Defined by Breasts

“She was outraged at the thought that people would even consider that the letters might not be from Mariana, and I thought of the times when, as women, we are not heard and how after 300 years, Mariana, whose words have changed so many lives, is not allowed the most basic of rights, to claim her own voice.” (Myriam Cyr, “A Note from the Author,” Letters of a Portuguese Nun, xii)

“Be prepared,” my friend Jackie said as we sat working on projects in her fabulous Blue Box Art Studio. “Some artist think that you can only really be an Artist if you’ve taken the proper technique classes, and they will also judge you as a woman.”

I’m just dipping my toe into the world of art right now, and I’m really not doing it because I want to be known as an “artist”. Projects, words, and ideas have all been flooding into me lately, and I’m simply embracing them and then finding ways to express them. This personal journey that I am on is exciting and terrifying and opening me up to so many possibilities.  I don’t really care if  Artists (with a capital A) think what I am doing is Art.

I can’t say the same thing, however, about the Woman issue. If you read my recent post called The Power of Women’s Voices you know that I am fascinated by the stories of women who have pursued their passions and dreams despite society’s expectations. In that post I talked about women historically, but more and more I have come to realize that nothing has really changed for women.

I know, I know. Women hold higher positions throughout the world and have more equality, and yada, yada, yada. But, the reality lies in a subtle manipulation of language that does not allow women to be equal. A woman is almost always defined by her sex: a woman writer, a female artist, a congresswoman, the first woman to run for president. (Yes, yes, I know–Obama will forever be known as the first black president. This subtle manipulation of language to assert power or difference is not exclusive to the description of women).

So, I suggest we change this by our own manipulation of language. How, you ask? Well, here are some examples that have popped into my head:

  • William Shakespeare, perhaps the most well-known non-female playwright of his time . . .
  • Hilary Clinton, who served as Secretary of State under the male President Obama
  • Non-female talk-show host, David Letterman swapped jibes with Ellen the other day, and of course lost (Now . . . I’m making all of this up folks, as examples. This is not intended as a serious statement of fact.)
  • One of the funniest non-female bloggers Mark (aka The Idiot) battles Tori Nelson to a duel of witty banter causing a medical emergency as blog readers every keel over with extreme fits of laughter and tears.  (Okay, I’d really like to see that).
  • The Tony Award goes to newcomer Lisa Kramer who defeats the better-known non-female directors . . . (I told you this is fiction, now bordering on fantasy)

I hope you get my point by now. If we turn the tables, will it reverse the expectations of what is the “norm” or the “ideal”? Or do we continue to stand by and let the “norm” be defined as “white, male, heterosexual etc.” which we all know is a fallacy of the highest order. As long as we continue to define people by their gender/sexual identity/race we reinforce the perception that somehow only certain people define the norm.

So, now I’m moving on to the more “serious” or academic part of the discussion. Feel free to stop reading if you would like, although I hope you won’t. After all, despite the fact that I am a woman, sometimes I actually have valuable insight.  ;)

I realize there is value in identifying ourselves by our gender, our sexual identities, our races, and our religions. I myself would be really interested to know the numbers of bloggers who are female vs. the number who are male. I know that most of the blogs I follow happen to be by women, but I wonder if that is simply because they write things that I am more interested in reading, or because there are a greater number of female bloggers out there. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were more women, because we all know the reality that it is hard to get published, and I think it is even harder for females unless they are writing in specific genres. Of course, I don’t have evidence of this, but I’m sure it could be found.

Myriam Cyr’s quote from Letters of a Portuguese Nun shows that, historically at least, anything that surpassed expectations and “threatened to upset the delicate balance of power between men and women” (xviii) could not possible be written by a woman. Apparently, the debate over this issue still rages, led by French scholar Jacques Rougeot and Frederic Deloffre who say

“Admit that the Portuguese Letters were written in a convent, by a nun with little if any instruction, having never known the world, is to believe that spontaneity and pure passion inspired a woman to write a superior work of art over and above what the best minds of the greatest period of French literature could offer their public.” (Cyr xix)

I know there were some French female writers from the time period, but I wonder if the objection is more based on the fact that the nun was a woman than on her training (since she clearly was educated to some extent in the nunnery).  Those who disagree, attribute the letters to a male French aristocrat.

Can we even tell the difference between things created by a man and things created by a woman? I mentioned earlier that most of the blogs I follow happen to be written by women, but how do I really know? Identities can easily be faked in this strange world of web technology.  And, I guess it doesn’t really matter if someone is hiding his identity behind the facade of a woman if I enjoy the blog. (Why anyone would do that, of course, is beyond me). In past Comp classes I’ve conducted an experiment with my students. As a class we pick a topic, and then they write about it with a time limit. They hand these papers forward and I read them out loud. The students then need to guess whether the writer was male or female. I can usually (but not always) by the handwriting or the color of pen (for some reason guys rarely choose purple pens, go figure). Sometimes the students can guess, and sometimes they can’t.  When it comes down to writing about the same things, it is often hard to tell the difference.

Does it matter if something is written or created by a woman? Or by someone with more or less education? Or by a black, asian, mexican, alien with five eyes and a tail. . . It only matters if the creation in some way relates to being one of those things.  It only matters if the creation is rooted in actually living a certain experience. But even then it does not matter . . . because emotions and thoughts can be universal, can’t they?

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe the differences between women and men can be seen in everything we do. If that’s true, then that must be celebrated, because it is difference that makes this world such an interesting place. But difference need not imply one is better than another, Difference simply implies difference.

Art is art whether or not you have learned all the techniques. A writer is a writer even without an extra appendage between the legs. Leaders are leaders even if they happen to have breasts. An artist is an artist, even if the art reflects the feminine divine. A movie star is a movies star even if he/she loves someone of the same sex. [Sometimes movie stars are movie stars despite the fact that they are actually creatures from another planet ;)]

Our reality is defined by language. The question is, does the language control us or do we control the language?

 

Elizabeth Barret Browning

 

“A Curse for a Nation”
by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1856)

I heard an Angel speak last night,
And he said “Write!
Write a Nation’s curse for me,
And send it over the Western Sea.”

. . . “Not so,” I answered once again.
“To curse, choose men.
For I, a woman, have only known
How the Heart melts, and the tears run down.”

“Therefore,” the voice said, “Shalt thou write
My curse to-night.

Some women weep and curse, I say
(And no one marvels), night and day.
“And thou shalt take their part to-night,
Weep and write.
A curse from the depths of womanhood
Is very salt, and better and good.”

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