|Photo Credit: Morgue File by Dave Hamilton|
I really like Gina Barreca. Or at least, I really liked listening to her at the Erma Bombeck Writer's Workshop last month. She was the last keynote speaker that I heard, and, among that aggregation of very funny people, she stood out as the funniest of all.
"No man has ever done what women do about this, because we try to fit ourselves into sizes."
"No man has ever said I'm going to be a 42 short by the holidays."
"Men think they're a little fat if they can't fit into a foreign car."
Her talk–and what made it so funny–centered on the disservice women do themselves through our rampant anxiety, the niggling desire to "fit ourselves" into clothes, expectations and circumstances. Men were just the foils within this theater of female psychodrama. The Not-Women. At a glance, Gina Barreca's feminism seemed to be about what women do to themselves and to each other, more than what men and society does to women. Which I kind of liked. And I will tell you: Gina is one smart lady.
And yet there was something I kind of laughed over–or only let out the embarrassed laugh that makes you look out the corner of your eye to see if anyone is looking offended, to check if you should be offended, the uncommitted laugh.
"We're the smart ones."
Resounding applause followed in a room filled, by an enormous ratio, with women. Women are smarter. Women have a more sophisticated sense of humor. Hmmmm...it's funny, and it smells like a kind of truth (or it wouldn't be so damn funny), but, in one fell swoop, it herds all females–lesbian, straight, married, single, young, old, smart and dumb and all men–into opposite corners of the room and calls it truth. Perhaps, that is the essence of humor. It lives in generality. But Gina Barreca is not just a humorist but a thinker. Here is a link to one of her latest pieces Why Do Women Fall For Cruel Men? which appeared in Psychology Today May 7th.
What Barreca is pointing at is that strong women, in her estimation, tend to view strong men as ones that can best them. This besting then plays out as men treating women with a certain callous disregard, a certain cruelty. Or causing a certain emotional grief. She discusses the case of a woman, having waited to find the right man–a man strong enough–who then loses herself entirely in that man. She tells stories of women for whom male anger, when directed against them, shows love. Stories of smart women seeking stupid men. Other women, while perhaps not seeking an actually painful relationship, Barreca says, will look for a man too good for them, a man who will ignore them. Women, as she portrays them, are bound and determined to suffer at the hands of men, but somehow on their own terms.
I find myself amply motivated to argue with all of these statements. In fact, I chose this piece as a link because I thought its broad generalizations worthy of a second, more ambiguous look. But, I cannot, as I re-read this article, completely discount what Barreca has said here. At least not in front of anyone who has known me long enough to be familiar with my entire relationship history, which has included, over and over, men less intelligent than myself with whom I quickly grew bored or smoldering, passionate but physically abusive men or yet more men entirely indifferent to my interest in them. And don't we all know these women? The ones about whom we wonder aloud,
"Why the Hell did she choose him?"
If this phenomenon is specific to the psyche of women, I am not entirely sure it is limited to straight women. It seems to me I have known many lesbians to have made ill-fated choices among their partners as well. But is this argument true at all? Let's examine the body.
The Left Leg: Which woman do you mean, exactly? Is this true of all–or even most–women? Barreca's article rang–in some ways–true for me, but I developed my male-female relationship strategies very young and while navigating issues of depression and addiction. To say that I was looking for someone to "fix me" would be an understatement. So, I have to ask you ladies and the men who know them–those of you who grew up straight rather than bendy, if this stuff is true for you?
The Right Leg: When prevented from committing suicide, Juliet grows up. If women are geared this way, as suggested by Margaret Drabble, due to the portrayal of romance as tragic, don't most of us get the picture later? (If so, I guess this would be an argument for dating quite a bit before committing to marriage.) Someday, don't we finally realize that we want a best pal, a life mate, a trusted friend and then get over the need for grand gestures of male strength? I cannot imagine myself, at thirty-six, having the slightest damn interest in any man's ability to overpower me in any way. Although I will admit that I often said, when younger, that I found it attractive if a man could beat me in an argument, I now find it infinitely more attractive if he does laundry and will watch Grey's Anatomy with me.
The Left Arm: Is every guy you know Eminem? What does this say about men? If women are hot and bothered for all these brooding assholes of men, it would seem there would have to be quite a lot of them to go around. Unless, of course, we all dated the same jackass senior year and he's still making the rounds. But are you married to this guy? Or did you leave him a long time ago and settle down with someone who gently strokes your hand but wears sandals with socks? Or are these men really at fault? Are they made awful by our own weird fixation? That is a chilling thought. Perhaps after you left them for being so wretched, they settled down with someone who treated them like just another human being, and they still treat her like a queen?
The Right Arm: Let's play master and servant. If a lot of us will sheepishly admit to a certain understanding of Barreca's case here, just as many of us seemed to relate to it when Tangled Lou bared the soul of narcissistic love–the kind where you settle, fall in love with the notion that your partner may change, and let that poor soul adore you while you treat him like a dog that has yet to be trained. The love that seems to be compassion but is really falling in love with one's own reflection. I have done this kind of thing as well. So maybe it is just hard to get this right. We are shooting for men who slavishly worship us and for whom we do not return the affection, or we are shooting for men who seem disinterested or uncommitted or unkind. How many shots before we nail it? One high, one low, one waaay on the outside there, then, hopefully BULLSEYE!
The Rest of the Body: It All Comes Down to Power. At the risk of sounding like I am chatting with you from a communist coffee shop in Berkeley while I water hemp with a tincture of my own menstrual blood: my analysis is that patriarchy comes down to systems of power that are wielded (unconsciously and automatically) in subtle ways that keep women from accessing that power to control their own lives. If we are raised all of our lives to believe that certain kinds of power are the province of men, it makes sense that we try to get it from them. So, if men are the avenue to feeling loved or feeling worthy–or men are the avenue to showing us our own strength–then, perhaps, the most daring among us may seek the fiercest dragon to slay and therein prove our own worth. Our lives are shaped by myths and fairy tales told over and over, unconsciously, thoughtlessly, and innocently. The man wins by being brave, smart and strong. The woman wins by being loved. The allegory is stamped on souls.
And, instead of making us better wives, mothers and lovers, I think it makes us angry. Angry with some sort of Meta-Male force that demands our multi-tasking, lactating, libidinous perfection so that we can claim a wholeness that we can never have otherwise. The individual men that fall into our lives, I think, are still just foils–actors in the fairy tales they never liked as well as we did. They mostly just want their coffee brought and to be told they are wonderful. The rest is woven around them like invisible skeins of implication, winding all of us up like cocoons.
But what do you think? Our lives are varied, full of mirrors and polarities. I only know the path my romantic, heterosexual life has taken me. What about you? Are you buying that we have a collective penchant for male punishment? Or something akin but, perhaps more subtle? Or do you think the whole argument is gobbledygook? And it really wouldn't hurt men to comment. They have a unique perspective on this, which I would be fascinated to hear, since they know women, and perhaps have been in romantic relationships with them a time or two.
Remember to follow the rules.