An Irish friend of mine once said that I find blue in a Galway sky. I do hide behind optimism. In the southern American states, women of my generation were taught to smile smile smile! I suspect that the end goal was to raise compliant and congenial young women. A lot of the Southern women I know, including myself, smile for reasons other than compliance. Watch any episode of the Closer and you’ll know what I mean.
I’m not about to start a campaign against the Smile Oppression of Southern women. The smile is a particular tool from a particular sub-culture. We all choose our battles and in those battles, we choose our weapons. Every culture and sub-culture hands out disguises to hide our secret selves. Mine apparently has great legs.
In a dream, my husband drops me off at the Success Station. That’s something like the train station, but the only destination is Success. Actually, it isn’t a station at all, but a building ledge. I look down. Rather than the height impressing (terrifying, paralysing) me, I notice my legs coming out of a pair of black Bermuda shorts. They’re male legs, all toned and hairy, quite attractive if they weren’t on a woman. I point them out to my husband with the concern they’ll be noticed in Success. Perhaps I should go back and put on trousers. My husband says people aren’t going to notice. I look at my legs and think, should I care if they notice? Perhaps I’ll go with these legs to Success and hope that people do.
Why is our first reaction to hide our secret self?
I read an article today by Lidia Yuknavitch that starts with a story about being in a bar with friends and a man she respects tells women to stop with the ‘sob stories’, aka The Sad Shit That Happened. No need to go on and on until male eyes roll back into male heads. The word is out. Men get it. Sad Shit won’t happen again. In other words, will you shut the fuck up so I can have a pint in peace? People laughed at what he said.
We hide our secret selves because people react badly when we don’t.
When my husband and I married a little over five years ago, his ex-wife started an harassment campaign. It’s really difficult to get protection from that type thing. The victim has to show he’s reasonable in his attempts to stop the harassment before the courts will step in. What anyone who’s worked with domestic abuse will tell you is this period of reasonable behaviour is On The Job training for the perpetrator who learns how to manipulate the system. We eventually had to move, my husband giving up a job he’d held for twelve years. The harassment continues but at a distance. My husband’s friends were more embarrassed than supportive. Their reactions went from not wanting to be involved to saying she did this because he was too soft. He learned to not talk about the most distressing thing in his life to the people who could have acted as support.
Why is it that normal, respectable people who contribute to society don’t want to know? A friend of mine who’d been raised in a Irish industrial school, went back as an adult and talked to a man who’d lived next to the school. The man said he could hear the boys screaming but thought the Brothers knew what they were doing. Are we that deaf, that children screaming in fear and pain on a daily basis, aren’t heard? Or is it a case of Sad Shit overload?
The mentor for my recent writing project said that my theme of alienation and isolation got in the way of what she thought the play was about. I thought the play was about alienation and isolation. While the mentor is probably addressing my technical ability, what if she’s not? What if we as a species have begun to say, please don’t tell me anything more? Yet if we can’t listen, then we're reduced to a group of secret selves sharing the same space.
When I lived in Ireland, there was a small group of American ex-pats that hung together for social survival. There was one particularly arrogant man who undoubtedly would have preferred all women have their tongues removed and perhaps a mandatory lobotomy as well. He once called me stupid for not agreeing with him. Having an enemy in a group as small as ours was like having a serial killer in a life boat. I pulled out my best Southern smile and said, then you should be kind to me. I had let go of the rope in his tug of war. For as long as we knew each other afterwards, he treated me with respect.
Life isn’t black and white. Look for the colour. In my Irish example, I could be a little smarter and the man could be a little less arrogant. My husband’s friends could see him (and themselves) as intelligent, skilled and successful but also able to be victimised. The men in Yuknavitch’s bar can and do treat women as objects and yes, the women there can and do use their dis-empowerment as assault weapons. Just like my Southern smile.
We are capable of doing and experiencing horrific things. Let’s make our secret selves not so secret.