A Tortured Metaphor About Love in the Age of Feminism

by Amorina Kingdon

There are scripts for love.

Why scripts? Because every role requires a script – that’s what defines it. And gender roles are…roles.

I was reading the script late last night, wandering about my city. I went to a cafe, after the storm ended, and sat at a small rain-spattered table beneath the leaves. You see, I was thinking about trying out for the role of Woman. It was going to be big, running on FX – or maybe HBO – starting next spring, the rumours went. Big money. A career-maker.

The cafe served me little cups of hot bitter espresso as I read the first act. I was nonplussed, but I thought I’d push on. I needed a stronger potion to fortify me. The woman behind the bar pours my wine, wordlessly raises an eyebrow at what I’m reading. I want to ask her… Do you know this play? Have you seen it? Will it be a good career move? Her dark eyes are set in lines a mile deep. Why is she the only one open late?

And it really is getting late, isn’t it? The city is starting to close, turn its lights off and turn in. The old sleep easy: the young sleep poorly with each other, above the fire escapes.

It’s getting cool outside. I take my sweating Chardonnay to a seat by the window. I read the next act in the worn, ancient script.

It’s an odd role, this Woman character. Have you ever read it? It requires a very skilled actress. I don’t know if I can do it.

Like in Act 2, for example. The woman has to pretend she doesn’t want sex: but she has to try and have sex with the young college Man. It’s a strange scene. You feel almost like she doesn’t really know what she wants.

Or here, where she pretends she wants a job with something called ‘work-life balance’ because the man in her life, despite being a good man, is on a good ten-year plan and will not be able to do anything fundamental to care for the children they’re supposed to have. Even if he says he will, it would murder the relationship – and her career – to expect him to. Imagine emoting in a few lines all the hundred thousand reasons behind a chirpy request for ‘work-life balance’!

Or what about here, where the princess myths, pop songs and romantic treacle she was weaned on founders on the rocks of a real human relationship. She realizes that Man is no more a Prince Charming that she is a Princess, and she faces the juddering mindfuck that all those fantasies, that felt better and meant more than anything she’s ever known, are lies that seem to exist solely to get her this far, slavering after a bargain that may not be that wonderful…

A nuanced and complicated part, indeed.

I should be in bed. The audition is in just five hours. But I still don’t know if I’ll be there.

Finally, even this cafe, the last outpost in a dark city, begins to close. I drop some coins on the table. As I wander home, I finger the dog-eared photocopy and wonder why the role exists at all.

Because I don’t really like this Woman character. I doubt you do, either, if you’re honest. No actress can play her well, the way she’s written. Sure you can see the type of person she’s supposed to be. You can even understand, in principle, her stagnations, her negative space and inevitable anger. But you just don’t like the role. She’s not written as a real person: she only serves a purpose, a one-dimensional plot device. Is that because she’s really like that, and the mad genius of the playwright has reproduced her on spec? Or is that because she’s never been written properly? How can you tell?

You like Man much better. He’s why you tune in. The more I read this script, the less I want this Woman part. She’s a stilted half-character.

A tired trope.

How was it I heard this part was so desirable, again? It’s hard to remember. It’s just the scuttlebutt. Everyone I know is trying out.

Maybe I won’t try out. In fact, I think I am going to sit in the producer’s chair. Yes, I am going to produce my own show. I’m going to rewrite my own Man, my own Woman. I’m going to do it better.

**********

Whatever did we do before TV, before the omnipresent lens? A producer isn’t really all that different from an actress, wrapped in constricted narratives like so much unspooled 8mm, with deadlines to hit, roles to cast, scenes to shoot and record, lines to nail.

Drinking too much, blind under hot lights, running across cable-strewn floors between prima donnas and assholes with their makeup caking, sets built and torn down, way over budget, way behind schedule.

What started as a fresh, riveting, brainstorming magnum opus has turned slowly into a story so derivative you want to scream because you can write whatever you want but you still have a finite budget and a three-camera setup and the actors who audition only really know one or two ways of doing things, but your story cannot be told properly if you don’t produce it.

Knowing the other networks will carry this same story – they all will – and if you don’t, your viewers will tune out because you’re not giving them what they want.

Trying to produce the content for the people in the boardrooms, who wouldn’t know art if it shit in a jar for them, but who sign your paychecks.

Running up and down corridors late at night, knowing your reputation is only as good as your last episode, knowing your numbers are slipping, you can see it in the Neilsen ratings, you can see their eyeballs shift in real time, you’re sneaking drugs and puking in shame, thinning hair and sweat stains, neglected stand-ins with wide betrayed eyes on the other end of calls you don’t take because your star – your One – is suddenly entertaining offers from other studios.

Press an oily forehead into clenched fists onto bare thighs as you crouch in a stall in a halogen-haloed bathroom down in the basement where no one will hear, as you realize the production is complete shit, it’s saccharine and trite and one-dimensional. You must fight for your main character. This Woman character that no one wants to be.

So you stumble up stairs to the upstairs people and you bust in and you start to talk, you start to babble that it might be better if…could be better if…. maybe what if instead of boy-meets girl it’s girl meets girl or boy and girl have already met and they do business together or are actually good friends, equals, or they fuck once and move on as better people for not dragging each other down in the muck?

And the upstairs people laugh slow and they kick up their feet, and ask, how long have you been here, kid? and they gesture casually to a wall of Emmys and Peabodies and they turn their head sideways, and bob a finger at you and smile with one half of their mouth and say, I used to think like you. and we have a lot of money riding on this and her tits will sell and people don’t want to be sad and there’s ten younger, more energetic kids waiting to take your place if you’re tired.

And you go down and you sit in the folding chair and you slip headphones with worn pads that smell of thirty years of dandruff over your head and you focus your bleary eyes on the LED screen before you where hot young things that you hired to play Woman are gyrating and mewling, or at least they’re supposed to be hot young things, they certainly fit the casting notes, but you look at their marbleglass eyes and their candyfloss hair and their porcelain tits and their teeth behind their lips like glass chips pinched in fingertips and you feel nothing, and nothing, and nothing again.

When you watch them prance and shriek on the white backdrop it looks stupid but lower your eyes to the screen and it looks… familiar.

Yes, a little green screening and it’s Paris, a little effects and it’s every romantic fantasy and more. Where’s that pop song soundtrack? It costs more for post-production but it’s worth it, on that day you finally show them the tape and they laugh from their guts and pound your back and pour a scotch and take you to the shore club for lunch where they order you oysters and as they pass your lips one by one you know you’re recognizable and acceptable and isn’t that worth everything, look back at those latenight clusterfuck sessions about rewriting the world and understand just how…how…how harmful that is when there’s a charcuterie board at the end of the maze, and you spread it on hot white bread and sink your teeth in and they say, you’ll do fine kid, you’ll do fine.

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The Ball’s in Whose Court?

Freyr is dying of lovesickness because he is afraid to ask out Gerðr

By Amy Medvick

Amongst my circle of g-friends, I have become the go-to girl for tips on what to do in perplexing adult situations involving MEN. It’s funny, since I don’t feel like an expert. But it makes sense: I have so many experiences to draw upon.

Especially—necessarily—break-ups. You give me the run-down, and I can call bullshit from a mile away, identify the type and give you a list of the possible outcomes, possible responses to each outcome, and another round of possible outcomes from each possible response to the first round of possible outcomes. I can organize it into a tree graph for you, compile the final combinations, and calculate the probability of each. I am ALL over the endings.

But I have come to realize there is a part of the process that I just shouldn’t give advice on, because it confounds me to no end. Or rather, to no beginning: courtship. What the fuck!!!

Because nothing says "I love you" like trying to act natural in a wind storm.

Because nothing says “I love you” like trying to act natural in a wind storm.

Nothing in the world is more frustrating. Sure, on TV (to which we turn in order to educate ourselves in these matters and rate our success) they make it look easy. But they are using the basest of camera tricks; make-up, good angles, wind-machines and scripts. With these aces up their sleeves, our televised love-gurus ask each other on dates with smooth and clever banter. Sometimes they get shy, just often enough to be believable human characters, but they almost always overcome it in an honest outpouring of their interest or grand, charming romantic gestures, and usually meet with success.

But in real life—or at least, in the artsy non-traditional-gender-roles circles that I walk in— courtship has to be conducted secretly. Sometimes so secretly that the person you are courting doesn’t even know about it, but that is a risk you have to take to maintain decorum. It has to be a secret that you like so-and-so, and when you ask them on a date, it has to be a secret date. So you don’t call it a date, you say: “let’s hang out” or “will you be at that party?” Cloak & dagger style: no one can know! You secretly get their phone number, ostensibly for some super platonic reason like, say, flute lessons. It’s not allowed to openly state your interest in someone—no! Two prospective mates must nudge incrementally towards each other, perhaps in real time while watching a movie—just as friends!—at a rate that is too slow to be observed by an outsider (so they suppose) but just fast enough that the other person will actually notice (so they hope). Often, the outcome is the reverse.

After it has become impossible to pretend there is nothing going on, like for example after you two have had sex, then it still has to be a secret whether you, like, like-like the person, and if so, how much. The status of the relationship (shhhh, don’t use the R-word) may remain secret—to the lovers and the world— long after the two love-birds have been happily nesting and fucking for weeks, even months.

Once in a while you hear stories about someone who got asked on a date, and who wasn’t so put off by this lack of seductive finesse that they actually accepted. But it’s always a friend of a friend, and quite frankly, I’m starting to wonder if the whole “will you go out with me some time?” thing is just an urban myth.

 Have things always been this way? I think they must have been different, once upon a time, or else where would the notion of date-asking-out-on have come from?

Actually, I know things have changed a lot whenever I talk to a friend of mine who is in her 60’s. When discussing how to get closer to my latest crush, she offers suggestions like:

 “Why don’t you go by his house and knock on his door and say hello?”

I’m left with my jaw on the ground, speechless.

“Um, um, you can’t just DO that,” I stammer.

“Why not?”

“People don’t knock on each others doors any more. Not even when they are expected. You just text that you are there.”

“Ok, so just text that you are in the neighbourhood and you would like to knock on his door.”

“No. Absolutely not, I can’t. Only friends do that. We’re not friends yet… If I just start acting like we’re friends, he’ll know I like him as more than a friend.”

“Isn’t that the point, to be more than friends?”

“No. Yes. No.” I sigh. “Not like that—there has to be another way.”

 What made such a great cultural divide between my friend and I, historically? Well, there is a lot: sexual liberation, the de-formalization of our social interactions, then cell-phones and social networking bringing us new mediums through which to interact. Each have shaped our mating rituals, though in many ways we have become more formal (in the sense of constricted by social codes) and more awkward about sex just as communications technology has allowed us to be constantly—and casually—connected to anyone we like. Hmm. There is also, of course, feminism, which brought many changes—right?

We still have the old cultural scripts lying around (the same ones that get used for TV) instructing us on how courtship used to be done, and I reckon that anyone who can’t relate to the mating ritual described above is probably still following these old scripts, or has maybe written entirely new ones that are working really well (I’d like to see them please!). In the olden days, the woman’s job was to simply be as attractive and nice as possible to the man she had her eye on, find ways to get his attention and hope he noticed. The man’s job was to take the lead, decide which woman struck his fancy and ask her out. It was undoubtedly a nerve-racking role for the men and a frustrating one for the women, but it had one thing going for it: it was clear. Everyone knew what to do. If a man asked you out, he liked you; if he didn’t ask you out, he didn’t like you. If a woman said yes, she liked you; if she didn’t…. well, actually, there’s the problem. There wasn’t much a woman could do if she wasn’t interested, other than hope she would be believed.

 Yikes.

A game of love tennis in the 1970s, decade of feminism and mandatory long hair.  Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

One side of a game of love tennis in the 1970s, decade of feminism, mandatory long hair, and many shades of brown. Deutsche Fotothek‎, via Wikimedia Commons

Our courtship rituals have changed dramatically in response to feminism, and it’s a darned good thing. Ostensibly, since a woman can take a more active role in courtship, she is less likely to be pressured into any kind of sexual or romantic relationship with a man she isn’t interested in. Except, wait, no, that still happens. Shit.

Ok, well, at least now women can ask men out, and men can accept dates. No one has to pay for anyone else, and everybody opens their own doors and pulls out their own chairs. That’s all great stuff—if only it actually played out that way. It seems to me, though, that in the bohemian kinds of circles that have been amenable to the breaking down of traditional gender roles, men and women aren’t asking each other out in equal measure. Instead, no one is asking anyone out.

It’s understandable. I mean, it must have been hard all those centuries for those shy dudes to have all the pressure on to make the moves. I’m sure a lot of them sighed sighs of relief when they were finally allowed to take a more passive role. I totally get it, because the thought of asking a person on a date gives me night-sweats too.

 So now, for man and woman alike, it has all been turned into a covert operation. We are love-spies.

Of course, for me, as a woman, to what degree are those night sweats, and my predilection for love-espionage, caused by pre-feminist social conditioning? I’m pretty ballsy in other areas of my life, why not this one? How many women are eagerly embracing the ask-out? How successful is it when we do—how much encouragement do we get to ask men on dates? Any time I have taken even a mildly pro-active role in pursuing a man (ex. saying hello, talking to him, smiling, and if I’m feeling really bold, flirting back when he flirts with me), though he is usually flattered and I am sometimes successful, he seems to get the idea that I am totally obsessed with him, which is never true. (When I like a guy that much, I don’t do anything, for fear he’ll know!) Maybe it’s because we aren’t yet used to women behaving this way, and that makes our interest seem exaggerated, but just so much as wink at a man and he starts on about how he’s not ready for a rela—sorry. Not ready for an R-E-L-A—No! I can’t even spell it. We’ll call it an “R”.

 So, you learn to keep your winks in check and your feelings secret. Otherwise, you risk looking like you are a crazy marriage-mongering man-trapper. Instead, you play it cool, play it hard-to get. Which is what we had to do before, except now it’s also a secret that we are trying to look pretty and be nice. So, you wear sweatpants a few times around him, and are a little mean once in a while, to throw him off, and you call him “dude” sometimes because that’s what platonic man-friends call each other, right? But you have to be careful that you don’t give him the impression that you dislike him, or that you are actually a platonic man-friend.

Meanwhile, the dudes who were relieved that the onus is off of them for leading the courtship process still want to retain their dignity and their sense of masculinity while “opting out” of asking out. So, instead of letting their feelings show and hoping someone will act on them (which would be way too girly— that is, if that’s what girls still did), they pretend they aren’t all that interested (which is now what we do), that they aren’t looking for a re-… re-… for an “R”, with her or with anyone.

Nope, it’s all got to be a secret. Much MUCH more dignified for both involved to slowly inch towards each other on a couch, thereby maintaining the decorous illusion of platonic non-interest, while actually secretly touching knees, until one finds oneself in a serious R— top secret, of course.

 In a way, through mutual passivity, we have achieved a kind of gender equality— we are all pretending not to want anything, at least, nothing specific, although obviously we do (hello, hormones). At times, we still pretend that the men just want the sex and the ladies just want the love, and never the twain shall meet—for old times sake—but we do it with a wink, because we know it isn’t really true. It’s just those quaint old scripts. Shucks. 

Freyr is dying of lovesickness because he is afraid to ask out Gerðr

Freyr is dying of lovesickness because he is in love with Gerðr and he’s afraid to ask her out to dinner. I feel ya, Freyr.

And if perchance you’re talking to the semi-mythical relationship guy, or gal-who-just-wants-to-sow-her-wild-oats… or, um, collect them… or whatever… you’ll never know, because everyone’s desires are kept so well hidden. We are just as varied as ever, a variation that blatantly ignores gender binaries, but we’ve finished it with a veneer of sameness that has robbed us of our honesty. And though it makes for some delicious sexual tension, it’s an equal-ness that leaves you with few options and plenty of anxiety any time you actually have a crush on somebody.

Well. So maybe I do have some advice when it comes to courtship, but it might be useless while everyone else is sworn to secrecy. Could we all, perhaps, maybe try to be a bit more open, more straightforward about our interest? Stop acting like it’s shameful to like someone? Can we find non-aggressive but still clear ways to let our interest show? Gals, can we grow some ovaries and take the lead about half the time? Guys, can you remain calm when we do that, so that we don’t feel like we’re not really allowed to? Can we all just stop speaking in hushed tones and hiding behind the holographic screens of our spy-grade Bond-style love-espionage camera-phones, and actually say what we feel?

Or fine, text what we feel, with our spyPhones, whatever. Point is, this idea could be revolutionary:

 Honesty. Openness. Transparent communication. Dates. And then, lots of love.

HAPPY CANADA DAY!

Suzy Lake

image by Suzy Lake

Be sure to watch out for our COMING ATTRACTIONS:

1. July theme revelation (wait for it…. wait for it… keep waiting…)
2. Call for article submissions
3. The big answer to the big question: Why a parachute?

All this week!
xoxo
Blasfemmer Editors

No Way Out But Through

keith-haring-pop-shop-see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil-_i-G-64-6492-CXE6100Z

by Tova Kardonne

To do pretty much anything in music you start out learning songs. Lots and lots of songs. The process becomes quite familiar. It has stages; it has features. First, a new song seems more like a collection of sounds that happened to get thrown together, none of which connect to each other. Then, if you’re into this kind of thing, you look at why those sounds do connect, and you begin to see how the song hangs together as a structure. (Some people skip this part, or do it without realizing it.) Last, a song is really a part of my repertoire when it feels, from the moment it proclaims itself in its opening notes, like it’s drawn onwards inexorably to its end; like it always existed, like the composer could never have made any other choice, like it’s a living creature whose parts are all as much a part of it as my body parts are a part of me.

 

Then it loops in my head for days, sometimes weeks. Should so much as a single note wander through my consciousness, however tangentially provoked, there it goes: the whole thing, from beginning to end, because now the damn thing draws me onwards inexorably to its end, like it always existed, like I have no choice, like it’s a living thing whose parts can’t be severed from each other.

 

Sometimes that’s wonderful. Every time I repeat the song, its beauties are a little clearer, more poignant. The way the sounds interlock reveals more, to more parts of my mind. It reaches me more deeply; it teaches me how it has changed the world. Alternately, it can be frickin’ annoying.

 

So here’s the thing; this process is not confined to music. Take, for example, writing a feminist article. How does it go again?

 

Ah yes.

 

PHASE 1) A collection of sounds:

Something strikes you as peculiar. You brush it off. It strikes you again. On the same spot—you begin to get a bit bruised on that spot. You begin to notice it happening a lot. You wonder why it keeps happening. You come up with a reason; it’s contradicted by experience. You come up with different reason; it’s contradicted again. You let it go. The peculiar thing happens again. You think; is this peculiar thing all that peculiar? You ask someone about it. They’ve noticed it, too. They came up with a reason of their own. It may or may not convince you; but it adds an angle you hadn’t thought of before. You ask someone else; they don’t think it’s peculiar at all; you wonder why you thought it was. You ask someone else; they’ve never noticed it. Then the peculiar thing happens twelve more times in rapid succession. It’s now downright weird that some people don’t notice it. You wonder, why do I see it when that person doesn’t? And then, why does another person see it, but find it normal? And what about the other person, who both sees it and thinks it’s peculiar, like me? What’s the deal here? Because it’s no fun. Somewhere in the process, you figure out you don’t like it, this peculiar thing. It’s not just weird, it’s unpleasant. And it keeps happening. It’s not logical for it to keep happening, when the people you’ve asked about it regard it with feelings ranging from indifference to dislike. Well, then, there should be no trouble changing it. Possibly, it’s no big deal. So, you start pointing it out, and telling people you don’t like it. Suddenly, you’re getting yelled at. The people who think it doesn’t exist are mad at you for persisting in saying it does. The people who think it isn’t peculiar think you’re putting them down for not thinking it’s peculiar. The people who think it’s peculiar are behaving very strangely indeed. Sometimes they say, “oh, what a good idea! I should let people know I don’t like it either.” Sometimes, however, they say, “If I can put up with it, you should put up with it. See all those people getting mad? I don’t want you to make me their target.” Then, you are in a pickle.

 

PHASE 2: It kind of hangs together.

There is now an Issue. There is now a Political Stand to make, an Activist Position to take. You now have a label. That label has a definition, not the one in the dictionary, but one that everyone seems to know anyway, which means they believe they know more about you than you ever told them. The things they believe about you aren’t nice. You must now defend yourself. Most of the time, that means Formulating a Theory. You can’t just say, look, there’s this peculiar thing, it happens a lot, I don’t like it, and no one knows why it has to happen. Your Theory must be airtight. Because if it isn’t, then none of your experiences of the peculiar thing are believed. You are told that you wanted to see this peculiar thing where no peculiar thing existed. Above all, your Theory must justify your dislike of the peculiar thing. You must be prepared to call it an Absolute Wrong, even an Expression of Evil, to be taken seriously as a problem, but then you get accused of calling perfectly well-meaning people Wrong and Evil. You remember your first theory, that first reason you came up with; how naïve it seems, now. You remember your second theory; how it didn’t quite fit the facts as you’d encountered them. You remember asking people about your peculiar experiences; you remember who understood, who didn’t, and who denied you’d had those experiences at all. You begin to notice that the identity of the people you asked seems to have a relationship with what they see. It now seems clear that, whether other people see it or not, this peculiar thing is very much their problem, too.

 

PHASE 3: Build it into your world.

If you were me before this site, then you would come to a solitary conclusion, and implement it in your daily interactions. I prefer direct communication, but I understand indirect communication; I cannot endure bad-faith interactions. If given the choice, I’ll be as direct as I can, and if my interlocutor refuses to meet me open-heartedly to communicate, I’ll find a way to never communicate with that person again. Case closed.

 

But if you’re me these days, you write an article about it. You nail it right to the wall: what seems peculiar, what is unpleasant about it, whether it’s merely unpleasant or actually wrong, and, if it’s wrong, why the wrongness is anybody’s concern. On ambitious days, you’ll include what can be done about it. And it’s this last phase that leads almost inevitably to:

 

PHASE 4: It plays in your head all the time:

This is my problem today. In writing these articles, I’ve learned this peculiar song so well, I can sing it by heart at the drop of a hat. I once believed that it was all a misunderstanding, that could be corrected with a little clear discussion. But there has been name-calling, since then, there have been insults. My rationality has been dismissed, my professional skills have been maligned, my integrity has been called into question and simultaneously taken advantage of. I can tell you all the whys and wherefores of my Theories, I can answer all the accusations. I am ready for the gig; the public awaits. But in the meantime, I need to keep all the facts at the ready. I can’t ever be without the evidence. Just in learning what the real, objective, feet-on-the-ground problem is, in formulating my Theory, in writing it all out and making it lucid and explicit and figuring out what I have to say about it, I have made it my constant companion.

 

Oh, I’m no more angry than I was before. I was probably more angry when it was all an unexplored body of evidence, rather than the corpse on the table, dissected and understood. That sense of not being able to take time out of my daily grind to communicate, to find another option besides walking away, that was intensely frustrating. So I’m not frustrated; I have made it a part of my life: to discuss, to formulate, to take apart and examine the peculiarities that make life strange in our special form of patriarchy. Also to think of solutions, to figure out where to go from here. But should a single note play, however tangentially related to my feminist siren song, then the whole problem, in all its ugly intractability, with all the insults and betrayals, from within my communities and without, come rushing back.


But having gotten this far in, there’s no way out but through.

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Giving it Away

by Amorina Kingdon

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published ‘Open Letter to all the Colleges that Rejected me.” by highschooler Suzy Lee Weiss. The synopsis: her peers padded their resumes with gratuitous, useless charity work, and the colleges fell for it.

The comments that follow are in two camps: one being, well, duh, Gen Y brat whines that after doing nothing distinguishing, she is un-shockingly not recognized for it.

But she was also lauded. Because there is a stereotypical image of the people she skewers – female, wealthy – declaring their caring for disease x or survivors of y. And you already know how you secretly feel about them: their work is noble – ‘public-minded’ – but, ultimately, inconsequential.

The volunteer and not-for-profit (NFP) sectors are gendered. This is important for women, because they are 48 per cent of Toronto’s labour force, but 84 per cent of its not-for-profit labour force. Canadian volunteers are most likely married, educated females, with an above-average income. Since women have entered the workforce comparatively recently, these statistics carry implications about how women have integrated into the working world, especially the demographic tendency toward educated, wealthy women who would perhaps be in the best position to take the business world by storm.

Work is important. It’s is the primary way we interact with society as individuals, by trading time and labour in return for sustenance. Work is independence.

But volunteer work can’t directly support someone. So whatever pride you may feel at the end of the day, you also feel a bit like….a beggar. And what weighs in the balance? Oh, right – the rewards of selfless giving.

But these are the same values that kept women in the private sphere as unpaid housewives, labouring for this same reward of selflessness instead of money. Can that not, perhaps, be one reason why they feel at home in the sector?

I’d like to quickly acknowledge the generalizations I’m making by lumping volunteers and NFPs together when they have many differences, salary and benefits being the biggest. (This essay deals principally with volunteers and part-time employees, not those drawing a full-time salary.) But they do share some key similarities.

1. Donors: Funding requests often go to the same donor pool, requiring a certain public image to match those donors’ ideas of acceptability. This often bends towards the traditional and conservative.

2. Career prospects: It’s hard to build a career in the for-profit sector if your resume is largely volunteer or not-for-profit.

3. Job security: Many of these organizations live paycheck to donor paycheck. It’s very hard to plan your work when it could shut down at any time.

So why are women taking this deal? Many reasons: some simple, some not-so-simple.

1. Their work is often traditionally female (e.g. health, awareness, fundraising.) Notice a pattern? Talking and nurturing figure highly.

2. They are more flexible, because many women have childcare duties.

3. They are un-threatening to the proverbial male ego.

4. With more women in the sector, it’s likely they’ll hire more.

5. Because much of the work in this sector resembles the unpaid work that women have traditionally done at home for support from a husband or family, women are more intellectually comfortable taking work that’s un- or under-paid.

This one key assumption – that public-minded, selfless enterprises should not be monetized – keeps women’s work and labour acceptably out of the free market, and women relatively uncompensated. While organizational structures have been built around it, much of the work feels a lot like home.  
This is because today’s volunteer sector has its roots in the idea of private property, and a private sphere. The idea that some work should not be ‘for profit’ stems from our understanding of the archetypal household. (Of course, private can also mean a for-profit business, but for the purposes of this article, ‘private’ refers to the home.) This is neither a public democracy, or a for-profit hierarchy, but a sort of benign tyranny. One person rules uncontested, and the rest fulfill their various functions in exchange for protection, name, honour and resources, but no direct compensation, and little control over said resources. This arrangement—the traditional wife in the traditional household— has a sort of arbitrary sanctity that’s simply another word for being owned. This the realm of childcare, education and healthcare; of helping and cooking and making. Traditionally, it’s the realm of women’s work, and within this sort of work, our cultural narrative says that the labour is free, done by people who are already bought and paid for in full. To profit from this work is to sully it.

 

Imagine a bachelor who paid a housekeeper to take care of all these sorts of things, putting money in her hand for her labour, which she was then free to do what she liked with. That’s an employer/employee relationship. But the role of the traditional married woman is exactly that, employee of the husband. But she’s not paid in money – that would shine the cold hard light of economics on an economically unfair relationship. Instead, she gets the ‘honour’ of being a respectable married woman, with a shiny new last name, gets to keep a small slice of her labour to feed and clothe herself (no, that’s not the same as a salary), and most importantly she is the heart of the home, loved for her selflessness; she is a volunteer.

This is a narrative that women must reject. Work is work. Women are not selfless by nature, any more so than men. That is simply the coin they have been paid with in lieu of actual coin for most of history. Rejecting that label and considering their labour worthy of recompense in the currency that allows them to participate in the public sphere – money – is not desecrating anything: it’s tearing down an illusion.

But then again, how can we privatize those things without opening the door for corruption? There’s a reason we hate corporations!

But examine some of the assumptions behind that indignation. The assumption that private industry can only be evil, aggressive, untrustworthy. That it can only do harm, can only work on a growth model where people are taken advantage of.

These are patriarchal values, and they fuck over everyone involved; the men who feel they need to be ruthless buggers to succeed, and the women who feel they can neither embrace nor re-negotiate the terms of patriarchal success, and therefore stay home or organize bake-sales.

What if – and I’m really blue-sky-thinking here – the women already working in these ‘selfless’ sectors led the way in figuring out how to make a living from their work – but left the ruthless patriarchal values behind? What if we challenged the notion that you can’t make a living from giving? What if we – oh my god, someone slap me, I’m clearly hysterical – instead of flat out rejecting capitalism and privatization, found grassroots ways to change how it’s done?

Perhaps I’m not crazy. I am encouraged by this recent NYT article. I’m also encouraged by endeavours like Etsy, although it’s only baby steps.

Whether or not these can become scalable outside large cities and widely affordable, it’s still a start at chipping away old models of ‘public-mindedness’.

Women bring a different philosophy to corporations. Of course you can find stats to say whatever you like, but companies with more women at the top tend to do better, and some data even suggests that women’s portfolios do better long-term because they take fewer reckless risks. It’s not that they biologically must bring these values; it’s that we know the story from the outside of the club.

There are many challenges, too many to list here, but I want to mention the most important: divorcing effectiveness from straight-up profit in the eye of the user and the initial funders. This is key, because much of the response to the Wall St Journal article centres around the implicit assumption that volunteers and NFPs are just not that important (read: effective). Not to mention that we publish big lists on the mismanagement and frivolousness of the bigger charities. (If only we brought the same scrutiny to bear on all organizations. How much do you think it cost to make that $200 coat you’re wearing?)

Unfortunately, import and effectiveness are often symbolized by the bottom line. So if an organization isn’t turning a huge profit, it must not be effective. Kind of a stacked deck for something termed a ‘not-for-profit.’

A good example of this is the safe-injection site Insite in Vancouver, BC. In 2011, they had to produce evidence that they had a health benefit in order to justify their exemption from federal drug laws, by guesstimating how many people would have maybe probably died if they hadn’t shot up at Insite instead of rainwater puddles in Downtown Eastside back alleys. The answer is both ‘we don’t know’ and ‘some’. If success in these kinds of fields is measured by profit alone, we are ascribing monetary value to human life.

So what is more important, profit or effectiveness? Capitalist thinking would have it that they are the same thing; the more effective an organization is, the more profit it generates. But this is based on industries that have thrived on the masters-of-the-universe growth model. Haven’t we learned that besides ripping society apart, such models simply don’t last? Things other than just the bottom line must become measures of an organization’s success.

We have a funny ideal that ‘public mindedness’ is noble and ‘getting paid’ is selfish, and they are mutually exclusive. This is a false dichotomy based on the economic exclusion of people lulled into working for free with platitudes and labels of ‘selflessness and goodness.’ We need to learn that the work that mostly-women volunteers do should be taken seriously and compensated fairly. To do otherwise is frankly discriminatory, and misses out on the insights and approaches they bring to the table. If you are going to work – if you are going to put in time, energy, and thought into a task that produces a benefit for others – then you don’t need a reason to get paid. You need to justify NOT getting paid.

 

The Blasfemmers Review: Sister Mary’s A Dyke?!

SMAD_4x6(front-print)-1By Mirra Kardonne, Amorina Kingdon and Amy Medvick

If there’s one thing you can expect from Cahoots Theatre Company, it’s that you have no idea what you’re in for. Sure, a play might have a title, a synopsis—but it’s all a covert scheme to pull the rug out from underneath you once you’ve sat down. Sister Mary’s A Dyke?! is no exception.

This one-woman show, written and performed by Flerida Peña, is a journey through a young woman’s changing relationship with her God and a discovery of her sexuality, the struggle between the dogma of Catholicism and her awakening feelings for her classmate, Elle.

From the moment you sit down, the pious tone is immediately communicated. Peña ‘s character, Abby, is both at home in the setting of her Catholic boarding school and at odds with it—and the audience can feel the discomfort of her youthful confusion over her traditions. But it takes almost no time for the story and for Abby to become fully realized, and take the audience on a seriously hilarious ride.

Photo  by Dahlia Katz

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Abby’s journey is narrated through her conversational prayers to Jesus. Though Abby has been raised in a climate of oppression surrounding women and sexuality, when she is faced with the reality of her convictions, her feelings, and her longing to see happiness and freedom for the women around her, she brings her questions straight to her deity, who guides her transformation from a timid school-girl to a fearless freedom fighter. Her trust in this deeply personal relationship with her spirituality is what allows her to revise and rebuild a new Catholicism that addresses the needs and the reality of the many diverse women she has grown close to. In this way, Sister Mary’s a Dyke?! offers a way to negotiate one’s identity and political convictions with a spiritual commitment to a faith that must once again grow to represent the ethos of it’s flock.

Photo  by Dahlia Katz

Photo by Dahlia Katz

If you’ve got any Catholic in your past, the set will be immediately familiar. A central stage, hung about with cathedral-esque window frames and spot-illuminated to show the passage of time, mimics religious spaces, then transforms into a classroom, a campsite, or locker-lined high-school hallway. The minimal props – a row of small benches, and later, to much laughter, a small tent – are used sparingly, and the space is just big enough for one person to fill. Flerida Peña’s voice is gloriously enjoyable, and her physical presence on stage is energetic and earnest. She’s a pleasure to watch.

We would have liked to see the events of the ending continue on the ground-breaking, boundary-busting-ness that the rest portrays, and see Abby’s newly discovered strength fully carried through into her future. Nonetheless, Sister Mary’s A Dyke?! comes highly recommended, offering compassion, bewilderment and plenty of surprises that will leave you laughing and just slightly wishing that you too were a Catholic lesbian radical activist, fully loaded and en route to Vatican City to deliver some justice.

Sister Mary’s A Dyke?! continues until Junes 16th at the Aki Studio Theatre, 585 Dundas Street East at the Daniels Spectrum. Tickets can be purchased here, or at cahoots.ca.

Dirty Happy Money

By Amy Medvick

“Ugh, money,” I thought when it was proposed that this be our Blasfemmer theme for June. “Boooor-ing!”

Oh, money. I don’t have very much of it: just enough, really. Part of that is because I am a woman. Statistically, we don’t earn as much as men. But the thing is, I don’t really care that much about money either. Again, that’s likely in part because I am a woman. Women generally pursue lower-paying careers and work fewer hours than men1. I have done both.

Of course, many women are financially ambitious, successful, and know perfectly well how to manage their bank accounts. They show that we are capable of doing so. Still, a few 1000 years of social conditioning and a gal might find herself not so keen on pursuing a lucrative profession as her male peers.

But to say that women just aren’t interested would be an oversimplification. Men and women are working different jobs due to discrimination both in the hiring process and in the workplace itself, promotion bias, lack of flexibility for and discrimination against working mothers, as well as that pesky social conditioning that discourages women from positions of power or “unfeminine roles”. And though more women are now pursuing higher education than are men by a small margin, all those same discriminations still apply when they finish school and start looking for a job2.

Compounding this, popular wisdom now tells women to empower themselves by avoiding the “man’s world” and the discrimination that comes with it altogether, and instead emphasise home-life, personal relationships, and self-development (read: dieting), joyfully slaving over the proverbial hot stove while leaving their careers permanently on the back burner. (Thus the popular advice on how to cope with workplace discrimination is to “opt-out” and not work. That kinda sounds like a cultural cop-out to me, but hey, what do I know.) Find a hubby that can bring home the bacon (and spend some quality time frying it), or just eke it out somehow! After all, pursuing a lucrative career isn’t what really matters in life—what matters is being able to spend time with your family / partner / friends / pet, etc. Never minding that very little fuss seems to be made about how men negotiate their “work/life balance”, as if work weren’t inherently a part of life but instead it’s opposite.

The Globe and Mail recently published an article about money and happiness. According to certain research, one’s happiness does increase proportionately with one’s income. Some claim that it increases up to a salary of about $75,000 a year, at which point it levels off; however, many “happiness experts” believe that one’s happiness can keep climbing well into the hundred thousands. Of course, the happiness factor depends on how one’s money is spent—buying time and experiences is more cheering than buying objects. It would seem that the so-called feminine wisdom of valuing quality time spent with the family has some truth to it, but only if that time is purchased back from the economical system that annexed it, quality-assured with a big fat pay-check.

Me, counting my feminist dollars. Painting by Jan Sanders van Hemessen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Me, weighing my heavy feminist gold. Woman Weighing Gold by Jan Sanders van Hemessen

I am a feminist, and I believe that women should have equal opportunity in the working world, free from discrimination and bullshit Mars/Venus rhetorics shovelling them into low-paying “feminine” jobs. I believe the only way we can achieve that is by collectively pulling a Rosa Parks and refusing to go. Yet, because the whole thing gives me the fucking icks, I am not yet even on this metaphorical bus.

So, in order to be a better feminist I should become a big CEO, or more realistically— let’s face it, ladies—a teacher, right? All those dollar signs will open the door to all the happiness the patriarchy has deprived me of. I could be a big, $$$HAPPY$$$ feminist CEO (teacher). That’ll show ‘em!

Know what though? I don’t buy it (pun intended!).

Certainly, how I spend my time—the experiences I should be buying— is important to my happiness. But I manage to have them on less than a third of the ideal $75,000. In fact, I have the time for them precisely because I work fewer hours, making less money, yes, but having lots of time to myself. Cha-ching! It’s like I bought time off, but without ever seeing the cash.

It’s true, more money could allow a person to do more with their free time. But wouldn’t that just offer a greater variety of happiness-experiences, not more happiness in absolute numbers? Hmmm, the mathematics of quantifying happiness are getting fuzzy…

Of course, some of the time I am unhappy, such is life. Lately, the main reasons are A) I miss my ex-lover, who lives far away, and B) The patriarchy and similar systems of oppression REALLY suck. Can money help me here?

Well, in the case of reason A, a wad of cash could buy me a plane ticket to visit him, but it couldn’t fix our failed love once I got there. As for reason B, I could set up some sort of initiative or program to address our social problems. That would require funds, right? Of course, I might not see any significant return in my lifetime—those old inequalities would probably still persist, not that the venture couldn’t be in itself rewarding. Or wait—I could just keep doing this Blasfemmer thing for the cost of a domain name and a parachute.

Yeah, I’m still not sold (intended!). The results are at best inconclusive: though money could perhaps give me greater freedom in how I spend my time, which might result in increased happiness, it certainly can’t magic away my personal sadnesses.

Then again, I say this from the privileged position of having enough money to meet my physical needs, not to mention finance the occasional dinner out, shopping trip, bottle of wine, ice-cream cone, amazon.com order, a couple of trips to Brazil, etc, etc. For so many of the world’s poor, the majority of which are women and girls, some money—not $75, 000 but simply a few hundred dollars—could make a huge difference. And my modest riches have undoubtedly come to me at their expense, resting on the systematic creation and exploitation of the poor by the governments and major corporations that furnish a cushy life for middle-class North America.

In fact, I myself haven’t always had this much wealth. There was a time when I often made as little as $600 a month, working for less than minimum wage at a little gourmet grocery. And yes, it was nearly impossible to be happy. I was trapped at this job because it left me with no time and energy to look for a new one, and no financial safety net to allow me to quit. I had to face workplace sexual harassment—one of my bosses had a penchant for stroking my hair—and I lived with the constant fear that one day I would be followed by one of them down to the dark and isolated bathroom in the basement. I became horribly depressed. Nevertheless, I proudly avoided relying on the financial help of family and friends, feeling that the independence was worth it.

I also tutored on the side and this helped. The first family I worked with was that of a Somalian woman. She lived with her 7 children (ages 3 to 14), in a tiny 2-bedroom apartment. One bedroom was lined with bunk beds like a hostel, for the oldest 6. The youngest and his mother shared the other room. Their father was working out of province and sending money.

image by Delphine Ménard (notafish })

image by Delphine Ménard (notafish }<‘;>)

Many of us would be miserable in such circumstances. However, while this likely wasn’t their ideal arrangement, to all appearances they were happy. These children would arrive home from school full of energy, clambering over each other to ask me questions, smiling and laughing as they got down to their homework, the youngest impishly hiding my shoes while I wasn’t looking. The second youngest would sweetly and trustingly climb into my lap as I taught her to read, and the eldest told me she dreamed of being a doctor one day.

They were generous too—the children would unquestioningly offer to make me Kraft grilled-cheese sandwiches while we worked. When she had to end our sessions because she could no longer afford them, the mother—with whom I mostly communicated in facial expressions and gestures since she spoke little English—wordlessly gave me a pashmina shawl, a parting gift that I treasure to this day because I know just how generous a gesture it was.

Teaching these children made me happy—not because of the payment, which was negligible, or because I had any illusions I was helping them. An hour and a half a week split between 7 is hardly enough to make a difference. It made me happy because their happiness was infectious, and it reminded me that I was lucky, grocery store illegal-wages notwithstanding. Certainly, I wanted to see their situation improve, as I wanted my own to improve. Yet, though I have seen many families since then, better off than they, never have I seen one any happier.

The Cratchit family happily eating dinner.

The Cratchit family happily eating dinner.

Eventually, my own financial situation collapsed. I became completely dependant on my family and friends, an arrangement that was incredibly emotionally uncomfortable. But soon I got back on my own two feet, and I was fine. Pride was swallowed, but I more than survived.

As a feminist contemplating raising my career ambitions, I have to ask myself where the money I make will come from. Will we close the pay gap through lowering the income of higher-earning men? Or will it come at the expense of families like the one I described? The second seems more likely. As a feminist, I cannot claim more for myself without considering those below me. To do so would be to buy into the very patriarchal ethic I defy, that whole take-for-yourself-and-fuck-whoever-you-took-it-from thing, that never-you-mind-your-pretty-head-about-my-unearned-privilege thing.

While I would love to see the gender pay gap closed by taking from the richer to give to the poorer, it’s definitely not going to happen that way. Too many of the folks with wealth in droves will tend to hold on to it, this I know. And though my instinct is to be as uninvolved as I can by shunning the race for riches, I don’t kid myself. My nice little liberal lifestyle changes don’t mean fuck-all to giant exploitative infrastructures. If anything is going to change, work must be done. Some of it will cost money.

This is why I am re-evaluating my distaste for financial ambition. Though I don’t think ascribing the dollar with quantifiable happiness-inducing powers is exactly a big feminist step forward, neither is remaining powerless in a world where money walks. Knowing at whose expense it comes, it might feel like dirty money, but in my hands it could be put towards more than my own comfort and happiness. I could do that work that must be done, for families like the ones I described, for girls and women with dreams but few opportunities. There is a lot I could do with that extra $60,000 or so worth of happiness, but it couldn’t make me happy unless it increased the happiness of others too. Seeing some change in the world—not loose change (!) but a serious difference in people’s lives—that, indeed, would make me very happy.

  1. Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Time Books. 2010. Pages 20 and 50.
  2. Douglas, Susan J. Enlightened Sexism. New York: Time Books. 2010. Page 3.

I Suppose I Must Look Like Something

by Tova Kardonne

francesca-woodman-300x292

image by Francesca Woodman

The process of blowing one’s nose is fairly magical. Or maybe it seems to be so to me,  because of what I like to call my Vortex Zone. Bring anything too close to my head,  like a tissue, and it disappears into an unobserved void. I have this whole elaborate faith requiring that the tissues and things are still there, even when the evidence is merely inferential— the same goes for my neck. I have only indirect evidence of my neck. As my fingers approach the spot where I believe my neck to be, THEY disappear, too. Very convenient, no? I should rather say my reputed neck. My alleged neck. Sure, mirrors are interesting devices. But why insist that only the flat ones tell true? New-fangled demontoys. They can be conned. I’ll never know what’s really down there.

One goes through one’s day—tum-te-tum-te-tum— seeing everyone else with their nicely attached head, no obvious Vortex Zone in sight. I could be the only one with a discontinuous bit from the mid-chest on up.

Beauty and beauty-concealing modesty have a similar quality of fictitiousness to me, yet there is this one thing that makes immediate sense about covering the hair, parts of the face and back; it prevents other people from seeing more of me than I see of myself. I like that idea. Knowing that other people are more familiar with those parts than I am, I can’t help but feel a little sad. O! Dear cheek, with whom I will spend my life in intimate contact, thou shalt remain forever a relative stranger. I may write lovelorn epistles to my adam’s apple, as we are never destined to meet.

I sincerely hope we are never destined to meet.

Sigh.

Bodies are such long-suffering bystanders. Twisted personalities can, and often do, inhabit otherwise perfectly well-meaning elbows, scalps, and buttocks. Sometimes, I see a fist about to come down upon some object or person and I think, such loyalty from all those fingers. They stick together; they toe the line. The agitated goon inside says, “punch!” and they, the working-class digits, all unknowing of the consequences, do as they’re told. After all, that’s their job. But they do it out of love, more than anything. That, and an implicit trust that it’s for the greater good. The very skin cells that hold us together each have their own little legs. It’s true! Each individual skin cell on your hide could just up and walk away, if it really wanted to (and was relatively close to the surface, or had the consent of the skin cells which might hinder its exit). The rest of your body would be up the creek without them, but skin cells, given some rare-but-not-impossible conditions, could go la-de-da and wiggle merrily away with never a backward glance.

Frankly I don’t know why they don’t. It’s not a democracy in here, inside a human body. Sure, back room deals are made, and various parts have more say than they’d ever let on, but it’s hardly “one wiggly-bit, one vote”. This is, for all intents and purposes, a
dictatorship. If the Brain says suicide, it’s suicide for all, no matter how delighted with life some out-of-the-way, back-woods mole might be feeling. Only love can explain the solidarity, the committed togetherness of all the billions of independent wiggly-bits who clearly have very few common interests.

But to return to my original point: the Vortex Zone. I conjecture that the Vortex Zone is all the fault of the eyes. Obviously, this is another matter of faith. The Eye Hypothesis, though sketchy, allows me to go on believing so many other things I hold dear—the belief that I can tell when other people see me, for example, simply by observing their eyes; a belief that is moreover completely unprovable— that I cling to it with a blindness and a passion to rival the zealots of the late Roman period. Weak though the evidence may be, I believe that the reason the Zone is located just where it is has to do with the fact that I, like several other people whom I have properly observed, have eyes, and that the location of my eyes in my head blocks them from observing some bits that are so intimately tied to my identity; like my mouth, or the reputed source of my hair… even my eyes themselves. I fervently believe. The real source of my visual field, whatever it truly is, feels like a centre. The Vortex Zone feels—I apologize for all the intolerably fuzzy language—like the central location of me.

From whence I must need trespass into the political.

Does it not strike you as massively unfair? How DARE they? The hubris, the incorrigible pride of eyes. How dare that one measly organ fancy-shmancily set itself up as the locus of my own dear self? A famously elusive person. But what a muddled creature I am! To invent a mythical being, My Eyes, and then get mad at it for the characteristics I insist it have!

There must be another way. Can I not keep my Myth figure, but re-invent the mythology?

It almost never succeeds. Except for in Mythology.

Alrighty then.

Once upon a time, I had Eyes, located in the Vortex Zone probably known to others as my head, but of which I myself have no direct experience. These Eyes had no greater influence on my sense of presence than any other, less Mythic part. They would regularly consult with my fingers, for example, in ascertaining the shape of objects, and their distance from the rest of my body. As helpful-but-not-tyrannical organs, I liked them very much, and I inferred that any information they pass me about other people must similarly not be allowed to have too much importance.

There. That’s better.

Gargalesis (Do We Not Laugh?) by Kristan Saloky

Gargalesis (Do We Not Laugh?)
by Kristan Saloky

Tagged , , , ,

The Makeup Question

By: Amorina Kingdon

Put down that palette! Unhand that undereye concealer! (or is it corrector?) Leggo the lipstick!

Do you know why are you doing this? Because, objectively, ‘this’ is a bit silly. It’s face paint that will prohibit you from swimming, eating, drinking or sweating. It can go wrong so easily, it must be constantly managed but never acknowledged.

Do you consider your face a canvas, are you exultant when you create successful illusions of whatever side of your personality landed face-up today?

Or do you trudge to the vanity believing your visage is too offensive to bear, eyes bugged and dark, pinched lips subsuming back into the creased and cratered skin from whence they came?

Whichever it is, tarry a moment and consider your makeup in the here and now. First consider what it’s costing you; and then, why you’re doing it in the first place.

Can You Afford It?

Time and money wise, ladies are already at a bit of a disadvantage. We make less; we have less disposable income. And time-wise, you’re likely pulling a little bit of double-duty after work with respect to housework.

However, studies also show women who wear the right amount of makeup are considered more likeable, competent, and trustworthy, and ultimately earn a higher salary in conventional workplaces. (While the study was funded by a company that owns several makeup brands, one might also say they were after low-hanging fruit.)

So what price likable?

Lets say you do the bare minimum; skin, lipstick, mascara, concealer. There’s ten, maybe fifteen minutes a day. But what if you want to maximize ‘trustworthiness and competence?’ Foundation, concealer, blush and bronzer will take ten to fifteen minutes. Eye primer, eyeshadow, and eyeliner, fifteen or twenty. Lips in five. Add five minutes for mistakes. Forty-five minutes a day.

What about money? For a basic routine, (or mild ‘competence’), foundation is fifteen dollars at the drugstore, every month. Mascara, ten; lipstick, twelve; concealer another ten. Let’s say that modest makeup is a modest cell phone bill. At a high-end store, the same modest haul will set you back at least a hundred dollars.

But if you want to maximize your competence, the drugstore will run you about a hundred for skin, eyes and lips. High-end stores will take you into multiple hundreds, excluding brushes, cleansing cloths, eyelash curlers, and other tools. What price trustworthiness?

This may seem like a trivial question, but if a women wants to break glass ceilings and earn equal salaries, it’s really not. It’s true that not all occupations have these gendred expectations of appearance: in media or entertainment, men and women alike wear makeup, while in many trades makeup is required for neither. But the sorts of jobs that do – finance, marketing, IT, service and so on – are many woman’s most realistic path to financial independence. And on this path, they must consider makeup: an ostensibly optional task that requires the sacrifice of what amounts to a cell phone, a daily heart to heart with a friend, and day-long maintenance with potential for ridicule if it goes wrong.

And that is without considering what else is sacrificed alongside: anything outside a strange homogenous female mask in these workplaces. Men are certainly held to some standards of appearance, but they are never quite so Revlon-ColourStay-#2-Buff-esque as the almost interchangeable Professional Woman. On paper, summed up, makeup seems like a shit deal.

And yet most are willing to pay. This testifies not just to strong social pressure, but to the fear of very real losses if women don’t play along. Will you ever know if you were really passed up for that sales rep job because you just weren’t that ‘likeable’? Do you seem ‘competent’ enough to be an effective project lead? Do you just not seem ‘trustworthy’ enough to manage a branch?

Do these words sound familiar?

(The study also found the women wearing the most makeup were the sexiest but least trustworthy. Walk the line between asset and liability well, ladies.)

Makeup: Must We?

And all this when we might actually be having fun! I mean, it is socially acceptable for adult women to wear face paint! We used to pay for that privilege as kids, for fun! And some of us still do…do you do it when no one is watching? Have you, some bored evening, gleefully experimented with cat-eye liner and bold red lips? If that sounds familiar, go nuts! Fuck the PO-lice.

But it’s never that simple. Before it has a chance to be fun, it’s medicine for the disease of being a unique, flesh and blood female, and there is something especially poisonous about the idea that your face needs adjustment to be acceptable. This is why, for the vast majority of my life, I flatly refused makeup.

Bare-faced Lies

Nine: Homemade green and purple figure skating dress.

My mother was, blessedly, not like the other rink mothers, in big fur coats in the cold bleachers, anxious and competitive. But even she knew that no girl could skate a competition without heavily applied makeup.

So I sat in a hockey dressing room while she swabbed Cover Girl on my budding zits. It crusted, and matched my mother’s darker skin, not mine, making the blemish more obvious. It came from a bag my mother seems to  have a love-hate relationship with. All I really know about makeup is that she will not leave the house without it, and is always the last to be ready because of it, yet she takes no apparent pleasure in it.

Seeing myself in the cracked rink mirror, a piebald, cake-faced doll, I cement my opinion: Makeup is stupid, holds you up, and makes you look ridiculous.

Fourteen. Christmas. The uncle who took me on huge hikes, who taught me to climb a tree and how to pace myself, hands me a gift bag. Inside is a makeup palette. My brother receives a carbon steel hunting knife.

Seventeen. Birthday. I receive a massive pallette of eyeshadows, blushes, lipsticks and mascaras. “Ooo”, everyone choruses.

“Thank you,” I force out through gritted teeth. Have they ever seen me wear makeup? No, and I suspect that is the point. It all goes in my closet, unused, until it starts to smell of crayons and I have an excuse to throw them out.

Something changed between eight and thirteen. The women in my life, friends and family as a one, decided I needed makeup, that I should take in interest in it, and that if I hadn’t yet, I would. On occasion, as I brushed my teeth, my mother approached from behind, concealer already on her finger, and snaked an arm about me, trying to cover up blemishes (she is only trying to help, so I don’t feel embarrassed walking down the street, and I don’t need to get so mad.)

I was mad. It seemed absurd that they expected any other reaction, given how annoyed makeup seemed to make them. I knew that women wore makeup not because they liked it but because they hated how they looked without it. And considering that the idea ‘appearances don’t matter’ is a ubiquitous childhood mantra, (not to mention that makeup is often shorthand for “ditzy shallow girls with nothing better to do”) their obsession with makeup seemed at best confused and at worst hypocritical.

And there was another, darker side to my anger. One I am ashamed to acknowledge. The makeup my friends and family bestowed upon me was not a quality tool for a specific purpose; it was the cheapest they could find. They never asked my skin tone, or the shape of my eye: it makeup for makeup’s sake, the rink all over again. And truthfully, I doubt those who kept buying it for me knew or tried to learn any techniques beyond rubbing foundation and brushing mascara. My fellow females did not want me to Look Good; they wanted me simply to Wear Makeup, to labour under the same yoke, and it bothered them that I did not. You could fairly hear my friends wondering: why isn’t Ami ashamed to go out without makeup like the rest of us? When will she finally feel bad enough?

And here we come to it: in their frantic machinations, in silvered eyes and drugstore steals, I sensed the simmering anger of their own grinding obligation to smear, to daub, to contour. Did I not start to get a hint that generic, obligatory makeup was a self-abnegation, a neutering, that came from some deep well of irrational shame of their own individual face; a sort of self-administered tarring and feathering? Was it something that purportedly made them unique and beautiful but actually felt like the opposite to them, and that was why they did it?

And so I was angry, and I wore no makeup.

And then, quite recently, that changed.

I wandered into an online forum a few months ago, because someone had posted a striking picture of iridescent green eyeshadow on an image board. Rather than looking like Mimi from Drew Carey, it was – artistic. It was clearly a work of skill, and more, it looked fun. I kept clicking, and slowly found a community – men and women – who clearly espoused two values, previously alien to me, that have changed my mind about makeup: They did it solely for themselves, and they valued quality and skill. Some worked in theatre, others as professional makeup artists. Some just loved to play.

And I finally admitted something to myself. I do want to play with makeup. And I mean play. I just refused to accept the self-loathing that seemed to go along with it.

So one spring day when cherry trees were blooming and the skating rink was a lifetime away, I bought a quality brush set, pigmented shadows and bold red lip stain. And instead of fretting I was doing it wrong, I painted my eyelid like a full peacock tail, aggressive and eye-catching. And for the first time in my life, it didn’t feel like it was smothering anything. It felt like…a tool.

Slowly, I tried other things. Curled brows. Scarlet lips.

The childhood mantras about appearance weren’t wrong in a close-knit community, but they were oversimplified, especially in a big city. You meet hundreds of people every day and the only thing they can possibly know about you is what they see. Rather than a time and money sink, a tool for self-loathing and homogenization, when you see it as a tool, makeup can be fun. Something that can give energy instead of take it, showcase a personality and not erase it.

I dream of world where we can all do this.

A Celebration of Fat

Suddenly, it went from winter to summer. Suddenly, we feel almost naked without our winter wear, our coats, our hats our scarves. Suddenly, all eyes are upon us. This month, the Blasfemmers tackle beauty– what is it, what does it mean, what do you do with it, what do you do without it, is it even real? The post this week is a story and a musing on FAT with an F by Amy Medvick.

It was a year ago— no, a little more— that season when no matter what, you feel chilly outdoors but hot indoors.  A friend wanted to meet for drinks. I felt reclusive but the duties of friendship roused me, made me drink tea and dress. The liminal weather made it hard: pants or skirt’n’tights, sweater or jacket? My desire to hide, which ebbs and flows, was strong and further complicated things. At times I am filled with the irrational sensation that I am expanding, that my ass and belly can’t be contained but desperately need to be else I separate into blobs and float apart like water in the vacuum of space.

 Actually, I’ll be a little more forthright: it’s called a Fat Day. It’s that day when you wake and wonder how you managed to fit in your clothes all those days before, when someone asks if you are pregnant because, despite having lost 25lbs, you couldn’t cope without crawling into that maternity-wear-looking thing you wear on Fat Days. That day when you imagine that everyone is distracted and off-put by your sudden sprouting of belly or double chin, when you remind yourself that you really need to stop eating bread, like, forever, starting tomorrow.

 There are two ways to deal with a Fat Day—you either Let It Flow or Rein It In.

 If I’m just going to work or staying home, or joining the company of family, close friends and/or hippies, then Letting It Flow is just fine. Leggings with elastic waistbands, loose blouses, empire-waist dresses, those magical drapey sweater-things that don’t do up at the front but just dangle ambiguously. These clothes don’t always feel like me, but they are comfy and so I’m not constantly reminded of myself.

 But if I’m going out, knowing I’ll be seen and assessed, perhaps recognized from a gig, and ever carrying that secret wish that tonight I’ll attract a mate, then I simply have to Rein It In. That corset of skinny jeans and tight black t-shirts, that examining of myself in the mirror until I find the one posture I deem flattering, resolving to only stand that way all night, my back muscles protesting at the thought.

 BUT. I do have one article of clothing that is a lifesaver: The Blazer. A simple black blazer, two buttons, no frills. It is one of the most useful things I own, on par with a good kitchen knife or a computer. It’s professional enough to wear to work, but with a bright coloured dress has a confident casualness that I can take to a party, no problem. It has a way of flattening the belly, accentuating the bust, but also squaring the shoulders, saying Yes, I am shaped the way you want a woman to be shaped, and I also mean BUSINESS!

 So, on that night of liminal weather and fluctuating body image, I donned The Blazer, shielding from scrutiny that uncomfortable line where my pants meet my shirt, and went to meet my friend at our local hipster watering hole.

 Now, I want to stop for a sec, because I have something to say. If, perchance, you are an ignorant asshole, you might be thinking, Shit, this fat chick talks too much. I bet she never gets laid. If you are a compassionate person, you may be thinking, Someone needs to tell this girl she’s beautiful just the way she is, inside and out or She will be so much happier when she stops judging herself by impossible supermodel standards.  Well, you’re both wrong. The first, because you are an ignorant asshole. The second, because I can tell you: I’ve heard and done and been all that. But, it’s just not that simple.

 See, strip away the clothing—not to mention the scrutiny of our fat-hating society– and I actually think I’m pretty hot stuff. My legs are short but have an excellent shape, my ass is a nice intermediate size that can satisfy a wide variety of tastes in ass-size, my skin is freakin’ soft, one big silky sense organ, and my tits, though smallish, are quite frankly perfect, and always get rave reviews at their unveiling. The only thing I’m not sold on is my belly, but hey—what can you do, eh? No one’s perfect. But all in all, when I look at the naked ensemble in the mirror, I think, Damn, I’m like a really short Greek goddess. If we still wore the clothes women did back in those days (and most of the world’s cultures that don’t share the West’s Fat-o-Fobia still do), then I would the ballin’ belle-of-the-ball.

 But, I live in a world of skinny jeans and quadruple push-up under-wire bras and waist-cinching belts to give you that hourglass silhouette (except they don’t, it just looks like I have a thing there around my non-hourglass belly). These clothes just don’t fit my body. If I wear the clothes that do fit me, I can’t fully participate in fashion the way my creativity and role as a “hip musician” require me to. I can almost smell the judgement that labels me as some sort of muu-muu-wearing pariah when I Let It Flow. So often I Rein It In, squeezed into wired bras and tight pants, uncomfortable and failing at a contest I never wanted to win, so that I look plugged into pop culture, the kind of girl you want to hang with, whose band you want to go see. I cling to those rare pieces that are hip, render me acceptable looking, and are actually comfortable, and I think, If these people could only see me NAKED!!!

 As for where a thin body will get you with men, well… that’s all malarkey. My Year of Promiscuity was undertaken at a size 10 on a 5’2” frame. I’ve suffered prolonged sex-droughts at a size 6. I’ve taken many lovers, men with many wonderful traits. Some were beautiful themselves, others great appreciators of beauty, and most have thought me beautiful and said so. I haven’t always agreed with them, but I’ve had to conclude they were sincere. The alternative is that they were all in on an elaborate conspiracy to make me feel beautiful when I’m not, which is a scenario that I’ve actually considered and then dismissed as being unlikely. The simplest conclusion is that there are very desirable men out there who think I am beautiful, whether because of my fat or despite it, I don’t know.

 But alongside those men are others. The perfect example is a guy who was ostensibly the most physically unattractive man I have ever taken to bed. I was nonetheless attracted to him because, until the following occurred, I was enjoying his company and hadn’t given a coherent thought to his looks. It just didn’t impact the value I assigned him as a human being or one-night lover. He was telling a story about meeting a girl at the park: “She was beautiful, really beautiful, you know, skinny, and she came and started talking to me.”

 He told me how the universe answered his prayer and let him talk to this dream-girl, her only qualifiers being “beautiful” and “skinny”, and wasn’t he lucky and wasn’t that proof of miracles, and blabitty blah, tossing the word “skinny” off as if it was a currency that I was universally bound to accept as legal tender for beauty. I was too angry to even begin to articulate all the things wrong with that. Like, why, if the only word you can find to describe beauty is “skinny”, did you bother hooking up with me? Why am I supposed to be OK with you reminding me I don’t fit our cultural model of beauty right after we just fucked? How is it that you have no compassion for my unbeauty when you are unbeautiful yourself? I called him on it and he got all insulted: how could I think he was that kind of guy, and this is more likely something in myself that I need to work on, and blah, blah, blah. Inside, I was screaming: It’s not me, it’s our CULTURE! I work on it plenty! Its our fucking culture, which means yes, it’s in me, but it’s in you too, asshole! It’s something in YOU that YOU need to work on!

 When I recall these interactions, and the impact they had on my sense of self, positive or negative, I have to think: why does my fat or my beauty even fucking matter?!? It’s a stupid game that says nothing about what I can offer the world or another person. It’s a rendering of myself into a decoration instead of a human. FUCK all this beauty NOISE. That’s the place I have to get to, if just for awhile, before I do the things during which I will be really looked at, like climbing on stage in crazy costumes and singing my guts out, or hitting the beach in that bikini I bought in Ipanema because damn if I’m gonna stay home. I have to get to fuck that beauty noise and just deal with the fat, man.

 So this is where we live: a world in which we all know that fat does not always equal ugly and beauty does not always equal skinny and none equal value, but yet there is a conspiracy (the real one, to make us feel ugly when we’re not) in which we all pretend it does. If I want what’s out in that world, like oodles of men and commercial success, to a certain extent I have to play along because everyone else is. That means if I can’t be thin myself (and believe me, I’ve tried, but it conflicts too much with my fondness for sustaining my body with food), then I have to at least acknowledge, via deferent behaviour and compensatory clothing, that it would be better for everyone if I were. Which it wouldn’t be. But we all pretend. Conspiracy!

 SO. Like I said, on that Fat Day in early April 2012, The Blazer and I went and met my friend at our little bohemian café-cum-bar. She and I were usually there amongst our own circle, where the girls are mostly twiggy and petite, and we two would exist as the reminders that not all women are shaped that way. But that night, we knew no one. The place was, unusually, packed with almost only women, and this group of women seemed to pretty accurately represent all varieties of bodies. There were some very femme women, and some more androgynous ones too. Trance music made the walls, which were more used to Indie pop, pulse rhythmically. We theorized that we had stumbled upon a lesbian dance party, and there was only one thing to do about it: hit the floor.

 I danced with that kind of abandon that comes when you’re not being watched, not caring much what I looked like since these weren’t the folk I normally try to attract. But before long, I grew uncomfortably warm in The Blazer. And though there were no men around, and indeed this seemed like a more accepting crowd than most, I still didn’t want to take it off and admit that I do have a belly to all these people that didn’t already know.

 

Venus of Ipanemandorf

Venus of Ipanemandorf

I asked myself why not, since the range of bodies clearly asserted that I was among the small. Indeed, two girls dominated the place, veritable Venuses of Willendorf dressed in nothing but tight body suits and bright-coloured nylons, absolutely unashamed of their abundance. But I already knew that the why didn’t matter, what mattered was that it would feel bad to take it off, bottom line. Instead, I followed my friend outside when she went for a cigarette.

 We stood in the chilly air, cooling down and catching up. Other women were out too, talking and smoking, and before long a Venus joined them from inside. She talked and laughed joyfully, shivering in the minimal coverage of thin fabric. As she went back inside, my friend, without any tone of judgement, asked her, “Why are you dressed like this? Aren’t you freezing? Is it a costume or something?”

 She paused, with a sparkle in her eye and an impish smile on her mouth. “Tonight,” said the Venus, “is a Celebration of Fat!” Her voice was full of laughter as she gaily and gracefully skipped back inside, light of heart as any sylph.

 I stood there, feeling like the rug had been pulled out from under me. A Celebration of Fat? What a temptingly liberating thought! Not demonizing or being neutral about or even fetishizing, but genuinely celebrating fat?

 I was filled with a potent mix of feelings: that I was perfect and finally in company with strangers who knew it; that I wasn’t fat enough and most certainly overdressed; then the paranoid worry that somehow my moderate fat would be the Fat that Offends. And my blazer? It was reduced from an endlessly useful scrutiny-shield to an odd personal quirk.

 You are likely wondering: did I take off The Blazer and dance, revealing myself and letting my fat be adored? On that Fat Day last year in April, I wasn’t ready. Now I would be, and I wish I could return to that party in Nearly Naked splendour to celebrate what we all have at least a bit of but what is rarely celebrated. I wish I could feel that Venus’ joy in knowing that in this place, for this night, she was loved more the less she hid.

 I want to go back because I know that is the real reality, that wild celebration of human variability; but in the meantime, I have to live in this world that fears and despises fat, that requires me to either Let It Flow or Rein It In because Being Naked is still too much for it to deal with. Yes, I live in this conspiratorial world, but in the meantime I will also strive to make sure the people around me know: as for me, whatever you show me you are, whether I like it or not, I will never say you should have remained hidden.

 So, maybe sometime soon I will throw my own party to celebrate our fat, stop participating in the conspiracy, and pull the rug out from under an unsuspecting woman trapped in a perpetual Fat Day. Yes, I think I will; and of course, everyone, whatever shape or size, will be invited.