Julia and me (and some thoughts on men, women, and the complexity of being)

My husband asked me the other day when I’m going to write about Julia Kristeva’s work on my blog. The reason he asked is because Kristeva received quite a prominent place in my thesis, and while I was writing my thesis there was a period when basically all I talked about was Kristeva. I was working on my thesis in Adelaide, and every morning for about a week or so, I would go out to the empty, green rugby oval close to our apartment and sit on the bleachers and read Kristeva. I found her work interesting, but also challenging, so I would read what other people wrote about her work as well in order to get my head around what it was she was saying. This may sound a bit crazy, but those bleachers are forever going to be the place where Julia and I got acquainted. So to answer my husband’s question, it’s now.

The reason I got interested in Kristeva in the first place was because she does extensive work on the maternal, which is an important issue in my research. But that isn’t what I’m going to write about today. I’m going to write about something I saw in my Facebook newsfeed the other day, the kind of thing that many of us see every now and then, I’m sure, but which just gets me every time.

Okay here it is: “Trying to understand women is like trying to smell the number 9.”

I mean really, are we still doing this? Aren’t jokes and wisecracks about how complicated and impossible to understand women are old already? I know people who make jokes about this are just trying to be funny, and don’t really mean anything by it, but what they are unintentionally doing, is keeping alive the idea that women aren’t really to be taken seriously. By dismissing women as complicated, difficult, irrational, and hard to understand, even in jest, women are effectively kept in the position of Other, that is someone who is so different or difficult that they don’t really need to be reckoned with. I’m going to say it, these jokes are sexist.

But at the same time I think, come on guys, don’t sell yourselves short! Men aren’t any less complicated or hard to understand than women. Men are just as complex, and filled with fears, hopes, and dreams as anyone else. Anything less wouldn’t be human. Anything less would be boring. Think about it, do you really want to be thought of as one-dimensional, and on top of that, pretty much exactly the same as the next guy: simple, uncomplicated, and uninteresting?

And this is where Kristeva comes in. Kristeva is, by the way, not only a social theorist but also a psychoanalyst, linguist, and feminist to name a few, and has done a vast amount of work within these fields, so this post will in no way do her justice. But she does say something about sex and gender that I think is relevant to the point I’m trying to make. While people generally get categorized by sex or gender (i.e. you are a man or a woman, or you behave or feel like a man or a woman), Kristeva holds that although masculine is often associated with men and feminine associated with women, the feminine is not a category specific to either sex. The feminine belongs to both men and women. The reason, according to Kristeva, is that both men and women come from the maternal body (boys as well as girls are born from, raised by, loved by, and interact with women) and unfortunately taboos and silencing effectively separates men from this dimension of social life. So if it wasn’t for all the social practices, gender norms, and other constructs out there, men’s and women’s behaviors really might not be that different.

This became complicated and difficult to explain in just a few lines. I think I’m going to have to dedicate a whole other blog post to Kristeva at some point, as she really has some compelling, important, and unconventional things to say about the maternal, feminism, and society as a whole. But for now, like many before me, I’m going to ask, so men are from Mars and women from Venus? Please. How one-dimensional isn’t that? I’d say we are all much more diverse and interesting. If we’re going to talk about outer space, then men are from any number of planets in the Solar System and beyond, as are women. But as book titles go, I guess that just doesn’t sound very catchy, does it.

Longing for the authentic

I’m reading a novel at the moment about a housewife in the 1950’s and I’m struck by the quiet and the sheer boredom that hits me on every page as she tries to keep busy in her empty apartment, thinking up new household chores just to pass the hours until her husband and kids come home from work and school. As I turn the pages I feel quite happy that I’m not her; that I don’t have to deal with the insecurity of not being independent, and the lack of confidence that comes from having nothing that’s my own.

I’ve been told that I sometimes make it sound like I think things have taken a turn for the worse, that they were better in the good old days, especially for mothers. Well, some things are worse than back in the day – global warming for one. But a lot of things are better, and I would certainly not want to go back in time. As a woman, I really like being able to vote, having a career, and being able to autonomously make decisions about my life. I like that my husband and I share household chores.

And things aren’t only better for women. Modern medicine and inventions like the vaccine have increased life expectancy; people live longer and living standards are higher. No, I certainly wouldn’t want to go back in time. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be critical of life as we know it today.

In the Nordic countries at least, the past few years have witnessed some sort of retro-housewife trend, where the 50’s housewife is romanticized. I’ll paint you a picture: the perfect house, the perfect wife, pretty cupcakes… I’ve been told it has become a question of status to be able to pick one’s kids up early from daycare (although it’s of course mothers who do this, not fathers.). This is certainly not what feminists had in mind when they struggled for decades to give women the same rights and opportunities as men to pursue a career and to have a life beyond the private sphere of the home.

And I do love cupcakes, don’t get me wrong. But this trend is a bit ironic, because I don’t think any of us, if we think about, really want to go back to the 1950’s. However, I do think a lot of people experience a longing for something else – for a simpler life. There is something about contemporary society that is completely different from anything we have ever experienced before. Yes, we have had globalization and travel since ancient times. We have had media and consumption. But it is the sheer speed and intensity of life and work today that makes living in the 21st century different. Way of life in contemporary society has a deep effect on us, on our identities, and on how we make sense of everything.

According to David Boyle, author of Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, there is a longing for the authentic and the “unspun”. Downshifting trends and the increased demand for natural, organic, simple, and sustainable products suggest exactly this: that we are simply getting sick of “the fake, the virtual, the spun and the mass-produced.” Now that I can certainly relate to.

Speaking of feminism, one of my favorite quotes of all time is one by Caitlin Moran from her book How to Be a Woman:

“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”

What is attractive?

Have you ever noticed how models on glossy pages of fashion magazines and clothing catalogs look at you with their mouths open? I’m not talking lips a tiny bit parted, I mean like really open. And it always makes me cringe a little bit because, to be honest, it really doesn’t make them look very intelligent.

I always think why do they do that? I supposed they, the photographer, the ad agency, whoever thinks that it makes them look attractive and sexy. It’s a bit wasted on me, however, because I think intelligence is much more attractive than gaping mouths.

Well of course this is no surprise. Women and girls are more often than not depicted sexually in the media. I read a very insightful book on the subject and it is actually a bit depressing reading. It also a very interesting read and definitely a book I recommend to anyone, but especially to those of you who have daughters: The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It by M. Gigi Durham.

In a nutshell, the book argues that media, television and film not only reflect existing social patterns but also shape culture which makes them very powerful, setting the standard for what women and girls should live up to. But not only does the media depict girls as sexual objects, the sexual ideal for girls is one lacking authority; that is girls are taught to be sexy, and to attract boys, but at the same time to resist boys’ advances rather than express their own desires. I quote, “These powerful narratives … are repeatedly circulated in various ways in our culture, to the point that they seem natural and not constructed by outside forces.”

But what’s scary is that the female and sexual ideal becomes younger and younger. Women are encouraged to wage a life-long battle against hair and strip their bodies of all hair, except what grows on their heads, making them look like prepubescent girls. Which really, if you think about it, is quite disturbing. (See my previous post ‘On ageing’ for more thoughts on the cultural contradictions of women, youth, and ageing.)

I remember reading a feature in a magazine once about a woman who followed her dream and became a professional gardener. She talked about how she was always awkward as a girl and didn’t really have any fashion sense. She was never popular and was uncomfortable at parties and in other social situations. However, after she found her passion – gardening, and apparently especially apples – she was surprised to realize that all of a sudden she was attracting so much male attention at parties when she would, cheeks blazing, launch into an animated conversation about apples. She realized that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t thin, she wasn’t wearing the most fashionable clothes, and that she didn’t have a swanky hairdo. She was attractive because she felt passionate and that made her interesting. It made people – both men and women – want to spend time with her.

Knowing this, it makes me a bit sad to know that so many girls and women worry about trying to live up to one-dimensional social ideals. And I have to say I agree with the gardener. Talking to people who are passionately interested in what they do is usually very engaging. Their energy is contagious and, unlike blank looks and gaping mouths in magazines, that is attractive.