Vulnerability as Strength

Schumer bookLast night, after a day of making bad decisions, I decided to go on a bender. But because I’m a huge dork, my bender took the form of blowing $100 at Book People. Included in my short stack of books (when did they get so expensive??), was Amy Schumer’s new book, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

I was really surprised when I first saw Amy Schumer’s comedy and liked it. I don’t usually like comedians who talk so much (and so graphically) about sex and other bodily functions– but maybe that’s because the comedians who usually talk about that stuff are men and they were talking about bodily functions that don’t happen in my body. Also, I’m a very cerebral person, so talking about body stuff usually makes me uncomfortable.

But, of course, comedy is about confronting discomfort. And I love Amy Schumer for her form of comedy. There’s one chapter about her experience at a camp for people with disabilities and she learns how to accept that bodies are different and you have to own yours. I had a friend in college who insisted on making us all go to the women’s tub at the spa so that we could see female bodies that weren’t air-brushed. I’m so grateful for that! Of course, Santa Fe had a culture of loving natural bodies and aging gracefully and feminine power. It was a great place for me to spend my early 20s.

Amy Schumer is my age and grew up on Long Island. When I first learned this, I concocted a whole alternate childhood for myself where my parents raised me on Long Island (it’s where my mom grew up and we have family there), and Amy and I went to the same school and were best friends. Reading her book and learning about her childhood, I realized there’s no universe in an oodleplex of universes in which she and I would have been friends.

While she was off scheming about boys and trying cigarettes and beer, I was in my isolated world, reading books. I would have been the awkward, weird girl that she ignored. The weird thing is, she writes as if she was the awkward, weird girl making people laugh because she loved the attention. Twenty years later and I’m at home on a Friday night reading about her adventures instead of going out and having my own. That’s me I guess, and Schumer’s book is all about being yourself with no apologies. And I don’t regret my nights reading books, I started this blog to make myself spend more time reading books!

Schumer’s book is a very rich, human autobiography (even though she writes in the “Note to my Readers” that it is not an autobiography, I beg to differ). I was expecting a rehash of her stand-up material, instead I got a real story about her life. That’s the key to her comedy, too, she tells real stories that are genuinely painful and makes you laugh at them.

Beautiful, ugly, funny, boring, smart or not, my vulnerability is my ultimate strength.

-Amy Schumer, The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, p. 314

There are a lot of things I connected with– but I’m not going to write about them here. I only recently have been able to admit certain things to myself, I’m definitely not ready to publish them on the internet– maybe I’ll never publish them on the internet. Again, that’s me. And I’ve been learning a lot about the strength within vulnerability. It has something to do with going out into the world, letting it destroy you, picking up the pieces and doing it again. And again and again… until what? I don’t know but I’ll have to keep going until I find out what’s next. That’s another part of being strong and vulnerable, having faith that this is worth it, even when there’s no plan.

Persuasion, self-delusion, emotional labor

After a vigorous discussion on Emotional Labor, prompted by this MetaFilter discussion,  I found myself wanting to reread Persuasion by Jane Austen.  Now that I’m halfway through it, I realize why my subconscious made the connection.

I love Persuasion.  I love that it hasn’t been co-opted by Hollywood.  I love that it’s about a woman who was disappointed in love eight years ago and has had to fully accept the consequences of making a decision that ended all hope of happiness for her.

In all of her novels, but especially this one, Jane Austen does a fantastic job of describing the thoughts and feelings that grease social interactions.  Now that I’ve learned my new vocabulary words: “emotional labor” I can’t stop applying that lens to everything I observe.  Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, feels the burden of unseen emotional labor.  She doesn’t even realize it’s a burden, most of the time.  She considers it her responsibility to account for the feelings and desires of the (often selfish) people around her, to smooth their way without acknowledgment for her effort.

Books do shape us and I wonder if my love for Jane Austen gave me the wrong tools for modern social life.  There was a Facebook group called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of men” and now I think I should belong to a group called “Jane Austen gave me outdated expectations of myself.”  I’m reading about Anne making herself amiable and disinterested and realize that I have tried doing that when around my own family.  In the past couple years, I realized that being so passive around my family was boring!  I would go stay with my grandmother and kill vacation days not doing much of anything.  I thought I was doing it to be easy on my grandmother, but I’ve slowly come to realize, that maybe she wouldn’t mind if I showed initiative and desire to go out and do things.  While we’re at it, why was I using my precious time off to just hang out instead of go to awesome places?  I have a friend living in Alaska that I’ve been wanting to visit, but never have time or money after my family trips.  I’ve been operating under these false obligations that a single woman has to put her family first– when I don’t think my family would have their feelings hurt if I decided to do something else.

I’m a bit worried that my new perspective on emotional labor might make me dislike Jane Austen.  That would be terrible!  But I have to say, while reading Persuasion, I’m a bit frustrated with Anne. I want her to speak up, claim what she wants, and stop caring about what her selfish family wants.  I know what happens in the story, but now I’m reading it with whole new eyes– is that what happens?  Does she grow into a self-determined woman, or does chance and circumstance lead her to a happy ending?

I thought that if I was considerate, good, self-sufficient, then all my dreams would come true.  Where did I get that idea? Austen? Disney? church?  Well, I’ve been waiting for years for things to fall in my lap, because I was considerate, good, and self-sufficient.  But the good things that have happened were a result of me identifying a goal and working toward the goal, claiming the reward.  It was not sitting back and waiting for someone to notice me. Anne Elliott is waiting for someone to notice her.  While some decent people do (and some indecent people), it doesn’t lead to her happiness.

War Between the Sexes

For the past few months, I have participated in an online reading group with the Libertia Society.  We have been reading from Available Means: An Anthology of Women’s Rhetoric(s), and last night we read an excerpt from Jane Anger’s Her Protection for Women, published in 1589.

Anger was writing to contribute to male-dominated debates on the “natural condition of women.”

Fie on the falsehood of men, whose minds go oft a-madding and whose tongues cannot so soon be wagging but straight they fall a-railing.  Was there ever any so abused, so slandered, so railed upon, or so wickedly handled undeservedly, as are we women?

First: I love the prose in this piece.  I read most of it out loud to myself, because it reminded me of Shakespeare.  It was immediately clear that this was not philosophy, and the vibrant language was part of that.  It’s more like a 16th Century op-ed– written to incite debate, not to reveal metaphysical truths.

Anger builds her argument that the cause for the war between the sexes (my term, not hers) is that women are essentially good and men are essentially bad.  Men love women for their goodness, but resent feeling the pressure to suppress their bad natures.  Because women are so good and humble and virtuous, they don’t enter the debate to defend themselves, and that’s why the men have built up such a library of work that rail against women.  Anger agrees that:

it is most manifest that the man is the head of the woman and that therefore we ought to be guided by them

But just because the men are the boss, doesn’t mean women aren’t superior:

The gods, knowing that the minds of mankind would be aspiring, and having thoroughly viewed the wonderful virtues wherewith women are enriched, lest they should provoke us to pride and so confound us with Lucifer, they bestowed the supremacy over us to man,that of the coxcomb he might only boast, and therefore for God’s sake let them keep it.

So, basically, women have all the virtues, but men have the ability to boast about them–because the gods didn’t want to tempt women with pride.  A Shakespeare-dork like me loves this kind of comedy.

We are contrary to men because they are contrary to that which is good.  Because they are spurblind they cannot see into our natures, and we too well, though we had but half an eye, into their conditions because they are so bad; our behaviours alter daily because men’s virtues decay hourly.

Confession time: I sincerely do not believe that all men are bad and that all women are good.  As one of our discussion partners stated at the very beginning: these are gross generalizations, and, therefore, useless.  But I did enjoy reading this; I delighted in it.  It reminded me of moments in college, while reading Aristotle or Shakespeare who describe women as stupid, animal, slavish.  My male classmates grinned at each other and the females bristled.  It was unfair to hear the male philosophers ignorantly describe women, so I loved seeing the counter-argument.  But that’s the whole problem with the war between the sexes–even as it’s perpetuated in the media today.  When we pick a side and make judgments on a collective of humans, whether it’s based on race, gender, age, ability, etc, we distance ourselves from real human relationships.  The problem Anger identifies, that men resent having their vices corrected by the goodness of women, is a refusal to be vulnerable.  Every one of us needs to open and vulnerable, to be humble enough to acknowledge when we are wrong.

I’m not saying anything new.

The purpose of Anger’s article is to respond to a book about the Surfeit in Love.  The male author of that book wants to warn men not to enjoy the company of women too much, because then they will suffer the discomfort of surfeit (excess or uncomfortably full due to excessive eating or drinking).  Anger responds with advice to women to protect themselves, “A goose standing before a ravenous fox is in as good case as the woman that trusteth to a man’s fidelity.”  She cites an author, Tibellus, who set rules for women to follow so that they don’t create lust in the men who look at them:

Tibellus, setting down a rule for women to follow, might have proportioned this platform for men to rest in and might have said: every honest man ought to shun that which detracteth both health and safety from his own person, and strive to bridle his slanderous tongue.  Then must he be modest and show his modesty by his virtuous and civil behaviours, and not display his beastliness through his wicked and filthy words.

Change the wording a little, and you have a modern argument against street harassment.  We still blame women for wearing short skirts or low-cut blouses when they get harassed, yet most of the women on the Stop Street Harassment blog note that they were not wearing provocative clothing when they were harassed.  Anger’s argument is that the men should be taught how to control their own behavior, instead of placing the responsibility on the women.

If we clothe ourselves in sackcloth and truss up our hair in [dishcloths], [vulgar men] will nevertheless pursue their pastime.  If we hide our breasts it must be with leather, for no cloth can keep their long nails out of our bosoms.

Anger declares that a man’s motive is never for love, but only for lust.  He will imagine that every woman he desires also desires him, and he will tell her anything and everything to sleep with her.  Sound familiar?

At the end of men’s fair promises there is a labyrinth, and therefore ever hereafter stop your ears when they protest friendship, lest they come to an end before you are aware, whereby you fall without redemption.  The path which leadeth thereunto is man’s wit, and the miles-ends are marked with these trees: folly, vice, mischief, lust, deceit, and pride.  These to deceive you shall be clothed in the raiments of fancy, virtue, modesty, love, true-meaning, and handsomeness.

Why do we continue to repeat these lies about each other?  They are repeated constantly in TV shows, blogs, articles, academic studies…

It’s tempting to believe that all men are liars, rather than deal with the painful misunderstandings that are an inevitable part of any relationship.  Women tell each other lies, tell themselves lies, to feel better about rejection.  For me, this article was like candy, and once the sugar-high wore off, I felt sick.