On feminism, writing, and doing womanhood wrong
The problem with romance is that it seems to give me writer’s block. I can’t explain why it happens, but it always does. It isn’t because I feel overly preoccupied with the source of the romantic feelings (I seem to have finally managed to overcome the frustrating, obsessive-type feelings that always developed in the early falling-for-someone moments, thank god), but somehow that beginning-a-relationship period seems to coincide with a creative dry spell. Once the relationship settles a little — into domesticity, boredom, a comfort zone of sorts — the inspiration returns, but in the meantime I’m often left feeling eerily blank. Not only does it baffle me but it makes me feel like a terrible woman — the kind of woman who gets distracted by men. Which is possibly the last thing a feminist should do.
I never want to admit it, but dating men is hard. It’s hard, in general, because so many men don’t learn how to communicate and treat women as true equals; but it’s harder if you’re a feminist, especially a public one. When I’m single I manage to pretend that it’s ok. I have so many male friends who are such great feminists and I meet so many men who really do “get it” that I start to think it’ll be easy. Dating again, that is. Oh how tricky positive thinking is! Tricky, tricky.
Laurie Penny wrote a really amazing piece recently about the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” trope and the ways that girls and women try so hard (and are expected to be) these one-dimensional story characters — these male fantasies. They learn to be “forgettable supporting characters” to their male lead: “Men grow up expecting to be the hero of their own story. Women grow up expecting to be the supporting actress in somebody else’s,” she writes.
There was a time, when I was younger — maybe when I was 19 years old or so — when I dreamed of being a high-powered secretary. Though, later I started to say, half-jokingly, that I wanted to change the world, it took me years to gain the drive, focus, and confidence to actually try to do what I really wanted to do with my life and risk intimidating all the men who’d paid attention to me up until then. I still catch myself, to be perfectly honest, answering the “so what do you do” question vaguely — “Oh I write about things on the Internet” I say sometimes. On one hand I’m just tired of having boring, feminism 101-type conversations with people who think their opinion on the empowered stripper is interesting, and on the other, I think there’s something etched into my psyche that says “don’t scare them.”
I assume I will scare men who don’t know me. I meet someone I’m interested in and almost immediately start worrying about the day they decide to add me on Facebook or Google me. I can’t stand that that thought crosses my mind. The obvious thing I tell myself is that, if said man isn’t ok or even *gasp* supportive of what I do, he clearly — CLEARLY — isn’t one I should be dedicating any time or energy towards. And generally men aren’t scared off. Often they’re even interested. Things tend to get trickier as you move further along in the relationship and the men realize you were serious when you said you didn’t want to be in a relationship with a porn-user.
When I was younger I tried to convince myself that I could be fulfilled by male attention. The “high-powered secretary” is, of course, mostly a porn fantasy — you wear sexy outfits, smile and flirt with all the men who have the real power, and are rewarded (supposedly, but not really) for being agreeable, helpful, and sexy, all at once. You are the woman behind the man and, as they say, behind every great man is a woman. Key word: behind. Never out in front. Men aren’t meant to play supporting roles. And because women are rewarded for correctly performing those male fantasies and because those roles are glorified, as a woman, you learn to fantasize about those roles yourself.
But I never could properly play that role. Really, I could never properly play any of those roles women are meant to play. I’m far too head-strong to fake stupidity or passivity for very long. I’ve never been very good at keeping my opinions to myself or playing whatever limited supporting role women are allowed to play and are expected to feel fulfilled by — “the supportive girlfriend” “the groupie” “the trophy wife” “the obedient secretary” “the mother.” Secretarial work always inevitably made me feel angry and condescended to (never mind the level of sexual advances/harassment you are expected to put up as the “young, hot secretary” — a role I tried, and felt I had little choice but to play because I had to make a living and became very quickly trapped in a pink ghetto shorty after I finished high school). The assumption is that, if you’re a receptionist/secretary/assistant, you’re also stupid — a funny role to be in once you collect a whole bunch of degrees, continue to work as a receptionist (who knew feminism wasn’t a lucrative career choice!) and are still talked to as though you are a particularly useless child.
Do men ever consider these things? Do they spend their lives creating and then trying to live out one-dimensional fantasies in order to avoid scaring women away? Do they say “I don’t want her to think I’m too smart… It’ll make her feel unfeminine” to themselves? I assume it’s the opposite. That men try to pump themselves up to appear more successful, more high-powered than they actually are, whereas I catch myself saying “Oh you know, I do a bunch of stuff…” then changing the subject.
Penny wrote that once she became a successful writer she “manifestly had other priorities,” besides men, “and those priorities included writing.” I’m certainly not a “successful writer” at this point because, well, I’m mostly broke and hustling to make ends meet, but when I decided I was going to try to make a living as a writer and a journalist, I was in a relationship. So this person already knew me and I didn’t have to consider what might happen if he found me out, as it were, and got scared off.
That relationship ended for a number of reasons (primarily because it simply isn’t possible to live with an addict, particularly if you aren’t willing to play the role of mother or enabler), but at a certain point I said, out loud, “You are less important than my work and you will always be less important than my work.” I didn’t mean it in a hurtful way; I meant it honestly. I meant that, in order to pursue the life I’d decided to pursue, my relationship was always going to have to take a back seat — That I was never going to make my intimate relationship with a man my number one priority. I’ve never stopped wondering if that was a horribly insensitive thing to say.
It seems like it’s something that men don’t even have to say out loud. Men have always been allowed to put their work first. Any kind of creative work and any kind of work that requires a great deal of reflection and thought also requires a great deal of time and space. If I don’t spend the vast majority of my week alone on my computer, I can’t write. It just doesn’t happen. It isn’t possible. So I’m destined to have a life that women aren’t meant to have — one that isn’t dedicated to a family or a marriage, but that is dedicated to spending a lot of time alone, reading and thinking and forcing myself to sit down and write, even when I can’t think of anything to say.
Penny writes: “You cannot be a writer and have writing be anything other than the central romance of your life, which is one thing they don’t tell you about being a woman writer: it’s its own flavour of lonely. Men can get away with loving writing a little bit more than anything else. Women can’t: our partners and, eventually, our children are expected to take priority.”
Somehow it’s acceptable and even attractive, to women, that a man is dedicated to his craft, whatever that may be. That he will get wrapped up in his creative work. I just don’t know that the opposite is a male fantasy — that one day he’ll meet a woman who is so distracted by her work that he will always come second or even third. That doesn’t seem particularly romantic to men, I don’t think.
I tend to have some pretty direct conversations on those first dates. I tell people, right off the bat, that I don’t plan on having children or getting married and that work is my central focus at this point in my life. Most men don’t believe you when you say those things. They think you’ll fall in love with them and suddenly change your mind and develop the deep and uncontrollable desire to push a human being out of your vagina. It doesn’t sound rational when you say it out loud, but I tend to think men probably don’t make the body-childbirth connection because they aren’t the ones who have to go through it. I can’t help but think most men just see it as something natural and inevitable. They don’t ever have to fully deal with or understand the consequences of pregnancy and bearing children. No matter how much they may want to understand, they don’t. They can’t.
All this means is that women who make different choices feel, and are treated as, kind of unfeminine. Which is, of course, not a terrible thing at all but is certainly uncomfortable because we all learn we should be “feminine” as women. We’re given the side-eye when we engage in behaviour that isn’t seen as “feminine” (as I have many times, being someone who has always been big on unladylike behaviour) and we aren’t believed when reject the roles of wife and mother — of passive, supporting character to our impressive, driven, and successful leading man.
The fact that now, in my thirties, more confident, far happier, and more fulfilled in my life than ever before, I still find myself avoiding or mumbling “somethingaboutfeminism” in that inevitable first conversation — the “so what do you do?” one — is pretty significant. We’re still feeling guilty about not living up to those impossible fantasies — those tropes. We know that we’ll suffer, to a certain extent, for playing a different role and that, yes, we might be lonely because of it. I don’t feel capable of making a different choice — I couldn’t if I tried — and so I imagine how many women out there are suffering and struggling, trying to figure out why that “sexy secretary” “lead singer’s girlfriend” “hot mom” “perfect housewife” role doesn’t quite fit.
This role fits me better than anything else I’ve ever tried, but it also means I have to stifle a certain level of fear that I’ll die alone, never have the happy relationship I think I want, and that heartbreak is inevitable because I’ll always have to choose me over someone else and knowing that, as a woman, I shouldn’t be so selfish.
*Apologies to all those who commented here and whose comments were consequently lost during the time the site was down. Unfortunately we weren’t able to recover them. Thank you for your contributions, nonetheless.