrocław, Poland–many of them newly arrived after deportations from parts of the country that were annexed by the Soviet Union–needed shelter. Eventually, concrete apartment blocks took shape. By the time I lived there in the early 2000s, some were deceptively sunny in coats of pink and yellow paint. But they were just concrete boxes, and I shook my hand at them and said, “You can’t fool me with pink paint! I know I live in a box.”
Living in a box is certainly better than living on the street, but I always felt a little better when I got outside and walked to the square, where the Gothic and Baroque buildings (many also rebuilt) thrilled me. I need creativity in my life. I must feel it, see it, hear it, taste it. Maybe it’s a luxury for some, but it’s a necessity for me.
Slate has an article that describes our rejection of creativity. We say we appreciate creativity, but the reality is that we only appreciate the result and most of the time when we see creativity, we stomp it out. Jessica Olien writes: “Even in supposedly creative environments, in the creative departments of advertising agencies and editorial meetings at magazines, I’ve watched people with the most interesting—the most ‘out of the box’—ideas be ignored or ridiculed in favor of those who repeat an established solution.”
Ugh. I’ve experienced that in a lot of jobs. I’m the type of person who likes to solve problems, so when I see a problem, I’m not interested in ignoring it, or enabling it, or trying the safe things we know aren’t going to work because they never have before. I’m a creative problem-solver. I will find a way to fix this thing, but you have to give me the freedom to do it and you have to back me up on it to make it work. Unfortunately, most people are satisfied with the status quo, so things don’t get fixed. They remain inefficient and ineffective, and I pull out my hair and wonder why I am still there.
Olien cites a study that shows that teachers prefer uncreative students over creative ones. These would have to be uncreative teachers, I think. Teachers who toe the line and lash out against students whose curiosity extends beyond the neat borders of the curriculum. I’ve had those teachers. In ninth grade, my friend Kate and I were always the last two to make it into our English class after lunch. We were seated before the bell rang, but we preferred to linger in the hall or outside in those last few minutes rather than sit at our desks, where we’d be stuck for the next hour anyway. We were definite creative types, more comfortable in the theatre than on the track, and our teacher was a cross-country coach who was so obsessed with his team that rumor had it he named his child after his best runner.
It was clear that he didn’t think much of us. His feedback on my papers convinced me that he didn’t like my writing style and that he wasn’t interested in my creative approaches to his assignments, which only made me more determined to write them the way I wanted instead of the way he recommended. Kate and I both did a lot of daydreaming and gazing out of the window while he droned on about cattle rustling in The Ox-Bow Incident.
One day our teacher looked at Kate and said, “You’re such an enigma. Why don’t you sit in the same seat every day?”
Yes, apparently being the last person in the room and taking whatever seat is left is enigma-worthy. But what he really meant was: you’re creative, and I don’t understand you.
No thanks to him, Kate and I are both writers now. Fortunately, we also had creative teachers who nurtured our creativity and encouraged us to take risks.
In my first year of college, I wrote loads of papers, but one stands out. Another English class and an assignment on some really boring religion debate where you had to take one side and develop an argument. I didn’t want to do that, so I expanded the topic and wrote a creative response to the idea of organized religion. My instructor, fresh out of grad school and not much older than I, pulled me aside after class and said, “You know I can’t give you an ‘A’ on this paper because it doesn’t fit the assignment, but I can see that you are smart and creative. I’m going to give you the chance to rewrite it as assigned, but I also think you should keep writing creatively outside of class.”
Although I’d been encouraged by teachers in theatre and music, I’d never had a teacher tell me to “keep writing” the way I wanted to write.
I can get stuck working in formulas just like everyone else. That’s how we appease and, often, move forward. But, as with teachers, I’m always looking for the employer who will recognize what I really have to offer and open up a space for me to soar. Sometimes I’ve been lucky to find that person, sometimes I’ve retreated into the corner after too many disappointments, and other times I’ve been able to create that opportunity for myself.
Like anyone else, I can get so caught up in the mundane chores of life that I forget to find room for creativity. So I’m practicing intentional creativity. Every day I look for opportunities to be creative. If I’m stuck inside, I stop and notice what the natural world is up to outside my window, which allows me to wonder how mockingbirds learn to mimic, how I can work those sunset shades into something pretty to keep around, or what flowers to plant in the spring. I play with spices and listen to stories while cooking. If it’s too cold to run, I have a private dance party. If I need a distraction, I turn to Pinterest for project ideas and daydreaming rather than scrolling through Facebook posts. When I wake up, I take a moment to try to remember my dreams.
And whenever I feel like I’m trapped in a box, I at least open a window and bring in some flowers until I can find a way out. I definitely do not paint it pink and settle in.
Do you watch television? I’m sure many of you don’t, and I get that. We don’t have cable because we’re not interested in being sucked into TV all the time, but we do watch some. We catch the big cable shows later on Netflix or DVD, and I watch a few network shows in addition to PBS. I often like to follow a good story and compelling characters while I’m knitting a scarf or folding my laundry or painting shutters (which we have too many of), so I don’t care so much about whether the medium is film or TV. Plus, television is a great place for women these days, far better than film.
I’m not going to pretend that these shows are ideal. Or that even their feminism is ideal. But I appreciate the changes I’ve noticed in television the past couple of years, especially the increased focus on narratives of women of color. It’s not just women actors who are benefitting from these changes. I’m also noticing more women writers and directors. Yes, women directed some of your favorite episodes of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. One of my favorites is Agnieszka Holland, who directed episodes of The Wire, Treme, and The Killing. Then there’s Deadwood, the filthy, brilliant western, with an unusually high number of shows written by women. Even if the popular cable epics aren’t strong on complex women characters–where’s our female Walter White, Don Draper, or Tony Soprano?–women are increasingly making decisions behind the scenes.
Here are a few of the shows I’m watching because they feature fantastic women characters, especially women of color, and they’re entertaining.
If you watch TV, how have you not become one of Olivia’s gladiators? It’s such a relief to see a strong black woman as the center of a show. Olivia Pope is a game changer for women in TV, a sharp, sophisticated political genius who fixes every problem Washington, D.C. throws at her. Her team will do anything for her, and men keep risking their careers to be with her. I tire of Olivia’s star-crossed love with Fitz (aka, Mr. President) because it occasionally turns her into a wobbly pool of jello, but all the other scenes make up for it. Plus, Olivia Pope, the fixer, is based on a real black woman, Judy Smith, America’s #1 Crisis Management Expert.
Have I told you how much I love Kerry Washington? She proudly identifies as a feminist and womanist, actively engages in politics, and talks wisely about important issues in interviews. And this season’s addition of Lisa Kudrow as Fitz’s opponent in the upcoming election is divine. As Congressperson Josie Marcus, Kudrow recently got to deliver a whopping, off-the-cuff feminist speech that shames the sexism of her opponents and the media so deliciously that it must be right out of Hillary Clinton’s fantasy world. It doesn’t hurt that the show was created by Shonda Rhimes, herself a black woman who happens to be one of the most successful show runners in the business.
Mindy Kaling didn’t just play Kelly Kapoor on The Office; she was also one of the writers and directors. Then she published Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). And then she created The Mindy Project: she produces, directs, writes, and stars in this sitcom about Mindy Lahiri, a successful OB/GYN trying to figure it all out in New York. She’s the very first South Asian-American woman to have her own show. Her character is confident about her work, loves her body, and says what she thinks. And she’s Hindu. And she’s sex-positive.
Kaling and the show have had to deal with some backlash, and there have been some weird moments. But I’m holding on because there are many more smart moments and her character is really new and fresh. The show’s heavy on the cameos, but some of the best episodes involve Anders Holm, of Workaholics, as Mindy’s boyfriend. The two have great chemistry, and their tent scene in “Take Me With You” of Season 1 had me giggling for days. The Mindy Project also rescued Adam Pally, whom I’d been missing since Happy Endings was canceled.
Additionally, I love how Kaling has been calling out the sexist, racist, and image-obsessed media lately. She’s tired of being asked about her weight and her ethnicity instead of her work. If you need more of a reason to like her, check out Lena Dunham’s interview with Kaling for Tavi Gevinson‘s Yearbook 2.
This show is a total guilty pleasure. My sister and I text each other in the midst of it: “Did she really do that?” “But how is he alive?” “Noooooooo!” Like Scandal‘s over-the-top plot lines, Revenge is designed to be somewhat absurd. That’s what makes it fun, especially when Emily Thorne (Emily VanCamp) comes face to face with her nemesis, Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe, who is active in women’s rights, by the way).
Emily is secretly destroying virtually every evil rich person in the Hamptons, and I love it when the girl next door kicks ass (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Now, I don’t normally like revenge stories because I think revenge is a useless concept, but this is basically an evening soap opera. And we frequently see the downside of vengeance with deaths and broken friendships. Emily comes complete with ninja skills, a mentor who trained her at a revenge school(!) in Japan, a British revenge companion, and an endless supply of complicated emotions.
One of the best parts of this show, however, is Nolan, Amanda’s closest friend, confidante, and partner in crime, played by Gabriel Mann. A tech genius and hacker, Nolan is equally sweet and sly, and he’s bisexual. Those around him treat his sexuality as completely normal, not batting an eye when he goes from pining over Padma to falling hard for Patrick. Yes, television, you can have characters with diverse sexualities and not make their stories all about said sexualities.
So what would you add to this list? Or remove?
I was momentarily disappointed that the Nobel Committee did not award Malala Yousafzai with the Peace Prize. Then I realized that she’s bigger than that prize and certainly bigger than the Nobel Committee’s narrow view of peace work. In fact, I’m glad they didn’t choose her because that would imply that she needs to be chosen by a select group of aging white politicians, that her work is not valuable unless deemed so by an institution. So congratulations, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, for, you know, doing your job like the rest of us!
Only fifteen women have won the Peace Prize since it began in 1901, compared to 85 men and 25 organizations. Still, that’s significantly better than the scientific awards, where women aren’t even close to double digits:
- Chemistry: 2%
- Physiology or Medicine: 5%
- Physics: 1%
- Economics: 1%
Women fare the same in Literature as they do with the Peace Prize, a very modest 12%. Alice Munro is the finest short-story writer around, so I’m always happy to see her work lauded. It’s important that we recognize Munro’s stories of the inner lives of women in quiet towns as worthy of attention, but her Nobel Prize in Literature does not make these numbers go down more easily. The Nobel Committee’s gender problem reveals a long history of ignoring women’s work and devaluing women’s stories.
Take Malala. What more inspiring story could you possibly find? But she’s just a girl. How could they give such an important award to a little girl?
She’s just starting out and has her whole life to win such a prize!
Malala has already done more than any one person could ever be asked to do. When I was sixteen, I was pretty much a self-absorbed twit who thought she knew everything. How many pundits, commentators, and editorial writers have decried the so-called apathy of today’s young people? How many have said, in my day we marched for civil rights, we marched against Vietnam? How many have criticized digital activism as comparatively lazy and wished kids would get up off their butts and do something?
Then comes Malala, who risks her life to write about education for the BBC. She gets shot in the head, recovers, and holds no grudges. She keeps working to support education. She talks like the Dalai Lama. She wows Jon Stewart with her dedication to peace at all costs, saying about the Taliban’s death threats:
I started thinking about that, and I used to think that the Talib would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’ then I would reply to myself, ‘Malala, just take a shoe and hit him.’ But then I said, ‘If you hit a Talib with your shoe, then there would be no difference between you and the Talib. You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others but through peace and through dialogue and through education.’ Then I said I will tell him how important education is and that ‘I even want education for your children as well.’ And I will tell him, ‘That’s what I want to tell you, now do what you want.’
Meh, she’s just a girl.
There’s always been negativity around the world girl. It’s often used to insult or belittle. It’s associated with disempowerment. But maybe being a girl can finally be an amazing thing.
Malala works to ensure that girls all over the world have access to education. Experts now agree that the most important thing organizations and governments can do to promote peace and improve life in low-income populations around the world is to educate girls. Malala’s work gets to the root of why we don’t have peace. And, of course, why so few women have won Nobel Prizes.
At 36, I find myself wanting to be one-tenth as amazing as that sixteen-year-old girl. The Nobel Committee doesn’t deserve her. We don’t deserve her. But she keeps working for us anyway.
This brave Pakistani girl. Let’s appreciate her while we can. Let’s remember that all Pakistani girls–all girls–are potential Malalas. Let’s follow her lead and give them all a chance.
Last week I got into a Facebook argument with someone I didn’t know on a friend’s page. I was a bit embarrassed, as I normally ignore stupid Facebook comments from complete strangers and I didn’t want to turn my friend’s page into my own little soapbox, but he said something I just couldn’t let go.
The guy prefaced his comment by admitting it was ethnocentric and then said the entire continent of Africa is a shithole that has nothing to offer the rest of the world and he has no interest in anything that happens there.
I…I just–I couldn’t let it go. I had to say something. So I said something about imperialism and racial hegemony and recognizing our own roles in the various struggles in various parts of Africa.
As expected, he figured I was a hypocrite because what I had ever done for Africa?
Well, for one thing, I don’t freaking shut an entire continent out of my life because I can’t be bothered with its misery. In fact, I actively engage with issues in Africa though my work in women’s advocacy and enjoy, in particular, music from Mali, food from Ethiopia, and literature from Egypt. Furthermore, I recognize that Africa is made up of countries and cultures that are distinctive and complex and is not just a big pile of shit, thank you very much.
Can you tell I’m still a bit angry?
Sometimes I think I’ve become an angrier person since the internet invaded my life. There’s so much to be upset about!
Let’s all take a deep breath and pour a glass of smoky scotch to soothe us.
The good thing is that there’s a lot to love and cherish and celebrate too. Like this piece on how Western feminists could learn a thing or two from Africa’s many women leaders (64% of the Rwandan parliament, for instance). That’s why I decided to share with you some of my favorite African women working in creative fields today. If you aren’t already familiar with them, you will love them.
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: What can I even say about this woman? She writes like a graceful beast, stomping right through your heart on her toes. From Nigeria, Adichie is the author of, among other books, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun (which won the Orange Prize), and the recently released Americanah. She’s also given two kick-ass TED talks, “The danger of a single story” and “We should all be feminists.” Yes, ma’am, please, and thank you.
- Ama Aita Aidoo: Poet, playwright, and author Aidoo writes about women challenging traditional gender roles in Ghana. Check out her novel Changes, which follows Elsi, who leaves her husband after he rapes her and then enters a polygamous relationship.
- Tsitsi Dangarembga: This Zimbabwean writer published her first book, the award-winning Nervous Conditions, when she was only 28. It was one of the best works I read in graduate school. She also created the story for Neria, one of the most successful films of Zimbabwe.
- Sokari Douglas Camp: A sculptor from Nigeria, Douglas Camp works out of London. Her medium is steel, and she draws from Nigerian culture (more specifically, her Kalibari heritage) and such issues as war, oil, death, gender, and race. Her work looks homemade and industrial at the same time; it is shiny, dark, and bright at once. I love Yoruba Ladies, Sharia Fubara, and Saint.
- Mariam Doumbia: One half of musical duo Amadou & Mariam, Doumbia went blind as a child, like her guitar player and fellow vocalist, Amadou Bagayoko, whom she met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind. Last year saw the release of their eighth album, Folila. Listen to “Dougou Badia,” which features Santigold, whose voice blends nicely with Doumbia’s.
- Nadine Gordimer: A Nobel Prize winner, Gordimer writes of race and politics in South Africa. Her award-winning novel The Pickup deals with the alien feeling of being an immigrant. She is also known for her work against apartheid and for HIV prevention.
- Tracey Rose: Based in South Africa, Rose explores identity, gender, race, and the body through performance, video installations, and photography. Her 2001 video installation Ciao Bella, which offers images of iconic women “taunt[ing] one another’s historical time zones and scoff[ing] at one another’s histories and politics,” has been described as “a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper (1495–8).” I ask you: does it get better than that?
- Nawal El Saadawi: An Egyptian feminist writer and doctor, El Saadawi wrote, among other books, Woman at Point Zero, about a woman forced into prostitution who receives a death sentence for killing her pimp. The story was based on a real prisoner. El Saadawi, a former political prisoner, is a big advocate for women’s rights and speaks out against female genital mutilation.
- Rokia Traoré: This Malian musician performed in and wrote the music for Toni Morrison’s play Desdemona, shared a song with Half the Sky‘s 30 Songs/30 Days, and recorded with Kronos Quartet. She is smart and bold, and she plays the hell out of her guitar. Her album Beautiful Africa just came out.
It seems like stories of transgender folks are appearing in the news more and more. Recently, students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach, California, crowned Cassidy Lynn Campbell as their first transgender homecoming queen, which was great news that was inevitably followed by bullying and criticism.
Before that, Army Pvt. Bradley Manning bravely became Chelsea Manning. Many journalists and media outlets respectfully followed AP style guidelines by using Manning’s new name and female pronouns, which made for a good lesson for the general public, but Fox News, to no one’s surprise, refused to make the change and even ridiculed Manning’s gender identity.
In the past few months, Jamaican trans teenager Dwayne Jones was beaten, stabbed, and shot to death by a mob in Montego Bay; 21-year-old Islan Nettles was out with other trans folks in Harlem, New York, when a group of men beat her to death; a trans woman was stripped naked and thrown off a bridge in Mexico City; and Diamond Williams, a transgender woman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was killed and dismembered, her body parts left in a field.
I understand that a lot of people have lived their entire lives thinking of gender as a fixed fact of life instead of a fluid social construct. That doesn’t excuse violence, but it explains some of the ignorance we keep seeing. The presence of out gays and lesbians in pop culture has helped to normalize homosexuality and strengthen equality efforts such as legalized gay marriage, so I’m crossing my fingers that as transgender folks become more visible–through everything from reality shows to Pulitzer Prize-winning novels–the rest of the world will continue to loosen their heternormative restraints.
Even for those who happily identify as their assigned sex, the performance of it can be exhausting. Haven’t you ever wanted, even for a moment, to break free from the confines of your manhood or womanhood?
I’ve decided to dedicate this week’s post to highlighting transgender artists and gender-bending art. If you want to understand why people struggle with their assigned sex and work to create their own gender identities, this list is an excellent start.
- Heather Cassils: focuses on busting gender binaries through images of the body and performance art, sees transgender as a “continual becoming,” recent work: Becoming an Image
- Zackary Drucker: uses photography, videography, and performance art to explore the complexity of bodily identity and seeing; check out She Gone Rogue
- Greer Lankton (deceased): created posable dolls representing people considered as “freaks” until her death in 1996, inspired by Candy Darling, final work: It’s All About ME, Not You
- Del LaGrace Volcano: considers the performance of gender and intersex experience through installations, performance, film, and photography; recent work: Sex Works
- Antony Hegarty: performs with collaborators under Antony and the Johnsons, winner of UK’s Mercury Prize for I Am a Bird Now, lush and otherworldly vocals, also a visual artist, recent work: Cut the World (live album) and Turning (acclaimed documentary of a European tour)
- Vaginal Davis: started The Afro Sisters, Black Fag, and Pedro, Muriel and Esther; performed with Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin; performance artist exploring spectacle and racial and gender confusion through counter-cultural personas; recent work: “Lesbi Tropicalia – Tea & Sympathy” (performative intervention as part of Helio Oiticica)
- Rocco Katastrophe: rapper, singer, and producer uniting queer and hip-hop cultures; featured on The L Word soundtrack; started the first trans men’s magazine (Original Plumbing) with photographer Amos Mac
Filmmakers and Theatre Artists
- Iizuka Kashou: writer/director of Our Future, a Japanese coming-of-age film centered on an 18-year-old girl who explores her masculinity after her parents separate
- Andrea James and Calpernia Addams of Deep Stealth Productions: produced comedic shorts Transproofed and Casting Pearls as well as the first all-transgender Vagina Monologues, prepped Felicity Huffman for her role in Transamerica
- D’Lo: analyzes South Asian and immigrant experiences of non-traditional gender identity and sexuality through comedy, leads community workshops, recent work: D’FunQT (one-person show)
- Ma Vie En Rose (Belgium, 1997): Seven-year-old Ludovic prefers dresses, which his family initially finds endearing until they discover there’s more to it than fashion and others don’t respond as kindly in this comedy drama.
- Beautiful Boxer (Thailand, 2003): This drama tells the true story of Nong Thoom, a successful Muay Thai fighter and trans woman.
- Tomboy (France, 2011): A little girl is mistakenly identified as a boy, and she goes along with it, feeling perhaps that it’s not a mistake after all.
- Breakfast on Pluto (Ireland, 2005): Based on the novel by Patrick McCabe, this film follows a trans woman’s youth in 1940s Ireland, right next to the border of Northern Ireland and the busy and violent IRA.
- Sacred Country: Rose Tremain’s prize-winning novel is set in rural England, where we find Mary Ward, the child of poor farmers, who discovers at six that she doesn’t want to be a girl.
- Middlesex: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the struggles of Cal, an intersex child raised as a girl in a fairly traditional Greek American family, who finally manages to define his own identity as an adult.
- Cereus Blooms at Night: Shani Mootoo’s acclaimed debut explores gender identity in a fictional Carribean country through Tyler, a nurse who cares for Mala, an older woman suspected of killing her father.
- Annabel: Kathleen Winter’s debut novel reminds us of the limitations of gender through an intersex child raised as Wayne, who loves hunting in the desolate Labrador countryside with his father but has a shadow self he calls “Annabel.”
To celebrate the autumnal equinox yesterday, I attended Letters to the Earth: Songs and Poems of Conservation at Ijams Nature Center. The sky was a dreamy blue, so I rode my bike there. Jewel-toned hummingbirds flitted in and out of trees and cicadas sang their afternoon song while we lounged on the patio listening to a handful of Knoxville’s great poets: Marilyn Kallet, Arthur Smith, Jesse Graves, R.B. Morris, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Linda Parsons Marion.
They spoke of blackberries and tomatoes and mockingbirds, tigers and rhinos and rural landscapes. I was stuffed with empanadas, grilled corn, dulce de leche, and fresh coconut from the HoLa Hispanic Heritage Festival earlier in the afternoon, and I reveled in a day outside with so much for the senses after being stuck inside with a congested head for far too long.
Fall is my favorite season. It’s a time to reflect on the past, feel that familiar ache over things we’ve lost, and then let it all fall away like water. It’s a time to find beauty in change.
It was renewing for me to spend the first day of fall at a poetry reading. I’d been away from the literary scene for quite some time. I’d gotten busy with the nonprofit work I was doing, and I’d come home tired and in need of escape. I didn’t do much writing, I didn’t pay much attention to new writers and literary news, and I certainly didn’t attend events. I’d spend the day dealing with funding cuts and federal deadlines and the saddest client stories of abuse and poverty, and then I’d come home and watch 30 Rock or Curb Your Enthusiasm or Revenge and try to get some sleep before I had to get up and do it all over again.
And then came the period where I didn’t write at all. I thought I wasn’t a poet or fiction writer or storyteller after all. I thought I’d been wrong about who I was, that writing had just been a phase, though a long one.
It started three years ago. That fall marked the beginning of a series of struggles, from the September death of my husband’s brother–which was both unexpected and expected, wholly preventable and sadly inevitable–to my emergency surgery for a ruptured ectopic pregnancy the following July.
After that, I didn’t write creatively for more than a year. I just couldn’t. I would try–I’d feel like I should or even feel the urge, but when I sat before my computer or grabbed a notebook, nothing happened. Do you ever have that dream where you try to scream and nothing comes out? That what it was like.
I’d never had writer’s block; I’d written my way out of every dark hole. So I thought that was the end. I thought the writer in me was gone.
I had spent several years working for an agency that served victims of gender-based violence, so I knew a lot about healing. I had written support group curricula, researched resilience, and designed programs that helped people overcome trauma and tragedy. And then I found myself covering one layer of sorrow with another, facing my own mortality for the first time, grieving over the loss of something I never knew, losing a body part that was culturally tied to womanhood, realizing brutally just how much women risk their lives to bring new life, and tumbling down into a spiral of confusion over whether or not I even wanted to be a mother in the first place or ever.
I felt lucky to be alive. Had I lived in a country with less access to the right medical care or with a total abortion ban, I’d be dead. Had I not given into the pain and into my nurse mother’s insistence that I go to the hospital even though I didn’t think I needed to, I’d be dead. So I really focused on my relief at being alive, but eventually everything else bubbled up.
What I discovered is that healing is really tough. Healing is elusive, and you have to fight for it. You have to decide that you are going to go on, that you’re going to find a way to get through it, and that you’ll do whatever it takes. And you have to be willing to wait through every excruciating moment because it takes a long damn time. What I discovered was that in my time of need all the ways I knew to heal had abandoned me.
I couldn’t write a word. I did other things: I talked, cried, thought, ran, walked, talked, and cried some more. But I couldn’t put it on paper, and I didn’t feel like the pain would ever really go away. Maybe I couldn’t handle making it art. I was furious and disappointed and utterly sad, and maybe it didn’t feel much like art. Perhaps turning it into a poem felt too much like finding beauty in something that had no beauty or purpose or value. I hated what I’d been through. I said it wasn’t worth it. I said it was the biggest waste of everything. So how could I write about it?
I grew up a lot during that period. I crossed a bridge I never knew existed. Here’s what I learned: that’s life. Things happen, and that’s life. You take the good and the bad; you can’t have it any other way. Sometimes a bunch of bad shit comes at once, and you feel like you’ll never find your way out of it. Other times, it’s a gorgeous fall day, and you eat salty tostones and ride your bike and listen to poetry while hummingbirds mate.
Yes, if you wait it out long enough and work hard enough, Persephone comes back from Hades feeling like a bomb-ass queen. That’s life. Sometimes I sing it (that’s liiiiiiife) with jazz hands.
Deep into last fall, in the middle of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I fell in love with literature all over again. I’d forgotten the pull of words, the richness of life when words are joined in a way that makes you feel like singing. But there it was before me, and I felt it so hard that it welled up in my throat.
I started thinking about writing again. For a few weeks, I just thought about it. Then I sat down and words came, and I felt my new self settle back into my old self and we all felt good and ready.
I’ve spent the last week in bed with this miserable end-of-summer illness that’s going around, but the upshot is that I watched loads of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Years ago, when Buffy was already in its fifth season, I happened to catch an episode and was immediately hooked. I’d forgotten how much I once craved a female superhero. Coincidentally, this was also when Alias started, and though Sydney Bristow boasted no actual super powers, I still loved to watch her kick ass, especially in that bright red wig.
As a late 70s tot, I was a big fan of Linda Carter’s incarnation of Wonder Woman, Diana Prince, though I was far too young to understand much about the story. There’s a picture of me, about three years old, standing in the living room in my Wonder Woman Underoos, and I can barely contain my excitement.
As I got older, I searched for similar themes in books–not warriors necessarily but girls and women who took control, solved problems, made decisions, and changed the world in some way if only in their little communities. Therefore, I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and I was really drawn to the notion of a regular girl fighting crime because it made me feel like I could do that sort of thing.
And that’s what I liked about Buffy Summers and Sidney Bristow. One was a blond, outgoing high-school student and secret chosen one, while the other was a graduate student in English (just like me!) and world-class spy. While these shows had their flaws, I liked how Buffy addressed the good girl/bad girl binary: Buffy couldn’t be just one or the other; ultimately, she had to be both. She had to accept that her dark side was an essential part of her and was not such a terrible thing to embrace. A girl or woman could be multi-dimensional, have conflicting feelings, be tough and firm if she wanted to, and drive the story. She didn’t need to be anyone’s sidekick. She didn’t need saving. And she didn’t need to please everyone.
Has there been another good female superhero since then? I suppose Katniss is one, though she doesn’t have super powers and there’s that tiresome love triangle that guides much of her story. But who else? I admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about comics, but there’s a reason for that. The few women characters always seemed to be impossibly busty and done up in just a strip of leather. To the rescue: artist Alex Law’s Little Girls Are Better at Drawing Superheroes Than You displays little girls’ re-interpretations of superheroes, and they are uplifting and exciting. Little girl Hulk in a tutu might be the best thing ever.
There’s been an influx of superhero movies lately, but they’re mostly the same old stories of straight white dudes. Supposedly, Marvel is a pinch interested in making a female superhero movie because they see a hole they can fill, but they aren’t ready to move. Furthermore, this world is in dire need of more superheroes that aren’t white. Can we get a black Batman or Arab Harry Potter?
Enter Qahera, who breaks the mold and then some. Egyptian artist Deena’s veiled female Muslim superhero fights both misogyny and Islamophobia. Qahera deals with current, real-life scenarios such as sexual harassment and the sexist response of Egypt’s police to said harassment.
It’s fun to imagine having super powers and using them to kick a little ass, especially when faced with a corrupt police force or tyrannical regime, but Ciudad Juárez has its own superhero right now, minus actual super powers, one assumes. A woman calling herself Diana the Huntress (excellent name choice, though I prefer her Greek form, Artemis) has been shooting bus drivers in response to women’s frequent sexual abuse at the hands of the drivers. Authorities say she’s getting revenge, but considering the utter lack of police and government response to rampant femicide in Juarez, you might call it justice.
The thing is I don’t think violence really is a part of justice. I don’t actually want to respond to violence with violence. I think the value in a good superhero tale is not in graphic violence but in the symbolism. Buffy didn’t kill humans, only monsters, and those monsters were the physical manifestation of angsty teen emotions. One of the things I loved about Buffy was that it wasn’t just good vs. evil. Buffy was about accepting that there’s no such thing as perfectly packaged categories of good and evil. There are subversive feelings and ideas lurking beneath cheerleader smiles.
Rather tellingly, Juarez officials have put far more effort into catching this single woman who has killed two men (and wears a blond wig, by the way) than into finding the perpetrators of the mass rape and murder of the city’s female citizens. Clearly, serious cultural change–not violence–is what’s needed to end gender-based violence in Mexico, Egypt, or anywhere else. Transforming traditional narratives, especially superhero stories which are part of our collective consciousness (i.e., the mythic hero’s journey), are an important part of this necessary cultural change. Though that may be why Diana the Huntress chose an archetypal hero as her nom de guerre.
What I responded to most in superhero stories from Wonder Woman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the image of a curious, bold, strong, and smart girl or woman who could lead people and effect change. That’s why Nancy Drew was a kind of superhero to me. She saw problems in her world and found a way to solve them on her own. Like Nancy, Diana, and Buffy, I was never interested in being a damsel in distress (or fragile princess, a mythologized Diana of another kind), in letting life just happen to me. I wanted to make life happen, and I wanted to solve problems. That’s what the best superheroes do. If our superheroes reflected more diversity, we might be more inclined to see these strengths in people no matter their gender, ethnicity, religion, etc.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it feels like Athena is about to bust out of my skull, so I must get back to fighting the good fight against the simple cold.