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I was prompted this week to think up a girl-activist to cover, and since I’ve already written a few times about Malala Yousafzai, my mind switched to literary mode and bee-lined straight to Mary Shelley. A lot of people wouldn’t consider her an activist—she is best known as a novelist, after all—but a quick look at her life shows that Mary had quite a bit to say, and at a very young age.
When Mary Shelley was a teenager, she wrote what is only considered the germ of modern sci-fi and one of the coolest and most nuanced monster stories to date. During the week I was assigned to read Frankenstein a few semesters back, my husband just happened to be in the middle of the story’s TV series adaptation Penny Dreadful, which focuses a lot on the monster that Shelley created. Both the series and the actual novel were a radical departure from the cartoonish, green monster of the twentieth century. Shelley’s monster was complicated and nuanced. His very existence challenged the social order, the meaning of life, and laws of physiology all at once. Shelley is famous for bringing a spookier air to the gothic novel, pushing the envelope even further with the monster’s anguish of existence and the terror he throws at Dr. Frankenstein for creating him and then running away (similar to the Deist god that was hanging around Europe and the United States around that time). More so, Shelley set the precedent for women in science fiction right out of the gate—even if it wasn’t necessarily followed through until Uhura—and showed her contemporaries the value of a woman’s contribution to arts. Two hundred years later, and we’re still basing things off of her work, which says something about her activism to get her writing out there, in whatever genre she wanted, no matter how new or male sounding.
I admire Shelley most for her writing—if you haven’t sampled her work, I suggest that you pick up Frankenstein for some evocative summer reading. Still, it’s hard to forget that she comes from a fiercely political family. Her mother had been the vocal feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the perfect activist match for Shelley’s philosopher father, William Godwin. It’s no wonder then, raised around publishing and with a legacy as big as her late mothers, how Mary Shelley found the courage, as a girl, to begin one of the most famous writing careers the English-speaking world has ever seen.
It’s the magazine my mom urged me to get back when I was twelve and having mean girl issues with some of my friends. “I know it’s for older girls, but it seems like it’s about the stuff you’re facing now.” She was right. And I think that was intentional.
For my girls’s studies exploration this week, I’m taking a peek at what makes Seventeen magazine tick. In truth I haven’t cracked a teen magazine since my baby sister was in middle school. (I got fed up after two sentences, scoffing that there’s no way a thirteen-year-old really wrote the Who Wore It Better blurbs.) Before that, I think my last teen mag went out with dial-up. That really dates me, but you get the idea.
As I buzz through the relationship and life advice on the Seventeen site, I find what amounts to a mixed bag and total jumble of stuff contributing to our society’s ideal of girlhood. Most telling—to me, anyway—is the navigation menu. First comes Celebs, then Fashion, Beauty, THEN Life, then Prom. Organized, no doubt, for the topics’ popularity and clickability, the section is a revealing look at what teen girls are accessing when they come to Seventeen. The hierarchy is pretty clear, and it’s odd that the great articles about applying for college or decompressing after stress are hidden four deep under Life, while a parade of pretty stuff drowns out the first three spots. Not that there’s anything wrong with Pretty. It just could stand to switch places with Life.
One article that I’m a little on the fence about is titled “Hero Boy Carries Around Tampons and Pads to Support the Girls at His School.” On one hand, the guy is a high school kid who seems to have been making an earnest attempt to support girls. The article tells a decent story of a guy who believes in gender equality and squashing the idea that periods are icky and verboten as far as conversation goes. He’s really trying to make a difference here, but the article talks about detractor bullies who have attacked him for his menstrual solidarity.
But hang on. Why is this thing calling him a hero? For starters, there’s the hero/damsel trope, which hyper-girlie culture seems to love. When girls stand to face the horrors of menstruation, here comes a prince to save them. At the heart of this “hero” business is the idea that girls need a gentleman to swoop in and save them when they’re unprepared for their own flow. I’d like to think the “hero” bit was added tongue-in-cheek by the editors in a reflection of the relief that shoots through any girl who’s ever gone to school and realized too late that she needs a pad. But I think that’s just where the problem lies: Should we just be saying things, like “This guy is a hero!” if we don’t really mean that? Doesn’t that kind of thing just perpetuate the idea that girls who read Seventeen are helpless without their male allies? Most of the teen mag readers I knew as an adolescent were among the smart girls at school. After all, they were the readers. So this hero/damsel dichotomy didn’t really apply to them. This, to me, is a weird headline that promotes an unrealistic and culturally backward ideal of what Seventeen readers are and how they should relate across gender lines.
But at least, it is neat that we have guys finally talking about periods without freaking. So that’s a win.
I have two Kate Spade journals, and it was really hard not to bring home another one when I came home from City Creek this weekend. Mine are both black, in a shout-out to my love of simplicity and elegance. One says “Leave something to the imagination” in a gold sans serif, and the other is a hand-lettered quote: “With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?” The latter holds a series of terse notes from books I’m reading, perfect fodder for a blog post series. The more you write down what you read, the more you remember. It’s a goal I have, to be able to remember things as keenly as my dad remembers how they moved Abu Simbel when the new dam went in.
Enter my journal, and the things I want to remember about my most recent read, I Am Malala: The Girl who Stood up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.
1. Malala Yousafzai was named after an Afghan heroine—Malalai of Maiwand—who inspired defeat of the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan war. Malala’s father gave her that name to reinforce his teaching that girls are to be praised and valued in society every bit as much as boys. He has worked for all of Malala’s life to ensure that she understands her value and uses her voice to make her world a better place.
2. Pakistan was created as an Islamic state in 1947 after India gained its independence from British rule. Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded the new country as the world’s first Islamic state with a keen sense of religious freedom in the new territory. A series of overthrows gave Pakistan periods of both dictatorship and egalitarian rule, where citizens cycled between brutal and unfeeling leadership and egalitarian legislation.
3. Benazir Bhutto was the first female prime minister in the Islamic world, and she was eventually assassinated for her participation in the public sphere. Malala takes her example as a call for girls everywhere to feel at ease as leaders and educated thinkers. When I looked up women in leadership across the world, it’s interesting to note that many Middle Eastern countries are well ahead of the United States for women’s representation in government. The United States is below Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq but is only slightly ahead of the quite westernized UAE. Bhutto and other Middle Eastern women representing bravely in their governments really gives me pause about how the west views the east as inherently backward and uncivil toward women as authority figures. We are still waiting for our first woman president here in 2015 United States.
4. In Pashtun culture, white is a masculine color.
5. Malala’s father correctly notes that Maryam is named in the Koran when detractors try to say that women are not named there, deliberately, because they do not deserve a public voice. This is Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, who is a prophet in the Koran. Malala and her family have a knack for pointing out how Islam isn’t one big bad omen for women and shouldn’t be enforced that way.
6. Malala notes that thing about Khadijah—the prophet Mohammad’s first wife—being a once-married, older, savvy business owner, whom Mohammad worked for and adored. It goes to show that there are so many examples of strong women in Islam (like Aisha dictating hadith), and how the Taliban’s militancy often overlooks the positive light in favor of patriarchy and control. The piles of money in the book’s glossy picture spread show why this is a thing.
7. Malala’s pen name for her anonymous blog project was Gul Makai, from a Romeo and Juliet–esque Pashtun tale in which the girl, Gul Makai, plays a huge role in convincing the parents that the union is okay. Malala’s girl power and feminist activism comes from a very informed place and bears nuances that mark her as a revolutionary in world discourse on girls.
8. Against all literary elitism, Malala is both a Nobel Prize winner and a Twilight fan.
9. People can talk all they want about Malala only gaining worldwide recognition because she is a girl who was shot. At the end of the day, the fact remains that she engaged in so much brave activism before she became a target that she scared the Taliban into taking action to silence her. They took away her country and (temporarily) the nerve that made her smile, but they haven’t taken her voice or her faith in a better Islam.
10. Malala’s region of Pakistan experiences what it does because too few people speak up.
I have 92 books on my nightstand. To be fair, I’m slowly working my way through, but with required reading for grad school, and work requests pinging my email every eighty seconds, it’s pretty slow going. A few are nonfiction books I’m reading in between novels that make me cry in the tub about what it means to carry on aboard this hostile, unfriendly speck we call Earth. Sometimes—for sanity’s sake and to re-light the pilot in humanity’s boiler room—you just have to pause 60 pages from the end of Jude the Obscure and pick up Where the Girls Are or Unveiling Kate Chopin. But that only accounts for 3 of 92. And that nightstand is just one of the spots in my house that is literally—not figuratively—overrun with the printed word.
My sprawling book collection isn’t all that bad on the face of things, until you fold in a fierce pack-rat streak, disposable income, and at least a half a dozen bookish thrift shops that I could walk to. (I don’t though—instead I waste fuel, in direct opposition to the green ideology of Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring is about four down in the back-corner pile.) Once a month, or whenever I’ve had a day that isn’t awesome, I take out thirty bucks and see what all I can get my hands on. It really is a trip shopping for books at stores usually praised for their gently cigarette-burned ’70s furniture. I feel like I never really know what I’m going to find crammed between copies of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and every James Michener phone book ever. And I’m always surprised by what people have decided to give up.
Nestled, as I am, in the conservative Main Street berg of Provo, I always go to the Mormon-run thrift superstore with a hint of hesitation. “I cleaned out everything moving or remotely incendiary last month,” I moan to myself with unfair intellectual elitism. “If I waste my time, I’m bound to be up to my tits in pregnancy how-to’s and DOS textbooks.” Still, I go. I skip the LDS section (because I’ve promised Neil I’ll stop bringing home laughably outdated homemaking tips and Korean translations of The Book of Mormon), but before I’ve made it to the end of the first four-foot section of shelving, my arms are overloaded and I’m dropping shit everywhere. By the end of the three long rows that I carefully scan for gems, there’s always some guy by the magazines who offers—more concerned than anything—to carry my books, or who cracks wise about how I should get a library card. I then edge through the clusters of meandering shoppers and palpable B.O. (which, as an un-showered, pajama-clad freelancer, I’m certainly contributing to) and head to the registers. I separate my finds into price-specific piles to make it easier for the cashier. “Three for $3, six for $2, seven for $1, three for 50 cents,” she says. It’s almost always under $30, yet I walk away with an armload of stuff that has to be double-bagged to avoid my having to pick up a spilled pile of paper and glue and cardboard halfway to my car. My hands are definitely grimier for the experience, but I feel like Bonny of “and Clyde” fame as I hurry away with all the humanity and life that’s printed on those thousands of pages. For less than what it costs to get my nails did or buy a mildly-fancy toaster, I own the ideas that brilliant people have slaved over, and whenever I feel like it I can dig through my overstuffed bookshelves and find that one I bought forever ago and now feel like crying about in the tub.
On the trip before last I hungrily yanked George Sand’s Indiana and the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay from the shelves. I gasped and almost yanked Neil’s arm out of alignment once when I saw Silent Spring, complete with a retro-patterned 1960s ex-library cover. I’ve seen countless books I already have, and surprisingly lots that go along with my feminist lit bent. Book hunting in the heart of Conservatown has given me things like Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, Ella Cara Deloria’s anthropological Native American narrative Waterlily, a Chicana poetry anthology, the writings of Aphra Behn and Phyllis Wheatley, feminist literary criticism, Adrienne Rich, and the whole of Virginia Woolf minus The Three Guineas.
This cornucopia of intellectual gender studies and quality women’s literature is fairly opposite from what I expected of a town that is known as the Traditional Gender Roles capital of the reddest of red states. But that’s just another bullet point on my practical gender studies self-lecture tour: stop thinking in stereotypes. Just because the town is full of by-the-book Bible types doesn’t mean that these people aren’t smart. I’m always fighting that stereotype when non-Mormons are surprised that I went to BYU—”But, you’re so smart”—and even though I spend quite a bit of my time defending where I went to school as a scientific and intellectual font of knowledge, with one of the best libraries pretty much ever, I still buy into that crap about how a culture that pushes traditional families and stay-at-home wifery must be entirely backwards with regard to its intellectual habits. True, I have met quite a few Mormons who forget what they learned in BYU lecture halls about evolution being a thing, or bell hooks having a point about feminism belonging to more than just rich white ladies. But for the most part, this town has a remarkable population of people who know what’s out there and make informed decisions. In short, people who read. Which is, after all, what being religious is really all about.
I think my compulsive reading—and need for cheap books that I could write all over—sprang from the Mormon thing, or maybe it was just natural that I started to discover the world around me while I happened to be in college. The idea of religion taught me—if nothing else—that it’s important to engage with a text instead of just dragging your eyes over the pages, with one eye on Road Rules, so you could say that you’d read something. After all, religion is one of those things that we came up with, along with agriculture and government and cave paintings, to help us put some order to things so we could see beyond the cycle of birth, toil, and death. When we started folding those solutions into literature, we captured a unique power to sort things out in ways both more individual and universal, all at once. You can read a good novel the second, fifth, or eleventh time and learn something completely new about life or yourself, and people are literally giving these things away to musty boneyards filled with junk.
The guy by the magazines is definitely right about the library card (though I do have one). But while I can, I’ll be the crazy lady who fills every available surface with second-hand books that smell like cheap paper and someone’s basement. Even though I look at my 92 bedside reads (not to mention the rest of my hoarde, from paperback thrillers to the classics) and confront the impossibility of ever reading everything I want to, I know I’ll keep adding every time I see something promising. There is sure to be a time for everything, even DOS. My to-read list will always get longer, not shorter. But I’ve decided that’s a good thing. Better there be too many thoughts and dreams on paper, infinite like our own star-dust makeup, than too few.
For my girls’ studies class this week, we were assigned to watch the 2012 documentary The Interruptors, featuring nonviolent activist and my new hero Ameena Matthews. I won’t lie—the film’s a tough watch. The story centers on interpersonal violence and homicide in the incendiary Chicago neighborhood of Englewood, which is the site of daily shootings and—interesting tidbit—the homeland of the creepy 1890s serial murderer from The Devil in the White City. It’s a tough neck of the urban woods, and the documentary shows some unique community organizing efforts at quelling violence when the traditional tools aren’t enough.
It’s an understatement to say that people in this neighborhood deal with elevated levels of violence. On a good day, you can hear shots ring out down the street, and shit gets stolen from cars with a regularity that gives certain sections of town a George Miller feel. I’m an Illinois native with a father and brother who regularly work union carpentry and plumbing jobs (respectively) in Englewood and other rough Chicago climes. Their experience confirms what I saw on The Interruptors. People shoot at each other. People threaten. People are also shot at and get threatened. It can be a scary and tense place, and it’s a lot of people’s home.
Enter the Interruptors and Ameena Matthews, concerned mediators whose goal is to re-educate and stop violent situations before someone gets killed. This group felt a little different from what I’ve typically thought of as a neighborhood watch group—many in the group are current or former gangsters. Their message isn’t to get rid of their alliances or their gangs’ crime. It’s to save lives, pure and simple.
Ameena Matthews is a youngish mother who patrols Englewood in a hijab as a proselyte for her group’s philosophy of interpersonal understanding and nonviolence. Coming as she does from a devout faith system, she could easily harangue her audiences from a soap box, but she knows that won’t work. What she, and her group, does smacks of vigilante justice with a little bit of Gandhi and Biggie Smalls thrown in. She starts off by agreeing with young people who threaten to kill each other over a five-dollar bag of weed. She’s been where they’ve been. She knows what it’s like to get caught in the typical crime pattern of “just one more big score,” she knows that you have to command respect, and she knows what that thinking does to people. She knows where the violence comes from, and she’s simply had enough.
The film shows Ameena and other activists hitting the streets to spread the word that it’s not worth the risks to kill over turf or money or women or anything, really. The group locates the violence problem as learned behavior, what an epidemiologist in the film calls a problem of “bad behavior, not bad people.” Ameena stands amid a group of squabbling Chicagoans and places her hand on a young boy, asking what favors we’re all doing this kid by resolving conflicts with blood. She asks, if he makes a bad choice and ends up in prison for life, is that on him, or on all of us? To her and to the group, common ground, education, tolerance, and a simple attitude of “it ain’t worth it” are the right tools to combat violence in a part of town where even the cops are scared to go.
As my screen dipped to black at the end of the film, I saw my reflection in my shiny iMac monitor (which felt an awful lot like one of those childhood books that ends with a mirror and says, “How about you?“). I come from a safe, small-town neighborhood, even though my family often works in unsafe urban neighborhoods, and I live in one of the lowest per-capita municipalities for crime in the known universe. The most jarring sign of neighborhood crime for me was that one embankment that got tagged and then immediately re-painted by the city. It’s just not in my backyard on a daily basis, so it’s always been easy for me to think of interpersonal violence as a distinctly urban problem, something that police officers and legislation can fix. As I grow though—and dig deeper in graduate work and a Malcom X-ian desire to make a library my alma mater—I’m starting to read and absorb more personal stories from the front lines of urban violence that show me how and why these things happen, and how it’s not something we should just throw cops at. In her book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson interviews southern migrant and former sharecropper Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, who at one point in the book discusses her participation in her neighborhood watch group in Chicago. Ida Mae talks about buying her first home in Chicago after working like crazy for Campbell’s, recounting the white flight panic that devalued homes in her neck of town. What was once a happy and safe neighborhood turned quickly into an area that social bigotry and racism devalued and morphed into a site for under-policing, little urban maintenance, and plummeting home and business values. As Ida Mae grew into retirement, she watched from her window as kids she knew bought and sold drugs, committed theft, and fought in the streets. She had the unique perspective of watching all of this happen over a period of decades. So when she stood at her community watch meetings, she located the fault on how we raise our kids and on what generations of disenfranchisement can do to people. She regularly starts a dialog with the violent types and other criminals prowling her neighborhood, knowing that it’s the system that’s broken, rather than the people trapped within it. For Ida Mae and for Ameena—both certifiable bad asses by my estimate—the tools of change don’t come from incarceration or preachiness but from mutual understanding and mediation. These activists teach us to think of violence in a different, and actually effective, way. It’s bold. It’s inspiring. And, as their progress shows, it just might work.
Maybe it’s just the bed head and the yelling, but Courtney Love sort of changed the way I thought about the 1962 cage-rattler “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss).” I’m a typical millennial rat in that my mind immediately goes to a “savage times” conclusion that this song was just written in a time when smacking up your old lady out of jealousy was just fine. But it really didn’t happen like that. The song was written with an irony that my era-elitism totally missed at first glance. Rather than endorsing violence, the song is actually a poignant—and quite intentional—reflection of domestic violence and the way we all just kind of accept it when it happens to us.
While the original rendition by R&B girl group The Crystals is as much an indictment of domestic, gender-based violence as the ratty, third-wave sensibility roared forth by Courtney Love and Hole decades later, the idea came home a lot more clearly to me when framed in tones marked by ’90s anger rather than trilling with all the girly charm of ’60s divahood.
After being asked to think of this song critically and to engage with it as a feminist text, I learned from the Interwebs that the song was originally released with a genuine, Courtney Loveian nod to feminism, decrying female deference to male brutality as a dangerous confusion with real love. The original song slightly predated Audre Lorde’s pro-anger branch of feminism and Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary” brand of angry self-defense, so the song’s anti-violence message is couched in the script of lulling, feminine R&B. The 1960s original employs a handful of deliberately foreboding elements—heavy drum beats and a sluggish tempo reminiscent of a brainwashing chant—but the effect is largely a major-key, typical girl-group progression. In that way, the song is a dizzyingly modern art piece on how we intentionally camouflage relationship violence as romantic jealousy and conflate a desire to physically harm a straying other, with genuine love. Knowing the song’s background and authorship, it’s clear that the relatively chipper and upbeat tone is intentional. It’s meant to stand as a counterpoint between violence and the almost narcotic indifference of the abused, the way that women back then had a knack for allowing this kind of thing in a socially reinforced feminine deference. But the song’s veiled happy attitude didn’t stop people from noticing that the song sounds a lot like an anthem to abuse, released at a time when Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was just about to make mass-digestible the work of Simone de Beauvoir, and when the womanist movement had enough trouble squashing Jim Crow, let alone achieving gender parity. In that context, and without knowing that the song was written specifically to show how ludicrous it is to accept violence as love, it’s easy to see why people wanted this thing pulled from the air waves for sending a brutal message.
Jump forward a few decades and put the same words in the mouth of a punk rocker, and the message seems a little more clear. Hole’s version feels like it’s been rendered in a more depressing key (though after years of neglecting my music theory books in favor of Kate Millett, I can’t be certain) and Love’s vocal style lends the feminist reading that Lorde and X and others fought for when they said it was okay to be angry to get your point across and affect real change. In Love’s mouth, “He Hit Me” feels less like The Crystals’ numb act of putting on a good face and more like the cry of a woman who has accepted this very real violence against her. The newer version feels like a throwback to the 1960s sentiment that guys will do that when they get jealous, that it was just as “not okay” back then as it is today, yet it’s still happening. Love’s version feels tired, beaten, defeated. As such, it marks a very exhausted feminist question of why this kind of thing still needs to be said. Her portrayal of the same poetry, decades later and in the aesthetic of anger and defeat, reminds us that this isn’t a “women back then” thing, but a “women all the time” thing.
To break it down further, the 1960s version feels to me, with its happier overall tone, like a snarky nod to everything that was expected of women before the second wave really got going. It’s fairly pretty and adheres to a standard of mainstream art that requires aesthetic, beauty, and delicacy from women. When we move the same lyrics and progressions a few decades later to Hole, when it’s more acceptable for a bona fide artist to let down her beehive and be a little bit messier and angrier, the nuances of the first version snap into clear focus. Listen to the two back to back, and it’s easy to hear a mother and a daughter singing the same sad song, only with yet another generation of oppression folded into the end product. It’s an interesting study in oppression versus time. Americans talk all the time about our post-feminist utopia, where thongs grow on trees and women can get any job they want and be June Clever, Samantha Jones, and Wonder Woman all rolled into one. But is that really where we are? Have we really gotten anywhere since 1962, when we sang about taking a backhand with womanly grace and understanding? Or will this song always hit too many women, way too hard?
“Wannabe” by Spice Girls—That’s right: Spice Girls. Strap in. This was the second recording I bought with my own money, the first being a now-worn-out tape single of “Macarena” and with some other B-side on it (who cares—Macarena!). It was the first CD I’d bought myself, and I’ll always see its iridescent shimmer when I think of the monetary freedom that comes from one’s first and poorly managed babysitting gig. As I recall, “Wannabe” was the opening track, and like it or not, it’s infectious. (So is lice, though, so…there’s that.) In all honestly, we all bought into the Girl Power messages that Spice Girls were selling. We were just happy to see another ’90s manifestation of empowerment, we little third wavers who didn’t yet know what feminism was. The producers were actually genius in branding each Spice with an adjective—as a middle school track star who happened to be a redhead, I fell somewhere between Sporty and Ginger on the Spice continuum. More than flat descriptions, the adjectives provided not just little boxes we could check to match our own interests but also performances to which we could mold ourselves. I liked to think that on a good day I was as alluring as Sexy Spice or as forthright as Scary Spice. Retrospectively, the world of Spice is a deliberate market answer to rising Title IX girlhood and at best a parody of feminist rhetoric. But for an eleven year old in small-town Illinois, that felt just right.
“Paradise by the Dashboard Light” by Meat Loaf—In 1988 my mom inherited a decent sound system from her late brother. My parents went out right away to furnish their new “entertainment center” CD slots and came back with a handful of their favorites from high school. After playing The Little Mermaid soundtrack and Classical Music for Fine Dining on a loop, my mom asked me to put on something else. I found my dad’s Meat Loaf CD, Bat out of Hell. Paradise by the Dashboard Light stood as unequivocally the best composed of the entire album. I loved the crisp voices along with the countryesque female vocalist’s timbre, and I stood in awe at its complex progression between themes (although I wouldn’t be able to put words to that until I became a hopeless band nerd in middle school). Apart from the finer points of music nuance, what “Paradise” taught me was that people have sex at the wizened age of seventeen, get pregnant, and get married. Seventeen is the time for growing up, for babies, for family, for graduating from a high schooler to a grown-up. Oh, and boys don’t really want any of that. Just the sex part. Which, of course, leads to a scenario where you have to get married and be miserable forever. I had mixed feelings about my own “end of time” and who I’d be praying to be rid of at that point.
“1979” by Smashing Pumpkins—The opening riff and base line take me right back to 1995 and the trip to Louis Joliet Mall with my big brother, Shaun, to buy an album that had just come out. Our cousin Doug loved Pumpkins, practically lived in the music. My brother idolized him. I idolized my brother. He was my benchmark for “cool” and in the way of big brothers, he always will be. He’s the reason I played the tomboy, discovered the glory of toy tractors and dirt hills, and explored a pirated tape labeled “Return of Jedi” in pink magic marker. When he heard Doug talking about the new Pumpkins album—two discs!—he made a mental note to pick it up the second it dropped. We went. Together, we listened. He showed me the songs he’d heard from the pre-release, and long after I thought I’d have been bored, we sat rapt as “1979” and “Galapagos” washed us to the state park and then to another world. We witnessed metal and poetry through the vessel of Billy Corgan’s forgivable nasal. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I’d always thought then of the Pumpkins as his band. But really, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the one album I switch to when I’m scared that the plane I’m on will crash into a dark gorge. It’s my constant. I don’t think Shaun knows that, but maybe he should.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” cover by Nicki French—The smell of pizza wafting from the snack bar. The deodorizer they used on the roller skates—I always got the black speed skates with orange wheels and stoppers. The disinfectant they used in the bathrooms, where you had to somehow rise from peeing with wheels strapped to your feet. And that sick and glorious feeling of your best friend edging up to a boy you like, to ask him to couple skate with you. The smell of his sweat, that curls his naturally wavy hair, and the beat of your heart after he says yes. After Shania fades, Nicki French comes on and drives home that ecstasy with a cover of “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Engineered for dancing, that cover had it going on in every sense of the seventh-grade experience. It was a heartfelt song about the relationships that mired us all, but it was upbeat and catchy. The quick pulse lent that old-timey “sad song” an optimistic bent that said, “Hey! Things might suck now, but they can change. Jazz Hands!” It’s interesting to think about how the girly crowd pleasers like this affected us. All the girls would get together, and even if they were tired they would skate for this song, singing along so loudly that our voices would blow past the ever-rotating disco ball and up to the dark. In song, we were a community. We were sisters. We were alive.
“Thinking of You (I Drive Myself Crazy)” by N Sync—The first time I saw this video I teared up for having witnessed the most sensitive and tragic beauty of my young and theretofore philistine life. I remember writing in my journal how profound it was—these men were singing about how wrong they had been to dump the perfect girl, and had found themselves in the ultimate of teen tragedies: the mental ward. I think we all, as adolescents, went through an irritatingly dramatic period in which we liked to think that being an adult meant nothing but dire situations like relationship-induced madness. That’s where I was when this thing popped up on MTV. Back then Justin Timberlake wasn’t the bona fide silly billy he is now—cahooting, as he does, on hilarities with the likes of the genuinely wonderful Andy Samberg—and we (young girls anyway) all thought N Sync was just a group of sensitive guy friends who decided over cheese fries and cry sessions one day to form a band. If my first destruction of innocence was learning that Santa is just an off-season party clown and temporary mall employee, learning about the boy band veneer was a narrowly close second. Apart from how cartoonishly (yet unintentionally) silly this song is now, it’s interesting that I located profundity within the bounds of a boy learning how great I was, after I’d walked away. In a way, it threw shadows of empowerment at my ability to walk away from what I saw as hot boys and poetry, but at the same time, it’s interesting that the music did exactly what it was engineered to: Affect a tween girl and make her think that boys were sensitive, that middle school relationships are totally like that, and that once again, Love is the greatest story ever told.
“American Patrol” by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra—A chilly day at Diamond Park. It was war, and some of our friends were shipping out to the Middle East. Kids we’d grown up with, kids my brother had played in little league and earned Webelo bages with, were going overseas to shoot people. We held a pop war rally to send them off. We didn’t have a lot of patriotic literature, so Glenn Miller’s classic World War II charts made up a reasonably fitting repertoire. I’d practiced and performed the song many times as lead alto in the high school jazz band—the highest aspiration of a sax player in Main Street, USA—but as I blew out the pick-up lick into bar one under a flurry of American flags, I teared up. Take away party lines, and it’s easy to see that something got into all of us after 9/11 that drew us close. If not blood lust, it was a sense of community that we all shared. We were American. I was sixteen. I would go on to play for ten more years and counting. But I’ll never forget that rally—the friends who left, the totally different ones who came back, our lost innocence, the reality that people will crash planes into skyscrapers on purpose, and the awakening that it’s time to start caring about things both greater and smaller than our little town in the middle of the world.
This week I encountered another MTV gem for the first time: Sixteen and Pregnant. The episode I watched dealt with Iowa teen Farrah, a high school cheerleader. The show chronicles her trip from teen with a boyfriend, to single mom.
At the opening of the episode, Farrah announces in voice-over that she will be tackling the pregnancy solo. As she thinks through her options—keeping her baby or putting her up for adoption—Farrah goes against her ever-logical mother’s recommendation of adoption. From this point forward, it’s all on Farrah, with a little support from her family.
“I don’t want to sound needy, but how much…would you help a little bit?” Farrah asks her mother one night after staying up with the fussy baby. Wanting to teach her daughter independence, Farrah’s mother steps back and leaves the ball in her daughter’s court. As a single, first-time mom, Farrah realizes she’s bitten of a hefty amount of physical and emotional stress that is much harder to tackle than she’d hoped.
As the episode progresses, we see Farrah arguing with her mother, the accused “control freak” who believes she is doing her best for her daughter and granddaughter. The whole thing sets Farrah into tears more than once, and her sign-off reveals a less-than-happy ending to the show along with a hopeful ideal of the future. Through it all, the young mother is happy that she is now raising her child. She knows that it’ll be a long road, but she’s committed to teaching her daughter everything she needs to know.
“I want her to know what’s a good relationship and what’s a bad relationship,” says Farrah, of her new daughter, Sophia. The baby’s father had been the jealous type, and Farrah broke it off when she learned of her pregnancy because she herself understood the difference between having a jealous boyfriend and being alone. This feminist inclusion surprised me, based on my expectations formed by the other MTV reality shows I’ve seen. It struck me as progressive to show a teenager who not only grapples with being a single mother but does so at her own choosing, with the understanding that tackling parenthood alone is better than forcing a two-parent situation with an abusive or jealous partner.
On the other hand, Sixteen and Pregnant as a whole seems to follow the typical scripts about teenage pregnancy: that teenagers underestimate the work and responsibility involved in caring for a child (as with Farrah’s episode), or that having a baby even within a happy, committed relationship isn’t as easy as it looks (as with another episode, featuring teenage Tennessee mother Maci). The episodes seem to touch on good and bad, focusing on parenting hardships like scraping together enough money for the baby, and making decisions about personal schedules as well as the very choice of how the baby will be raised. When comparing the show to a documentary-style piece, The Gloucester Eighteen, it’s interesting to note the holes that MTV leaves in the pregnant teen narrative. The most striking difference to me was that in the Gloucester profile of eighteen girls who became pregnant during the same school year, most seemed to be of middle or working class, while the MTV girls are—unsurprisingly—from affluent families. The MTV perspective shows well-made-up girls of means (is that—yes! A smokey eye and updo in the delivery room!) making choices about whether to keep their babies, working desk jobs while still in high school, going to college as a matter of course, receiving free daycare from family, and driving around in nice cars that they didn’t necessarily have to pay for. One girl featured on MTV gets a two-level apartment with her boyfriend—noting that she had to save up for the microfiber furniture—and another girl lives in her poshly decorated bedroom on the upper floor of her parents’ slickly restored Council Bluffs bungalow. The teens featured in the Gloucester documentary, however, have jobs at places like bait shops and Dunkin’ Donuts. They have to quit high school, while the MTV girls I saw both went on the accelerated track to graduate and head off to college. Finally, coming from more affluent means, I presume the MTV girls had more access to information about safe sex than one Boston-area girl featured in Gloucester, who lacked any information about sex and became pregnant at twelve.
All of this is not to say that MTV didn’t try to convey how hard teenage pregnancy is. There are moments in the show that seem to glorify pregnancy just a little bit—having a fun baby shower with lifelong girlfriends, or announcing that the teenage boyfriend has proposed with a rock bigger than most adult women receive. But for the most part, the intent seems to be to get teen viewers to walk away during the credits, going, “Soooo glad that’s not me.” It’s just that maybe there’s more to illustrate than the plight of cheerleaders who have well-off parents and the prospect of working at the lucrative family business, sans professional skills or college education. They hit on the basics of teen pregnancy prevention—letting girls know that babies are money sponges, watching a girl tearily smear her eye makeup after realizing she can’t take her baby to the gym—but they fail to mention the important stuff that can keep girls from being thrust unwittingly into that situation in the first place: the politics of sex ed in US school systems, or the availability and affordability of child care. The tone of Sixteen and Pregnant feels less ridiculous and ever so slightly less scripted than other reality fiascos, so it seems to me that MTV has undertaken an earnest push to nip teen pregnancy in the bud. The MTV website does offer information about safe sex and links to a Bedsider.org video describing available birth control methods, but none of that is mentioned at any helpful length in the show itself. I think to make this show stick with teenagers—I mean, as something beyond a fun soap opera experience—MTV would do well to mention more prevention than dwelling on the financial and energy-driven side of going to bed a teen and waking up, a mom.
In 2013 I was designing the cover for the book Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions, an interfaith collection of memoir-style essays, and threw out a hail Mary to my art director: Was the anthology still looking for submissions? When I heard that the editors were still hungry to find work by emerging authors, I forced myself to write something and send it in. It was an opportunity to at least be seen, to have my personal writing read by editors who matter. Gearing up for a polite rejection note, I scribbled out thousands of words, refined them into a story, and hit Send. What I got from the editor a few days later surprised me.
Congratulations. Encouragement. Acceptance. I would be in a book.
Over the next few months I worked closely with the anthology’s editors, Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, to polish my work into something that would flow effortlessly to our readers. The author–editor experience was nothing I hadn’t seen before. This time, though, my nerves tensed a bit with the realization that I was working with a personal story—not to mention the complex idea of sex.
I open the essay with an account of playing author in my mom’s library, using one of her many romance novels as my pretend life’s work:
“One day I held a reading before a corps of taffeta-clad Barbie dolls and cracked open a volume at its midpoint to a randomly selected paragraph. I was new to reading but the best in my class, so I wavered only a little as my tentative, little-girl voice visited the subjects of thrusting manhood, supple breasts, and coming together as one. My face grew flush, and I gently closed the book, blushing in to my appliquéd teddy bear sweatshirt.”
My mother’s library had been my first primer on sex, with a few romance novels like that one, plus a litany of scientific books she’d consulted heavily in college, while I was still little. I looked up to her and knew that those books meant business, so whenever I got the chance I crept into the library and took down a book. And that’s how I came to understand the mechanics of childbearing, breast feeding, and impressing hunky gents named Darius or Raul. With the word itself unspoken in the house, I had turned to print to fill in the blanks. Only slightly later, I turned to TV, noticing the word cropping up from The Simpsons to Seinfeld—two shows that my brother and I were allowed to watch, as non-religious Midwestern kids.
What I learned, I didn’t really absorb. I knew that sex was a thing, and if forced to think about it, I pictured something similar to what Sloane Crosley recounts in I Was Told There’d Be Cake: a sort of nebulous private act, between a mom and a dad, where the woman wears sexy lingerie and heels. I didn’t even need sex until I began to see it being sold to me from everywhere. As a Victoria’s Secret subscriber, my mom brought in a new catalog from our mailbox every few weeks, and I often flipped though with what began as sheer curiosity and became increasingly inquisitive as I grew older.
In high school, when sex began to matter, I was taught at school a comprehensive program that covered everything from the How/Why to the And Then: consequences that ran the gamut from pregnancy to a positive HIV test. In the company of my second-period peers I sat through taped after-school specials that showed the consequences of having sex, or the ills of getting “too serious” in high school. My mom briefly mentioned sex, but only after I’d been dating my boyfriend for a while, and only then to tell me which specific brand of condoms to stay away from.
“Don’t use that kind. They break!” she’d said in a stage whisper, with a similar tone used for such phrases as “Doing…that” (having your period) or “Going potty” (explosive diarrhea). She’d always communicated the information but done so under the pretense that she was being spied on, that speaking normally would trigger the hidden microphones and catch her on tape saying something embarrassing about the human body. I knew I could talk to her, but like any other news outlet available to kids, she unwittingly communicated that certain topics weren’t spoken of too freely.
So started my primer to sex. The rest, I learned from religion, which I made a fixture in my life at age fifteen. The messages seemed to come from everywhere, but never in a useful way. Sex was scary, weighty, and irrevocable. It spoke volumes about who you were as a person. Coming from that background, an ultra-conservative person had to switch gears, upon marriage, to thinking of sex as a beautiful act. I too had to forget everything I’d been taught and learn to think of something dirty as something that was not only clean but ordained as almost a sacrament.
I grew to see things differently from what my religion had proposed, and I even branched out to learn on my own, beyond the conservatism of religious discourse and the damage of my ex-husband’s unrealistic porn-bred expectations. I learned to think of sex as something in between those two extremes. And now, on days when I entertain the possibility of someday rearing a child of my own, I like to think I’ll speak above a whisper, and do everything my mother tried to do and more. Just to set the record straight.
Tales from the mouth of a wolf
New England Preppy
My humble journey into literature
The world as I see it
Alliteration, titillation, emancipation