20-Something Swag

(forever young, sometimes broke, and always snarky)

Month: March, 2012

Etsy Schmetsy

I wish I were crafty. No, not a conniving, scheming, mischievous charmer (actually, I wish I could be that too sometimes). I bet you’ve got a crafty friend, or maybe five, who fills your Facebook newsfeed with photos of her latest earring creations or trendy knitted headbands that are all the rage amongst wavy-haired hipsters. $7 on Etsy (plus $2.50 for shipping and handling. “Handling”?) Maybe you ARE the crafty friend trying to pick up a little coin for school or your ravenous book habit. Wherever you fall on the spectrum between Martha Stewart and Martha Plimpton, I respect your ingenuity.

But, moment of truth? Who really needs to dangle laminated coupons from their earlobes? Being from last week’s Penny Saver does not make them vintage.

My housemate, who is a formally trained artist, and yes, has an Etsy account, recently directed me to the site Regretsy.com where bloggers field submissions of strange and sometimes gross junk available for purchase on Etsy. Their tagline: Where DIY Meets WTF. Yeah. I’m really liking when people tie fugly string to sticks and sell it for more than I spend on groceries each month. Because if I get hungry I’d much rather gnaw on moldy tree debris from Alabama and polyester grosgrain. Even better are the pot holders people weave out of THEIR OWN HAIR, or the knitted skeleton decór (not kidding, see image below). I already have one of those in my closet. But I digress.

Move over, Sally Field. Bone density meds just got a new poster child.

What’s up with this predominately 20-something and female phenomenon? I’m no art historian or sociologist, but here’s my take.

Women in the U.S. are taught, via many avenues, to want and to embody certain things. The current recession seems like added incentive to turn these lessons into some green and to boost morale through the distribution of our handiwork. Here is a list of just a few of our little life lessons:

Lesson 1) Make cute shit. Not like contemplative art, because that won’t make you money anyway right?, but kitschy stuff. It’s an expression of how cute you are.

Lesson 2) Be cute. If you aren’t naturally cute, Work. At. It. Fake it till you make it, or make it to fake it. See Lesson 1. It’s all circular reasoning anyway.

Lesson 3) Women are naturally drawn to beautiful things . . . especially if there’s glitter involved. Use glitter liberally in everything.

Lesson 4) Marry rich, so you can have a glitter supplier, and so you can hire someone to perpetually mop while you throw glitter around.

Lesson 5) Glitter.

Lesson 6) You are a princess. You don’t need a job or to take care of your own place. Jobs are for feminazis–you know, women who want to invade Poland one rescued child bride at a time. Besides, if my recollection of almost every romantic comedy I have ever seen is accurate, your job would be unfulfilling anyway. Especially compared to glitter and a hot man to buy it.

Lesson 7) That said, express your uniquely-you self. Start your own business (not “company,” because that’s uppity). Find your voice. Because we never get mixed messages in society.

Lesson 8) If you can do something semi-well, everyone you know will treat you like an ingenue  (because you are, duh) and praise your work as true talent. Of course this means you should try to make a living off of anything your grandma likes; she’s the most objective critic out there. So is your best friend (actually, my best friend tells me when I suck at something). And your four-year-old niece.

Lesson 9) You are a special snowflake. Nuff said.

Lesson 10) We’re trying, as a culture and society to affirm the artistic endeavors of women, but we’re not quite sure what that looks like yet, much like our difficulty in affirming women in general (see Women’s History Month musings). So bear with us? Push the envelope? We don’t know.

Unfortunately, these cultural lessons don’t answer some of the questions women in the arts face: Does “women’s art” have to somehow dialogue with historically feminine experiences? Does it have to be culturally “feminine”? To prove that we are not glitter-addicts must “women’s art” reject so-called femininity altogether? Is there such a thing as “women’s art”? And to be women with our own creativity do we have to be crafty?

I don’t have the answers. So, to distract myself from tough questions I’m going to the bead store. Not really (. . . they’re not open on Saturday).

 

*I am fully aware that a blog is the writer’s version of Etsy.

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Muses Wanted: Inquire Everywhere

Remember The Princess Diaries with Anne Hathaway, Hilary Duff’s career-defining role in Lizzie McGuire, or Alexis Bledel and her impressive pratfall as Lena in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants films? In the early 2000s, these clumsy characters told equilibrium-challenged chicas like myself that somehow, though we’re not quite sure why, being a klutz is endearing. Falling over: hot. Tripping on every curb: magnetic. Yeah, because I’ve never felt sexier than that time when I took a nosedive off the trampoline. Although it is encouraging to think that maybe some (super attractive, wealthy, witty, even royal) people are attracted to those of us who don’t always put our literally best foot forward, I’m glad the trope of the Girl Who Falls Over has gracefully left the scene. We all know it was a lie. Polite people will help the fallen damsel regain her center, but that doesn’t mean a whirlwind affair is inevitable. It’s more likely that she’ll get an honorable mention at the rescuer’s dinner table later that night as “a girl who fell over.”

In recent years it seems the Girl Who Falls Over has been edged out by her neighbor trope—the girl next door perhaps?—the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG). Rather than proving that the physically incapable woman is indeed lovable, too, dammit!, critics such as Feminist Frequency‘s Anita Sarkeesian suggest that the MPDG, sometimes a bit awkward, functions as a supporting character to the heroic male lead. Sarkeesian says of the hero, “Sometimes all that pressure of running the entire world really gets them down. Enter the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the shining beacon of childlike joy that will rejuvenate our fallen hero . . . to help the usually white and definitely straight male hero to loosen up and enjoy life.” She goes on to say, “She [MPDG] really has no life of her own. She has no family, or interests, or much of a job that we ever see.” The editors at the refreshingly snarky blog Jezebel describe these characters, whom they have “long despised,” as “ideal muses whose beauty, sweetness and gentle, studied eccentricity renders them entirely docile.”

Yikes. There’s not a lot of love for the trope Nathan Rabin first defined as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Natalie Portman’s townie Sam in Garden State, Kirsten Dunst as the spunky southern flight attendant Claire in Elizabethtown, “Penis!” shouting Zooey Deschanel as Summer in (500) Days of Summer (and everything else she has acted in since then), Kate Winslet as the neon-haired Clementine in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: all these characters, as MPDGs, are, according to Sarkeesian and Co., poor representations of real women that perpetuate the age-old stereotype of the childlike female muse.

Sarkeesian rightly points out that, historically, as the person who coaxes the male lead from his misery and inspires him to live and pursue the work he loves, the MPDG has been problematically and unrealistically a muse who seems to be without her own purpose. Concluding her video blog on the topic, Sarkeesian tells Hollywood filmmakers: “Women are not here for men’s inspiration, or celebration, or whatever else. We are musicians, and artists, and writers with our own creative endeavors . . . But you wouldn’t know that from the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. . . . So, Hollywood . . . how’s about you stop using us as your muse and start writing us as real people.”

The problem I think Sarkeesian sees with the representation of women à la the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is based on the empirically strengthened assumption that a muse essentially has no voice of her or his own but is instead the pliable object of the inspired one. Irish poet Eavan Boland, among others, has pointed out this same problem, for certainly muses have had a long history of silently evoking the artist’s aesthetic or the poet’s sentiment, and women have had a long history of being muses. Of being talked about rather than talking. But there’s got to be a way to be inspired without exploiting people, because it happens in real life, and not just in arts and literature. People are inspired by other people all the time. Sometimes we tell them and sometimes we don’t. As Anne Lamott says, just write; we can worry about libel later. Or, we could say learn to be happy now, and be sure to view the person who helped you as a full person now, too.

Here’s my problem with quickly hating the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. I once was her.

Can’t say for sure whether I’ve been anyone’s muse, but I did, not long ago, see the world with childlike wonder. And instead of being thoroughly grateful for my experience-earned layers of cynicism, I’d kind of like to think that way again. Of course I internally roll my eyes when I hear women in their early twenties (or older) speaking wistfully in extra high voices or when I see them wearing a baby doll dress and a headband, but I’m trying to be less critical of these expressions. I don’t think grown adults should dumb themselves down or be incompetent at common real world tasks, like paying their bills on time, or spout optimistic jargon they don’t believe in, but the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in all her simplicity is a complicated representation of femininity that betrays both culturally masculine (and straight) desires to meet a whimsical woman, and culturally feminine desires to help and/or inspire someone. The fact that these are culturally popular desires and characteristics does not nullify their manifestations in real women, real men, and real relationships, of the Manic Pixie Dream variety or not.

Whimsy aside, I have also been that friend who tells a guy bluntly to stop talking about hating his job and hop on a plane to a place he’s never been, or to stop living according to other people’s expectations and try something new. Because I want my friends to be happy. Because I have high hopes for them. Does this mean that if they take my advice they are using me? If, by some (unlikely) chance they write a poem about me, am I simplified to a literary trope? If sometimes I feel unappreciated, does that mean my friendships are worthless? Does being encouraging, optimistic, and a little wacky render a person entirely docile? In some cases probably yes. I know I’ve manically pixied myself into some less than egalitarian situations, but I’ve also been able to help friends—male and female—when they’ve needed me and I’m not going to keep a tally of “who has the most power now.” The fact that I can choose to give seems empowering to me.

So, being the non-manic-somewhat-pixie-dream-girl that I am, I’ve written a crappy poem, quite hastily, about the problem of being a muse, because that seems like the most fitting response. Of course I have. Laugh all you want; I am. Pardon WordPress’ strange formatting.

Dear poet:

You may, without written consent, evoke my mouth,

make it soft and rosy, dewy even if you wish,

ever ready to open with a kiss for you alone

as long as after the poem I may rant about

Rick Santorum’s history of aspirin or curse

my hands for jostling the morning coffee.

 

If my eyes make you think of deep caverns

in dark, mysterious coal mines where a man

could get lost for days, brought to the brink

of death before emerging a new creature,

write it down, as long as I can still see

through your bullshit, and admire the moon.

 

Say anything you want about my ass,

the junk in the trunk, my badonkadonk,

how it sways or does not sway like a ship at sea.

It’s all behind me anyway. And I will sit wherever

I want, and that may not always be next to you,

though that is the most likely scenario.

 

They’re nothing to write home about, but

if you mention my breasts, remember

that my heart still beats behind them

and while we could say it belongs to you,

it is ever always mine to share

and it is breakable, very breakable.

 

And my skin, I hope you write about my skin.

Other poets may say what they want about eyes

being windows to the world and then wax

nonsensical about skin being supple & smooth,

as if they were writing a body wash commercial,

when it is my skin that faces the sun, keeps out the rain,

touches you.

Playing Dumb: Thoughts on Women’s History Month 2012

Since 1981, March has been the month to celebrate women’s contributions and the advancement of women’s rights in the United States. Back in 1981, women got a week when (theoretically) every American had to stop and consider that, yeah, women have done good stuff for this country and this world. In 1987, the year of my birth, women’s history claimed the entire month of March and it has held that month ever since. Each year the Library of Congress devises a theme for Women’s History Month and this year that theme is stated as follows:

Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment
Although women now outnumber men in American colleges nationwide, the reversal of the gender gap is a very recent phenomenon. The fight to learn was a valiant struggle waged by many tenacious women—across years and across cultures—in our country.

I’ve got a lot to say about this, so buckle your seat belts. In fact, this post is divided into two parts: The Conceptual & The Practical

I. The Conceptual

As an undergraduate, before I realized what I was getting into, I jumped headlong into one of academia’s oldest “old boys club,” philosophy. All the faculty members in my discipline were (supportive) men and during my four years of study I was one of three women who passed through the program. Granted, philosophy is not the most popular major at my alma mater, but considering that six people graduated in 2009 and I was the only female says something. And, to be honest, the low volume of female philosophers who aren’t working on specifically gendered issues was a key factor in my transition from philosophy to literature. I got tired of having to prove that my questions belonged and I didn’t want to work in the Continental tradition all my life, analyzing the final breath out of language, which seems to be done by anyone who is conscious of gender in philosophy. I just wanted to speak and listen more, fight less. So, at least for the time being, philosophy had to go.

Now, it could be argued that not as many women like philosophy as men do. Okay, I’ll go with that. But why? One of my colleagues recently returned from a conference on gender and higher education where one researcher reported that in the U.S. women’s university enrollment has skyrocketed since the 1950s, but the distribution of women and men amongst the academic disciplines has remained largely the same. For example, women still flock to education and nursing departments and family and consumer sciences, while men still hold the majority in disciplines such as engineering, philosophy, and political science. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not morally wrong to study something that is stereotypically associated with your gender. We can always use more nurses in the world and I say fill those departments up: women, men, anyone in between. And if it weren’t for interior design students now, I know my future abode will be austere and not in a good way. And, of equal importance, I celebrate women who haven’t pursued higher education and have contributed to human history as mothers, writers, baristas, sales associates, artists, social advocates, etc.

I don’t like the implication that to celebrate the history of women we have to pick a month. Yes, I like that at least during March there will be signs and events that bring women into focus, but the fact that we have needed a month each year for the past 30 years says to me that women’s history–our struggles, our innovations, and our triumphs–are still seen as different from American History. Until they are woven together, yes, we need to be collectively reminded of women’s history. I just wish it weren’t so seemingly easy to forget.

II. The Practical

But here we are, reminded, because we still need it. When I crossed the quad today on my way to the office, I passed by one such reminder. Hanging from a tree are pink cutouts of Venus’ Mirror and yellow cutouts of the skirted stick-figure motif that adorns women’s restrooms at the airport. The real clincher, however, are the strands of plastic pink beads that also hang from the tree.

Again, I am glad that people are paying attention to women, but are long-recognized symbols of women’s skirts and vanity the attention we want on a university campus? Where do we go from here when we want to affirm what women have historically been associated with as well as the ways women break the molds on a daily basis?

Well, for starters, to celebrate women’s education and struggles that people have faced and continue to face for the sake of equal education, don’t treat women like we’re stupid. Take our thoughts, our research, and our observations seriously. Argue with us if we’re wrong, but don’t talk down to us. Don’t reduce the representation of university women to outdated symbols and cheap beads. And for god’s sake, don’t hang us in a tree.

This isn’t just an academic problem, women not being taken seriously. If it weren’t still a socially pervasive phenomenon, Pink wouldn’t have recorded a song about it. I’m only half kidding. In Pink’s song “Stupid Girls” she asks why girls are still taught that playing dumb–harming their bodies, catering their opinions and behaviors to men, and pretending to be helpless or ignorant when they are not–is the way to achieve acceptance and happiness. I do take issue with an implication in Pink’s music video–the suggestion that playing with dolls rather than footballs is stupid. It’s not that I think embracing hegemonic models of femininity is stupid (I type while wearing a vintage linen dress and black eyeliner); rather, perpetuating the perception that women are pliable and not quite “with it” is stupid. It makes us look stupid and disrespects not only ourselves but the generations of women (and men) who have fought for our rights to broaden our minds through literacy and formal education. And, let me tell you from experience, playing dumb when you aren’t actually dumb is exhausting.

Women in higher education might be new; Women’s History Month might be new, but that doesn’t mean we’re new here. Women’s intelligence is not new. Women’s perceptiveness is not new. Women’s critical thinking is not new. Our history didn’t begin when Congress decided to give us a month 25 years ago. And we didn’t grow brains when the Library of Congress announced this year’s theme. So, in commemoration of women’s history, let’s be smart every day.