Feminism is Choice

A friend sent me a link to this piece in the Huffington Post titled “Tough Gals: Do They Still Exist?” The piece is a jeremiad against the supposed “girliness” of today’s women and how we’ve all apparently abandoned the precedent set by our tough, bitchy, bra-burning feminist foremothers:

Women are girly. Again.

Don’t believe me? The proof is in the blogosphere: Women who blog about cupcakes! Women who blog (okay, rant) about gardeningHello Kitty, and knitting! Even BUST magazine is sponsoring a Craft Fair in NYC. Women who blog about cats! And then there are cats who blog, but let’s not get into that just now. Don’t get me wrong, these are all lovely blogs, smart and entertaining. And some blogs, like the wonderful Jezebel, keep us on our toes pointing out what a long way we haven’t come, baby (like in this piece on how female superheroes are sexualized). But.. seriously… cupcakes?

To be frank, this article is so stupid that I was almost reluctant to even respond to it. (My first reaction was, who pays someone to write this shit? And then I remembered that HuffPo doesn’t pay.) Really, there’s so much wrong with it–a false dichotomy (be a feminist OR be feminine), the judgment of lifestyles that differ from the author’s, the assumption that there’s only one way to “do” feminism, and not to mention some good ol’ misogyny–that is, the idea that women are only worth the air they breathe as long as they act like men.

I could respond to this with abundant examples from my own life–the fact that I actually (shocker) enjoy cooking, cleaning, and doing my hair, the fact that some of my best memories are of taking care of my younger siblings, the fact that I knit, crochet, and sew, and…I am still a feminist. Don’t believe me? Take a look at my love life. I can barely date anymore because most men I meet piss me the hell off with their sexism.

So yeah, I could use myself (and my friends) as a counterexample easily enough, but I’m not even gonna go into detail about that because it’s unnecessary. The larger problem with this article isn’t that it doesn’t even begin to describe any of the women I know, it’s that it doesn’t even begin to describe the feminism that I know.

Feminism was (and still is) a response to two basic tenets of human society–one, that women are inferior to men, and two, that there is a right way for women to live. For centuries, this “right way” consisted of what we typically associate with oppression of women–having to stay home to cook, clean, and produce/raise babies.

In the mid-20th century, feminists obliterated this ideal. Or at least, they set us on the path to obliterating it. But the woman who wrote this HuffPo article, like many other so-called feminists–I say “so-called” because I don’t think they really represent feminism–seem to want to replace one ideal with another.

Repeat after me: feminism is choice. There can be no feminism without choice, just as there can’t really be choice (at least, not for women) without feminism. The minute you start dictating how a woman needs to behave in order to be worthy of your respect, you’re destroying decades of progress. Whether it’s that she can’t have too much sex or that she can’t cook and knit her own clothes, you’re still imposing an ideal on women. Women who have different personalities, backgrounds, and ideals than you do.

The comments on this article are awesome because they’re full of women talking about their lives and what they like and what they do, and basically demolishing all of the author’s assumptions. Take this one:

I have guns; a pink .22 and a purple .38 among others. My husband and father made dang sure I could protect myself and my kids when alone. I’d shoot first and ask questions later. I love cupcakes, gardening, knitting and just being a holly homemaker. Having a husband who deploys leaves me to my own devices often enough and screw Army strong I am my own breed of tough. Dare I mention the 3 children I delivered without an epidural? I can fix a flat, change my oil, bake bread from scratch, and sew my own curtains. I have degrees of my own, but being with my children and showing them to be tolerant and productive men in this world trumps proving I’m “feminist” Yes, i get to have my cake and eat it too!

Who’s a bad feminist now?

The author of this article is, in fact, an even more egregious sexist than most of these college guys I’m always bitching about, because she actually believes that the things our culture labels as “feminine” are inherently worse than the things it labels as “masculine.” To get all jargony on you, that’s called “internalized sexism.”

Feminism is not a convenient ideology for you to use to get people to live their lives in a way you approve of. That’s patriarchy. We don’t need more of that.

The College Story

See, I'm not the only one.

I wish I could spin you the story everyone wants to hear.

That story has a whole cast of predictable characters, and many trunks’ worth of familiar props. The friends, the neat dorm rooms, the beer, the photo collages, the inside jokes, the cute frat guys, the walks by the lake, the hot chocolate, the study sessions, the mentoring professors, the sorority mixers, the coffee dates, the giggly all-nighters, the risque one-night-stands and the whispered confessions to friends in class the next day.

Sound familiar? That’s the College Story. You’ve seen it in every glossy brochure, TV show, Seventeen magazine article, and back-to-school commercial.

But that’s not my story. It never will be. Because the kind of person I am doesn’t get to live that story.

Halfway through my college career, it’s time to admit this to myself.

My story? Sure, it has some bright moments in it. Most stories do, and mine hasn’t been that awful. But then there’s all the stuff nobody wants me to talk about–the weather, the loneliness, the way guys at Northwestern treat me (to be precise, like a thing), the rich, preppy students that I’ll never resemble, the hours spent laboring over essays that professors barely even read (and then unceremoniously slap a B on without further explanation), the expectation to be a walking, talking, drinking/fucking/studying machine, the not-so-subtle bragging NU teaches us to perform, the bottles of anti-depressants lined up on my shelf, the many nights I spent considering transferring, asking for a quarter off, dropping out of college, or dropping out of life.

I played with my little sister today. I do that every day when I’m home, but today it was different because I was acutely aware of the fact that I’m leaving again in five days. I hugged her and my heart broke all over again. I hate that I’m not here to see her and my brother grow up. I hate that nobody at Northwestern loves me the way these two do. I hate that my little brother took one of my blankets to sleep with because he misses me while I’m at school. It all feels so wrong to me.

I’ll feel better once I’m actually there, I know that. Despite what it may look like, making the best of things is a skill of mine. Once I’m there, it’ll be easier to make myself forget the loving family I’ve left back in Ohio and to pretend that home isn’t where I’d always rather be. Sometimes I’m even able to get myself to believe that I somehow matter at this huge institution of higher learning and that it, or at the very least, the lives of some of the other people in it, would be noticeably different if I had never existed.

The truth is that I’m paying $200,000 and a lot of my own sanity for a stupid piece of paper saying that I’m qualified to go get a PhD and actually learn something relevant to my life, because all I’ve learned these past two years is how to act smarter, richer, and more well-adjusted than I actually am. Call me an idealist, but I hoped that college would be more than this.

I’m compelled to apologize for this. To apologize for hating college, because it goes against everything our culture dictates that I do. I’m supposed to love it.

Well, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you that I do.

Difficult ≠ Impossible

I’m going to come out of my cave and write about something that pisses me off. (OK, so I could start any blog post this way, but whatever.)

Here’s something that I consider one of the most glaring cultural problems in America today–it’s the idea that just because something is difficult, it is impossible and not worth trying. Our culture has become a deeply pessimistic one, and the message that it sends these days is “Oh, forget it, we could never change that anyway.”

Don’t believe me? Well, you should, because I’m right. There’s a reason that the issues that land on the political agenda are fairly simple–go to war, or not go to war. Allow gay marriage, or not allow gay marriage. Raise the debt ceiling, or don’t raise it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these issues aren’t fraught with difficulties of their own. But they are very simple–yes or no. Right or wrong. Do, or don’t.

The issues that don’t really get talked about much are the complex ones. How to fix our education system. How to achieve equality between women and men, and between whites and people of color. How to create a more just and sustainable food system. How to end our addiction to oil. How to end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. How to encourage democracy to take root in other parts of the world without shoving it down people’s throats.

To be sure, our government does things to try and ameliorate these issues somewhat, but they’re always band-aid solutions to broken-bone problems. For instance, George W. Bush tried to “fix” our schools with No Child Left Behind. President Obama issued empty threats to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to stop settlement building, with no regard for the religious and political complexities that the settlement issue dredges up. Then there’s that little Iraq thing. As for our screwed-up food system, racial justice, and ditching the oil habit, I don’t think anything’s being done at all.

Try coming up to an older person (by which I mean, someone old enough to have their own kids) and talking to them about these issues. About education, about food, about the racism still embedded deep within our society. Ten bucks says they tell you something like, “Yeah, it’d be great if that could get fixed, but face it–it’s never gonna happen.”

Why? Why the hell not?

Well, because it’s hard.

People think that these things are never gonna get fixed because it’s so hard to fix them. And by hard, I mean like when you’re trying to do a math problem and you don’t even know where to start. You’re completely stuck. Nothing you’ve ever learned is going to help you here.

The stuff that gets in the news, like gay marriage, the debt ceiling, and all of that sort of stuff, is different from these issues because, despite our disagreement on them, we know what to do. We either vote yes, or no. But you can’t vote “yes” or “no” on education reform or on ending racism, because you have to figure out what the hell to actually do about it.

Note what a clusterfuck occurs when our government actually tries to take on a complex and nuanced issue–for instance, healthcare reform. It nearly stops functioning. Our culture is terrified of complexity.

Usually when young people like me talk about fixing some of these complicated problems, older people call us “idealists.” (And that’s at best–sometimes they use less charitable labels.) To me, all that’s saying is that we’re willing to think about and talk about things that are hard, and “realistic” people are not.

Well, realism is dooming this country. Realists are people who don’t think we can stop global warming, who don’t think we can have just and efficient healthcare, education, and food systems, who don’t think we can ever achieve equality between sexes, races, socioeconomic classes, or sexual orientations.

And guess what? If you tell yourself you can’t do something, it’s not going to get done.

And anyway, isn’t that a terribly demoralizing thing to say? I think we’re selling ourselves short when we say that we can’t solve complex problems like these. After all, the human race invented democracy, finance and agriculture, created the Mona Lisa, painted the Sistine Chapel, put a man on the moon, eradicated polio, and set up the Internet. Do our accomplishments really end there?

Just because something is difficult does not mean it’s impossible. Things that are impossible, at least with our current knowledge and technology, are traveling through time, sprouting wings and flying, curing cancer, and turning lead into gold. But things that are merely difficult? Well, that’s just about everything else.

How Depression Feels

I feel like there’s a disease in my head. I want to excise the brain parts that it lives in, the parts responsible for loneliness, worthlessness, apathy, cynicism, seriousness, sensitivity, and all the other ways in which I could be described.

I feel like a book lying open on the grass. The wind blows the pages around and one can’t help but read them. Nothing that’s written can ever be forgotten.

I feel like I’ve wound up my body’s pocket watch all wrong. It doesn’t go at the same pace as everyone else’s. Sometimes it ticks when it shouldn’t. Sometimes it doesn’t when it should. Where is that damn watchmaker?

I feel like a sinking ship. All of my most beautiful parts are underwater now, my framework waterlogged and rotting. Up on the tilting deck, an orchestra plays for anyone who dares to listen.

I feel like there’s a darkness following me wherever I go. Some call it a black dog, others call it a raincloud, others call it the noonday demon. Sometimes we sit on a bench next to each other, just gazing out into the world through our foggy, listless eyes. When it’s with me, I see in black and white.

I feel like a piece of driftwood on a beach. Why am I here, and not there? Is this sandy spot any better than that one?

I feel like there’s another spirit inside me and it’s more compassionate and optimistic and hopeful than I’ve ever been able to be.

I feel like there’s a flood slamming against the levee walls of my brain.

I feel like there’s a screeching phoenix beating in my heart, trying to burn a hole in the scarred tissue and escape.

I feel like I’m moments, or days, or years away from coming alive. It’ll happen, someday.

Dancing With Myself

[This is a piece I wrote in response to a prompt at Open Salon and just thought I’d repost it here.]

You aren’t really a daughter of Russian parents unless they make you do ballet.

Mine did, though I started later than most–when I was five years old. I continued until I was  fifteen. Over those ten years, I perfected splits, fouettes, and grand jetes, danced in several professional ballets, and starred as Clara in the Nutcracker. I was thin and graceful, and my parents never demurred when asked to produce photos and videos of their talented daughter.I often danced for friends and relatives who came to visit, or who we went to visit ourselves.

But ballet took a toll on me, and not necessarily in the ways you would expect. Since I was prepubescent for most of that time, I didn’t need to worry about staying skinny; it was easy for me as a child. Dancing en pointe hurt my feet and gave me terrible blisters, but it really wasn’t that that did me in.

No, what led me to quit was the atmosphere that characterizes the world of ballet. The other girls were awful, catty, nasty people. The ballet teachers pit us against each other ruthlessly, calling one of us a favorite one day and choosing another the next.

We were talked down to, humiliated, and shamed. I recall one day when we were taking a break to stretch in the middle of class, and I politely asked my teacher if I may be excused to use the restroom. She nodded but pursed her lips and whispered, “Never again.

If you came late to a class, as I often did because I lived far away and my parents, believe it or not, had other responsibilities in addition to driving me around, you were required to wait meekly by the door until the class completed its current exercise, wait until the teacher acknowledged you, apologize for your tardiness, and ask permission to join the class. You would walk to a spot at the barre with thirty pairs of eyes glaring at you.

As a shy and bookish girl, this destroyed me.

I remember how my teacher would insist to my parents that my hair must be in a bun that doesn’t fall apart–not exactly a small thing to ask from a mane of hair that reached past my derriere. Inevitably my bun would fall apart and I would be unable to fix it and I could feel those same thirty pairs of eyes narrowing, thirty mouths sneering and snickering at me.

I quit ballet, inevitably, when I was in high school. I joined the marching band instead. I delighted in wearing a uniform that hid my developing and no longer skinny body, in meeting people who didn’t judge me, in being able to simply run to my place in the warmup circle when I was late rather than performing the humiliating ritual required by my ballet teachers.

I’m not skinny anymore. Not at all. I’m not so flexible. I can only do three or four fouettes before I start losing my balance.

But I still carry myself well, chin up, back straight. I still love to dance, though I prefer to dance to the Black Eyed Peas instead of Tchaikovsky.

Sometimes I regret quitting ballet because I’d invested so much into it. But I’m thankful every day that ritualized humiliation and catty competition are no longer a part of my daily life. I’m grateful that I didn’t stay long enough to have a chance to succumb to some of the  more well-known pressures that a ballet dancer’s life brings.

The beat of the music still plays in my head, but now I dance to it in my own way.

I ♥ NY

Consider this a love letter to my favorite city.

Looking down 5th Avenue towards southern tip of Manhattan, from the top of the Empire State Building

New York City was the first bit of America that I ever saw, fourteen years ago when my family immigrated from Israel. I can only imagine how my parents felt. They had escaped from social and religious oppression when they’d left Russia, and now, two casualties of Israel’s faltering economy, they looked to America for help. New York welcomed them with open arms.

And now, it welcomes me. Growing up wedged between four cultures, I never learned to speak the language of just one. I’m always some combination of Russian, Jewish, American, and Israeli. I’ve never felt at home anywhere. Except New York.

I don’t have to identify myself here, perhaps because there are plenty of people here just like me, who grew up in one culture, speaking the language of another, observing the religion of a third, and finally settling into a fourth. Here I don’t have to get into a car and drive far away to find the food I grew up with or a place to practice my religion. I don’t feel awkward when I pick up the phone to talk to my parents and a dozen sets of eyes immediately turn to stare at me. (You’d have to try pretty damn hard to get people to look at you in New York, and speaking Russian–there are 300,000 Russians there–definitely won’t do it.)

I’ve lived in six cities on three continents, and New York is the only one in which I’ve felt comfortable and accepted. I feel like it speaks my language.

Abandoned lot near Rockaway Beach, in Queens

It seems that achieving the American Dream means living in a way that you can forget your fellow dreamers even exist. My parents’ house in Ohio is located in one of the best neighborhoods in town. Backyards sprawl around their houses; often they’re larger than the house itself. They are usually surrounded by a fence,

You don’t really see many people out and about. You don’t have to; you have your own backyard to hide in. My mom and I are instantly recognized by many residents of our neighborhood because we take lots of walks. On the rare occasion that I actually talk to someone, they often point this out.

Interaction with people is minimized in many parts of the U.S., and that’s considered the ideal. There’s no super to pay the rent to, no neighbors to stomp on the ceiling above you, no musicians on the street corners or on the subway cars (since there aren’t any subways), no bus stops full of people, no beggars asking you for change. People move to the suburbs and count their blessings that they no longer have to deal with all these pesky people.

I don’t like it that way. I like it the New York way.

There’s nothing worse for me than silence and aloneness. In New York, you are never alone. Look down the street at night and you see hundreds of glowing windows peering back at you. People sit on porches, stoops, benches, balconies, and railings. They lean on buildings, cars, and fences. They eat, smoke, talk, read, play chess, embrace, make music, or do nothing.

When you’re feeling lonely, which is most of the time for me, there’s nothing more powerful than this reminder that you’re never really alone. Even if it feels that way.

The Manhattan Municipal Building

So yeah, I’ve done all the tourist stuff. I’ve been to the Met, the MoMA, the Lincoln Center, and the Museum of Natural History. I’ve walked all the way through Central Park and been to the Bronx Zoo. I’ve been to the top of the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, and the Twin Towers, when they were still standing. After they weren’t, I went to Ground Zero. I’ve been to Wall Street and seen every inch of Broadway from Battery Park to Columbus Circle. I’ve been in Times Square, Washington Square, Madison Square, Union Square, and probably a lot of other important squares. I’ve been to both the Strand and Macy’s, Columbia and NYU, Chinatown and Greenwich Village, Brighton Beach and the Upper East Side. And I know I’m still not even close to being done.

But my favorite thing to do in New York is just to walk. You can lose yourself in the streets of Manhattan without ever really being lost, because getting lost in Manhattan would require not knowing how to count. It’s easy–the avenues go up and down the length of the island, and the number of the avenue increases as you go from east to west. The streets go perpendicular to the avenues, counting upwards as you go north. Below Houston Street things get a bit tricky, but you still can’t really get lost.

The reason I can’t do this anywhere but New York is because no other city has such a vast amount of walkable territory. In Chicago, you can find the nicest neighborhood you’ve ever seen, but walk a mere ten blocks in any direction and you’ll start to see housing projects.

Anything that chocolate, music, and sex can’t heal, walking can. New Yorkers know this, which might be why they’ve built a city that makes walking so easy.

L'orange Bleue, a French restaurant in SoHo

My parents have a friend who works two blocks away from my aunt’s apartment, where I stayed for the past five weeks. When I told her that I’m planning to become a psychologist, she said, “Come to New York! There’s no better place to be a psychologist.” She said that elsewhere, people still believe that psychotherapy is something for crazy people to do. In New York, however, people understand that it can be a valuable tool for attaining self-knowledge and becoming happier. My impromptu adviser proudly pointed out that she herself has an excellent therapist.

Of course, psychology isn’t the only subject on which New Yorkers, generally speaking, have progressive views. In New York, it’s legal for a woman to go topless in public. Chain restaurants were required to provide calorie counts for all of their menu items even before Obama’s healthcare bill made that mandatory nationwide, and trans fats are illegal in restaurants. Homeless people don’t sleep on the streets anymore now that the city has a network of homeless shelters. Smoking is illegal not only in restaurants and bars, but also in parks, public squares (i.e. Times Square),  sports stadiums, and beaches. Cars are almost entirely unnecessary thanks to the constantly-improving public transit system. Gay marriage is legal.

When I hear about all the things that New York has and Chicago (let alone Dayton, Ohio) do not, I feel like this is a city that takes care of its people. It’s one more reason to feel welcome there.

Underneath a bridge in Central Park

Leaving New York sucked. On my last evening there, after I came down from the Empire State Building, I kept hanging around in Herald Square because I didn’t want to get on the subway and go home. That would put a note of finality into it.

On the plane the next day, I kept thinking about all the people I’d interacted with in New York. Not just my friends and family, but the nameless people–the Russian lady who asked me for help in CVS on my first night there, the stewardess I talked to while I was in line to buy snacks at the airport, the Spanish-speaking woman who offered to take my picture on top of the Empire State Building, the Bukharian Jew working for the Russian car service I used to get to the airport (we talked about family and the places we’ve lived), the giggly 40-year-old woman who approached me in Barnes & Noble in Union Square to ask me for help loading music onto her new laptop, the 16-year-old high school student from Florida who started talking to me about books in the Strand, the U of Iowa student I talked to about football in Washington Square, the street cart owner who chatted me up while making my chicken and rice on my first day out in the city, the gentleman with salt-and-pepper hair wearing a really nice suit who talked to me as we looked at male sex toys in the Museum of Sex.

I was so worried when I first set off for New York that I would be terribly lonely there. Everyone warned me that people are cold, that they ignore you, so I wasn’t at all prepared for the incredible variety of interesting and complex people I would meet there. And, despite having been in New York before, I had no idea of how the loneliness melts away when you find yourself actually walking through those streets.

Now I do, and now, more than anything, I just want to be back in those streets again.

Midtown and the Empire State Building, from the top of the Rockefeller Center