Sunday, July 8, 2012

My Scarlet F for Feminist

The summer after I turned thirteen, a little over six months since my grandfather died, I spent July and August on the coast of Maine with my family. We stayed in the house my other grandparents owned, a small pre-Civil War affair in a tiny, perfect little New England town, nestled in a small cove on Penobscot Bay. We spent part of most summers there, in a kind of other world, with a rotary phone and black and white TV we never watched.

It had been a tough year. My mother's father (I called him Poppy), had been diagnosed with colon cancer. It spread quickly to his liver and killed him in about four months. It was the first death of someone I loved (not counting a beloved cat), and it changed everything in my immediate family and my own perspective drastically. That same year I got my first period and, due to the grieving process and hormones, became socially isolated and depressed. I watched my mother struggle with the loss of her father and become an alcoholic. I watched my father manipulate and exploit the situation, instead of comforting and consoling. I understood, even in my young and inexperienced way, that life was unfair and that loss was inevitable. It hurt, I hurt, and the people around me hurt. I did my best to hold things together, but I was so young. It took me 20 years, I think, to forgive how deeply that year messed me up inside, to forgive myself for still being a child and not knowing exactly how to parse it all out. For not knowing how to fix something that was already beyond repair.

During that summer I spent a lot of time by myself, wandering around the rocky beaches, struggling with dark and adult things that I wasn't quite able to articulate for myself, and could not express to anyone else. With my introduction to being a "woman", I had gained weight, a body I didn't really understand, soft and rounded, no longer slim and gangly. That year at school I had been vaguely aware that I was disliked, and being targeted by certain people for being "different". Some of it was body related, I knew that people thought I was "fat" or "ugly". I was also nicknamed "death" and considered morbid, although I didn't ever discuss my grandfather's death, not even with friends. I half-heartedly tried to fit in, but, was really too distracted to think about it that much. I had more important things on my mind.

On one of my summer wanderings I came across one of those New Age-y, hippieish, shops, with crystals and political bumper stickers alongside tie-dyed shirts and touristy odds and ends. I had this jean jacket that I loved and had begun collecting buttons to put on it. I don't know where the desire came from, I just remember suddenly wanting to cover it with quips and (I thought at the time), clever little statements about the world. While wandering around this shop I came across their homemade pin section. I remember it being political, though I really can't remember what any of them said...except one. There was one large, pink, and simple pin that read "I Believe Anita".

It was, of course, referring to the testimony of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court vetting process. She testified about how he had sexually harassed her, something that seemed pertinent to know about prospective member of SCOTUS, who would be responsible for deciding policy that related to all kinds of people, including women. That particular situation had happened in the same year my grandfather got sick and eventually died. I had followed it with curiosity and mounting frustration, confused as to why people said such terrible things about her, just for speaking out about a humiliating and, to my mind, deeply problematic situation. Although I didn't understand even half of what I do now about feminism or politics, I knew something was very wrong in the way she was treated, and I knew that something that should have been taken seriously was dismissed and belittled. Obviously there are many more complicated issues involved, but, I still believe an unfortunate precedent was set in regards to undermining women who speak out about sexual harassment.

I looked at the pin for awhile and for the first time in months, felt something that wasn't sadness. I bought it and pinned it on, and felt like I was declaring something, even in such a small way, that was fierce and righteous and a little bit scary. I wore it all summer, head held high.

When I returned to school in the fall I wore that jacket and that pin. I didn't think most of my classmates would recognize it, and I was so used to it being there that I didn't really give it much thought. Of all the pins I wore on that thing, it's still the one I'm most proud of. Because it wasn't just some snarky, Spencer's Gifts bit of manufactured, counter-culture snark. It was something I truly believed and had given thought to, and understood was important and meaningful.

It was also the thing that gave me my first real taste of concentrated misogyny and anti-feminist backlash.

I grew up in a small town on the Hudson River, about 45 minutes outside of NYC. My parents were ex-city artists, pseudo-hippies, who honestly believed that you should treat people how you wanted to be treated, and that kindness, empathy and decency were worthy traits everyone was taught. They were (and are) socially and politically liberal, and I grew up a kind of agnostic-Buddhist, having no issues with religion per se, but without a belief in god myself, and no need for spiritual structure beyond my mom occasionally trying to get us to meditate. This was, as it turned out, exceptionally unusual where I grew up, and caused me no end of grief as I got older and it became more evident that I was kind of weird and unusual. We won't even get into how being a geeky/nerdy girl added to that problem, suffice to say it made it that much more painful and ostracizing.

Most of the kids I grew up with had vaguely conservative parents, some kind of religious upbringing, and rather old-fashioned views on what boys and girls "should" be. To put it simply: girls should be pretty, thin, and agree with whatever the boys said. We could be "good" at things like English, but not too good, and we were never to question or disagree with the boys. I want to stress that this attitude did NOT come from most of my teachers, but most definitely came from my peers.

So it was kind of like a mini-nuclear explosion when I wore that pin to school. I was immediately confronted by one of the most popular boys in schools, a boy who would go on to harrass me nearly every day of that subsequent school year. His friends, thrilled to have a target, joined in. And I spent the next year being subjected to all sorts of threats, sexual and otherwise, and a constant break down of how horrible, hideous, fat, and disgusting I was. It was absolutely misogyny, although at the time I didn't quite know what that was. It was only later that I understood that my transgression had been rather simple: I did not do what girls were "supposed" to do, and was therefore to be silenced and shamed. That included rape threats, encouragement to kill myself, being physically threatened, spit on, called names...all tinged with the spectre of misogyny, that I was a girl who had crossed a line.

It was a hard year. You can't really go through that and not have it eat away are your self-worth. Combine that with lingering depression and grief, and you have a really fascinating cocktail of awful. But I got through it. I didn't really have any friends by the end of it, I mostly believe what they called me, and I developed a very problematic relationship with my body...but I got through it. And I did not, not for one day, take off that pin.

These days I'm an outspoken and unapologetic feminist. I understand what happened when I was young, and though I can't forget it, I can forgive what was a childish reaction to difference, while still acknowledging how wrong it was and insidious that kind of sexism is in people so young.

I'll never get used to or de-sensitized to misosgyny, or the way certain kinds of people will try to silence dissent or critique with threats. What I will do is talk about it, openly, and support those who do the same. One of the first steps towards change is awareness. I was silent for many years, and it's just not acceptable to me anymore. I'll never back down to trolls, I will never accept that the status quo should go unchallenged, and I will always, always...believe Anita.

1 comment:

  1. I really feel for you, Mariah (no wonder you are a tired fairy, squidly girl).

    I tell my kids, tough times are character forming. One day when she was about 15 my daughter turned around said, I'm tired of having my character formed.

    From one tough fairy to another.