Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Our wives and mothers

My Google Reader is full of feminists.  Actual feminist blogs, style blogs written by feminists, parenting blogs written by feminists, a couple news sources where one is more or less guaranteed to see a feminist coverage of any large event among the six or seven articles they publish concerning it, etc.  And yet somehow I am entirely alone in seeing something a little questionable in the president's feminism as expressed in his inaugural address.  This is kind of a first for me, finding myself with more extreme thoughts than literally anyone else I've encountered, even among more or less professional feminists on the internet, people who generally spend a lot of time dissecting language and nuance and implication.  So maybe I am "just looking for things to be offended about," * or maybe I'm just that special.  At any rate, I wanted to explore my thoughts a little bit.

*  I'm not.  Though obviously I do look at basically everything with, first and foremost, a critical attitude, so if there's an aspect in which something is unfair or questionable, I'm going to notice it, and of course I'm going to point it out.  That's how I work, yo.

The section in question, which was Facebooked and blogged by several women I know and loads of random internet women, goes like this:

For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the lawfor if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

So, first of all:  yes, obviously, to the sentiment.  Women should earn fair wages on par with men and gay people's marriages matter as much as straight people's.  No quibble there.

However, I find this part to be, ironically, a sudden (linguistic, rhetorical) departure from his previous language of inclusivity.  It's a subtle shift, but I find it surprisingly alienating.  If Obama is suddenly talking about "our" wives and mothers and daughters and "our" gay brothers and sisters, the "we" he is speaking to doesn't seem to actually include those people who are the wives/mothers/daughters, brothers/sisters.  He suddenly seems to be speaking to those in charge, those with the power, those who are 'neutral,' who actually (functionally, historically, are perceived to) make up the "we" of the citizenry of America.  And that implication is where I suddenly have a problem.  For these sentences he shifts into the usual language of privilege and exclusivity that I generally see all around but that is the result of attitudes that he is explicitly trying to end.  Sure, let's give rights to those people.  "We" in our benevolence, can bestow that upon them.  It's perpetuating the attitude he's trying to solve.

I'm really surprised that nobody else has had this reaction, because it stuck out like a sore thumb to me.  Reading down the transcript, you get we, we, we, together, together, together, "we have always understood," "this generation of Americans," "for we, the people, understand...," "we understand...," "we, the people, still believe...," "any one of us," "the commitments we make to each other," "we, the people," "we, the people," "we."  All togetherness and unity and melded identity, and then, wait a second, "our wives, our mothers, and daughters."  Except he's talking about me.  In the third person.  And if I'm not part of the "we" here, I'm left to wonder if I've been part of the "we" all along or if this whole speech is addressed to people who aren't  me.

And it really is rather abrupt and rather unique.  He didn't say "our friends who are parents of a disabled child," he just said, "parents of a disabled child," which I at least take as the implied "those of us who," or "if you end up being."  He didn't say "when our old spent their twilight years in poverty," he said, "when twilight years were spent in poverty."  He does say "our brave men and women in battle," but I feel like that's different and rings more of "those of us who..." than "our sons and daughters" (which he could have, and often has, said).  It's all about smoothing over differences and kind of looking past individuality, about identifying as part of an amorphous blob of citizenry.  (Which I don't mean to sound negative; we could use more of that.)  We, we, we, together, my fellow Americans, you and I as citizens...  Why not continue with "Our journey is not complete until we all, regardless of gender, can earn a living equal to our efforts" (or even "until we all can earn...," though I assume he wants to specifically point out gender, and I dig that) or "until our income is not dependent on our gender" or "until those of us who are women can earn a living in accordance with our effort"?  Why not "until we view all marriage as equal" or "until we all can enjoy the legal and social sanction of our declared love" or "those of us who are gay enjoy equality under the law" or "all our marriages are equal, as our love is"?

I actually have less of a problem with the gay part, I guess because "our brothers and sisters" still more invokes "each other" than "our wives and mothers and daughters" does.  (At least I hope it's not just that I am a woman and not gay.  That would be disappointingly normal of me.)  So while I still don't like the alienating "our," it's more an "our" of "our friends" than "our children."  It's a mutual relationship being implied.  And "brothers and sisters" is obviously meant yet a step more metaphorically than "wives and mothers."  Plus I feel like the follow-up sentence furthers the thought and focuses on the identity and equality more:  "for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."  Back to "we."  And not a "we are equal with them," but a "we [all of us] are equal [with each other]."

Secondarily, I have a problem with people being defined in relation to others.  Part of this is connected, but part of it is distinct.  I've never liked politicians talking about "our children and grandchildren" when what they mean is either young Americans or future generations of Americans, partially because (as above) it alienates any minors who happen to be listening and paying attention (or, well, not even minorsI'm going to be alive when the environment self-destructs, and I'm going to be around when Social Security runs out...), but partially because  it unnecessarily links people to us, gives us the primacy and the importance.  If doing something about the environment is important because of its effects on future people, it's important regardless of how those people may be connected to us.  You shouldn't have to have a personal connection to someone to care.  And I know it's metaphorical and is an accepted rhetorical device, and I know that most people really do care more about things when they have a personal relationship with someone it affects (and that's fine, though I would prefer it to be more in a drawing-one's-attention way and less in a hey-that's-my-grandson-you're-talking-about way), but I don't really think that sort of absurdity should be encouraged.

It's offensive to other people's full autonomy as individuals and human beings to couch their existence in relation to ours.  "Our children"?  Blech.  "Our wives and mothers"?  Even blech-er.  This is, obviously, generally much more often done with women ("our children" and "our sons (and daughters) off to war" being the only common exceptions).  Sorry, I am a person.  My rights and my earning power, much less this country's willingness to stand for my equality and full citizenship, should have absolutely nothing to do with my being anyone's wife or mother or daughter.  I'm neither a wife nor a mother, and while obviously all women are technically someone's daughter...really? That's not part of my identity.  That's not who I am, it's just a thing one can say about me.  Like ten or so things down the list.  And you know?  That kind of makes it more important that I make an appropriate amount of money.

(And yeah, I just did kind of the same thing rhetorically, switching to talking about "me" instead of "women."  Fair enough, what I deserve or want doesn't matter either; relating to myself instead of abstractly is exactly the problem.  But the difference is I'm not trying to smash the entire country into one happy huggy together-identifying mass though the power of my words.  Also, this is a personal blog and I am one person, and my job in the world is to be that one person and not a representative of anything else.  So yeah, lots of first-person singular here.  Also, of course, the fact that apparently nobody else out there has quite the same take on this as I do, so of course I'm only speaking of myself.)

Friday, January 11, 2013


A revelation I had at some point in 2012:  You can choose clothes based on something other than aesthetics.  Or rather, you can make choices about your appearance and presentation that aren't rooted in making you look as attractive and pleasing as possible.

I know, right?  Simultaneously mindnumbingly obvious and completely revolutionary.

I can deliberately choose to wear skinny jeans even though they make my legs look shorter and even though they draw attention to my disproportionately heavy thighs.*  I can even choose them because that.  Hello, world, I'm going to stick my thighs in your face and there's nothing you can do about it!

* It is possible this is just me being insecure.  That's kind of beside the point, though.  I can wear clothes that I don't think necessarily flatter my body!  And I can like them and be happy about them and just go out in the freaking world and live already instead of worrying about it like I'm really letting somebody down by not downplaying my "flaws" and highlighting my "assets."

I mean, I always knew that some people chose clothes or hairstyles for practical reasons:  they don't show dirt or they stretch with you or it's easy to wash and wear.  But I always thought of this as a sacrifice, as a tradeoff, that they were giving up on looking nice by prioritizing something else.

But you can wear horizontal stripes because, gasp, you like them, or because you like flouting rules.  You can wear tank tops even though you have broad shoulders, or cropped pants even if you have short legs or mustard even if you're pale or...I don't know, I'm running out, but there are loads of these rules, and you can ignore all of them!  Because society at large doesn't have the right to demand of you that you look as hourglassy and poreless as possible.  You're not required to try to adopt a body shape you don't have, or accentuate the one you do.  You can emphasize whatever you want.  You can be deliberately ugly.

Seriously, nothing is as awesome as people thumbing their nose at other people's demands.  I don't have to smile in public, I don't have to wear only flattering colors, I can slick my hair back away from my face in the least flattering way (as my mother kept encouraging me away from and even outright banning when I was in middle school) as a deliberate signal to society (/men) that I don't want their approval, that I have other stuff going on in my life.

Edited to add this, which I have no idea what it's from (other than the comment on a post I just read, but it purports to be from elsewhere), which, YES:
"Pretty is not the rent you pay for occupying a space marked 'female'."