Monday, July 28, 2014

Today on "if you're not angry, you aren't paying attention."

What do men bring with them when traveling?

In my experience...not a lot.

I have eight brothers. I was one of those girls who had mostly male friends until college. I lived with two guys for a handful of years during college, and I have traveled with men more times than I can count. And they run a very short gamut. The least elaborate setup I've ever seen was a plastic shopping bag with a clean pair of underwear and deodorant in it, for a three-day weekend trip. The most elaborate included two whole pairs of jeans, a clean shirt and clean boxers for each day, deodorant, shampoo, a tooth brush, toothpaste, socks, and hair gel. That was for a five day trip.

Granted, these are mostly teenage and twenty-something guys traveling short-term for pleasure. I'm sure business travel would get a bit more complicated in terms of the suitcase contents. But consider this:

I have also traveled with my fair share of girls. And, being a girl who travels as often as possible for pleasure, I have some experience with how girls pack for a trip as well.

It is nothing short of hellish chaos.

The planning begins days ahead of time. There are lists, and planned outfits, and rethinking of said planned outfits, and attempts to balance space with necessity followed by desperate attempts to just defy physics all together in favor of fitting everything you need into one bag. There is endless running through of the activities planned for the trip, and examining the contents of closets and drawers for what will work best for each occasion.

In the end, there is shampoo, and conditioner. Body wash, and face wash. Shaving cream and a razor, deodorant and body lotion. Face moisturizer. A tooth brush. Toothpaste. Mouth wash. Tampons. At least some makeup and jewelry, just in case we go somewhere nice. A completely different outfit for every single day, with shoes and accessories that match each one. Extra socks, extra underwear. A hair brush, and probably some styling products and hair accessories. A hair dryer, almost certainly. A straightener, just in case. Pajamas that won't cause a scandal.

You're probably reading all that and thinking "this is ridiculous!" Nobody needs all that crap when they're traveling! Who has the space? Who has the time? And you're not alone in your flabbergastedness, friend. Girls get a lot of flak for being high maintenance when it comes to packing for travel. Hell, a lot of us give ourselves flak for it, but consider this: all of those things I listed above are not elaborate extras. Those are the absolute bare minimum required to be considered hygienic and presentable by society's standard.

Do some girls opt not to bother with meeting that standard? Oh sure. But they do so in full knowledge that in order to make that choice, they must accept the consequence of being seen as sloppy, ill-kempt, or even dirty by those around them. For guys? No one cares. No one expects you to wear makeup or shave when you're at school or at work, much less when you're on vacation. But girls? If you plan to get your bikini on you'd better remove all your visible body hair first, or else be the object of others' scorn, disgust, derision, and even pity ("poor girl, didn't her mother ever teach her basic hygiene?"). Because to be clean, boys have to not smell. But a girl's cleanliness is judged on her adherence to standards of beauty.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Divergent Expectations: The Tris Prior Conundrum

I'll admit it: I read YA fiction. Moreover, I'm not ashamed of reading YA fiction. It's one of the few areas in popular media that's known for its stories centering around female characters. And despite what certain Hollywood filmmakers seem to think, its enthusiastic audience of young women and girls has resulted in huge bestsellers, packed out midnight book releases, blockbuster film franchises, and springboards to promising and varied careers for several young actresses. Just in case anyone still thinks that women aren't worth marketing to, but I digress. Or should I say diverge?

I know, I know. A pun in the first paragraph? This is not going well at all. Let me start again.

Tris Prior.

I want to talk about her. More specifically, I want to talk about a theme that's present throughout Divergent that doesn't seem to get all that much attention. Or any attention, that I've noticed. Link me if I'm wrong, but the point is: it wouldn't surprise me to find that it isn't being talked about, in part because it's something so fundamental to the experience of women trying to function and succeed in modern Western culture that many readers probably don't even notice it. I'm talking about the fine lines many of us feel we have to walk between second- and third-wave feminism and traditional femininity.

I should stress that true feminism is about removing boundaries and barriers associated with gender. It's about breaking down and interrogating the social constructions of sex, gender, the perceived culturally acceptable relationship between the two, and the roles associated with that relationship. It's about self-determination and empowerment of the individual over the confines of their characteristics.

But.

Feminism, at least in my experience, is generally not understood this way outside of internet communities and the academic world (as well as wherever the twain shall and do inevitably meet). Not only do a lot of people seem to have stopped following feminism sometime during the start of the second wave, they seem to only have followed it via mainstream media outlets rather than by talking to any actual feminists, and therefore have deep (and largely unchallenged) misconceptions about what feminism actually is, what its goals are, and who feminists are.

Because of this, lots of young women are hesitant to identify themselves as feminists. I hear a lot of "I'm not a feminist but I believe in equality," and "I'm not a feminist, I'm an egalitarian/humanist." And my personal (least) favorite, "I'm not a feminist; I love men" a la Shailene Woodley (oh, the irony).

We have labels like "feminazi" and "feminist bitch." Angry feminist, man-hating feminist, hairy-legged feminist, bra-burning feminist. We have much-lauded "feminist" characters in movies and on television that are only considered so because they reject all things associated with traditional femininity. We have female characters in all sorts of media that are rejected as anti-feminist because they care "too much" about "girly" things like fashion, romance, and their own appearances (the implication, of course, being that all feminine things are shallow, stupid, backward, unimportant, and weak). And yet we have female politicians, brilliant women in positions of power, who are judged constantly by the way they dress rather than by the work they do. The mixed messages are understandably mind-boggling to most of us.

Somehow, after generations of women fought to say that we should not be treated differently or valued less because we are women, my generation has grown up learning to internalize a distaste for everything associated with womanhood, and believing that the only way to insure that we are not treated differently or valued less is to be as little like a traditional woman as possible. But at the same time, we have grown up hearing all of the disparaging epithets hurled at feminism and feminists, and we've rejected those as well. Why? Because we were designated female at birth, and subsequently taught to be nice and accommodating, to seek approval and validation from external sources, to avoid stepping on toes or coming across as threatening. And also because we're human, and human beings do generally need fulfilling social relationships. It becomes harder to make, grow, and keep those connections if everyone around you thinks you're a reactionary, confrontational bitch. And that's what feminists are predominantly represented as.

We want respect and equality...but we also want to be liked. We want social connections. We're being told on a daily basis that if we're too vocal about getting the former, we will lose all hope of the latter. But that if we don't speak up enough for the former, we're doormats who are harming all women.

Are you seeing yet how this all ties back to Tris Prior? No? Well, that's probably my fault. I diverged again (okay, I'll stop, I'll stop...I promise).

Throughout most of the first novel in the series, Tris faces two major personal conflicts: her struggle to understand and conceal her Divergent status, and her fight to make it through Dauntless initiation and avoid becoming factionless. These two cross and conflict with each other at different times and in different ways, but at the end of the day they're both part of a larger goal for Tris: survival.

In order to survive, she has to very carefully navigate the prevailing social order. She has to be strong and brave enough to be considered worthy of being a Dauntless initiate...but she can't appear so strong or so brave that she makes the other initiates feel weak by comparison. She must exhibit enough mental fortitude to face her fears...but not so much independent thought that she seems like a threat to the Dauntless leaders.

Tris's balancing act is directed by two people: her trainer, Four, and her mother. Four admonishes her that she should occasionally show weakness and allow others to help her, even if she doesn't really need it, so that she will arouse their protective instincts and keep them on her side. Her mother tells her to maintain a spot in the middle of the initiate rankings, high enough to save her from elimination but not so high as to arouse suspicion or even interest. She must be just Dauntless enough to make the final cut.

As she learns to walk that very thin line between being good enough and too good, Tris inevitably makes mistakes. How can she not? The standard of measurement is completely subjective and constantly changing; she must gauge the mindset and emotions of those around her, and adjust her behavior accordingly. Even then, Tris is still attacked--brutally, in the dark, three-on-one and from behind--because three of her fellow initiates felt so threatened by the fact that she was stronger than they were.

One of those boys had previously called himself her friend. He had a crush on her and wanted to protect her because he thought she was weak, and sweet, and out of her depth. When he discovered she was not any of these things and did not need his protection after all, his backlash was violent. And though her other friends didn't go to such extreme lengths, they were angered and briefly distanced themselves from her as well, until she intentionally showed and even began to feign vulnerability at times in order to make them feel more comfortable.

Tris's circumstances are extreme compared to those of most Western women, but her constant need to balance conflicting expectations is very much a reflection of what many of us deal with in our social, domestic, professional, and academic lives.

We have to be smart, capable, and hard-working. In fact, if we want to succeed (especially in the professional and academic spheres), we must be twice as smart, capable, and hard-working as the best of our male competitors, classmates, and coworkers. But at the same time, we can't be a threat to our male counterparts. We can't acknowledge the extent of our own abilities, because what would be self-awareness in a man is seen as arrogance in a woman. We are also expected to be pretty, perpetually friendly, nurturing, and accommodating. In fact, if we're not pretty being as smart as we are loses some of its value...but if we're too pretty or spend too much time on our appearance, people will assume we're shallow (not to mention insinuate that we slept our way to where we are).

A "good woman" has to have a full-time job, but if she doesn't want to add a child to that equation she's unnatural, forever alone, selfish, depriving her husband/parents of something that they deserve to have, and/or lying to herself. If she decides she'd rather be a full-time mother, she's seen as weak, as setting back feminism, or even as a lazy gold digger who's using her presumably hardworking husband for his money.

To succeed as a Western woman is to be everything at once, to be better at it all than anyone, and to somehow do this without acknowledging your own abilities or threatening anyone with the extent of them. It's a constant and impossible struggle, a feeling of being pulled in two directions at all times. It's hard, and for the most part it's inescapable. Even if you throw up your hands and refuse to play, there are consequences.

And in light of the current upsurge of political attacks against female bodily autonomy, the recent UCSB shooting and the scores of would-be copycats and men who say they support or sympathize with the shooter's actions, and the frequent instances of rape apologism by Republican politicians...successfully walking that line between being independent of anyone and yet non-threatening to anyone does begin to feel like a fight not just for success, but for survival after all.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The New, True Scream Queen: Teen Wolf's Repositioning of Female Expression

We need to talk about Lydia Martin. More specifically, we need to talk about how Teen Wolf's resident "wailing woman" represents a revolutionary new perspective on female expression in the horror genre.

Historically, women in horror films have one job: to scream bloody murder, and then die. Just that, and nothing more. She experiences the kind of abject terror that paralyzes her mind, impairs her motor functions, and wrenches her vocal chords with nearly inhuman shrieks before she is exterminated by the monster or killer.

This role is so prevalent that it's become iconic to the genre. Which scene comes immediately to mind when you think of Psycho? If you've never seen Psycho, I bet you still know which scene I'm referring to. The image and sound of a woman cowering, hands up in a defensive position, mouth open in a scream is considered an essential staple of any good horror movie. Similarly, female death--usually gory and often nude--is considered par for the course.

That's not to say that male death never occurred. But unlike female death, male character deaths usually took place in the context of a fight or an ambush. The man either went down fighting, or it is implied that he only died because he was taken by surprise, and didn't have a chance to do any fighting.

Even in the more modern slasher films, where one (studious, modest, virginal) woman is allowed to survive and is ostensibly considered the story's hero, she is also expected to be the killer's ultimate victim. These Final Girls (as Carol J. Clover named the sole survivors of 70s slasher horror in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film) must experience the most terror, and do the most screaming, before they are allowed to escape (usually only until the sequel, in which the Final Girl is usually defeated and replaced by another woman, after screaming some more). Take Jamie Lee Curtis, for example. She is one of the first Final Girls of the 70s, and arguably one of the most well-known and beloved. But she is not called the Survivor or the First Final Girl, or indeed anything that refers to her status as the survivor of a serial killer's rampage. No, her claim to horror fame is all about the terror she experiences. She is known among horror fans as the Scream Queen.

Fast forward to the 90s, when horror underwent yet another facelift to appeal to modern audiences. The postmodern, cleverly self-aware Scream tetralogy kept the Final Girl concept, but subverted many of the conventions associated with her. Sidney Prescott was not the shy, studious, awkward type. She was popular, pretty, and comfortable talking to guys. In addition to her group of close friends (both male and female), she had a steady boyfriend. And though Sidney's virginity didn't make it through the first film, Sidney herself made it through all four. And unlike preceding Final Girls (and despite the franchise's name), Sidney was not known primarily for her scream.

This is partly due to the fact that Sidney didn't do a whole lot of screaming. That's not to say she never made any noise, but for the most part Sidney was about action. She was not paralyzed by her terror. Like the male characters of Scream's predecessors, Sidney successfully evaded and even fought her attacker. She exhibited a degree of level-headedness not seen in previous Final Girls. Jamie Lee Curtis's Laurie Strode allowed the knife to drop from her shaking hands as soon as she was out of immediate danger, only to find herself weaponless and cornered a moment later, screaming her head off as Michael Meyers advanced on her again. (I did a lot of screaming myself during those scenes, to the effect of why the fuck would you fucking drop the fucking knife, you fuckwit?!) Sidney, on the other hand, holds onto her weapon until the very end and, when the seemingly-dead killer makes his inevitable final rise ("the killer always comes back!"), stops him in mid-loom with a bullet to the brain ("not in my movie").

Despite all of these subverted conventions, Scream does hold onto that one essential horror staple: girls (other than Sidney) scream, and screamers die. Drew Barrymore and Sarah Michelle Gellar both put up admirable fights against the Ghostface Killer during their short-lived screen time in the franchise, but ultimately their terror overwhelmed them, and their inability to keep a cool head sealed their fates.

So now we have two types of girls in horror: the level-headed and resourceful Final Girl who keeps her cool to the very end, and the girls who scream, drop weapons, and trip over nothing while running. The juxtaposition, then, within the framework of traditional gender roles in horror, is that the one who survives acts more like the men, while the ones who die do so because they "act like women": irrational, emotional, easily overwhelmed, acted upon rather than acting. The Final Girl moves, and acts, and gets shit done. She doesn't scream. She doesn't express her fear, because to express fear when you're a character in a horror film is to show your "feminine" weakness, and thus mark yourself for death.

Into this landscape of horror tropes comes Lydia Martin, Beacon Hills High School's resident mean girl and HBIC. Honestly, I had her pegged as monster bait from episode one, because I never expected a show called Teen Wolf that airs on MTV to take horror tropes, twist them up, and remake them into new and wonderful things the way this show has done. Especially since, at first blush, Lydia is the consummate stereotype of the girl who dies first in a horror film.

Lydia Martin is sexually active and proud of it...one of the cardinal sins of horror. Even Sidney, who did eventually have sex, didn't brag about it or express herself as a sexual creature much in the films. In fact, having sex with her boyfriend is one of Sidney's many regrets, for reasons I won't go into in case anyone hasn't actually see the films. But Lydia has sex with her boyfriend all the time, and enjoys it. Later, she even pursues relationships that are purely sexual ("I don't want a boyfriend," she tells Allison in season three, "I want a distraction.")

She’s also outspoken, popular, conventionally pretty, interested in “girly” things like fashion, seemingly shameless, and shallow. I was absolutely certain she’d be dead before season one, probably as a prompt for a revenge-and-manpain storyline involving her boyfriend, Jackson. But then Teen Wolf did something amazing instead.

First of all, Lydia is smart as fuck. She’s probably smarter than anyone else on the show. Not only that, but she’s especially smart at and interested in math and science—two subjects (along with film, weirdly enough) that are usually reserved for the Nerdy Guy in horror, while the Nerdy Girl is almost always a bookworm who knows a lot of things about history, art, and literature. Furthermore, Lydia is not nearly as shallow and one-dimensional as she first appears (as shown in the incredible parent-teacher night sequence from season one episode “The Tell.”) She is depressed and sometimes heavily medicated, but fights through her personal struggles (with very little in the way of parental support) to continue keeping up the facade of perfection that she feels is necessary to survive in her current environment. Her hair, clothes, and makeup are her armor. Her wit and attitude are her weapons. She's a fighter in less obvious ways than other characters, but a fighter nonetheless.

Already, they've twisted the first-to-die stereotype up quite a bit. But then they shattered it. Completely. Because instead of killing her off summarily at the start of the series and using her death to motivate the male characters, they gave her a story and a character arc of her own. They made her a survivor instead of a victim. They could have had Peter Hale kill her, but they didn’t. Instead, they brought her back from her encounter with Peter with mysterious new qualities...among them, an ear-shattering, high-pitched scream.

Lydia spent a lot of time screaming, especially in the early part of season three. But as the nature of what she is came more and more to light, I realized...they had turned her scream--usually the last sound a girl makes in the horror genre--from a symbol of weakness into an instrument of power. Giving in to her emotions and expressing them through a scream does not paralyze Lydia, hinder her ability to think, or render her more vulnerable to attack. Quite the opposite, allowing herself to express her terror clears Lydia's mind and allows her to use her intuitive powers. When Lydia screams, it is not a sign that she is about to die. She sounds the warning of impending death for those around her.

It's a powerful update of a previously untouched genre convention, and it sends an incredible message about the validity of female expression. Where the established convention says that women die because they are weak and emotional, Lydia Martin's character arc says that we become more powerful the more we learn to understand, accept, and express our emotions. Including the ones that show our vulnerability, such as terror and sorrow. This coincides with the development from season one to season three in which Lydia begins by working to cover up all imperfections and signs of weakness in her physical body, and ends with refusing to cover the scar on her neck from the Darach's attempt at killing her. "Someone tried to strangle me, and I survived," she tells her mother. "I don't need to hide that."

Perhaps best of all, Lydia's screams are not written off by the other characters as the irrational overreactions of a teenage girl who can't think straight or defend herself. Her screams have made her a vital part of her group, and people listen not only to her thoughts, theories, and opinions, but also to her emotions (without policing the way she expresses them). Stiles even encourages Lydia to scream, to let it all out so that she can access her precognitive abilities. Everyone around her recognizes and respects the necessity of her expression.

Lydia Martin is not a scream queen but a queen who screams. She is powerful because though she screams, she lives. Because she screams, others live. And when she screams, the world around her freezes and fucking listens.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Pixie Cut

I have wanted a pixie cut for as long as I can remember. Definitely since seeing Winona Ryder in Girl, Interrupted. There's only one problem: I am a chubby girl.

When I say chubby, I mean that I am a 5'6'' tall woman with wide hips and large breasts (40-42DD) that wears a size 18-20 in women's jeans (US sizes). I have a defined waist and I don't carry a lot of fat in my face, but still I am what most people--especially people in any business to do with appearances--would call inarguably fat.

And until a couple of months ago, I also had long, thick, baby fine, wavy-curly auburn hair that reached the middle of my back and was so heavy that it gave me migraines if I put it into a ponytail or braided it too tightly. It was gorgeous--tending to go to shiny princess ringlets if I braided it wet and then took it down at the end of the day--but it was also an incredibly high-maintenance, expensive, time-consuming mess to care for. On top of that, it was too hot in the summer and blew everywhere in the windy winter. For a while I put up with it, because it was pretty and made feeling ultra-feminine effortless, because I could do a lot of things with it (Katniss braid, oh Katniss braid), and because I just couldn't see myself as a short-haired girl no matter how much I liked the idea of it.

Then one morning, a funny thing happened when I looked in the mirror: I despised my long hair. It didn't look or feel like me anymore. It felt too heavy, and too warm, and I started to get this neurotic idea that my scalp was never clean no matter how much I scrubbed, because all my hair was blocking the water and shampoo from my skin. This is probably ridiculous, but that's how I felt. Ew. I was finally ready for my pixie cut.

Here's the problem: I have had pixie cuts before, but I have never had the pixie cut. I have never had a haircut that was short and sleek and made me feel pretty without giving me anything to hide behind. I have had plenty of indescribably awful bowl cuts, scene spikes, and even one crew cut that nearly put me off the search for the perfect pixie forever and ever, amen. Every single time I try, I end up with a horrible hair cut, and every single time it comes with some bullshit caveat about it being my fault for trying, because pixie cuts are for skinny girls.

I am here to tell you, that line is the biggest pile of fat-shaming bullshit in the universe. Any hair stylist that tells you that you can't look good with a pixie because your face is too round or because you're not the right "body type" isn't a very good stylist, and I would not trust them with my hair for even a second. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Having had my fill of stylists who try to femme it up and end up giving me some incredibly awful haircut that I never asked for, stylists who badger me and talk me down to something longer and easier, and stylists who give me a hatchet job haircut and tell me it looks bad because of my face instead of their utter lack of skill at their trade, I decided I didn't need a stylist. What I needed was a barber.

My logic went thus: I want a short haircut. Barbers do short hair all the time. They're not going to try to do a bunch of fancy, frilly shit to my hair. They'll keep it simple and do what I asked for, because that's literally all they do. And there just happens to be a barber in the building I work in, so I went down there during my lunch break and asked for an appointment.

The guy was terrified. He was actually afraid to cut my hair! Granted, I did have a lot of hair. But he was totally unwilling to believe that I actually wanted a men's haircut. I even brought him pictures of Misha Collins--the inspiration for the cut I wanted--and he still wasn't willing to cut my hair. The lack of confidence and the unwillingness told me all I needed to know. Even if I could talk him into it, this wasn't the place for me. I don't want to have to strong-arm someone into doing something they're not confident they can do well, especially when I'm going to have to wear the results of their work on my head for however long.

In desperation at this point, I went to my roommate and asked for her help. She always gets amazing haircuts that not only look great that day, but grow out gracefully until she has time to get them cut again. That was exactly what I needed, so I asked, and she directed me to Hair by Christine & Co. I browsed their site, checked out each stylist's portfolio, printed out about a dozen photos of Misha Collins from different angles, and made an appointment with Patrick, who had the most short hairstyles in his gallery. Then, to insure against chickening out, I came home from work the night before my appointment, put my hair in pigtails, and cut each pigtail off at my chin. I hyperventilated for a few minutes in front of the mirror, but overall, losing all that hair was a real relief. I thought, if six inches of it feels this good, imagine how great it'll feel when it's all gone.

The next afternoon I arrived at my appointment on time and armed with photos, ready to defend my cut of choice and cautiously hopeful--my roommate gave them great reviews--but in my heart of hearts fully expecting to be disappointed once again. I met Patrick, explained what I wanted, showed him the photos, and explained what I had done the night before. He looked horrified at the thought of someone cutting their hair off with kitchen scissors, understandably so, but he simply said he could do that, and we were off.

A good half hour later, I stared at the girl in the mirror. My hair was gone. I had watched as Patrick carefully snipped at each later of hair, removing the uneven bob I'd given myself to slowly reveal...my pixie cut.

The Pixie Cut.

It was the haircut I had wanted since I was fifteen, finally realized on my head a full decade later. It involved a lot of meticulous shaping and layering, a good bit of thinning out on top to keep it from standing up straight, and quite a lot of detailed work around my ears and in the back, at the nape of my neck. And it was completely worth it. It was exactly what I wanted.

I thanked Patrick profusely. Probably too much. I went home and spent an inordinate amount of time just playing with my new hair, seeing how many different ways I could comb and spike and flatten and curl it--using nothing but my fingers--to get different looks. I loved it then, and I continued to love it later.

Now, two months on, it's grown and thickened back up a bit. I have a hilarious rooster spike in the back of my head when I wake up in the morning, but a little water or light-hold pomade, and I'm ready to go. My scalp feels clean, and I'm pretty sure a normal-sized bottle of shampoo will now last me around six months. If I'm having a leather-and-biker-boots day (they do occasionally happen), I can spike the front up messily and feel like a total badass. If I'm having a day where honey badger don't give a shit, I can just comb it down and part it on the side, and have it be plain and simple. If I'm feeling extra girly, I can accessorize it with a headband or curl it forward over my forehead and framing my face. It's also fun, when I'm reading something and trying to concentrate, to run my hand through it until it sticks straight up and I look like a mad scientist, post-lab explosion.

It's also done a great deal, I think, for my self-confidence. There's no more hiding behind my hair. It's just me and my eyes, cheekbones, and smile against the world. I can wear dangly earrings without getting them lost and/or tangled in all my hair. I can do dramatic eye makeup without feeling like it's competing with something else. Or I can wear no makeup at all and just be, as a friend of mine once put it, "plain Jane and pretty." It takes so much less effort than all that long hair, and the end result is much more satisfying. A couple of weeks after I got it cut, I got mistaken for Kelly Clarkson on the train on my way to work. Even after I tried to tell the guy he had the wrong girl, he just nodded and gave me a sly grin like "oh, you gotta be discreet, I get it."

I love my awesome pixie cut. I can't imagine going back.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Act I, Scene I: Carrots and Beets

LIGHTS UP ON AN EMPTY STAGE, A SOLITARY FIGURE STANDING DOWN AND CENTER. THE FIGURE SQUINTS INTO THE CROWD, SQUARES HER SHOULDERS, AND BEGINS TO SPEAK.

FIGURE: I dislike beets, but I like carrots. I dislike the texture, smell, and taste of beets intensely...but carrots are delicious and crunchy and wonderful.

Now, I could theoretically undergo therapy in order to come to terms with eating beets on a regular basis, and denying myself carrots. I could learn not to gag when I smell beets and manage to force them down for every meal for the rest of my life. I could commit to a life devoid of the crisp, sweet deliciousness of carrots.

But...why the fuck would I do that to myself? Why, when eating carrots makes me happy and has no negative effects on me, or anyone else? Why, when eating beets makes me unhappy and has no positive effects on me or anyone else? Why would I force myself to deny something I naturally want when it hurts no one and is nobody's goddamn business anyway?

Moreover, why is so much of the world so fucking worried about what kind of vegetables I eat? Don't you people have lives?!

THE FIGURE'S FRIEND STEPS IN FROM STAGE LEFT AND CALLS TO THE FIGURE IN THE CENTER.

FRIEND: What if the beet economy is suffering?

FIGURE: But it's NOT! Beets are selling like hotcakes! 90% of the world's population just can't get enough of beets! In fact, there aren't enough beets to go around! And anyway, even if this were the case, how is the other 10% of the world switching to carrots going to crash the beet economy when literally everyone else in the world is dying to get their mouths around some beets? Not to mention that of the 10%, there are some who do still enjoy the occasional beet! Or some of them like beets just as much as they like carrots! Some of them don't like either and abstain all together...but some of them don't care for either and still eat one or both occasionally! Or some of them don't like carrots, they like only beets but don't fit into the gender binary! THE BEETS WILL GET EATEN, I PROMISE!

FRIEND EXITS STAGE LEFT, LOOKING FRIGHTENED.

FIGURE: JUST LET ME EAT MY GODDAMN VEGETABLES AND LEAVE ME ALONE!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My character limits don't have time for your grammar police.

Grammar is a wonderful thing. It's a useful tool. It can make our attempts to express ourselves through the written and spoken word more elegant and easier to understand. But grammar is not universal. It's not all-important. And as part of the medium, it should never get in the way of the message.

Bear in mind, I am saying this as a writer, avid reader, and all-around lifelong lover of the written word:
  • Grammar policing text messages is elitist bullshit.
  • Grammar policing twitter is elitist bullshit.
  • Grammar policing most social media platforms is elitist bullshit.
  • 60-80% of grammar policing, in general, is elitist bullshit.
Why do I feel this way? Because most of the time when people grammar police in these situations they're doing it to feel superior, not because they're actually having a problem understanding the content of the message in front of them. It's intelligence-by-numbers, whereby if you don't do certain things that unintelligent people do (text speak, reading magazines or tabloids, preferring movies, playing Cafe World on facebook, etc), you will be correctly regarded as intellectually superior to people who do those things.

You call a friend and get their voicemail. A moment later you receive a text that says "@ work, call u l8er." Do you really have a problem understanding what your friend is trying to say? No. Would you have gotten the message any better if they'd taken the extra time out of their work day to type out "I'm at work. I'll call you later"? No. Was this message part of a document submitted in an academic or professional setting to an authority figure, with something important at stake? No. So get down off your high horse, text "k," and be done with it! The only thing you're doing is wasting time and synapse sparks on feeding your superiority complex.

One of the bloodiest battlegrounds in this (relatively quiet and extremely nerdy) culture war is in the realm of social media. In a given social media environment, its long-term denizens will develop quirks of language that often evolve directly from the form, function, and use of the platform. Twitter users learn to either be incredibly pithy or bend the rules of grammar back in on themselves in order to squeeze everything they want to say into 140 characters. Tumblr is effusive, emotive, reactionary...so when you've piled the hyperbole as high as it will stack and still failed to capture what you're feeling, you start taking out some words and intentionally misspelling and, somehow, this accomplishes your goal (WHAT? AIR!). Facebook, to some extent, becomes a conglomerate of every other platform's trend, because we all hate it and yet use it in conjunction with whatever corner of the internet we consider our forever home. And for a time, life is good.

Then, inevitably, in come two types of people that drive everyone else straight up the wall: old fogies, and English Lit majors who have been brainwashed into thinking that in order to be considered intelligent they have to act and think like old fogies. Instead of doing what any polite visitor to another place should know to do and learning the customs, they bring their Puritanical devotion to forms of language that are completely irrelevant to the place they now find themselves in and try to shove it down the original inhabitants' throats. In short, they come as conquerors, to show all us tech zombie simpletons how civilized folk are supposed to communicate.

Except that, again...their rules are largely irrelevant. Who cares that it's spelled Y-O-U when "u" gets the point across just as well and there are only 140 characters available in which to deliver your message? Why does it matter that a sentence began with "and" or "but" if it makes the article flow better? So the OP didn't use the Oxford comma consistently...well maybe they actually did hire two strippers named JFK and Stalin. Or, you know, maybe they had more than one sentence containing a list and some of the items were compound while others were not.

And no, I'm not saying that we shouldn't edit for typos, misspellings, and the like. We should all be conscious of what we're putting to paper or, in this case, screen. What we shouldn't do is nitpick about comma placement or the use of perfectly legible shorthand so much that we are incapable of absorbing messages rather than just words arranged according to a syntax. After all, perfect grammar is only useful if you actually have something worth saying.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The most wonderful time of the year (and Christmas can suck it)

I love Halloween. No, strike that. I adore Halloween. There is not a single other holiday that even approaches the level of enthusiasm I hold for this particular night, including Christmas.

Why? Well, I'll tell you.

As you may have gathered by now if you've been reading my blog before this post, I was raised in a very conservative, religious household, by my grandmother. She had a penchant for reciting Bible verses for any situation. Some of these, like the benediction she whispered over me before I went to sleep every night in lieu of a lullaby*, were beautiful. I still find comfort in them to this day. Others sat less well, and the older I got the more problematic they were for me. In the latter group, her absolute favorite verse was Philippians 4:8 (KJV):

"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

This Bible verse was the basis for my grandmother's way of dealing with the hardships and darkness of real life: she ignored them as much as possible. If she were in a bad mood, she would divert her thoughts to good things. If she felt like crying, she would listen to happy music. She didn't like to watch the news because it was all tragedy. She didn't like to look too hard at the dark underbelly or the hidden, sinister meaning of anything. These things were not true, honest, just, pure, lovely, or of good report. So she didn't think about them. And it was a constant source of dismay and worry for her that I couldn't seem to do the same.

I love the dark underbelly. I'm not satisfied until I've sought out the sinister in the seemingly perfect and dragged it out into the light of day for everyone to see. I question everything until I have no questions left, and then I question why I have no questions. I don't listen to happy music when I'm sad. I listen to sad music, and I cry bitterly. If you think of emotions as a box of physical objects, her solution was tape that box shut, shove it in the back corner of a closet, and close the door. Out of sight, out of mind. My solution was to dump the box out on the floor, sift through and examine it all, and throw everything I didn't need away. Better out than in.

I'm not saying one works better than the other, because I think both methods have their place, and one may work better or more often for some people than for others. I'm just saying that what worked for her never worked for me, and it was a source of a lot of contention between us during my formative years. This ranged from gentle admonishments to full-on screaming matches. At times, she claimed I was possessed by a "spirit of rebellion" that would someday lead me to destruction. Yes, she actually used the word "destruction."

This fight came to a head every year around Halloween. In addition to being an enthusiastic looker into the abyss, I was melodramatic, attention-seeking, and had a serious sweet tooth. And what is the current mainstream method of celebrating Halloween, if not a public performance of the macabre and strange in exchange for massive amounts of candy?

Around the time school started, I would begin planning my epic Halloween costume. I got ideas from books, from history class, from movies, from television shows I liked...I had a trunk full of dress-up clothes in my closet that I could mix and match to various effects. Over the years I have been Princess Leia, Queen Elizabeth I, Pippi Longstocking, Queen Amidala (I had/have a thing for Star Wars), Hermione Granger, Sally Ragdoll, and the angel Castiel, among other things. My favorite thing to do in class instead of listen to the teacher--aside from read scary books that I couldn't bring home because I wasn't technically allowed to have them--was to plan my next brilliant Halloween costume. And each year, inevitably, my plans fell short of the reality for one reason and one reason only: my grandmother vehemently opposed the celebration of Halloween.

She was convinced it was an "evil" holiday, and that celebrating it was "letting the devil get a foothold." She was forever on guard against such footholds, but I personally didn't see the harm in running all over town dressed in a costume and demanding candy from the neighbors.

I unfortunately have a people-pleasing bone somewhere in my traitorous body, so most of the time if she was that dead-set against something I would go along with it, if only to keep the peace. Halloween was not one of those times. I would argue and fight and sulk and eventually burst into tears because I was just so tired of having to fight this hard just to be able to celebrate a fun holiday...and she would relent, grudgingly, swear it was the last year I'd get to do it, and let me go. My costumes were rarely what I had originally envisioned, and the week before was always spent in absolute misery, but I didn't care. I would take what I could get. It was both a lesson in managing expectations, and the first instance I can remember in which I asserted my independence and determinedly let my freak flag fly.

I once had a boyfriend point out to me that I seemed to have an automatic affinity for anything subversive. I balked; it sounded like the same thing my grandmother used to throw at me, about my "spirit of rebellion." She often accused me of having problems with authority and rebelling just to rebel. I hated that more than anything. I hated having all of my convictions dismissed because I was a teenager who was apparently just trying to be rebellious because that's what teenagers do. And I hated it even more as a 20-year-old, being told by one of my peers that I was still trying too hard to be a rebellious teenager. So I rejected, automatically, the notion that I loved subversive things because they were subversive.

But in the last couple of years, I've started to see that he was right; I do. And why shouldn't I? If I love things for their subversive nature, maybe it's because I feel a kinship with those things that I don't feel with that which is deemed "acceptable" and "normal." My life, after all, is the constant subversion of both simply by being lived, because I am not an acceptable or normal creature. Perhaps I enjoy searching out the things the majority of people refuse to acknowledge because I am one of those things. And that's not my teenage rebellion-angst rearing its ugly head; that's just a fact.

No matter how much progress has been made, I am still a woman who wants things that women "shouldn't" want. I am still a woman who doesn't want things that women "should" want. I am queer. I find monogamy impractical and the notion of motherhood repels me. I don't understand why so many people buy houses and resolve to stay in one place for the rest of their lives, spending the majority of their time doing jobs they're ambivalent about at best. I don't have a practical career in mind. I'm spiritual but not religious, and I do have trouble recognizing authority figures if I don't feel they have earned the authority they claim. In short, I'm wayward as fuck. Why on earth would I ever be enamored or preoccupied by the trappings of a society that not only doesn't resemble me at all, but often defames me and people like me (when it's not flat-out refusing to admit that we exist at all)?

But I digress to nearly Hawthornian levels of "wait, where was I even going with this monstrosity?"

So now I'm seven years and a thousand miles removed from the house I grew up in. I have spent the majority of those seven years living with blessedly non-religious people (no pun intended) who understand the way I feel about Halloween, or at least can tolerate it. Granted, there was one exception: a Southern Baptist who saw no reason why her religion should interfere with her obsession with blood, gore, and darkness.

And I revel in it. I love it. I let my imagination run wild; I stop telling myself there's nothing there in the dark that isn't there in the light. I watch horror films and TV shows that heavily reference the occult and critique religion, and I wallow in taboos. I examine the reasons behind those taboos and question whether those reasons are legitimate. I think about the fact that we're all going to die someday, and it doesn't make me sad or afraid. Most of the time I'm just morbid in my own head, but for a couple of weeks at the end of each October, I'm at harmony with the rest of the world because 'tis finally the season to be morbid as fuck, one and all.

It's Autumn. It's a time of transition, nature-wise. Harvest season. It's a time to reap what you've sewn before and to anticipate the future, planning for what comes later. It's the one night of the year when all the bets are off and the rules no longer matter, when kids can dress up in anything they want, run amok all over the streets taking candy from strangers, stay out late, eat more junk food than real food, and believe in ghosts and monsters.

Parents and police lose their shit because it's this night that reminds them that the illusion of control they maintain the rest of the year is just that: a paltry illusion. Their angelic children become demons on a 24-hour sugar high. Literally anything could happen. People who are normally introverted and buttoned-up venture out into the world and show skin. Pumpkins have faces and that rubber mask you bought might just refuse to come off. You can transform yourself completely and be anyone you want for just one night, even if you can't do it the rest of the year. That much freedom...it's both amazing and terrifying. That's what I celebrate every year on October 31st.

Well....that, and massive amounts of candy.

*Numbers 24-26 (KJV)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Halloween Eve: Remembering Mema

I know that the title of this post is technically redundant, but let me explain.

For me, there are two parts of Halloween. There's the loud, fun, dance-in-the-darkness, embrace-the-chaos, rousing-and-carousing part...and the quiet, somber time of reflection, a time to think seriously about the brevity of life and honor the dead. And I give a full day to each at this time of year, because while tomorrow may officially be Halloween, today is also an important day for me.

Today would have been my grandmother's sixtieth birthday.

I have trouble imagining her at sixty. To me, she will always be young. She died at fifty-four of complications due to Rheumatoid Arthritis, and even when she was very sick she never looked as old as she was.

She always used to joke that if her mother didn't make it to Heaven, everyone else ought to just give up. She never would've guessed that people would be saying the same thing about her after she was gone. It makes me smile to hear it. No matter how true it is, the woman herself would never have believed it. And I wonder sometimes, if the people who say it have turned my grandmother into a saint in their minds, instead of remembering the whole woman for the complicated, difficult, strong, incredibly wonderful person that she was.

I know it makes people uncomfortable when others talk about their dead loved ones. And I know it's considered callous to speak ill of the dead. But I've finally gotten to this weird place where I do miss my grandmother, but I can also remember her without hurting so much, and remember the good and the bad without feeling as though I'm somehow soiling her memory. I didn't pretend she was perfect while she was alive, and I feel that to really honor her, it's important to remember who she was, and not put her on a pedestal and refuse to look too closely. Because that saint on a pedestal is boring, but my grandmother? She was worth remembering. She was like Annie Oakley, some awe-inspiring figure that came from history or folk legend: not perfect, not pristine, but incredible all the same.

She was humble, in many ways. She firmly believed that she had deep, disfiguring spiritual flaws and that only the grace and mercy of God would save her from them. She had exactly two goals in life: to be a good God-fearing Christian woman, and to teach me to do the same. Unfortunately, she often despaired of the latter.

She was intelligent, practical, and strong. If she had grown up in a different time, or a different place, I honestly believe there is no limit to what she could do. In Northeast Georgia in the 1960s there weren't many options for women, and it wasn't that she wasn't motivated to further her education...she didn't even see it as a possibility. Despite this, there were very few things she couldn't learn if she put her mind to it. She played the piano and learned to paint. She read voraciously and could remember whole passages of scripture and poetry. She took to computers easily, though she never learned to type (she called her way of using a keyboard the "hunt-and-peck" method). She was a secret poet and the best cake decorator in the county. She made my Princess Leia Halloween costume by hand (even though she hated Halloween and discouraged me from celebrating it), and she could sing.

She could be narrow-minded and stubborn as hell about some things. She insisted to me that men and women were not capable of doing the same things. She didn't approve of interracial couples or same-sex couples, sex outside of marriage or wearing skirts that exposed your kneecaps. She thought she was keeping me out of Hell, but I'm sorry: being forbidden to wear tank tops and shorts in Georgia in August is the actual definition of Hell.

She was independent and self-sufficient. She worked full-time, raised three kids, played the stock market, managed her money well, knew how cars worked, and maintained her house and property on her own. She did all of this while dealing with a debilitating, chronic disease that caused her untold amounts of pain in her arms, legs, hands, and back. She did all of this until she couldn't do it anymore, and probably far longer than any doctor would have recommended. She absolutely refused to be cowed by anyone, no matter their age, sex, title, or station. She had no problem standing up to someone if she thought they were blatantly in the wrong.

She was terribly lonely. She wanted, like most people, to be loved. My grandfather died even younger than she did, and she always missed him. Whether she ever fell in love again is anybody's guess, and not my place to say. But I know that sometimes, being a parent wasn't enough. She missed having a partner.

She was kind. She was kind to people who deserved it and people who didn't. She was kind to people she didn't approve of. She was especially kind to people that only got cruelty everywhere else. She couldn't stand to see another living creature in pain. If she could do something to stop the pain, she would, and few things hurt her more than when she couldn't.

She had a temper. When she was a teenager, she would get so angry that she would go into an almost dissociative state, during which she was incredibly, even murderously violent. She never remembered what had happened during these blackouts, and they terrified her. She spent a tremendous amount of energy taming her temper, willing herself not to get angry, because these episodes terrified her. She described it as though "something just flew all over me," and she struggled with it until the day she died, though I never saw her have such an episode in the ten years I lived with her.

She took care of people. I didn't call her grandmother, granny, grandma, or nana. I called her Mema. But she wasn't just my Mema. She took in strays left and right. Technically, I was the first one she took in; it wasn't her responsibility to raise me but she did it anyway. She loved to cook, and she must have fed half the people in the top portion of the state during her lifetime at one time or another. Her home was always open to any teenager who felt they couldn't go home, or had no home to go to. She spent her weekends volunteering, doing house repairs for people who couldn't afford them before winter. Most of the kids I knew in high school have cried in her arms at least once, while she rocked them like they were toddlers and told them it would be okay.

She could tell some of the dirtiest jokes, and yet couldn't abide curse words. She could hold a grudge for years, but her last words to me were words of forgiveness. She loved the X-Files but thought Harry Potter was evil. She disliked the shy, withdrawn Kurt Cobain look-alike I brought home but gushed over the outgoing Marilyn Manson clone and wondered why I couldn't date boys more like him. She taught me to stand up for what I believed in and always be myself, but was frequently flummoxed and horrified by the things I chose to believe and the self I wanted to be.

We didn't always get one another. Most of the time we just baffled and infuriated each other. But for ten years, she was the most important person in my world, the absolute center of the universe as far as I was concerned. She took care of me. She took care of everyone. At her funeral, my aunt turned to me and whispered, "What are we going to do, honey? What are we going to do now?" I didn't know the answer then, and I don't have any better of an idea now.

What I do know is that my grandmother was my first hero. My Annie Oakley. My inspiration. I don't know that she would understand the person I've grown into, and I doubt she would be proud. But at the end of the day, she would love me anyway. And there's nothing else I really need to know.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Cussing Up A Fucking Storm

Let's talk about people who think curse words are a universal sign that the speaker lacks intelligence.


  • What the actual fuck is with those people?
  • What in the world are people like that thinking?
  • Please explain to me how someone can possibly think something so asinine.


Which one of those most effectively got across the utter incredulity, indignation, and outrage I was feeling at the stupidity of such a notion?

Mommies and Daddies don't like it, but occasionally a good, solid, pithy FUCK is the most effective way to get the point across, even with an entire dictionary's worth of words at one's disposal. Because it's not always about the length of the word or how fully it fits the definition of what you're feeling. Sometimes it's about the delivery, the form and the context of the word. Fuck is short and punchy. Fuck is still considered one of the worst expletives in the English language, therefore it comes with good shock value. Fuck carries with it a hint of violence and a hint of sex, so it's twice the pearl-clutching for the price of one. I've said it before and I'll say it again: connotation, connotation, connotation.

And fuck is one of the most connotatively rich words in the English language. I won't go into all the specifics; I feel that if it's been made into a poster you can buy at Spencer's, explaining any further is just beating that poor dead horse to a bloody pulp. Let's just say I'll be fucked if I can find another English word with as many uses. Fuck knows I can't be fucked to think of one off the top of my fucking head.

Are you fucking convinced now, you little fucks? Fuck me, what does a fuckwit like me know anyway? Sweet fuck all, that's what.

Fuck.

(Well, that devolved quickly.)

Monday, October 21, 2013

A Brief History of Failed Attempts At Relationships

The Slut

In high school I dated this guy named Joe who was really immodest. He had this habit of taking his shirt off, when he went swimming or when he mowed the lawn. He also wore shirts that were short sleeved and fitted, that showed off his arms. I tried to ignore it for a while but finally put my foot down and explained to him why it bothered me so much.

"You're my boyfriend," I told him, "and I don't want other girls looking at you. It's not that I don't trust you. It's that I don't trust them."

I just didn't understand why he felt the need to display his body so carelessly to everyone around him. But rather than listen to my concerns and respect my feelings, he broke up with me.

The Friendzone

Then there was Andy. I liked Andy from the first moment I saw him. We could talk about anything and we had a lot of fun together. He really got me, and he said I really got him, too. He said I was one of the best friends he'd ever had.

So I could never figure out why, if we got each other so well, he would always date these total bitches who didn't get him like I did. None of them really appreciated him like I would or treated him as well as I would treat him. I was always there to listen to him and I was always ready to pick up the pieces when the relationship didn't work out. I did everything for him! I was the best friend he ever had! And yet no matter how much I gave, he would never give me the one thing I wanted back. He ruined our friendship because he was too blind to see that we belonged together. I was devastated, and so angry. I couldn't believe I'd wasted so much time on a guy who turned out to be a total asshole, just taking advantage and leading me on the whole time.

The Tease

And the most recent example that comes to mind is this guy I met downtown last weekend. I was having drinks with some friends and he was sitting there at the bar, wearing these great fitted jeans and this button up with the top two buttons undone and the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, practically begging for some attention. I offered to buy him a drink, and he said no. I asked his name, and he told me it was Robert. I tried a couple of times to draw him into conversation, but he just kept giving me one-word answers. I even offered to buy him another drink! Then--if you can believe this--he said he wasn't interested and got up, and walked out! What a total asshole. Who the hell did he think he was?

Look, I don't expect a lot from guys, but could you all stop the fucking games already? Why can't you just take it as a compliment when we pay attention to you? I mean, if you're dressed up nice and sitting in a bar on the weekend, you obviously want it, right?

So. Does any of that sound abso-fucking-lutely ridiculous? If it does, that's because it is. If it doesn't, you are part of the problem. That's the kind of bullshit women and girls put up with every single day.


PS: If you expect us to look like supermodels, please be advised that you need to start spending two hours a day in the gym, tanning just enough, wearing some concealer for the bags under your eyes, using Rogaine, and shaving your package. Just sayin'.

PPS: Although I did date a guy who looked exceptionally scrumptious sans shirts and also had a guy friend that I wanted to date but never did, this shit is entirely fictional. Because unlike the entitled "nice guys" of the world, I'm not that kind of asshole. I have never hit on a guy at a bar, although I've been the recipient of at least one surprise drunken kiss.