Tag Archives: writing

Advice to women. Not.

14 Feb

createordie-neon

 

Were I ever to give advice to women which I wouldn’t because I continue to learn that the ways in which I can be stupid are infinitely more numerous than the ways in which I can be smart and to give advice to anyone it ought to be the other way around, but if, stupidly, I disregarded that little spark of self-knowledge and went ahead anyway, I would say, a woman in a family must resist the domination of the managerial if she wants her creativity to survive.

By the “managerial” I mean that aspect of ourselves so competent, so deft, so practical, so capable it could run a global corporation with one hand tied behind its back, and blindfolded. In my life as a partner and mother, and in the lives of many women I know, this aspect became so dominant it stole the oxygen from every other. This occurred as much because it suited everyone else that I manage the family’s daily affairs as it did because I thought I was supposed to.

Virginia Woolf grappled with  the problem the managerial can present to women, describing its pernicious influence as “The Angel in the House”  with irony and humour, but with deadly seriousness as well:

You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her — you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House. I will describe her as shortly as I can. She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others…

I now record the one act for which I take some credit to myself… I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must — to put it bluntly — tell lies if they are to succeed. Thus, whenever I felt the shadow of her wing or the radiance of her halo upon my page, I took up the inkpot and flung it at her. She died hard. Her fictitious nature was of great assistance to her. It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality. She was always creeping back when I thought I had despatched her…

For me, it wasn’t entirely about reviewing male writers and depending on charm to get me by, although the spectre of disapproval, the fear of offending and as a consequence being despatched to the margins also has to be regularly fought off if I’m going to write what I truly want to write. My recent foray into erotica, for example, was a frightening experience of voluntary vulnerability, as is any self-revelation, but if we are to write about what it is to be human, that writing will always provoke anxiety in its author, and likely at times in its readers.

As unlike Woolf we had no household staff, for me the managerial was about knowing where everybody’s socks were, remembering the washing and the shopping and the cooking and the lunches and the driving and the.. look, I can’t even bear to go back there, you all know what I mean. I lost myself. I became The Manager, and worst of all, I found it almost impossible to turn her off in my head. I came to hate her. She was like the strangler fig parasitically stealing the life of the rainforest tree.

This suited everybody in the family, but it didn’t suit me.

One of the wisest pieces of advice any woman ever gave me was to cultivate absent-mindedness. For example, when people asked me where their socks were I would gaze thoughtfully at them for much longer than necessary. I would assume a puzzled expression and tug at my lip. Oh, darling, I would say finally, I know I saw them somewhere but I can’t think where…

I had to strictly discipline myself  in order to be able to do this. My every conditioned impulse urged me to take responsibility for everything in our household’s daily life, and this conditioning had to be constantly and consistently resisted. Family members do not easily relinquish their dependencies, and tend to passively and aggressively fight changes in a wife and mother with every bone in their bodies. I think it was harder than giving up smoking, and there were no quit lines to help me.

It took quite some time, but eventually I noticed they weren’t asking me to manage their entire lives for them quite as often as they used to. Then one morning I overheard one child saying to another, I’ll ask Mum. She won’t know, replied the other, she’ll just look at you as if she doesn’t know what you’re talking about, she never knows where anything is, we’ll have to find it ourselves.

And I knew I’d done it.

This proved to me that you can’t change anybody but yourself and if you do change yourself there is a good chance that  people who really love you will eventually learn put up with it, and change as well.

There are many advantages in being thought a muppet by your family. Muppets are not renowned for their managerial abilities, and nobody expects it of them.

Sometimes, it’s the only way the creative woman survives.

Many thanks for the inspiration for this post to the lovely M, who sends me a poem to wake up to every morning. The two words “managerial mess” in this poem by Jennifer Strauss, What Women Want  summed up an entire period of my life. 

 

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Cosmetic surgery, the gender revolution, and J.M. Coetzee.

30 Dec

Rights or Revolution. By Gay Liberation Network. flickr

The last few weeks have been interesting. First up, I was bored and channel surfing and I came across the ABC’s Hungry Beast at the beginning of a report of cosmetic surgery on female genitals. This is apparently becoming popular in Australia. It’s performed by plastic surgeons on women who think their genitals need a bit of a tidy. As I come from the generation who thought it revolutionary to crouch over the mirror and have a look, I was immediately engrossed in this report. I thought it might tell me how far we’d come.

How do you actually know your genitals need tidying, I wondered idly, as my revolution didn’t consist of a wide-scale comparative survey of loads of others. And this is where it really got scary.

The soft porn industry in Australia is allowed to publish images of female genitalia. However, these images may not be too explicit. You can’t show too many bits. So the photographs are airbrushed, with the result that the women in these magazines are portrayed as having genitals that are more likely to belong to a pre-pubescent girl.

In a wonderful example of a Baudrillardian nightmare in which the virtual not the actual has come to define what is ‘normal’, I learned that women and oftentimes their partners are taking these airbrushed models as guides to the way women’s genitals should be. The mature genitalia with their wrinkly bits and pieces are now perceived as imperfect. We can, and some think we should, get our genitals surgically deconstructed and reconstructed to look like we looked when we were ten.

The processing of photographs was described by porn industry air brushers as altering the appearance of the “vagina.” This confused me greatly for a while, being as the vagina is the inside bit. It seemed even more frightening than slicing up external bits. But to my relief the reporter explained that the industry prefers to use the term “vagina” rather than the term “labia,” due no doubt to some bizarre desire not to offend by being explicit.

I then watched in anguished disbelief as we were taken into the operating rooms of a plastic surgeon who was in the process of injecting anaesthetic into the genital area of an attractive young woman. After a bit of chat, and then getting down to some business we couldn’t see as he was filmed with his back to the camera, the surgeon emerged triumphant from his flurry under the blue sheets, holding aloft a piece of bloodied skin that immediately put me in mind of Van Gogh’s severed ear. It was, in fact, a good-sized chunk of one of the young woman’s labium.

Barely recovered from this, I next encountered the appalling treatment of Norrie by the NSW government. Norrie was registered as male at birth. Norrie began hormone treatment at 23 and then had surgery to become a woman. Norrie has since stopped taking hormones and identifies as neither sex. Norrie had become the first person in the state to be legally recognised as without gender.

When I heard this news, I was delighted. This is a great step forward for our society, I thought. At last we have matured enough to acknowledge difference, and to free ourselves from the cultural brainwashing that would have us imprisoned for life in limiting binary gender categories, and their at times crushing roles.

People like Norrie are, in my view, heroic vanguards of the better world that is there for us if we can only liberate ourselves from these entirely constructed (frequently by religions, then supported by the State) concepts of what is “normal” and what is “natural.”

But my pleasure was short lived. In a disgraceful turnaround, Norrie was stripped by the NSW government of the right to be legally recognised as genderless on the grounds of some obscure twaddle dragged out of some obscure twaddle book, specifically for the purpose of calming the fears of red-necked twaddlers everywhere who couldn’t get their heads around Norrie’s circumstances and just wanted it all stopped. The NSW government capitulated to these fear-ridden, angst-ridden, deeply threatened voters, and stopped it.

One step forward. Ten steps back. Norrie has vowed to fight on.

Finally, J.M. Coetzee. Who is one of my favourite authors and who is currently reading his novel “Youth” on ABC Radio National’s Book Show. I will state right now that it is not acceptable for the views of narrators and characters in a novel to be attributed by the reader to the novel’s author.

The narrator of Coetzee’s novel is describing the character’s first homosexual encounter. A shabby, impersonal encounter with a stranger that leaves the character feeling isolated and unsatisfied.

Prior to this encounter, the character wonders if he is homosexual and if that were the case, would this “explain his woes from beginning to end?”

After the encounter the character decides that homosexuality is a “puny activity…a game for people afraid of the big league…a game for losers.”

I first mused that some heterosexual encounters could be described as puny. The lack of connection and sense of distaste after engaging in impersonal and furtive sex is not confined to homosexual activity. The lack of interest in a partner as anything more than a means to achieving gratification as quickly as possible then let’s zip up and clear off is an un-gendered state of mind. Women do it too. The uncomfortable emotions it can lead to (but aren’t inevitable if you haven’t been looking for anything more) are un-gendered. While we have different bits, men and women and un-gendered people do share human emotions, many of which appear to be similar in certain situations.

So I decided that Coetzee’s character was on the wrong track – it wasn’t the homosexuality of the encounter that was puny it was the nature of the encounter itself. As long any character doesn’t grasp that, that character is doomed to reproduce the grotty experience regardless of their partner’s gender or if the partner has no gender at all. This isn’t an issue of sexual preference. It’s just sad sex.

I then thought that this characterisation of homosexual sex as something for people who can’t manage heterosexual sex, or who are losers, is very much alive and well and abroad in the world.  Homosexual sex often isn’t thought of as “real” sex, heterosexual sex is held up as the “real” mature expression of sexual love. “Real” blokes have sex with women, and if you tell a bloke to “man up” the last thing you mean is go have gay sex.

In the same way that Norrie’s lack of gender is now not legally recognised, gay marriage is still not permissible in this country, and probably for some similar reasons. Marriage can only take place between a man and a woman, trumpet those who oppose, and it will be devalued if gays and lesbians and un-gendered people are allowed to do it too.

De-valued? De gays and de lesbians and de no-gendered people will strip the institution of marriage of a mysterious value that is only brought to it, that can only be brought to it, by heterosexuals?

What, one wonders, can that value possibly be?

Have these objectors ever stopped to consider that we live in a world in chronic need of all the love it can get, I wonder.  So perhaps we have a sacred (in the sense of not to be disrespected) responsibility to celebrate love, including sexual love, wherever it appears, between men and men, women and women, un-gendered people, or women and men.

Apart from anything else, the refusal to recognise Norrie’s situation, and that of gays and lesbians who wish to marry, contravenes the human rights of all parties involved.

But not to worry. As long as we can still get our genitals sculpted we can be justifiably proud of the democracy in which we live.

I have wondered if this surgical procedure is available for men, and how many are taking it up. But which bits are considered the untidy bits?

I once had a fellowship at a writers’ retreat. There were several other writers present and after a hard week’s work, we took ourselves down to the pub. Everyone had a few margueritas and on the last round, a woman among us who had been very quiet in social situations up to that point, suddenly became raucous. She wanted to propose a toast, she said, to the best crowd of women she’d come across in a long time.

“Up yer flaps, girls!” she roared, and all the men at the bar turned round to stare. “Yair, that’s right mate,’ she sang out again, lifting her glass and her middle finger in their direction. “Up yer flaps!”

This article was first published in On Line Opinion, 26.03.2010

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