I hate mother’s day. I wake up in the morning, always forgetting what day it is. I look at my Facebook newsfeed and all I see are photos of mothers; mothers that are alive. I am reminded of a scene that Roland Barthes describes in Mourning Diary.
From the terrace of the Flore, I see a woman sitting on the windowsill of the bookstore La Hune; she is holding a glass in one hand, apparently bored; the whole room behind her is filled with men, their backs to me. A cocktail party.
May cocktails. A sad, depressing sensation of a seasonal and social stereotype. What comes to my mind is that maman is no longer here and life, stupid life, continues.”
Barthes writes this in the months following his mother’s death. This observation resonates with me for many reasons: we forget that life continues on — for us and others — after we lose a loved one. We forget that we have lost someone so dear to us, and then a moment like this occurs; a moment so everyday, so normal, that it reminds us, as Barthes writes, that ““We don’t forget, but something vacant settles in us.” This is how I feel when I look at my Facebook newsfeed on Mother’s Day each year.
The day after Barthes’ mother died in 1977, he began to write down notes about his grief on little scraps of paper, and it is these notes that comprise his Mourning Diary. Her death confounds him. And yet, she was not a young woman. She did not die, as one might say, “before her time.” This observation doesn’t and shouldn’t negate his pain. But I can’t help but wonder: what if he had lost her when he was a child? What would his mourning diary have looked like? Would it have existed? What would his grief have looked like? Barthes died 3 years after his mother.
My mother died when I was 11. She left a diary for me. And inside it she wrote me a letter: “When I was told I was going to die from cancer I wanted to leave you this letter, hopefully to make you feel better and to feel close to your mother…I know this is a great time of sadness and pain for you, a pain I wish I could take away.” And so begins the five page letter than my mom wrote to me before she passed away. Inscribed inside a small journal, this the last trace of her handwriting that I have.
I’d forgotten that this book existed and was surprised to rediscover it when I began to write an essay that I’ve been working on, an essay about her death and how literature, unbeknownst to me until recently, has helped me grieve her death. In her letter to me, my mom suggests that I use this book to write to her; she tells me that she’ll make sure my brother and dad don’t snoop in it. But I’ve left the pages blank. The blankness of the pages – a signifier of my inability to write, my inability to confront the pain of her loss – produce in me a greater sadness than her letter causes.
And then there’s the guilt. She gave me this beautiful gift and not only did I not use it, but I forgot about it. I know that it’s okay. I know that she — wherever she is — does not harbour any resentment. And so I’m writing now. After almost 20 years, I’m ready to process the pain caused by her death.But, like the fragments that make up Barthes’ diary, I too am only able to grieve in fragments.
Like Barthes, I am trying to
“…transform “Work” in its analytic meaning (the Work of Mourning, the Dream-Work) into the real “Work” — of writing.)
the “Work” by which (it is said) we emerge from the great crises (love, grief) cannot be liquidated hastily: for me, it is accomplished only in and by writing.”
There are moments when I think about my future wedding and realize that my mother won’t be there; that when I have my first child, she won’t be there. But this day is always the hardest. It’s the day that I don’t want to think about; the day where I opt out of social media because it’s too painful to think about everyone else who still has a mother. I envy them. I’m happy for them. And I feel for all of those others who have lost their mothers — either literally or figuratively. Just because your mother is still alive, doesn’t mean that you still “have” a mother. And even I, I who have lost my mother, still have her — even as an absence, she is still present in my life.
This past week has been an exhausting one for womyn. With the Jian Ghomeshi verdict, our newsfeeds and our lives have been flooded with posts about the injustices done there. So much so that many women I know went offline for a day or two. Whether you believe that he should have been convicted or not, what remains is the hard truth that women who stand up after an assault will not get the justice that they so deserve. They will be the ones on trial. And who, really, wants to go through that? It’s been heartening to see so many of the women in my life speak out in support of the victims. The hashtag #webelievesurvivors has been everywhere. What makes me sad is that so many of those women, myself included, are survivors of sexual and/or physical violence. What makes me so sad is that 90% of the posts on my Facebook wall were from womyn, not men.
I’ve written before about how a disproportionate amount of emotional labour is performed by women on Hook and Eye. In that post I called out to men within the academy, asking them to share some of this burden. A colleague of mine responded to my Facebook post, where I linked to the article, and for all intents and purposes, he refused my request. His grounds for doing so was that he didn’t want to share his emotions with the world of academia. Okay, fine. I get that. But what he failed to do was acknowledge how much it must suck to be a woman today, to be a woman who is trained, from birth, to be an emotional caregiver, and then is told that she a) can’t share her feelings within academia; and b) must shoulder the responsibility of supporting those that come to her for support.
The thing that got me about this exchange is that my colleague is a super lovely human, so respectful of women, so kind and thoughtful. It was clear to me that he was making an effort to understand feminism, that he was, as I call it, a “baby feminist.” (I use this term in an affection and non-derogatory sense. I’m so happy to see people — especially men — who want to learn about feminism, but who are still learning, still not quite there yet.) But I’m kind of tired of teaching men about feminism. And yet I find myself doing it again and again.
Last night I got into a conversation with a guy on Tinder about feminism. One of my ways of attempting to screen shitty dudes on online dating sites is to use the word “feminism” in my profile. It has worked, more or less, until last night. The exchange, which I deleted right after it happened, went something like this:
Dude: “So I notice a lot of people are calling themselves feminists right now. Why do you think that is? And is feminism basically just wanting all sexes to be equal and eliminating sexual harassment?”
Me: “I think that there has been a resurgence in using the term lately as more and more women confront the fact that we live in a patriarchal society filled with misogyny and rape culture. So yes, I guess your definition works, but I think it’s more nuanced than that.”
Dude: “Do you think that it’s worse for women over in Pakistan and the Middle East? I mean, I guess it makes sense that it would be…”
Me: “I think the obvious answer to that is yes. Many women still don’t have the fundamental rights that we do in the west. But I think that we like to think that we’re superior in the west. When really, misogyny still exists, patriarchy still exists, it’s just so much more insidious. Like the Ghomeshi verdict and women fighting dress code discrimination in the workplace.”
Dude: “I know about the first example, but not much about the second.”
Me: “Well basically women are saying that it’s not okay to be told they need to wear skimpy clothes to work.”
Dude: “Obviously. What kinds of places are making them do that?”
Me: “Oh you know, like Shoeless Joe’s or Hooters.”
Dude: “Oh, I thought you were talking about in offices. But Hooters, that makes sense. Like that’s part of the business plan.”
Me: “But isn’t that messed up that it’s part of the business plan?”
Dude: “Why don’t you just advocate for shutting down those businesses?”
Me: “Well I think that it would be better to just get them to change their “business plan.” You don’t need to have your food served to you be a scantily clan woman in order to enjoy your meal.”
Dude: “But that’s part of the value that they are offering.”
Me: “Describing women as a “value” being offered is really disturbing to me.”
Me: “Tbh, this conversation is kind of exhausting. I really hope that you still want to continue to learn about feminism, but I can’t be the one to teach you.” *Proceeds to unmatch from dude on Tinder*
As I was deciding to finally check out of this conversation, I was filled with anxiety: what if I ruin feminism for him? What if he curses my name and all feminists ever forever? These anxieties are not okay. What these anxieties reveal is just how scary it is to identify as a feminist. Scary, not in the sense that I fear for my life, but scary in that identifying as a feminist has resulted in me being sent a rape meme on Twitter. To identify as a feminist is still so far from being easy. And this is just one of the many reasons why I want to vomit a little bit whenever I hear that we are living in post-feminism.
A much more innocuous example of why it kind of sucks to be a feminist in the world of online dating comes from OkCupid. I receive a message from a guy that says “You know, the other day I got into this really long debate about why it’s not okay for women to have to dress in revealing clothing in the workplace. But the guys I work with just weren’t getting it. It was so frustrating.” Why might this kind of message be a problem, you might ask. Sounds like this guy is really getting something that the Tinder dude didn’t. Yes, you’re right. OkCupid dude is further along his baby feminism path. But here are the issues:
1) How do I respond to this message? Do I thank you for valiantly standing up for women? Do I pat you on the back and say “good job!”? Do I say, “YES OMG YOU’RE SO RIGHT THIS TOTALLY SUCKS FOR WOMEN!!!”
2) You’re telling me something that I already know. As a woman in the world, I experience this kind of bullshit on an almost daily basis. If the guy had followed this up with “this conversation made me realize just how much bullshit women have to go through and I’m sorry that the patriarchy sucks so hard” — then things might have been different.
3) If you’re a feminist, you don’t need to prove it to me with examples of your feminist-dude-good deeds. Your feminism will come out in how you interact with me. It will infuse our conversations. Feeling like you need to prove it to me is only a few steps away from saying #notallmen.
WARNING: Things are going to start getting a lot more ranty (but oh so much more cathartic) below.
I’m tired of teaching men how they should act as feminists. I’m tired of teaching them what they should say or not say. I’m tired of explaining all of the insidious ways that misogyny seeps into the most seemingly innocuous events and actions. And I’m tired of worrying that I’m too much of a feminist. This past week a friend of mine posted this on her Facebook page: “Looking back, I feel like my every interaction with the male race can be summed up as ‘upsetting but not surprising.'” She was being a bit hyperbolic, but after this past week, I totally feel her. I have been lucky to have dated some really awesome feminist dudes. But they represent a small percentage of my daily interactions with men, both on and off of the internet. I was grateful to my friend for making this declaration on Facebook, even as I realized that it represented her own exhaustion. And unfortunately, she only got more exhausted, as one dude in particular decided that he was offended by her statement. He’s a nice dude! He is (supposedly) a feminist! Here’s what he wrote:
“Well if you walk into every male encounter expecting that, consciously or unconsciously, your mind looks for reasons to see it that way. It’s called walking around looking at life through a filter, based on some bad experiences, lumping every guy in the same boat. Which not only isn’t accurate, but a form of discrimination. Some guys can behave shitty, but life is 1% our circumstances and 99% how we choose to interpret every moment.”
And: “Leaving that unexamined can create security for us because we get to blame our surroundings, but there’s not much power in that in the long run. Taking responsibility for ones inventions and interpretations of life and others, and pursuing objectivity, I find is always much more empowering. Whenever something is always one way or the other, theres some form of bias at play.”
And finally, a post on his own wall:
Here we have another example of what Sheila Heti has called “just another man who wanted to teach me something” (How Should a Person Be? 15). Yes, I hate you because it’s “convenient.” It must be so hard to be a guy today. What infuriates women about men’s “innate desire to problem-solve” is that you offer solutions when no one is asking you for a solution. Sometimes we just want to express our frustration. And if you want to offer a solution, the solution is chipping away at the patriarchy by saying “oh wow, that must be such a hard thing to acknowledge.” Women are definitely “hell bent on [our] own suffering.” We LOVE to suffer. It’s our favourite pastime because, well, we’re so used to it since FOREVER. If only I could just open up my arms and let the solutions that men give me in, then everything would be so much better.
Every day is spent “trying to figure it out”: how do I not feel totally crushed by the fact that men feel they have the right to comment on my body under the guise of a compliment (because all women want/need compliments from strangers, right?” How do I walk home safely at night? How do I stop being afraid of being a woman living alone? How do I talk to my conservative family about my feminist politics? Do I talk to them about it at all, or do I choose to remain silent on the topic because it’s less exhausting that way? What do I say to the dude who wants to know what feminism is but refuses to acknowledge all of the shitty ways that women are treated? How do I try to date feminist men? How do I try to become a better feminist? One who is invested in intersectionality? How do I process the trauma of the sexual and emotional violence that I’ve experienced with men who have been strangers and men who I have known intimately? How do I battle the anxiety and depression that I feel, in part because I’m predisposed, and in part because I have to deal with so much exhausting bullshit on a daily basis? If only I could just open up my arms to receive the advice and kindness from the #notallmen-men, well, I could find answers and solutions to all of these questions. Forget dismantling the patriarchy!
This is me tapping out, saying “I’m done. I can’t do it anymore.” In my dream world, all of the men who are feminists would become the teachers of these baby feminists. They would explain how feminism isn’t just about equality for the sexes, about getting rid of sexual harassment. It’s about examining the desire to teach women something. It’s about recognizing all of the ways in which women are objectified. It’s about realizing that yes, men, as well as women, do atrophy, but #notallmen do. I once had a man ask me “when do you think we won’t need the term feminism anymore?” I still can’t envision when we won’t, and after all that has happened this past week, and leading up to this week, I feel so sad to say that it will be a very long time indeed.
Right now, I’m taking comfort in the solidarity that I’ve felt both in my personal life and online. I’m grateful for the women who I know and don’t know, who have been brave enough to speak up and speak out against all of this bullshit. I’m having a hard time ending this post on a happy or hopeful note. The exhaustion is real. I know that you feel it too. Maybe the best thing we can hope for right now is that we feel it together.
I probably shouldn’t be posting on my blog right now, what with the stack of student papers to grade and a chapter to write. But in the wake of the news that Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted, I feel so overcome with grief that I can’t not talk about it. After hearing the verdict, I posted this status update on my Facebook and I’d like to expand upon it here — although I feel the need to note that what I will say below isn’t anything new, because women’s wounds, as Leslie Jamison puts it, are never new — they’re one of the oldest stories that we have:
I feel overcome with grief for the women who bravely stood up and pointed the finger at the man who sexually assaulted them — and not just any man, but a high profile man, one who many had come to know and respect. They spoke up despite his fame, despite the fact that their stories weren’t “perfect.” They put themselves in the spotlight and thus under the microscope of public scrutiny — as well as legal scrutiny. As many have remarked, this turned into a case that was more about proving that they were bad witnesses, that we couldn’t trust their accounts because they didn’t act the way one should have right after being assaulted.
This line of thinking is perhaps the most depressing to me. That not leaving the person’s house right after they assaulted you = it wasn’t assault is such a simplistic understanding of human behaviour that it’s almost ridiculous. I wish it could be ridiculous. But many see a victim’s action post-assault as defining whether the experience was assault or not. Luckily many have commented on how one’s actions post-assualt might not line up with would be considered “appropriate” behaviour. I really appreciated reading Zosia Bielski’s “How politeness conditioning can lead to confusion about sexual assaults.” She begins the piece with the following:
“I didn’t want to seem frosty and I didn’t want to seem mad.
That was complainant Lucy DeCoutere during her time on the stand last month at the sexual assault trial of former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, who faces a verdict Thursday. Asked to account for why DeCoutere had stayed at Ghomeshi’s house for an hour after he allegedly slapped and choked her, she explained that she had been brought up to make the people around her happy and comfortable, to ‘foster kind thoughts’ with a ‘pleasing personality.’ She said she’d been raised to be polite to a host – even an allegedly violent one, apparently.”
What Bielski’s article highlights is how women are conditioned to appease men. This shouldn’t feel like news in 2016, but somehow it still is. Despite all of the work that feminism has done, we still live in a patriarchal, misogynistic, rape-culture world. Women are conditioned to be nice from Day 1 — and if your life is like mine, you don’t find out what feminism even is until the damage has been done. The narrative is in there. That the Ghomeshi trail failed to note the larger systemic issues that cause women to act in a way not in accordance with her experience, well maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Maybe one day it will be the case that a woman will get up and walk away and straight into the police station right after a sexual assault occurs. Maybe. But that maybe is predicated upon that woman knowing, trusting that she can press charges and actually be heard; knowing, trusting that the man who assaulted her will be convicted.
What the Ghomeshi trial also failed to note was just how effing complex trauma is. Could someone ask them to read a little Cathy Caruth? As Caruth explains (following other psychoanalytic thinkers such as Freud), we cannot fully process the traumatic event at the moment that it occurs or even right after. Our psyche can only handle so much stress. And so our unconscious represses the experience, for the time being, so that we can process it in a way that’s not totally self-destructive (although often that self-destruction comes anyways — but the source is not always just the trauma, but rather the way that the patriarchal world that we live in refuses to hear that trauma).
In my last blog post, I talked about how after I lost my virginity — an act that wasn’t consensual but not exactly rape — I continued to see that boy. I wanted him to like me because maybe if he liked me, then I could rewrite the narrative of what took place. If he liked me then I could go on pretending that nothing happened. I remember reading a similar account in Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis. In her memoir, Matis recounts how after she was raped, she asked her rapist if he wanted to spend the night. This request was what led to him not being charged with rape after Matis went forward and reported the act to her school.
The Ghomeshi trails have left me asking: why does it seem inconceivable that a woman wouldn’t want to acknowledge that she was just violated in the worst way possible? We tell ourselves stories all the time in order to feel better. You get dumped by someone and you say “I didn’t care that much about her anyways.” You get harsh feedback on a piece of writing you’re working on and you reframe it as “constructive” criticism — even if it’s not. That we are not sophisticated enough to understand a) what it means to live in a patriarchal, misogynist world and b) what it means to experience a traumatic event — well, that really baffles me.
I could say more about how sickened I am that a woman represented Ghomeshi. I could say more about how much I hate the justice system. I could tell you how angry I feel that I could see Ghomeshi walking down the streets, a free man, free to commit more acts of sexual assault. I could say so much more on those topics. But all I can do right now is sit with the sadness and despair that I feel — for Ghomeshi’s victims, for myself, and for the rest of the women in the world, many of whom are at a much greater risk of violence, including women of colour, indigenous women, trans women, queer women, and women living in parts of the world where the word feminism can’t be spoken.
As I said at the end of my Facebook post — I really need to feel hopeful right now, hopeful that one day the justice system will be able to make space for the complex experience of being sexually assaulted, that it will support the victims, that it will acknowledge how much bravery it takes to step forward. Actually, what I hope for is a time when stepping up and saying “I was assaulted, I was raped” no longer needs to be thought of as a brave act. That it can be something that you do because the world you live in wants to change, wants to be better, and wants to acknowledge the pain of being a womyn.
“We have degrees of murder and of assault; we should also have degrees of rape.”– Sarah Nicole Prickett, “Consent: It’s Not Sexy”
“There is not a word for my experience. The fact that there’s not a word for it makes us feel like it doesn’t exist.” – Veronica Ruckh
**Note: This post was originally published on the blog for my Girls & Sex in the 21st Century course. Due to restrictions on word length, and a decision to keep my own personal experiences out of the post, I’ve decided to post an expanded version here.
Trigger/Content Warning: This essay contains explicit details of rape and sexual assault.
“Was it rape?” This is a question that so many (myself included) have asked themselves as they begin to process why that sexual experience didn’t feel super great, why, in fact, it felt downright awful. “Rape” doesn’t quite feel right; it doesn’t encompass the experiences that fall into the grey areas. I agree with the logic/reason behind Sarah Nicole Prickett’s statement in “Consent: It’s Not Sexy,” that there are degrees of experience when it comes to assault and murder, but we don’t have degrees for rape — and that’s a problem. As someone who has often felt wary of using the term “rape,” in order to describe my experiences of non-consensual sex, I was very appreciative of Prickett’s statement. But I’m not sure that I want to place my experiences under the category of “rape,” even if there are degrees. To say “I was raped,” doesn’t quite feel right. Perhaps that’s because the word rape carries certain popularly understood connotations: rape is a sexual encounter lacking any form of consent; rape means I said “no” and he didn’t listen.
That wasn’t the case for me, when I lost my virginity at 14 years of age to a boy in the woods, who I’d only met earlier that night. He was 16. He was cool. I was awkward, just about to start high school in a little under two months. That summer I spent a lot of time hanging out in the park near my house. I knew one of the boys. He was a year old than me; the son of my old babysitter. He and a bunch of boys would hang out there, smoking and getting high. One night they got me really, really high. I don’t remember much beyond walking into the woods with some of the guys. And then it was just me and one of the boys. I was sitting on his lap. And then suddenly my pants were down and he was penetrating me. It hurt a lot and after a couple of minutes I told him that it hurt and I needed to stop. He listened. I saw him again after that night. We would hang out in his basement and we would try to have sex again — but it always hurt too much and so I would stop. And he would listen.
Soon the rumours started. Despite having a girlfriend — a detail that he failed to mention — he spread the news that we were having sex. I entered high school and was labelled a slut. Boys and girls alike would yell that word at me in the halls, would whisper it under their breath in the classes they had with me. Girls would walk up to me after school, push me, threaten me (luckily it never went further than that). My two best friends from grade school abandoned me. They wanted to be cool and they couldn’t be cool if they were friends with me (years later they both phoned me, in tears, and apologized for their cruel behaviour — and I forgave them). I denied the rumours. I didn’t know what else to do. But denying that it happened didn’t change things. No one believed me.
It took over 10 years before I realized that the sex we had — at least the first time — wasn’t consensual. I was too high to really know what was happening. And even though he stopped, that didn’t change the fact that he started in the first place. The sex we had after didn’t feel great either. I think on a subconscious level, I always knew that there was something wrong with that first encounter; I believed that if we had sex again, but on better terms, it would make that first time okay. But it didn’t. I needed the sex we had to mean that he liked me, cared about me even. But he didn’t. In light of the Jian Ghomeshi trails, some might say that my choice to see him again, to have sex with him again, discredits my claim that it was rape. But saying so fails to take into consideration our desire, our need, to rewrite these traumatic narratives. It also fails to recognize the ways in which women are taught to desire any and all sex with men — because it’s about their pleasure, not ours.
I sought out other sexual encounters, often with boys older than me, boys that, like my first time, I met just that night. And again, like that first time, I was always high or drunk or both. Talk about repetition compulsion. But I did have sex that didn’t involve drugs or alcohol, and I did have boyfriends that liked me and respected me. But being in a relationship doesn’t protect you from sex that doesn’t feel good. When I was in my early 20s I was in a long-term relationship for almost three years. About 2 years in, my boyfriend started to slap me during sex. One time he put his hands around my throat. I told him that I didn’t like it. He apologized, told me it wouldn’t happen again. But it did. I slowly pulled away. When he wanted to have sex, I would feign being tired. Instead of accepting this, instead of curling up beside me in bed, he would angrily go downstairs for many hours. He was punishing me. Again, it took me many years before I realized that I had been sexually abused by him.
In both of these cases, the word “rape” didn’t feel right. While I appreciate Prickett’s gesture, her desire for their to be degrees of rape, I’m not sure if — at least at this point in time — we can introduce new ways of understanding that word. For some reason, I feel like the default assumption when saying “I was raped” would still result in your interlocutor thinking: “she said no and he didn’t listen.” As Katie J.M. Baker states in “Consent: It’s Not Sexy”: “All rape is presumably unwanted, but not all unwanted sex can be presumed to be rape, and we should be able to make these distinctions for ourselves without getting into what Kat calls the ‘Was It Rape’ debate. How can we talk about this without delving into the messy, complicated details?” In order to clear up the misconception, the ways that my interlocutor interprets “I was raped,” I might feel inclined to explain that that wasn’t exactly the case.
I don’t want to delve into the messy, complicated details, but I also don’t want to use the word that’s most convenient when it doesn’t feel right. So what other options are there? I could say “non-consensual sex,” but even that doesn’t feel right. I see “non-consensual sex” as the umbrella term, with “rape” falling underneath it. I guess I could say “sexual assault,” or “coercive sex,” but those alternatives don’t sit well with me either. I wonder what it would mean if we came up with a new word, a word that signalled to the world, as much as to ourselves (for some would rather not share their story, or cannot share their story because they are not the privileged body that makes rape more palatable) that whatever our experience was, it fell into that grey zone.
What I want is a word that gestures to all of the ways that women have been conditioned to placate men, to have sex with their significant other even when they weren’t in the mood or were tired. In Veronica Ruckh’s essay on “Total Sorority Move,” she tells us how she “felt an obligation, a duty to go through with it. I felt guilty for not wanting to. I wasn’t a virgin. I’d done this before. It shouldn’t have been a big deal–it’s just sex–so I didn’t want to make it one.” She draws our attention to what so many of us already know: the ubiquity of these grey area experiences and the ways in which we are missing the language to describe our experience. Ruchk writes: “There is not a word for my experience. The fact that there’s not a word for it makes us feel like it doesn’t exist. Or maybe there’s not a word for it because we’re pretending it doesn’t exist. But this weird place in between consensual sex and rape? It’s there. It does exist. And it’s happening all the time.”
I’m thankful that the conversations are happening. As Kat Stoeffel tells us, in her essay “It Doesn’t Have to be Rape to Suck”: “Now women are speaking up about situations that fall outside the conventional definition of rape but nonetheless reflect a gender power dynamic that leaves women sexually vulnerable.” But still, as Ruckh notes, “the fact that there’s not a word for it makes us feel like it doesn’t exist.” Now that we’re talking about it, maybe we can figure out a word that would enable us to describe our experience without actually having to describe all of its details. I’m not sure what that word would be, but I hope we can find it.
I wrote this post as one of my responses to the readings for my Girls and Sex class and have begun to develop it for a conference paper that I’ll be giving in March. I wanted to share it here because these are ideas that I’m trying to work through. I’d love to hear your thoughts on sadness as self-care.
“She is right there; there she is, all teary, what a mess”
– Sara Ahmed, “Feminism and Fragility”
Many have proclaimed 2015 to be the year of Sadness. Sad girls and sad boys were everywhere to be found. From Justin Bieber crying on stage – and all over the heads of fans – while performing “What Do You Mean” to Essena O’Neill’s infamous cry-fessional (as I like to call them) about the ways in which social media makes us lose sight of who we are.
A lot of my personal and academic life has been spent thinking about our relationship to “negative” feelings, or what affect theorist Sianne Ngai calls “ugly feelings.” A list of negative/ugly feelings would include: sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, disgust, melancholy, irritation, regret, despair, shame, self-hatred,and loneliness — to name a few. And yet, while there are a lot of people in pop-culture talking about sadness, this emotion is missing from academic conversations about affect, where the focus is always on the more intense and “pathological” forms of sadness, such as depression and melancholy. As someone who studies teen girls, I’ve become increasingly interested with the focus on sadness and the development of “Sad Girl Theory.” But my interest in sadness first started when I watched the movie Inside Out:
In an earlier blog post, I talk about Sadness as being the queer subject of the film, as the feminist killjoy (to borrow Sara Ahmed’s term) that forces Joy (who represents the cultural imperative to always be happy) — and, I would argue, the viewer — to accept that it’s not always possible or even desirable to be the “happy girl.” One of my favourite moments from the film is when Sadness tells Joy that “Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.” This desire to obsess is not pathological, but rather it’s generative; it helps us recognize “the weight of life’s problems.”
This statement from Sadness resonates with another feminist killjoy, Audrey Wollen, and what Wollen has coined “Sad Girl Theory.” Audrey Wollen is an Instagram star that became famous for taking photos in which she poses as various sad girls in art. In her interview with Lucy Watson from Dazed Magazine, Wollen describes how she felt alienated from the “shade of feminism that’s chosen for media attention [which] is always palatable to the powers that be — unthreatening, positive, communal.”
Instead of girls always being happy, Wollen is interested in tapping into sadness as a site for political resistance: “Sad Girl Theory is a permission slip: feminism doesn’t need to advocate for how awesome and fun being a girl is. Feminism needs to acknowledge that being a girl in the world right now is one of the hardest things there is — it is unimaginably painful — and that our pain doesn’t need to be discarded in the name of empowerment.” The unimaginable pain that Wollen describes is akin to the “weight of life’s problems” that Sadness wants to slow down and obsess over. What Wollen is drawing attention to is the ways in which neoliberalism has capitalized on “girl power.” I can’t help but wonder how sadness might get coopted and turned into a commodity. Like, what would that even look like? The “sadcore” music of Lana Del Rey? Movies by Nicholas Sparks that are destined to make you cry?
If we wanted to follow Sianne Ngai’s argument in Our Aesthetic Categories, that certain aesthetics – the cute, zany and interesting – are helpful for thinking about capitalism, then sadness as both aesthetic and affective category represents the surplus or excess that capitalism produces. But it’s not the surplus value that capitalism wants, but rather, the surplus that draws attention to the ways in which capitalism and neoliberalism – and I would add the heteronormative narratives that enable racism, misogyny and homophobia to thrive – breaks down the subject.
But this is why certain forms of crying are a little too pretty for me. While I love Lana Del Rey, her form of crying, her sad girl pouty faces, are very palatable. The same goes for Audrey Wollen. And when one enters the theatre to watch two kids with cancer fall in love, as they do in The Fault in Our Stars, it’s more than okay to cry. In fact, if you don’t cry, then maybe there’s something wrong with you. I’m more interested in the sobbing, red blotchy faced crying that many find “too much” to handle. The Essena O’Neill kind of crying. The kind of crying that has resulted in women being labeled “hysterics.”
And here Essena O’Neill is the perfect example. In case you missed out on that moment in pop culture history last year, Essena O’Neill blew up twitter feeds everywhere when the Instagram star, age 18, began to rewrite the captions underneath her instagram posts in order to reveal just how fabricated the pictures were and the exhaustion she felt while trying to capture the perfect image.
What I find so compelling about Wollen’s project is how it works to depathologize the affects that have long been attributed to women, and have led and continue to lead to women being labelled “hysterical.”
What Wollen highlights in the last sentence of this Instagram post is how sadness is seen as a passive affect, hence the pathology: it’s not a choice, sadness is something that happens to you, and acts upon you. And sure, often (maybe always) the source of my sadness comes from forces outside of myself. But I could go ahead and repress my sadness, put on a smile, and say that “I’m great.” And in fact that is something that I used to do, until one day my therapist said to me: “You know I don’t need you to be great.” At that moment something shifted and I began to be, as I call it, “honest about my affect.” This meant responding in ways that I feared might make others uncomfortable (when someone asks you how you’re doing, they’re not usually excepting you to say “not great”). And so admitting to my anxiety, sadness, whatever, became a form of self-care.
Sadness as self-care. There are so many readings of self-care that I find problematic. The obviously negative one is that self-care is selfish or narcissistic. The ostensibly more positive narrative of self-care has been coopted by neoliberalism and reduced to taking a hot bath with candles (don’t get me wrong, I love a hot bath with candles). Self-care, within both of these narratives, is all about making yourself feel better; happiness, in other words, is the end goal.
But what happens when sadness is self-care? In what ways does that disrupt these troubling narratives of self-care that I just outlined? Sadness as self-care means, for me anyways, crying a lot, and doing so fairly regularly. Crying, we’re told, isn’t pretty; it’s “messy” to borrow the words of Sara Ahmed in her blog post “Feminism and Fragility.” Sadness as self-care doesn’t lead to me feeling happy after, but it makes me feel like I can get through the day; it feels cathartic but it also feels like I’ve been shattered. And, as Ahmed writes, “to be shattered can also mean to be exhausted.” After I cry I might feel exhausted (a result that feels antithetical to what self-care is supposedly all about) but I feel more exhausted when I have to perform happiness.
Maybe what the idea of sadness of self-care can do is open up the ways in which “feeling better” isn’t always the goal. As Audrey Lorde writes, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” If sadness is a form of caring for ourselves, one that is detached from the goal of “feeling better” because it’s all about survival, about self-preservation, then I believe that sadness does hold the power to disrupt the power of neoliberalism’s narratives about happiness and about the purpose of self-care. While neoliberalism says, “you worked hard today, you deserve a bath,” sadness as self-care says “you had to work so hard today just to survive, so cry because maybe it’s the only thing you can do right now.”
And that’s as far as I’ve gotten…would love to hear what you think about sadness as self-care.❤
The title of this post is also the title of the talk that I gave at the PagesUnbound event: “Girl Crush: Conversations About Female Friendship.” (There will now be a reading series, and you should like them on Facebook so that you don’t miss out next time!) I promised pals who weren’t in Toronto or who couldn’t get tickets before they sold out, that I would post my talk for them to read. But first some words about how awesome it was to be a part of this event.
First of all, it was super awesome to be in a room filled with women/womyn who had come with their lady pals on a date to hear five women talk about the trials and tribulations of friendship, but also to celebrate it. I was surprised that all of the speakers agreed on one thing (and we totally didn’t coordinate our talks beforehand): friendships can be messy, they can be complicated, and they’re not always pretty. So instead of viewing the not-so-great times as a sign of failure, we can read these moments as just part of the fluidity of friendship (and here I’m borrowing the term “friendship fluidity” from Natalie, my BFF and fellow speaker at Girl Crush). Friendships might take different forms and shapes at particular moments in your life. And yes, that might be a scary feeling — but that fear comes out of this narrative that friendship is a stable category. Sometimes you grow with one another, and sometimes you grow apart, and sometimes you come back together, and sometimes you don’t.
I was talking with a friend last night about how we don’t yet have a language for mourning friendships. We can cry when a romantic relationship ends, but we don’t give ourselves that same room when a friendship is no longer working out. I hope that as friendship continues to take the spotlight in pop culture, as well as academia, we might be able to shift how we think about it as somehow always stable and also ungrievable.
Hideous Friendships; Or a Girl’s Relationship with Her Bestie
Okay, so you might have guessed, based on my bio, that there’s a link between this talk and my dissertation work: the hideosity of adolescence and hideous friendships. And you would be right. What I’m going to do is draw upon some of the work in my dissertation chapter on ambivalence and female besties, but I want to do so by turning to some cultural objects that I didn’t have space to talk about the chapter: namely Lena Dunham’s television show Girls, as well as the Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels that everyone including my self has been reading as of late. In the chapter I explore how ambivalence is not antithetical to friendship: with love comes hate, with awe comes disgust. If I were to sum up that chapter in one sentence, it would be: ambivalence can foster intimacy rather than destroy it. So part of what I want to talk about is ambivalence. But first I should probably explain how I use the word “hideous” in my dissertation and why I see ambivalence as one element of what makes an object, person, or relationship, hideous.
So some questions and then some answers – I hope: what is this hideousness or hideosity that I speak of? What makes a friendship – particularly that between besties – hideous? What would it mean for a friendship between girls to be hideous? And could a hideous friendship produce intimacy? That is probably the most you’ve ever heard the word hideous used in the span of thirty seconds. You might be asking yourself: why the word hideous? Why don’t I just say ugly or monstrous or some other similar term? Well, if you’ll permit me to nerd out for a moment, I’ll offer my explanation by way of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED defines “hideous” as that which is “frightful […] horribly ugly or unpleasing, repulsive, revolting” to the senses, as well that which is “tremendously or monstrously large.” So what is hideous is not just ugly, but its excessively, tremendously, or monstrously large. The hideosity of adolescence, then, denotes all of the “excessive” aspects of adolescence, from the physical changes the body undergoes (pimples, menstruation, and budding breasts) to the emotional and psychological changes (mood swings, loneliness, self-consciousness, and need for validation). Teen girls don’t have just have feelings; they have ALL THE FEELINGS. So to recap: hideousness marks that which is ugly, frightful, repulsive, and that which is “too much.”
But hideousness is also the site of ambivalence. We can and often do feel both attraction and repulsion in relation to the object of desire. To borrow the words of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, what we’ve learnt from Freud is that “we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate we love, wherever we love we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us.” In Freud’s view, “ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us […] wherever there is an object of desire there must be ambivalence” (“Against” n.p.). If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m pretty on board with Freud’s argument. But I want to ask what if ambivalence wasn’t just something that we need to accept? What might mean if ambivalence could produce greater intimacy with those we love? What makes a female friendship hideous is that in these relationships we often see a blurring of oppositions (fear and desire, terror and awe, hatred and love). For many, there is something unconventional at best and monstrous at worst in the presence of the excessive and often contradictory feelings that come up in our intimate relations with others. I would like to ask whether we must we read these hideous intimacies, with all of their ambivalences, as doomed to fail? And a related question, which I’ll return to throughout this talk: why do we have such a hard time making space for representations of female friendship that are messy, imperfect, and often leave us feeling ambivalent?
Okay! Now that all of those questions and terms are floating around in the ether, I’ll try to ground them in a couple of examples.
Lena Dunham has explained how she was frustrated by the flawless representations of female friendship on television: “One of the things that’s frustrated me about female friendship on television in the past is we see a lot of depictions that suggest once you are BFFs, you are always BFFs. But it’s one of the most tough, volatile relationships you’ve ever had.” We see this volatility come to life throughout Girls, but particularly in Season Three’s “Beach House” episode, when the girls’ weekend vacation to the titular beach house falls apart. Deciding that the four girls (Hannah, Jessa, Marnie, and Shoshana) need to reconnect, Marnie plans a weekend getaway at a family friend’s beach house. But things quickly go awry when Hannah runs into her ex-boyfriend Elijah and invites him and his friends back to the beach house to hang out. Essentially Marnie loses her shit because she’s planned this adorable French meal for four that now has to be shared by eight. At one point in the episode she laments: “I thought that this would be a good opportunity to have fun together and prove to everyone via Instagram that we can still have fun as a group.”
In the penultimate scene of the episode, things get real when Shoshanna calls the girls out on some of their behaviors, at one moment telling Hannah that, “I wanted to fall asleep in my own vomit all day listening to you talk about how you bruise more easily than other people.” Shoshanna, I would argue, is not the first or only person to feel like vomiting and to perhaps even take pleasure in that vomit, in the face of a friend. The next morning there are no grand reconciliations and apologies. Rather, as the four girls sit hung over, waiting for their bus to take them back to the city, they slowly join together in a dance routine that they learned from Elijah and co. the night before.
I assigned this episode to the class I’m currently taking called “Girls and Sex in the 21st Century” – yes, it is the best course ever. Each week a student or a group of students picks the readings and leads the discussion. Quite selfishly, as I knew I would be giving this talk, I made everyone watch this episode so that I could hear their reactions. I can sum them up as follows: “these are not healthy relationships and we need women to be in healthy relationships if we want feminism to succeed.” On the one hand I agree with this sentiment: solidarity is something we should all be working towards. And I get why people might be upset by representations of female friendship that don’t feel very feminist. But this makes me wonder: are fraught and messy relationships between women antithetical to feminism? The answer, for me anyways, is no – and there are many reasons for this. I’ll share the first now and save the last for later.
The first is that I believe what Dunham captures in this episode and throughout Girls is that sometimes there is nothing more complicated than a girl’s relationship with her bestie. Sometimes you love them, sometimes you hate them, sometimes you can not tell one feeling from the other, and sometimes sleeping in your own vomit is more pleasurable than hearing them talk about their bruises. With kindness and love comes envy, jealously, and other “ugly feelings,” to borrow Sianne Ngai’s phrase (2007). In a world rife with ambivalent friendships, not to mention the dreaded frenemy, it would appear that Aristotle’s famous statement, “O my friends, there is no friend,” rings true. But given all that Girls has shown us, not to mention countless other films that document the ups and downs of female friendship, from the 90s cult classic Clueless to the more recent Frances Ha (2014), I would like to rephrase Aristotle’s statement – “O my friends, there is no friend” – as follows: “O my friends, there is no friendship that is not ambivalent.”
We can see this ambivalence take shape in Elena Ferrante’s much loved (as they should be) Neapolitan novels. In these four novels, totaling some 1700 pages (I’m now 200ish pages away from finishing the saga and as I say that I wonder whether or not it was a great idea for me to base an argument on a set of books that I haven’t completely finished reading… but I’m going to go for it). In the novels we watch Elena and Lila’s friendship grow and change as they mature from children to adults. Just to give some backstory (and I hope to avoid any spoilers) Elena has always felt jealous of Lila, who she realizes is more brilliant that she is. But Lila just so happens to make some very poor life decisions, like getting married to a pretty awful dude when she’s 16. Elena on the other hand, succeeds in all of the ways that Lila should have: Elena graduates high school and goes to university. She marries into a prominent family and gets out of the impoverished Naples where she and Lila have grown up. She becomes a fairly famous writer.
In the third novel, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena describes her vexed feelings towards her best friend Lila: “From the chaotic feeling I had inside, the desire that Lila would get sick and die was re-emerging. Not out of hatred, I loved her more and more, I wouldn’t have been capable of hurting her. But I couldn’t bear the emptiness of her evasion” (339). This is just one of many quotations that I could have pulled describing the tension between these two best friends, a tension that goes back to the days of their adolescence. While many would read these lines as a sign of a toxic friendship, I’m more inclined to agree with Molly Fischer, who wrote in her essay on the series for the New Yorker that “the angst isn’t a sign of pathology, nor does it ultimately threaten their bond. The immutable fact of their friendship accommodates conflict that could fracture a marriage or estrange a parent. Their rivalry magnetizes them: each is the one the other trusts, and so fears. Lila and Elena make each other vividly miserable.”
And yet this is not the story of friendship that mainstream pop psychology books on the dreaded frenemy would have you believe. Elena and Lila are best friends, and yet, according to psychologist Karen Fingerman’s description of the frenemy, they are anything but. For Fingerman, the frenemy is “a friend who drives you nuts … You love them, you don’t want to lose them, but they’re really a pain.” And it is exactly this kind of friendship – filled with mixed emotions – that researchers are saying is bad for your health: from causing high blood pressure to increasing one’s risk for depression. In addition to the dangers listed above, psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad warns us that once you develop ambivalent feelings for a person, “future interactions with that person may be judged through that lens.” So in other words: ambivalence = bad, no good, danger.
Now I’m no researcher ,so perhaps the assertion that I’m going to make is a rather bold one; perhaps you should take it with a grain of salt. But I want to push back against these studies that use binaries of healthy and unhealthy to talk about friendships. Because really, as I’ve taken us through some examples from literature and pop culture, what I’ve hoped to show is just how easy it is to feel ambivalent about our friends. We feel so attached to the idea of “likeability” that we lose sight of the ways in which we often love that which isn’t likeable.
I’d like to end my talk by returning to a question that I posed earlier: are fraught and messy relationships between women antithetical to feminism? I’d like to answer this question by turning to a beautiful quote from Sara Ahmed that sums up the kinds of relationships that these texts present us with, and, I believe, a model for ethical relations with the other. In her book Willful Subjects, Ahmed writes: “Rather than the experience of bumping into each other being a sign of the failure of the relationship, or even the failure of someone in a relationship to be responsive, it can be understood as a form of relationship in which bodies have not simply adjusted to each other. When bumping is understood as a form of relationship, it is no longer experienced as that which must be overcome […] Rather than equality being about smoothing a relation perhaps equality is a bumpy ride” (51). What we see in Girls and Ferrante’s novels is people bumping into one another, sometimes because the characters have failed to understand the other and their needs. But such bumping, which I’ve read here as being located in ambivalence, in the hideousness of female friendship, such bumping I’d like to think, signifies an attempt, a desire to see the other, to respond to their needs; or maybe we bump into one another because we want the other, our friend, to see us, but we don’t know how to do that. We might not always get it right, but I sure hope that we keep trying.
I think we can all say (or so many do say) that as we get older, and especially after we leave school, it becomes harder to meet people. When we say this, we’re usually talking about romantic relationships. But I’ve been thinking about this statement/difficulty a lot in the context of friendships. I love meeting new people. But don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my friends. I’m constantly having moments where I get kind of overwhelmed by how many amazing people there are in my life that I get to call my friends. But I also feel like I live in this giant city and there are so many more people who are cool and awesome and kind and it would be great to expand my friendship circle. I want more friendship dates and friendship courtships. This week, as I prepare to give a talk on female friendship at “Girl Crush,” I’ve been reflecting on my own desire to make new friends and how I’ve managed to do so when my whole life basically takes place at school. Blogging has definitely made meeting new people easier. Last week I got to chat with some amazing ladies for my “Too Much: Part Two” blog post (coming out soon!). I watched as four women who I’d never met before came into a room and shared their experiences with such openness and with such vulnerability. It was a deeply moving experience. But I’ll talk more about that next week.
Right now I want to talk about two alternative communities that have brought new people into my life and basically how awesome they are. The first is the now infamous Bunz Trading Zone (formerly known as Bumz Trading Zone until some folks started to point out that maybe it wasn’t appropriate to call ourselves bums). BTZ is a group on Facebook (although they now have an app) in which folks post things that they’re purging with a list of things they’re looking for (called “ISO” for “In search of”). Interested parties will message them and offer something they have for something that they want. OR: you’re hunting for something and you have things that you can trade in exchange. At its purest form, you can only trade things that you already have. But some find it okay to go out and buy something in exchange (so I don’t have anything on your ISO list but I really want that thing that you posted). The main thing is: you don’t offer cash.
Because of my recent move, I started to post a lot of items on bunz. In one day I did four trades within 1 hour, and the next day I did 3 trades within 30 minutes. That’s some serious bunzing (yes, I just made a verb there). So obviously it’s awesome to be able to get rid of something that you don’t need for something that you do. But what’s kind of more amazing about bunz is the community. During the last two weeks of trades I made three new pals who I probably would never have met expect through bunz — one of whom is even coming to my housewarming party. And yet they are folks that share similar interests to me, like doing similar things, and now we’re going to hang out! But even if you don’t decide in the 5-10 minutes of doing the trade that you guys should be friends, you’ll often find yourself having a really nice chat with someone who’s really lovely. And the experience of encountering a stranger to exchange things leaves you with a pretty darn good feeling.
Here’s another awesome thing that happened: so when my partner (now ex-partner) and I moved in together we decided to use his duvet because it’s more comfortable. I could have SWORN that I put mine in a garbage bag with the intention of saving it (because maybe we’d one day have a guest room or maybe we’d end up breaking up — either way, I’d want my duvet). But when I went to pack all of my stuff up last week, the duvet was no where to be found. Now moving costs a lot of money and faced with the task of having to buy a new duvet or accept my I’ve-layered-4-thin-blankets-and-it-kinda-makes-a-blanket substitute, I went onto BTZ, told me story and asked if folks had a duvet they we’re getting rid of. So many people offered supportive comments, but none of them had the object I was looking for. But then I came home last night and say that another “bun” had tagged me in a post where I guy was getting rid of his duvet. I messaged him and we’ll be trading a bottle of wine (which I got from another trade) for the duvet tomorrow!!! It felt so nice to know that this complete stranger was thinking of me.
This same week, literally last night, I went to a clothing swap that a good friend of mine was hosting. For the most part the crowd consisted of friends from the PhD program. But I invited an old pal of mine (who I’ve recently reconnected with and thus kind of feels like a new pal) to come and join me. I’m realizing that I should maybe back-track for a moment to explain what a clothing swap is exactly for those of you who’ve never experienced its magic. So basically you show up with a bag of clothes and accessories that you are ready to say goodbye to (maybe they don’t fit anymore, maybe you’ve had your time with that amazing dress and now it’s time for someone else to experience its glory). You sort everything out so that the clothes are in piles based on what kind of item it is, and then you all start digging through. Sometimes it’s a pure free for all, other times (last night in particular) each person tells the group what kinds of things they are looking for and we all keep our eyes out for that thing — and that person gets first dibs on that item. Then you try on things, which always results in so many “oohs” and “ahhs” and exclamations of affirmation like “THAT LOOKS AMAZING ON YOU” and everyone goes home hopefully with less than they brought and then you spend that week wearing all of your goodies.
Here’s what I got last night:
I literally have this exact dress but in red…
Unsurprinsgly: SO MUCH FLORAL
I always need more comfy grandpa sweater knits in my life
I’ve hosted my fair share of clothing swaps and the larger ones have always ended up bringing lots of ladies who don’t know each other into the same room for a couple of hours to swap, chat, and affirm one another. You’d think that clothing swaps would be not such a harmonious place for women to convene, that we’d be fighting over items, almost tearing them from one another’s bodies. But let me shatter your fantasy: this is far from the case. Everyone is super jazzed when a piece works on another human being and only very rarely have I been in a room where ladies have been upset that they didn’t find that piece before another lady did.
My life is feeling so full of wonderful ladies right now. And I’m super grateful for all of the strong female energy in my life. It might be hard to make new pals, but it’s not impossible. And heck, with the new app that’s tinder but for women to make friends (still in beta testing), I think there’s a really cool shift happening in how we conceive of making friends. Much the same as dating, you have to put effort into the act of making new pals. And it’s scary to put yourself out there, to try and gauge whether or not this new awesome person you just met thinks that you’re awesome too. I’m super excited to hear all of the talks from the other women at “Girl Crush,” and what they’ll offer us in terms of thinking about all of the nuances of friendship and of making and staying pals. Stay tuned for my recap of “Girl Crush” at the end of this week. xo