(Months ago, where this blog was still alive and read by a couple of people, I wrote that and didn’t find it very relevant. These days, I can’t open a French newspaper without being assailed by reactionary people up and against what they have identified as “la théorie du Genre”. The terrible terrible idea to […]
As some of the readers of this blog know, I was recently in a production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’. In fact, many of you came to see it, and I had people from all across the world emailing me words of encouragement, which I really appreciate – so I want to begin this post by thanking you all for that.
I have decided to write this post because I think it is important that I share what being in ‘The Vagina Monologues’ was like. I’m aware that audience members only experience the cast’s performances on the night, but do not get much insight in to things like: the transformation many cast members underwent, the revelations made during rehearsals or the feelings experienced while performing the monologues.
Firstly, I thought I would tell those who do not know about my role in the monologues.
It was certainly a bold casting decision on the part of the directors – I was chosen to perform the monologue ‘Reclaiming Cunt’.
I think a number of people might wince just at reading the word ‘cunt’, and understand that this is a hard monologue to grapple with if you struggle with that word. Plus, the orgasm sounds half way through the monologue make it even more of a challenge to perform. Yes, saying the ‘c word’ and moaning orgasmically in public – I think that is quite a tall order for anyone.
For those who do not know, I am an overly polite English girl. My voice is stereotypically English (think along the lines of Julie Andrews or Kate Winslet) and whilst I am getting better at it (especially after the monologues), I do have to work on not being too inhibited. Therefore, when I found out what my monologue was I was nervous about how it could be performed by me – the very antithesis of the wonderfully liberated American women I had watched perform it on youtube. But hey, I’ve shouted ‘cunt’ and moaned in front of over roughly four hundred people now – I think I’ve done rather well with letting my guard down.
Now that you have a flavour of what I was involved in, I would like to share the aspects of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ that the audience is not always able to access: what I understand the importance of the monologues to be, the experience of working with the rest of my cast, and my personal journey towards ‘reclaiming cunt’.
To begin with, why I believe that the monologues are so important.
‘The Vagina Monologues’ (1996) were created out of Eve Ensler’s ‘Vagina Interviews’. Eve has interviewed women about their vaginas, sex, relationships etc. all across the world. Some of my favourite recurring questions that women have been asked are if their vaginas wore outfits and could speak what would they wear and say? What great questions – think about it. (My vagina would adorn itself with wild flowers and instead of saying things, I think it would sing a lot). The content of the monologues draws from these interviews. The topics the entire production spans is tremendous. Pubic hair, various names for vaginas, orgasms, the way vaginas look, female ejaculation, cervical exams, rape, the clitoris, moaning, masturbation, genital mutilation, birth – to name a few. Furthermore, the monologues are constantly evolving. Eve edits them and writes a new monologue addressing current issues every year.
I think this is part of what makes the monologues so unique, and significant, not only for women, but society as a whole. While watching it there are so many topics you can relate to (maybe things you have never openly discussed) or learn about (there are so many aspects of the female experience we can remain blind to). The monologues provide an outlet to discuss topics like those mentioned above – and I think one of the greatest challenges to feminism is finding the space or means for women to express concerns, or just be able to talk openly about their experiences. I’ve often found that women struggle to discuss issues close to them. I think it is notable that in our first cast meeting we were all asked what drove us to be part of the monologues and that my response was that I’m British and a girl – so I feel that on two fronts. Thanks to my nationality and gender I feel that I’m often expected to be reserved – a ‘good’, quiet British girl. I wanted to push myself to defy this and saw the monologues as a place I could do so. I think it is so important for women to engage with and feel comfortable in themselves – the monologues, to me, serve as a means to raise issues people are less aware of, and give women a voice.
Now, to discuss my beautiful cast members.
Each production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’ is different. Each production consists of a different group of women (or sometimes men depending on the director’s vision), with different backgrounds, that they bring to their performances. I think it is not unusual in theatre for actors to bring a personal element to their performance. But, in the monologues I think it is unavoidable – the subjects are so sensitive that performers have to be vulnerable. This is part of why I loved my cast – and what I take my hat off to our directors (Marian and Teddy) for – our cast was so varied. We were all of different ages, academic backgrounds, cultures, sexual backgrounds etc. I think that really showed in our performances. The audience was able to witness, through all of us, how diverse and uniquely beautiful women can be.
However, the audience had just over an hour to see what all of the wonderful women in my cast are like. Whereas, I had the joy of getting to know and watch my cast mates grow over months. Being part of the monologues was like being part of a family (a happy family of ‘vagina warriors’ – that’s what we ended up being called). This close, family atmosphere did not just appear from the first day. It developed because being in the monologues is highly cathartic. It was impossible to be so vulnerable in your performance and not share that with the other people you were working with. Naturally, what is said amongst the vagina warriors, stays with the vagina warriors – so no details – but, a large number of my cast mates shared sensitive information with me. As a result, I became even more in awe of them as I got to watch them fight their demons and share themselves so openly on stage. It was eye-opening and humbling to work with so many strong, brave women. We all rose up (like true warriors), opened ourselves up to the audience and supported each other through the whole process. I ended every performance not only feeling proud of myself, but proud of the amazing women I was lucky enough to work with.
Last, but not least, my personal journey through the monologues.
As I mentioned earlier, when I was given my monologue I was nervous. Before being cast in the monologues I could not say the dreaded ‘c word’ at all. In fact, the first time I brought myself to say it properly and clearly was in my audition. I never thought I would actually perform the monologue (honestly, I did not think I would get cast) – I took my audition as a small moment to let myself go and something to look back on as ‘that time I pushed myself to be bold’. Well, when I found out that I would in fact be required to say ‘cunt’ hundreds of times in rehearsal and then eventually on stage, I realised that my small outburst where I let my confident alter-ego roam free would have to be prolonged.
So, moving from my audition, through rehearsals, to the final performances was a difficult, but ultimately rewarding experience. I find it easy to withdraw and be a ‘quiet, well-behaved English girl’ when I feel vulnerable. I knew that to do justice to this monologue I had to break that. I was determined to push myself out of my comfort zone and perform it properly – I owed that to the women Eve Ensler interviewed, my cast, my directors, myself and all of the women across the world who do not have opportunities to be vocal or powerful. So many women in the world are denied a voice – the privilege I had been given of a chance to be vocal was not something to squander.
I came to learn to say ‘cunt’. This seems so ridiculous to me now, but it honestly took weeks and weeks of just making myself say it over and over again. Now I am able to say it without a second thought. In fact, over time I really came to love saying ‘cunt’. Every performance I would stand in the centre of the stage, ready to say my first line – ‘I call it cunt’ – and would feel a smile already forming. I felt so powerful, ready to unleash this word upon the audience and show people that women can say (in fact, ‘reclaim’) the word ‘cunt’ and enjoy it.
Interestingly, the mother of one of my friends told that me I was ‘too nice’ to say ‘cunt when she discovered that I was performing this monologue. That just made me love my monologue even more – I wanted to show that even ‘nice girls’ can say ‘cunt’. That is what this monologue is about – defying convention and reclaiming the ‘c word’. Being told that you are a ‘nice girl’ is a bit of a double edged sword. Of course it is always lovely to hear that someone thinks you are nice – and I would only ever want to be respectful of others and make that impression. But, at the same time, being a ‘nice girl’ can be limiting. A nice girl doesn’t make a fuss, a nice girl often accommodates others before herself, a nice girl doesn’t say ‘nasty’ words like ‘cunt’. In a way, being a nice girl can silence you. Women can be made to feel like they cannot be outspoken or assertive because that’s not ‘nice’. Even on the basic level of reclaiming cunt, you can be told that you should not do that because you are a nice girl. I think my monologue, ‘Reclaiming Cunt’, shows you that is not the case. Any girl (including nice girls) can take that word and revel in it. And that’s where I commend the work of my directors once again – to take a voice like mine (with all its associations of politeness, reservedness etc.) and have me reclaiming cunt showed exactly that.
There was another aspect of my monologue that I battled with – in some respects more so than saying ‘cunt’. Making orgasm noises. At one point in ‘Reclaiming Cunt’ a number of words beginning with ‘u’ are recited – ‘under, up, urge’ – and then those words are followed by ‘ugh. ugh.’ It seems logical that those ‘ugh’s are interpreted as orgasmic – the words before them can all be understood sexually, and build towards a climax. Furthermore, all of the performances of the monologue I watched out youtube interpreted the ‘ugh’s that way.
Making those noises was intimidating – they are particularly intimate, and certainly make you feel exposed in front of people you do not know (and people you do know come to think of it!). I was frightened. I was afraid to share such intimate noises with strangers, and to sexualise myself. I am not, and never have been, a girl to turn heads or be considered particularly sexy – and, in a way, that is a safe place to be.
At the beginning of the rehearsal process I was not committing to my moans. I made them rather quickly and half-heartedly. It was obvious how uncomfortable I was. As a solution, my director suggested that I could perform my ‘ugh’s like a British expression of excitement instead. I’m afraid this is a sound rather hard to articulate in words – think of a group of British people in the countryside, playing croquet and saying things like ‘Ugh! Yes! Jolly good!’ It’s a deep, short, satisfied burst of sound, often accompanied by a little fist pump. For a couple of rehearsals I made happy British sounds and left the moans behind – I escaped my discomfort. Whilst this felt more comfortable, it did not feel right. I knew that I was not pushing myself and taking the easy way out. I had to give such a powerful monologue my full commitment. I saw, and do see, ‘Reclaiming Cunt’ as inspiringly liberated. The woman performing the monologue not only has to reclaim ‘cunt’, but also her sexual nature, by revelling in a word associated with her genitalia to the point of making orgasm noises.
As I have said before, I feel that women are often unable to be particularly vocal, or made to feel they are behaving in an improper manner if they become outspoken. I think the sexual nature of my monologue, reaching its peak at the orgasm sounds, is a powerful defiance of that. The monologue presents a woman entirely comfortable in and enjoying her sexuality. I think just for other women (and for men) to witness that is eye-opening. It was my duty to show that. So, I tried making orgasmic sounds in rehearsals again. And the second time around I felt powerful, not embarrassed – because I knew that I was conveying an important image to my audiences, and learning something myself.
All of this is why I loved my monologue and being in ‘The Vagina Monologues’. On a greater level I felt connected to the rest of womankind – the monologues share issues significant to our gender and make sure that they are heard. On a personal level, ‘The Vagina Monologues’ gave me newfound confidence – being part of them is one of the most empowering things I have done. If anyone ever has the opportunity to see, or be in, ‘The Vagina Monologues’, I could not recommend it more. My mother and sister were so moved by them that they came to watch them not once, but twice..
My lovely cast:
“Sarah, I enjoyed the Seth McFarlane act at the Oscars, I laughed at the jokes, I found them funny. Does that make me a bad feminist?” (Anonymous friend)
I didn’t watch the Oscars and really only know about the Seth McFarlane controversy from afar*. However this was not relevant to my answer to my distressed friend. My first reaction was not quite unexpectedly: “Why? Why are you coming to me to give you a strong honest opinion on yourself? Rachel? Where are you?”. You might think I was coward, I think I was just being reasonable (and not only because Rachel is better at articulating pondered judgement than I am).
I enjoy the little glorifying thrill that because I have a blog I posted on twice I’m now being held as a (very limited but still) authority on the matter but really I shouldn’t because I’m not and no one is. This is not how I figure these things should work. Yeah sure, I like fantasising about going around the world and label things and people once and for all: “good feminism” ; “bad feminism” ; “ugly sexism”, but for these things to change, the cause needs more than a guerilla stickers action (although what a fun wednesday afternoon we could all have with that). What it definitely does not need though, is me or anyone, as an arbiter of feminism, distributing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feminist points.
My unrefined, instinctive, rough feminism (before I learned to put it into words for this very blog and that I didn’t even call feminism at the time) was just a yearning for equity in opportunities, nothing more nothing else. I just wanted to be allowed to do exactly what everybody else is allowed, screw things up as everybody and being held accountable as an individual and not as part of a gender or any other social group. At the end of the day, it’s all down to the individual, its rights, its aspirations, its choices. I did not really believe in or care for the sisterhood, an idea both too abstract and too restrictive for my tastes. I changed my views a bit but not that much. What I see more today in feminism is the sense of possibility that comes from the confrontations and celebrations of women’s experiences, especially when these differ from a traditional narrative of womanhood, but not every single one of this experience is going to please me. Women will always be human, and as such they will sometimes be wrong. If your reaction to a woman holding a view you don’t approve is “YOU’RE FAILING FEMINISM AND YOUR GENDER ALTOGETHER”, you’re basically acting like the patriarchy again, aren’t you?
Of course feminism implies an awareness of occurrences of sexism and a willingness to point them out. More often than not, when humour is involved there will be debates about wether or not the jokes in question are indeed sexist or rather making fun of sexism, if the context matters, who the speaker is, what are the premises of his act and such. I usually tune off at this stage. The problem (or the best thing) about jokes is that they trigger your instinct before your reason, they make you laugh before they make you think. Before you can decide wether or not you like it, you already expressed your opinion. Sexist jokes are a tricky subject around which I’m still trying to figure out a working opinion, but before I get my way and can impose a moratory on all jokes until I figure a judging system, we will have to make do.
I could go through every single one of Seth McFarlane jokes and try to analyse wether or not I find them sexist and/or funny. At the end of this tedious process, all we probably will have determined is my own sense of humour. You can’t rationally argue over if something is funny or not, more that you can argue over wether some food is tasty or not. Some people might just not stomach it.
So no, anonymous friend, you’re not a bad feminist, and more importantly, it’s not for me to tell. People have the right to tell you you’re wrong to like certain things or why it is problematic that you find them funny, but they are not allowed to imply what you should think based on your gender. In the Second Sex introduction, Simone de Beauvoir voices her exasperation at some patronising assholes: “I sometimes got irritated, while in some abstract discussions, to hear some men tell me: ‘you think such a thing because you are a woman’; but I knew that my only defence was to answer: ‘I think it because it is true.'”**
So sorry anonymous friend, this is not the big tutorial on humour from a feminist point of view you might have wanted from me here but you can always quote Beauvoir as a snarky comeback when someones criticises your sense of humour.
I said last time that there was no card to my “feminist party”, that still is true. On many issues, I just suspend my judgement because, with as much good will as I’d like, I’m still ignorant and biased and I know it. I post very little here, really try to thread carefully on each subject and always end up talking about things that I experienced directly. Sometimes that makes me feel short-sighted and cowardly, not to be able to take a big stance on things. Most of the time, I am just sparing you my insane and rambling doubts and I do feel it’s for the best. That’s the reason why, for my sake and yours, I have no interest in scrutinising the entirety of pop culture until a sexist utterance catches my eyes (and it will, it always does). It is also the reason why this post won’t conclude by a “guideline to acceptable humour”.***
Ok, if you take anything back from this post on humour and how to be a good feminist please be it: being a good feminist is respecting other women’s choices. You don’t have to agree, you can try and convince them, but ultimately, you don’t have a say in what other people think or do. This is a discussion that has happened about stay-at-home mums, women’s career choices, fashion and political choices. Every single time a woman makes a choice deemed conservative or traditional, it might seem like a backlash for the movement. But it is always a victory if you remember that a woman made this choice out of her own will.
You could also take back my little contributions to Rachel’s previous sing-a-long, because being a feminist woman might and should maybe also be celebrating this state of things by really good and fun songs.
You think that feminism is trying to deny you your faire share of genitalia-related fun songs? This is Amanda Palmer singing about her ‘map of Tasmania’ (crotch). This is probably the most joyful celebration of pubic hair out there.
Janis Joplin being beautiful and liberated as she always is, is having tons of casual sex and is quite fine about it.
Maybe this is not a feminist anthem, per se. No part of it is specifically about the female experience (although it touches celebrity culture) but you have to feel you heart sink a bit at Tracy’s beautiful “I did it all/ I didn’t ask permission/I did it all/What kind of life is not an exhibition?”
*Should I confess it? I didn’t even know who the guy was…
**My own clumsy translation
***But if any of you feel like going after every single sexist asshole on the internet or establish such a sound-proof guide, you definitely should, it’s just above my means.
Hello readers! It appears that you and the blog shall be in my care for the moment. Sarah, because she is a beautiful, independent, woman explorer, is currently in India. Naturally, she cannot have constant access to a computer, and should indulge in her adventures there, and not worry about maintaining the blog. As a result, you’re left with me. So, here I am to bring down the sophisticated tone she created with her last post.
When one first encounters feminism, the usual subjects for discussion are clear – menstruation, abortion, careers etc. However, I’ve taken it upon myself to throw together feminism and music today. This was simply the result of going for a run and realising that I can sing word perfectly ‘Independent Women, Pt. 1’ by Destiny’s Child (Surely as most feminists should? This is the thing you are trained to sing at any moment when you’re initiated in to the clan right?). Singing along to this song made me think about other songs that I could align with feminism. Believe me, there are some anthems out there! So, in Sarah’s absence (time for Rachel to run wild and indulge in ridiculous ideas), lets have a little sing-along!
I would not consider all of these songs below as motivated by feminism, but I think they have their own interesting messages. Upon considering my song choices, I thought that what should be stressed is that I would not consider songs about female superiority to be feminist (or more accurately, in line with my concept of feminism). I feel that feminism should advocate equality between the sexes, and not, as is frequently misunderstood, female superiority. Therefore, I think a song like Beyonce’s ‘Run the World (Girls)’ is not really what I am after. Yes, songs celebrating female experience are great, but at the detriment of men I don’t find them to be that appealing.
Anyway, here is a small collection below for everyone’s listening pleasure.
Destiny’s Child – ‘Independent Women, Pt. 1’[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lPQZni7I18]
Why not begin with some good old fashioned Destiny’s Child? Beyonce’s first girl band before she decided to take over the planet solo. My sisters and I listened to Destiny’s Child a lot when we were younger – good job mum – we’ve been blasted with notions of female independence from the start. This song, in a straightforward way, promotes financial independence and not relying on the opposite gender. There are so many catchy phrases – perhaps a few to run off to someone at the start of a relationship? I’m having visions of being sat at dinner, giving a sassy finger snap and stating ‘Try to control me boy you get dismissed’. Maybe that’s a little far out…
Christina Aguilera and Lil Kim – ‘Can’t Hold Us Down’[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dg8QgUIKXHw]
Christina Aguilera has always been a fiery one, so it was no surprise when this gem came out. When you actually listen to the lyrics you realise that it taps in to a number of topics – street harassment, vocal females, respect, liberal female sexuality. This could make coming up with blog ideas easier. I’ll just run through the issues helpfully provided by Christina. Plus, you’ve got to have respect for any singer who can just run off ‘If you look back in history it’s a common double standard of society’ in the middle of a song. Especially when contrasting that with someone like Nicki Minaj calling her enemies ‘stupid hoes’.
Aretha Franklin – ‘Respect’[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FOUqQt3Kg0]
What a woman. What a song. Hell, this song came to exemplify the feminist movement in the 70s for many. Here’s a woman demanding respect with a fabulous sense of sass. A classier ‘Independent Women, Pt. 1’ shall we say? A sexually aggressive song that understands the want for kisses ‘sweeter than honey’ but demands ‘respect’ at the same time. That’s a woman in control of her life my friends. If anyone wants to channel a little Aretha power just strut along the street with this playing in your ears, you’ll think you’re fabuuuuuulous. (If you see me doing this don’t burst my diva bubble – I know I look like a demented sassy hippo, but I can dream).
Janis Ian – ‘At Seventeen’[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhFnOAwr96o]
This is a sadder song that doesn’t so much enforce feminist ideas, as tap in to a little of what Sarah and I discussed in the introduction to this blog, and in to Caitlin Moran’s overarching idea that society suggests there’s a certain way to be a woman. Janis laments that she learnt that ‘love was meant for beauty queens’ at seventeen years old. Her beautiful song encapsulates the feeling that if you’re not one of the beautiful girls with ‘clear skinned smiles’ then you will not be loved. This certainly played more than once when I was younger and feeling sorry for myself.
Shania Twain – ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman!’[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJL4UGSbeFg]
You might think this is a cheesy country song, but oh no my friends, this is a promotion of female liberation and a celebration of womanhood! Shania wants you to forget that you’re a ‘lady’, do what you ‘dare’ and not act ‘politically correct’. Shania channels that you shouldn’t be confined by societal expectations of female behaviour. However, she also suggests that one can celebration the experience of being a woman. I think people can get so caught up in the serious issues of feminism that it is forgotten that womanhood can be celebrated. The female experience is not entirely negative, and can be indulged in – you can wear ‘men’s shirts’ and ‘short skirts’ and be a happy woman.
Well, I hope everyone enjoyed that little feminist party. I was considering an analysis of how Carly Rae Jepsen is a sassy liberated woman who feels able to approach men and declare “call me maybe”. However, I thought that may be pushing things a little too far. The depths of my strange brain don’t need to be completely explored just yet.
I promise more serious blog posts shall surface in the future. I was only just discussing issues surrounding being harassed on the street yesterday (I’m back in London – it’s more frequent) so watch this space. Plus, hopefully, Sarah shall be back soon to take you out of my demented clutches and talk some sense. In the meantime, let’s all go strut our stuff and demand some ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’.
‘Menstruate with Pride’ – Sarah Maple (I’m an art history student… what can you do?)
Let me paint a picture for you. It’s a quiet afternoon in St Andrews library. Everyone has his or her head down. All you can hear is the occasional whispered conversation between students, the light tap of laptop keys and the slurping of coffee. I’m smack in the centre of the room, enjoying the peace, working on my essay. Suddenly, hunger strikes me. I have a few squares of chocolate in my bag – fortunately I’d just stopped by the supermarket to do a quick shop. I open up my rucksack (if only I knew at the time what a fatal decision this was). My other purchases from earlier that day are all crammed in there – apples, peanut butter (which make a beautiful sandwich together by the way), shampoo etc. Oh, and one more thing (the devil in the bag), sanitary towels. They’re wedged in there tightly with everything else. Decision time. Do I risk exposing my womanly needs for the sake of chocolate? That day, I really wanted chocolate. As I said, everything is tightly packed – I pull hard to get the chocolate out. Chaos ensues… The packet of sanitary towels (slippery little bugger) flies upwards and sails across the room. They’re bloody aerodynamic – doing flips all over the place. Like any self-respecting woman, I throw myself across the room after them, praying to God that no one has noticed (ha, not likely). “Not the sanitary towels! Anything but the sanitary towels! These library folk cannot know of my period! They must remain under the illusion that I am a perfect woman who never bleeds! Oh the shame!”
… Wait a second… What? The shame? The shame of what exactly? The shame of people knowing that like over half of the population of this Earth I menstruate? The shame of people knowing that my body is carrying out its regular biological rhythms as it does every month?
There were a lot of emotions present in that moment. If I had to pinpoint the overarching feeling of that experience it would be embarrassment. Subsequently, I’ve come to ask myself – What exactly is there to be embarrassed of? Why is there so much taboo around menstruation?
It has been my feeling for a long time, and the feeling of other women that I have spoken to, that one’s period is a private matter. Naturally, when amongst a group of girls, period talk is not uncommon. You recommend hot water bottles to ease the pain, discuss various embarrassments like my library episode, or just tell each other, plain and simple, that it feels like your “uterus is actually trying to claw its way out of your body”. However, if there is a male or stranger present do you speak of this? No. You bite your lip and try to act natural, even if it does feel like your uterus is making a break for it.
Frankly, in my mind it has always felt like periods are a taboo subject. They are something that a young woman should take care of discreetly. I can think of numerous code words friends have used to talk about their periods – ‘that time of the month’, ‘the painters are in’, ‘mother nature is visiting’, ‘I’m out of service’, ‘I’m on the blob’, or, my personal favourite, one friend of mine spoke of her ‘lady curse’! I can remember wanting to sink in to a hole of embarrassment when explaining to a past boyfriend that I was having a certain female experience that meant I was not in the mood to engage in certain activities one evening. My father, bless his soul (who does make an active effort to not be embarrassed about these things), has three daughters and yet his teeth still chatter when talks of womanly matters – periods, boys, boobs etc. – arise.
For a long time this has seemed natural to me. I just accepted that periods are an embarrassing subject. Upon reflection I’ve realised why this is. It’s a notion I’ve grown up with. I remember clearly how things began with my school education. I can remember when we were deemed old enough to learn about puberty, periods, sex (all those glorious things you get hilarious classes about – I’m one of the lucky few who can say I’ve put a condom on a banana – my friend then proceeded to break the banana and swing it around in the condom over her head like a lasso – it was brilliant). Well, when the time came for us to learn about these things the girls and boys were separated to be educated. The general tone was that this is a ‘sensitive’ subject for young ladies and they must learn of the hell their bodies shall go through once a month in peace. From the very beginning there was a sense that periods are a private female issue that must be spoken of and dealt with quietly. In part, I can understand this. Do not get me wrong – I do not at all want to undermine the importance of the female experience of getting your period. It’s new – it can be alarming if you’re not in the know. It’s definitely something to get used to and manage. But, soon enough, like all other regular things in your life, it becomes part of the routine. Each month you deal with it. It’s actually more alarming to cut your finger and lose a small amount of blood in comparison to the greater amount you lose during your period.
However, this instant separation and tiptoeing around girls with the subject can make matters worse in two ways. Firstly, the stress on ‘taking the girls away to tell them something’ sparked male focus on the subject of periods. Not talking openly made it something to torment the girls about. The teasing kicked off right away. I’m twenty-one years old, at university and it still happens now – you get ever so slightly upset and boys start joking about it being ‘your time’ (actually no, my period was a few weeks ago, you’re just being an arse). Secondly, from the female experience, this separation and heightened ‘sensitive’ atmosphere meant from the off that it felt like your period was something to hide. A sense of separation and secrecy had been established from the start.
As I’ve noted before, getting one’s period is a big moment for a girl. You don’t forget the day you got your period. So, the question to be asked is how to deal with this? Yes, it should be taken in to account that it is a personal topic for many girls, so perhaps separation at the beginning of discussing these sorts of things is appropriate. However, I do believe that there needs to be a stage where people are encouraged to talk openly about these topics. You don’t need to force it, but it should be made known that this should not be something for girls to be ashamed of. The taboo needs to be broken.
Just think of the recent phenomenon of ‘Fifty shades of Grey’ (actually please don’t give it that much of your time – it’s horrific). But, what is interesting from what I have heard about this novel is that stir the ‘tampon scene’ has caused. In short, Mr Grey (one of the most horrifying characters I’ve heard of) has sex with his… what should I call her…? victim? (Anastasia) whilst she is on her period. In the minds of many this scene was ground breaking. A man having sex with a woman on her period seemed unheard of. A man engaging with this private female matter was unheard of. This shows that this sense of taboo was not only something I experienced growing up, but a societal issue.
When you think of this as a societal issue even more examples come to mind. There has been a history of religious practice isolating women on their period. Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc. have made various claims that a menstruating woman is unclean. For example, the Book of Leviticus stresses that a menstruating woman is ritually unclean. In certain practice there are rules in place that mean a woman on her period cannot do things like enter a religious space, carry out practice such as prayer or have sex with her husband.
There have been long standing notions of a woman’s period as an issue.
Menstruation is not something to be embarrassed about. Think about it. As I said before, it’s an experience that over half the population of the planet has once a month. A greater number of people on the planet will have periods than the number of people who will have mobile phones (women make up 51% of the world’s population, whilst 50% of people on this earth own mobile phones). If you’re in a room of women you can put money on the fact that more than one of them will be on their period. How can something so common be something to be ashamed of or a topic you cannot feel comfortable talking about? We don’t have to go shouting from the rooftops about our periods, or smack people in the fact with sanitary towels, but they shouldn’t be this difficult to discuss. In fact, my mother told me when I got my period that they’re a good sign. Your period is a way of your body telling you that it’s healthy and working properly. For many women they are biologically inevitable. Periods are natural. They are not something to be ashamed of.
Whilst talking about this topic with some friends I was reminded of something that I had not considered – privacy. We are all entitled to some privacy. I am by no means advocating that a girl who keeps the details of her period to herself is doing anything wrong. I am not saying that periods MUST be an intense topic of discussion over the dinner table (although if that’s what suits you then go ahead). I am saying that when the topic of periods does arise the shuffling of feet and red cheeks needs to stop. To tell someone that you have done or not done something because you are on your period should not be embarrassing – it is a natural process. There is a difference between private about something and being ashamed of something.
So, what to do to make periods less of an issue? I just talk about it to be honest. I make a conscious point of not holding back if I’m in a mixed group. Naturally, I don’t start rambling about my uterus’ intense escape plan just to make a point. “Men are here! I must discuss my period in great detail!” Just occasionally if I feel myself becoming embarrassed I think “If I was in a group of only girls would I say this right now? Yes. Then I should be able to say it with boys about too”. And if I’m buying sanitary towels in a pharmacy I slam them down on the counter with pride – “I am a fully functioning grown up woman and my needs must be met!” Enough of this staring at the floor and hoping for a female at the cash register. And if a boy ever gives you any rubbish about being ‘overly hormonal’ and stating that it’s ‘clearly that time of the month’, just start giving them the lowdown on having a period (don’t be made to feel ashamed of it) – they tend to back off pretty quickly when you start being open about this sort of thing. Heck, maybe they’ll sympathise and treat you to some sanitary towels and chocolate. A girl can dream.
About a year ago I was sat at my kitchen table with two male friends. There was a bit of a ‘bro fest’ underway. They were putting our female friends in to various categories, such as ‘cute’, ‘hot’, ‘attractive’ etc. I’m not sure how frequently guys actually do this (films tend to suggest it takes up 50% of their time) but I am conscious that it is not uncommon for women to be defined as a certain ‘type’.
Naturally, moments like the one in my kitchen have led to my wondering ‘What type of woman am I? Where do I fit in this extensive catalogue of female types? If there was a magical supermarket of women all on display, would I be weaving a basket in the organic vegetables section or batting my eyelashes and suggestively sucking sweets in the confectionary aisle?’
Or just think of the Spice Girls. Remember sitting around with your friends (boys you must have done this at some point…) and deciding which spice girl you were? Scary, Sporty, Posh, Baby, Ginger! Which girl did you want to be?
To generate ideas for this blog post I googled things like ‘types of girl’ or ‘categories of women’. Sure enough the lists came flying out (sexy, sweet, serious, cheeky, bubbly etc.) and the quizzes I could take if I wanted to find out what kind of girl I am. There they all were at my fingertips – all the different ‘types’ of women you can come across in this world. I’m yet to find the ’21 year old, British, Art Historian, Eats mountains of peanut butter, Strangely proud of her pants, Has eyebrows you could keep as pets’ category. And there’s our problem.
How on earth are women really supposed to fit in to these categories? What if we want to switch between them? What if we’re not suited to any of them?
People struggle to categorise me – I’m just not fitting these types (I once cried in senior school over the fact that my class just couldn’t seem to find a chocolate bar I would be most like – oh, tragic teenage Rachel…). It always felt like a bit of a failure on my part. I was clearly not being cute, sexy, giggly or… really anything enough to be a type. There’s a sense of security in being a (fill the blank) girl.
So, this is my starting point – what I think we need to address first and foremost. There is no way to be a woman and there is no such thing as a ‘type’ of woman. We’re all such unique souls how could there be? Yes, we all have vaginas, breasts, periods etc. but why does physical similarity (and even then think of the physical variety amongst women) imply psychological, emotional and characteristic similarities that can then be sorted in to categories?
Now, let me ask you this. Why have I started thinking of Sarah Bernhardt, Cindy Sherman and Lady Gaga all in the same brainwave? No, they have not all shot fireworks out of their bras – as far as I know… (What a fabulous female fantasy – being so powerful you can shoot fire out of your breasts. Just me?) They have all challenged the notion of what it is to be a woman, or a single ‘type’ of woman. I think that rather than going on a furious rant about my teenage trauma and the categorisation of women I would like to indulge in a celebration instead. Let’s celebrate these three women. Let’s learn from what they have shown us. Let’s all be a little more gaga.
So, firstly, Sarah Bernhardt.
‘The Divine Sarah’ was a French stage actress of the late nineteenth century. It seems extraordinary that she gained the title of ‘The Divine Sarah’ considering the intense criticism she received for her lanky, un-ladylike frame, Jewish background and bisexuality. There were numerous spiteful cartoons created by critics emphasising these so-called ‘flaws’. Yet, Bernhardt was still a sensation. How did she manage to work against her critics and thrive as a beautiful, strong, independent woman?
(Side fun fact for everyone, in her older age she had to get her leg amputated and people were offering to pay her thousands of francs to attain it and put it on display – Oh celebrity culture how strange you are! “Come on kids, we’re going to see good old Sarah’s severed leg today!” – See, people think Art History is a strange subject but I’ve just given you all such a good icebreaker for a party…)
Back to Sarah. She worked with, not against, the media. Bernhardt took the weapons of her critics and put them to her own use. Bernhardt was constantly having photographs taken of herself and controlled the public’s image of her. In terms of gender and sexuality Bernhardt was essentially an early Gaga. Thanks to her height and thin body she regularly played the role of men (for example, she performed as Hamlet more than once) and had photographs taken of herself in costume for these roles. Not only was she playing with the confinements of gender, but also embracing her status as a beanpole. This is remarkable when you consider the standard response to criticism – defiance. Bernhardt could have taken seductive photographs (and yes there were some of those in her photographic arsenal) but she also embraced her androgyny – the ultimate ye olde ‘Baby, I was born this way’ statement. These photographs scream “This is who I am. Look how amazing this thing you perceived to be a flaw is.”
Furthermore, I think the contrasting photographs she had taken of herself as emotionally tortured Hamlet, a prim high society debutant, a rugged sculptor in fabulous white heels, the raw sexual Cleopatra, befuddled Pierrot, naked under a velvet robe etc. show what kind of a woman she was – an indefinable one. She constantly morphed before the camera, and made sure that everyone could see that by purposefully having these photographs taken. Just when the media thought they had her pinned, usually through criticism, she would play to and morph out of that criticism. Bernhardt showed to the world that she was a complicated individual, capable of embodying all sorts of different characteristics.
Now, Cindy Sherman.
Sherman is an American photographer and film director. Through her artwork she specifically raises questions about and challenges the representation of women by society (Oh yes, I’m a gal sold to my subject – Art History is my base). Sherman is best known for her series ‘Complete Untitled Film Stills’ (1977-80). This series consists of sixty-nine photographs of herself. In each of these photographs Sherman portrays a different ‘type’ of woman. She appears as the neat, doe-eyed student, the domesticated, sexy, young wife, the ferocious, hard-working woman and more. Each photograph is entirely unique, with no sense of overlap between the various ‘characters’ she plays. What I find particularly interesting about this project is that you get no sense of Sherman as an individual. She completely disguises herself through these various roles. Bernhardt maintained a sense of herself as a multi-faceted character throughout her representations – they were promotions of herself. By contrast, Sherman as an individual is completely lost amongst these various female roles. I think this spoke to me in two ways.
Firstly, I was hit by Sherman’s loss of individuality. Secondly, by the way one can so freely alter their identity. Which, naturally, are linked. I think in both cases, it is clear how one can disappear and evolve in to something else through appearance. Honestly, I feel that the fundamental difference between men and women is biological (a pretty straightforward observation that even an art history student could make…) But then why is this the basis for societal beliefs in the characteristic differences between men and women? I believe that this series picks up on that. Through physical appearance alone Sherman can lose herself and find new characters. Furthermore, by showing that one person can embody all of these characters destroys them. Whilst there is a human desire to categorise a woman as one thing, it is utterly impossible and Sherman’s photographs show this.
On to my final woman, Lady Gaga.
I can remember the first time I saw (technically I should say heard, but there really is something about seeing her) Lady Gaga. My reaction was like that of many people – “What on earth is going on here??? Does she go to bed wearing outfits as extravagant as what she wears during the day? Can someone please identify a disco stick for me?” But then I thought about her a bit more and have come to adore everything she stands for. Every time she releases a new music video I’m there watching and decoding it with my friends. However, I’m not actually going to discuss her music but her appearance. When Gaga arrived on the music scene she was blowing people away, often with confusion, but she was making a statement nonetheless.
Just to give people who don’t have a degree in Gaga (seriously, if there was a course about her I’d ace it…) a little background – she has a creative team under the title ‘Haus of Gaga’ who put together her outfits, make-up, stage sets, accessories etc. For the real keen beans here, there is such a thing as Gagapedia – an extensive online catalogue of her various outfits – and if any woman has merited such a catalogue it is her. Just to name a few outfits – the bubble dress, the Kermit the frog jacket, the meat dress, the silver lobster hat, not to mention her male alter ego Jo Calderone who she has dressed as for music videos, photo shoots and award shows. All spectacularly out of the box and shocking.
I see Gaga as the ultimate example of celebration of the individual – a celebration that extends beyond gender. Just think of the contrast of someone like Taylor Swift next to Lady Gaga. Taylor is girly from head to toe – whilst I do enjoy her music, the girl vomits kittens. Lady Gaga – what is going on there? She usually transcends beyond human, let alone woman – and that is what makes her so mind blowing. Gaga is the sort of role model I want young girls looking at (well… maybe avoid some of the more sexual outfits but adopt the attitude!). You don’t have to be a little darling like Taylor; you can be a ferocious, flaming beast like Gaga! Of course, I don’t want to totally bring down Taylor – if you are naturally characteristically inclined to be of that manner then that’s the sort of person you are – but what I love that Gaga totally challenges is that as a girl you have to be this way – she claims that you are a person, you can be anything – be individual, be yourself! This brings me back to my post title. “Baby, I was born this way”. This is the song I listen to when I’m having a bad day. It’s the motto I make my heart scream when things get rough. Yet again, this lyric reinforces what she has been saying with her appearance all along. Embrace that individual, not that type. You are a complex, beautiful being.
So what have we learnt from my BernhardtShermanGaga combination? Female ‘types’ have been a long-standing problem. But, there have been a number of fiery females out there ready to challenge them. If there is anything to be taken away from this post, it’s that gender should not be a restraint, and the ‘types’ expected from your gender should not be either. In fact, whilst discussing this topic, a male friend reminded me that the same expectations are held of men. Just think of the categories we provide for them – ‘sporty’, ‘brooding’, ‘joker’ – we should show them the respect of also not putting them in boxes – and I thank my friend for reminding me to not have a blinkered view in my discussion of feminism. I think it is easy to focus upon the female situation and forget that men encounter these problems too. So, whilst I have curved my discussion towards the female experience, let us all remember to not categorise each other. Sex is an inherent, biological difference. Gender is not. Characteristically, there should be no notions or expectations of ‘types’ of women or men.
To end this post I’ve had an idea. I would like to keep this a creative and fresh blog. Whilst writing is well and good, maybe we should branch out? Sarah would never admit this but she’s a wonderful photographer and I… I have a mac photobooth… How about we create our own BernhardtShermanGaga photographic project? Morph in to five different women each before our cameras? Not just contemplate but engage with this notion. Well, keep your eyes peeled for future blog posts… Lets see if Sarah agrees to my idea!