Saturday, September 12, 2009

You make me feel like a natural woman

by Christopher Moses

This summer I had the great good fortune to teach a group of talented high school juniors in a course on ‘Forbidden Fictions.’ Whether banned books, unsettling ideas or political controversy, we tried to understand what made something forbidden—so often the surprisingly mundane, habitual or obvious (people have sex, governments fight wars)—and what made fiction so powerfully different from the real.

More than topics, though, I learned most in my attempts to teach. Particularly challenging was the class’s gender ration: girls outnumbering boys just over 3:1. So I tried something I wasn’t sure I could do—or what exactly it would mean, or how it would work. I deputized some girls as boys.

You’re a man. You, you and you. And for sake on gender-bending parity: you, one of our few boys, henceforth you’re a woman.

Now—how does this story sound? Uncomfortably true? Is that really how guys think—can you think like that?

It was the first full day of class and we had just listened to Junot Díaz’s ‘How To Date A Brown Girl (black girl, white girl, or halfie),’ the ironic, if not slightly tragic bravado of a young man’s commentary on how to have his way with varieties of ladies. The plot was obvious, the goal clear, the language crass—only the muted sarcasm manifested by cultural shame and loneliness made for much feminist empathy:

‘A local girl will have hips and a nice ass but won't be quick about letting you touch her. A white girl might give it up right then. Don't stop her. She'll say, I like Spanish guys, and even though you've never been to Spain, say, I like you.’

Perhaps confounding male-female roles would also help unpack the cultural exoticism of being young, white and daring. So too might the shared doubt of conquest and submission bring some home-grown confidence into the omnipresence of flirtation and dating?

Since this somewhat spur-of-the-moment classroom strategy, I’ve though a lot about what it means to force someone (or yourself) into another’s gender role. Traveling since in Southern Africa—and remembering back through other far-flung excursions—it struck me powerfully as a missing link in many efforts to promote women’s rights and healthy masculinity.

Universal and crucially all-encompassing standards always risk plowing over local tradition. How can empathy and the understanding of opposites (or at least others) help preserve the particular?

Empowerment too often means making you like me, or letting the lesser strive towards the greater. A shared recognition—feminism seems like a worthwhile term—has the chance to undercut power-seeking as the path towards freedom, and to instead provide understanding both for helper and helped, subjected woman and dominating man, tank-topped aid worker and modestly clad native.

Utopian theorizing aside, I’m happy just to challenge the often hyper-individualized notion of self-fulfillment and personal self-realization as the be-all and end-all of gender freedom. There’s a nauseatingly me-me-me effect that’s exactly the same as the mindlessly unoriginal attempt to be the model on the front of Cosmo or Men’s Health, to have the perfect body, wear the perfect clothes, date the perfect partner.

None of this challenges the overly private, personally shameful and falsely alone feelings of sexuality.

The creative space of a classroom might not be entirely transferable to the real world. But the suspended disbelief of students and teacher I think has as much to do with the hypothetical as it did with the hard facts of fiction. Stories and characters let us be another in ways both frightening and fulfilling.

Those original critics of the novel—early eighteenth century moralists fearful of this new genre—were really on to something. Beyond women-with-one-hand-free (to wander to and titillate the nether-regions while reading sultry stories), we learn a lot through the exploration of others. Going away has tremendous power, though coming back has even more.

So lets listen to Aretha Franklin’s lyrics closely. For all our fear of essentialized womanhood—for all my concerns about the balance of gendered perspectives in the classroom—it’s a matter of ‘you,’ less of true, natural or the real ‘me.’ That’s the scary part, that lack of liberal self-control. But such a reward, it’s hard to wait:

‘You make me feel so good inside…

You make me feel so alive…

You make me feel like

A natural woman.’

Boys, girls, men and women—this goal shouldn’t be forbidden or fiction, bridled by class (or race or culture).

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