What does it mean to be a ‘strong, independent woman’ in 2016?

Tryna get saved, she wanna get saved, I ain’t gonna save her
Tryna get saved, she wanna get saved, I ain’t gonna save her
Tryna get saved, she wanna get saved, I ain’t gonna save her
Tryna get saved, she wanna get saved, I ain’t gonna save her

Ty Dolla $ign, ‘Saved’ (feat. E-40) (2015) 

Yo my vag Harvard Law School
Yo vag Apex Technical
My vag speak five different languages
And told yo vag bitch make me a sandwich

Awkwafina is a genius
And her vagina is 50 times better than a penis

Awkwafina, ‘My Vag’ (2016) 

Lately, I’ve come to realise that men almost always feature in me and my friends’ conversations. The idea of men, the reality of men, the nature of men, the good, bad, and ugly men – the whole lotta ‘em.

It’s not as if this happened overnight, but along with the increasing number of dates I’ve been on in the past year, I couldn’t help but notice how much verbal limelight we grant the opposite sex (and I’m guessing this goes both ways). Somehow, our get-together chats always eventually segue into ‘soooo, what’s the deal with that new guy you’ve been seeing?’, or ‘any interesting dudes around lately?’, or sundry recounts about boyfriend so and so.

For all the supposed differences between guys and girls, one thing’s for sure: we talk about each other a lot.

What’s funny, though, is that both sexes also spend a lot of time trying to figure out why the other sex is so hard to figure out.

he's just not that into you_aceshowbiz

“Trust me when I say if a guy is treating you like he doesn’t give a shit, he genuinely doesn’t give a shit. No exceptions.”

 

From Ovid to Beyonce: guy-girl chat through the literary ages

This mutual fascination, I suppose, has been set in stone since Adam and Eve roamed the Earth, without which some of the most sublime and memorable works of art and poetry would not exist to buoy up our otherwise arid lives.

If it weren’t for Ovid’s proto-dating manuals The Art and Cure of Love, Jean de Meune would never have written the most allegorical (read: unsexy) treatise on female sexuality in Medieval literature; had it not been for Alexander Pope’s trichological fetish, his seminal ‘Rape of the Lock’ would not have shown posterity the genius of the Restoration mock epic; and absent the paedophilic imagination of Humbert Humbert, transgressive desire may still be deemed too ‘taboo’ for artistic expression.

ovid_roman_COLLAGE

(Top) Ovid’s Ars Amatoria – (Bottom) A depiction of an especially saucy episode in the Roman de la Rose

seen stamp_imgurBut anyway, the kind of ‘guy chat’ my friends and I indulge in probably doesn’t qualify for the Literary Pandora Box of Inspiration, consisting of such hackneyed anecdotes as that time when Mr Tinder Date No. I’ve-Lost-Count went to the loo 5 times over the course of a 3-course meal, or of broken soundbites such as –

‘omg are there no good men in the world’, ‘omg isn’t the last seen stamp such a bitch’, ‘OMG what did he text/say/do (circle appropriate word according to level of interest)’,

or my personal favourite –

‘delete, delete, delete!!!’

!!!!!

Anyway, lest it be a point of confusion, I don’t think that not needing a man (or professing not to need a man) counts as a sign of female strength, a testament to ‘girl power’, or proof that we modern women have done the Suffragettes and Bluestockings posthumous justice. I mean, Queen Bey could very well pose for an ad decked out in Rosie the Riveter gear, but there’s also a reason that she’s been married to Jay Z for over a decade.

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That’s Bey in her ‘Best Thing I Never Had’ MV on the right

When the 60s counterculture hippies came up with the ‘make love, not war’ slogan, they meant not just military war, but also gender war.

This is because at our core, women and men, both being humans, really aren’t that different from each other, as per the exchange below, taken from what else but a novel by one of my all-time favourite authors –

“God,” Darryl van Horne announced aloud, “I’d love to be a woman.”

“For heaven’s sake, why?” Jane sensibly asked.

“Think what a female body can do – make a baby and then make milk to feed it.”

“Well think of your own body,” Jane said, “the way it can turn food into shit.”

Jane,” Alexandra scolded, shocked by the analogy, which seemed despairing, though shit too was a kind of miracle if you thought about it.

(p. 108, John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick)

witches of eastwick_movie still

Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer as the 3 witches of Eastwick

This is also why I’ve always been wary of militant feminists who masquerade as women’s rights warriors, or anyone who carries around the ‘I am a feminist (and that’s why I think all men suck)’ placard.

I don’t believe that we can become ‘free’ by building up a wall against an entire set of people, because freedom can only be gained from dismantling the walls we build within ourselves, walls that block our view of those whom we assume necessarily stand in opposite relation to us because of their gender, race, politics, religion etc.

make love_not war_lennon yoko_Telegraph

Counter-cultural champions: Lennon and Ono rocking their trademark hipster zen

Why why why why: why women and men just can’t figure each other out (and why that’s okay)

At the expense of sounding like some new-agey wisdom guru, I’m just going to say that personal experience tells me true liberation comes from being comfortable with your identity and values in relation to your surroundings, and not with expecting your surroundings to adapt to your identity and values – because they just never will.

This applies to gender relations, too: wives will never understand why husbands, intelligent and dumb alike, lack the gene that tells them to put the toilet seat back down, and husbands will never understand why wives get worked up into a tizzy by the most trivial things, like, the need to put the toilet seat back down. I suspect, then, that the happiest marriages are those in which neither husband nor wife try to understand every little thing about each other, because they know they can’t.

This recognition should be established right from the get-go when the two sides exchange vows: for better for worse, for richer for poorer, for toilet seat down or toilet seat up, we’ll still stick together through thick and thin.

Bustle_toilet seat down

Bustle knows the score

Life would be so much easier if we were all comfortable with not having to know the ‘why’ to everything, as in why didn’t he call, why he said or did this instead of that, why he wants this and not that, why why why why: but sometimes, there just is no why.

And even when there is one, you’ll probably never figure out the why anyway, so why bother.

‘Gender talk’: dafuq does that even mean doe

Ironically, all this chat about men has pushed me to think about what it means to be a woman in this day and age. What’s funny is that I’ve never been big on ‘gender talk’ back at university, which is arguably the best kind of environment for open (and often radical) discussions about sexuality and gender equality.

So I guess I’m a bit late to the scene.

While a lot of my course mates were worshipping at the shrines of Simone de Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin and Martha Nussbaum while crying foul against the fist-thumpingly Dead White Male (DWM) nature of Oxford’s English Lit curriculum, I was secretly enjoying the ‘otherness’ of a wholly foreign canon, because from my perspective, Dead White Men naturally qualify as an exotic specimen.

de beauvoir_dwornick_nussbaum_COLLAGE

20th-century feminist scholars: (left to right) Simone de Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin, Martha Nussbaum

I was, however – and still am – a big fan of Virginia Woolf, and no one can say that her Room of One’s Own isn’t a seminal work in the history of feminist writing. I also distinctly remember reading most of that book while half-striking Vinyasa yoga poses in my dorm room. After all, she has inspired generations of female yogis with her line in The Waves

“I am rooted, but I flow.”

Honestly, I can’t imagine any of my guy friends multitasking to that extent.

woolf waves_yoga_COLLAGE

 

John Updike, you let me down: stepping into the shoes of women ‘way past their prime’

Following from my semi-apologetic post last month on why Updike isn’t as big of a chauvinistic dick as he comes across in his Rabbit novels, I decided to strengthen my case by reading what is supposedly his most “feministic” work, The Witches of Eastwick (1984), at least according to some book reviewers within the New York literati.

And yet, I regret to announce, in the spirit of a wannabe literary polemic, that this is arguably one of the more ‘anti-feministic’ works I’ve read in my 22 years of reading (okay, maybe 20, if you discount my memory of mom reading aloud to me by the cradle).

book cover_eastwick

Did I mention that I’m an Updike fan.

Don’t get me wrong: Updike is still my literary bae, but in a nutshell, the novel is about three witches from a Pennsylvanian suburb who, by vying for the attention of a mysterious rich man whose descriptions make him sound like Dracula reincarnate, end up sabotaging their friendship and ruining the lives of several ‘rival’ women along the way.

The protagonists’ names are Alexandra, Sukie and Jane, and they are all widows in their midlife who feel that somehow they’ve been cheated out of ‘youthful love’ – the kind that you’re supposed to experience once in a lifetime with reckless abandon, when you’re still free to throw your hands up in the air and say YOLO fuck this shit, because you’re not yet weighed down by the spectre of a mature conscience or by any actual burden of responsibility.

This is Darryl van Horne, the ‘rich dude’ Alex, Sukie and Jane get catty over in the film adaptation of the book (sorry Jack Nicholson, but seriously ladies?!)

Call me judgmental, but bottom line is, when there’s a litter of kids back home waiting to be fed, cavorting with some high-rolling dude you’ve just taken a throwback fancy to isn’t exactly the ‘right’ thing to do, feminist or no feminist.

But this is exactly what Alex, Sukie and Jane do throughout the novel, and according to some critics, such late-blooming rebellion is supposed to be symbolic of women reclaiming their power from a patriarchally-dictated fate, one that’s subjected them to years of staid widowhood.

solitary woman_family woman_COLLAGE

Mounting summits vs. mothering children: not mutually exclusive?

To be honest, I find this all a bit hard to swallow. My gut tells me the novel is really one big satire against grudgy, premenopausal women, but it’s equally possible that Updike was trying to earnestly portray how difficult it is for women to re-invent themselves in their middle age, or to re-live their lost youth when they are ‘way past their prime’.

What irks me most, though, is that Updike has to make sex the ‘means’ by which the three witches’ break through the repression of age, mostly because it’s not even enjoyable or fulfilling sex they experience, but sex with men whom they either think are out of their league and hence self-validating to ‘conquer’, or worse, with male ‘kidults’ who, despite being in their fifties, crave constant mothering from women who latch themselves onto them like Freudian abbesses.

This, of course, shows that these women also crave the need of being needed in order to live on with ‘purpose’.

 

Inner tempests vs. outer temptations: Hello, my name is Void and I need you to fill me up

hollow

To live like this must feel so frightening; imagine having lived half of your life, only to one day realise that you’ve become someone who lives for the sole purpose of finding a random man to validate your existence.

Alexandra knows this, which is why, among the three witches, she is the one who seems least afflicted with the syndromes of midlife discontent:

“[Alexandra] decided to clear the beach for herself and [her dog] Coal by willing a thunderstorm. One’s inner weather always bore a relation to the outer; it was simply a question of reversing the current, which occurred rather easily once power had been assigned to the primary role, oneself as a woman.

So many of Alexandra’s remarkable powers had flowed from this mere re-appropriation of her assigned self, achieved not until midlife. Not until midlife did she truly believe that she had a right to exist, that the forces of nature had created her not as an afterthought and companion – a bent rib, as the infamous Malleus Maleficarum had it – but as the mainstay of the continuing Creation, as the daughter of a daughter and a woman whose daughters in turn would bear daughters.”

(p. 14)

Note the word “flowed” – an uncanny reminder of the Woolf quote.

To think that “one’s inner weather always bore a relation to the outer” sounds obvious enough, but it appears that most people aren’t aware of the incredible power that comes with “reversing the current”, of adapting one’s inner tempest to the outer constant.

Instead of changing ourselves and the way we respond to the world, it’s so much easier to find other things or people who will respond to us the way we want them to, albeit if only for a second, a swipe, or even, just for a night:

“Martyrs of a sort were the men and women hastening to adulterous trysts, risking disgrace and divorce for their fix of motel love – all sacrificing the outer world to the inner, proclaiming with this priority that everything solid-seeming and substantial is in fact a dream, of less account than a merciful rush of feeling.”

(p. 201)

motel love

In the pursuit of that “merciful rush”, what these men and women want is to be accepted – flaws and all – by another human being, but when the comfort of this acceptance dies away for want of novelty and thrill, many will scamper once again onto the hamster wheel of “motel love”, chasing after the same “fix” that always eventually expires with fast-food romance – until one day, it doesn’t. And when that happens to sire forth a relationship, so-called ‘freedom’ departs, bringing in tow new frictions that await.

ferris_hamster wheel_COLLAGE

The moral of the story cycle, then, is that you just can’t win it all.

 

This idea of finding something external to fill up an inner void is a common trope in modern living (a result of that condition which sociologists call ‘anomie’), especially for metropolitan souls who are ever on the move for something bigger and better.

metropolitan

A magazine I spotted on the Eurostar

But like the Pennsylvanian suburbanites in Updike’s books, Hong Kongers (or New Yorkers and Londoners) are equally bored, not by the slothful banality of lawn-mowing and pie-baking, but the endless monotony of clocking-in-clocking-out, swiping-left-swiping-right.

domestic pie_work pie_COLLAGE

A matter of pie-spective: home-baked pie vs. program-generated pie (chart)

In times of boredom, –

What do you turn to for stimulation when there’s just so much of it going around;

Who do we look for to rescue ourselves out of routine when everyone else appears to also be trapped in it;

Where can one travel to for temporary escape, only to land on foreign shores and find ourselves GPS-ing the nearest Dim Sum place, all for an ersatz taste of home?

london_chinatown_tim stanley photo

London Chinatown, one of my favourite places in the world

Such are questions that Andrea Stuart, Barbadian-British feminist and author, has tried to answer by living out an alternative identity. In her personal essay ‘Tourist’, Stuart recounts her experimentation with lesbian love, which was largely motivated by her sense of always being ‘unfree’ in the company of male lovers:

cm10_andrea_stuart.JPG

Andrea Stuart

Whereas men were expected to define themselves through their interactions with the outside world as well as the active exploration of their sexuality, women always had to weigh up their daring desires against the mores of social decorum.

A roguish man who displays a reckless drive to overcome individual limitations, confront danger and explore the world, as well as enjoy certain amount of sexual meandering, is tolerated, even admired in our society: a similar woman is still branded a slut.

So my curiosity about lesbianism was an accomplice of my feminism: a path that allowed me to be sexual and free.

(p. 246-47, from Issue 129 of GRANTA – ‘Fate’)

Freedom, then, isn’t necessarily about being alone or liberating ourselves from another person, but binding yourself to someone who embraces you as you choose to be at any given point in time.

This is why identity, contrary to what certain ‘gender theorists’ say, is constantly in flux, molded by experiences that one can’t anticipate and can only take in stride, one moment at a time.

To me, the courage to live out this truth is what counts for true ‘feminism’ – to accept yourself as you choose to be at any point: attached or detached; solitary or accompanied.

 

Aug 2015 – Aug 2016: A Year of Living Reflectively as a Modern Woman

Having grown up in a traditional Chinese household with conservative parents, I’ve probably internalised views about gender ‘roles’, ‘mores’ and ‘decorum’ that most feminists would find passé, straight-laced and straight-up Victorian.

I’ll be honest and say it’s not been an easy ride interrogating (and being interrogated about) values and beliefs I’ve subscribed to for most of my life so far, but perhaps this is why reading has helped me so much in terms of personal growth, as different narratives have allowed me to look both beyond and within myself, to empathise with people who I can’t ever realistically become, but also to become more aware of my prejudices and presumptions about people who I don’t always agree with.

atticus and scout

Life lessons from Atticus and Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

In turn, I have slowly come to terms with who I am and who I want to be – and most importantly, to be confident and comfortable enough with my present as a bedrock for building my future.

It’s been a little more than a year since I graduated from university and moved back to Hong Kong, and looking back, I can say that coming to this awareness is probably my proudest milestone in my journey from August 2015 to August 2016.

So here’s to hoping that it’ll be onwards and upwards in the flotsam and jetsam of work, love, life and the occasional day when I wake up, feel crap about the zit that’s suddenly popped on my forehead because of the curry stir-fry I ate the night before, but can still look into the mirror and say chin up, keep calm and carry on – because there’s always zit cream to the rescue.

milestone_me

Me at Park Guell, Barcelona, June 2016

🙂

 

[Photo credits: Guardian, Telegraph, Bustle, aurora, HuffPost, Aceshowbiz, Time Stanley Photography, larousse, imgur, ideafixa, Unsplash, virtual history]

 

 

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