Big Girl

(Cover of Sara Ahmed’s 2014 Willful Subjects)

I had never been in better shape in my life.  There I was, for some reason playing intramural flag football with a team from my first-year dorm, sprinting around the field feeling lean and strong.  After about twenty minutes of play against a neighboring dorm, we had scored several touchdowns and smelled victory. As we lined up on the makeshift line of scrimmage, our quarterback planning to throw it to me long, I heard an opponent yell, “Get the big girl.  Cover the big girl!”  It wasn’t until after the touchdown that I registered the exhortation and realized that the opponent was referring to me.  I think it was at that very moment when lean, sinewy me decided to embrace the big girl.  I didn’t articulate it to myself (I wasn’t the most introspective back then), but I think I knew that, if my fit, active self was still “the big girl,” then so I would be her, fully her.  Not just big and muscular (and now fat, too), but also loud and hungry for life and full of opinions.

With each passing day, being the big girl became more and more entertaining, more and more natural—more and more, just me.  It is no accident that I’m listening to Lizzo’s “Feeling Good as Hell” as I write this. (Oh my God, I love the line in Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” of “That’s the sound of me not calling you back.”) In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I discuss having seen the film Julie and Julia and marveling at Julia Child’s taking ownership of how others perceived her—recognizing her height and stature and funneling that into her joie de vivre.  Many years ago, my then-boyfriend (now-husband) and I, both teachers, read Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. We joked that my book would be called Subduing Ophelia, but we also took very much to heart the ways in which adolescent girls learn to shrink.

If it were just us big girls here on earth, then I think we would remain big and hungry and laughing and experimenting—curious about the world and loving towards it.  Lamentably, though, even the biggest and loudest of the big girls can become invisible.  Although individual blame can surely be placed (no need to mention here Weinstein and Trump as metonymy for all the power-hungry rapists who disappear women), I find it most useful to understand invisibility as social structure and institutional habit. I write about this copiously, and from both theoretical and practical perspectives, in the Gender Shrapnel book.  In the book, invisibility is part of an intersectional paradigm of and with gender, and it plays against visibility (being invisible at all the wrong moments and then too visible, too scrutinized at other moments).

My sister and I, two girls of the seven children in our family, have laughed often about sitting in the stands, watching a brother play a sport, and hearing others talk about our family.  “Yeah, that number 12, that’s one of the Mayock boys.  They have seven kids, all boys.”  We told each other we looked fabulous and that we were the hottest of the seven Mayock boys.  When I made the All-District (or whatever they called it back then) basketball team, my brother, who was in the same year of high school as me, did as well.  We were delighted for each other.  I was too naïve to be concerned when the local paper wrote about my brother in the blurb about me and wrote about my brother in the blurb about him.  But I started to understand when one of my mother’s best friends wrote a letter to the editor complaining about it.  She didn’t use the term “invisibility,” but that was surely what she disliked—the erasure of an adolescent girl’s accomplishments and the double offering of an adolescent boy’s accomplishments.  None of the sexism from back then felt personally motivated or enacted.  It felt institutional, habitual, natural.

I am 54 now.  I started teaching when I was 21.  I have taught a lot of students in a lot of different classes in many different contexts.  I think you could call me a professional, someone who knows her stuff and cares about how she does her work.  I am bigger than I used to be—a “bigger girl” in some ways.  But I’m reminded each day that invisibility is still an institution, a habit.  Many of my students call me “Mrs.” or “Señora,” while they call my male colleagues “Professor” and “Doctor.”  Just the other day, I replied to an email from a colleague at a neighboring institution.  His email signature indicated he was a colonel, and so I addressed him as “Colonel So-and-So.”  I included my formal email signature.  In Colonel So-and-So’s reply, I was “ma’am.”  In meetings, I have found that I no longer even stick up for myself, cementing my own invisibility, because it’s exhausting and because it brings on the kind of visibility that I’m tired of attracting.

A colleague recently said I was being “willful” when I asked for more information about a decision our group was making.  Of course, the word transported me immediately to Sara Ahmed’s brilliant Willful Subjects (Duke UP, 2014).  In the introduction, Ahmed writes, “Willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given. (…) Willfulness involves persistence in the face of having been brought down.” She adds that, for women, “to be identified as willful is to become a problem” (3). For me, the big girl is the willful subject, whose very assertion of self is constantly scrutinized, criticized, and erased.  The repetition of removal affects the individual herself and all those who witness it, coming to understand the price of willfulness.

It is within this context that I think about Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy to become the Democratic candidate for the President of the United States.  While the major woman candidate before her was “locked up,” again and again, institutional structures (Russia’s interest in U.S. elections; the Democratic party itself; Bernie Bros; traditional and social media; debates designed to have candidates go after each other; etc.) functioned for some crucial weeks to silence, or make invisible, Elizabeth Warren, whose big brain and detailed plans should make her perhaps the most visible of the remaining candidates.  Thomas Friedman, in his February 25th (2020) op-ed titled “Dems, You Can Defeat Trump in a Landslide,” made clear that either Sanders or Bloomberg will be the white male savior, and that everyone else should fall in line in their secondary roles.  Super Tuesday is this coming Tuesday, and I’m not yet ready to join the invisibility train for the person I believe to have the best of the best of what all candidates can offer.  (Of course, I will support and vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination.  That should go without saying.)

This big girl wants to see Elizabeth’s Warren big brain, huge heart, detailed plans, and willful ways occupy the White House.  Fingers crossed for a Super Tuesday.

Un certain “Je ne sais quoi”: Gender Impressions in France

(Claviers on the left; Paris on the right.  Photos by E. Mayock)

Four or five weeks have passed since I last posted in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.  This represents a big shift away from posting entries every week for 97 weeks in a row.  The reasons for blog idleness are several: continued work with our local resistance group; more pressing summer projects; and family vacation.  Like so many other people, I felt the need to stop pointing to the top of my forehead and saying, “I’m boiling mad up to here.  I’m constantly mad.  When will it stop?”  I feel rusty on the blogging and slow of brain, and at the same time incredibly fortunate to have had a change of pace in the summer and a long-awaited family vacation in France.  Of course, gender bias never goes on vacation.  It does not even enjoy a free weekend here or there.  While the Gender Shrapnel Blog focuses on gender and its intersections in a mostly United States context, entries do occasionally treat questions of international feminism, especially of Spain and Latin America.  After two weeks in France, I will share here a few observations about gender in everyday life and in art.

Several decades ago, I was an undergraduate major in French and Spanish.  For a while, I communicated far better in French than I did in Spanish, but that has not been the case for over two decades.  Revving my French back up while traveling with a mostly monolingual group of family members both challenged and amused me, especially because I have never spent much time in France, and almost none in the south of France.  We spent nine or ten days in a stunning “perched village” of the Alps region above the Riviera, in a town called Claviers (see photo above), which not one French person in Paris with whom I spoke had heard of.  Due to the vacation home rental craze, the town’s 700 inhabitants are accustomed to tourists and absorb them, for short or long stays, in what seems an understated, no-fuss manner.  Most Parisians asked how I understood southern French—saying that the accent was hard enough for them to understand.  Suffice it to say that I managed quite well during our time away, but that my French skills are still far from where they used to be.  Maybe take my observations about gender in France with a giant grain of salt, especially given the short stay and the impressionistic approach I had to take.

Claviers’ main square, also its only square, featured two restaurants, a press office, a real estate agency, and the ever-important “mairie,” or mayor’s office/city hall.  The small Proxy market was right off the square and served as 7-Eleven and lovely little boulangerie all at once.  Slow mornings revealed women sweeping, serving café au lait, and bustling to and from the main square, straw baskets or market caddies in tow, to get the day’s provisions.  Men drove city clean-up vehicles through the narrow streets and opened up the sole bar/café, while one very important man strolled through town shaking hands and answering questions.  That was the Mayor of Claviers, whose posted office hours at the Mairie seemed to indicate a cushy and, if the list of all the town’s mayors through history was any indication, inherited job.  Some of the mayors had 35-year terms. All of the Claviers mayors have been men.  The front office is staffed by a young woman, who seems to run interference for her glad-handing boss.  Remember, these are just impressionistic, meandering observations of a tiny town.

Tuesday morning surprised us because the mobile hair salon arrived.  We all imagined that one special day a month when everyone went around telling everyone else how fabulous their hair looked.  I should not have been surprised that mid-afternoon heat brought on a Spanish-style siesta, with most people returning home for a meal and most businesses closing their shutters from the sun and the out-of-sync tourists.  Slightly busier evenings brought out the restaurant workers—some men, some women, some black, some white—all bustling and some bristling.  Conservation seemed a priority in both the small towns and in Paris, as the mairies placed limits on the number of bags of garbage and recycling people could discard a week, the grocery stores had the reusable bag system down to a science, diesel gas fueled the cars, and people rode bicycles as a matter-of-fact means of transportation.  I was particularly impressed by the Paris share-a-bicycle system and its reliable bicycle lanes throughout the city.   The many cyclists on the mountain roads in the south of France also amazed.  It is no wonder the Tour de France has the fame it does.

Gender norms in beautiful and charming Claviers seemed to parallel those of other worlds.  Women both worked hard and were in charge of the children, and men worked hard and were in charge of improving their pétanque game.  Every one of the small towns we saw featured a pétanque court, where men and boys of all ages rolled small silver bowling balls in this traditional French game.  Sometimes the women stopped to watch, but mostly the men occupied these spaces.  I report all of this with little to no judgment, just as an observation.  Right by the pétanque court in Claviers (see photo below of the court in nearby Fayence) are a building with the classic Liberté-Egalité-Fraternité slogan (photo below), a bar called Le Cercle de Fraternité, and a statue to the local men who fought in the French Resistance.  The statue, pictured below, is simple—a naked woman carved in white stone to symbolize, as the statue indicates in one word, liberté.  Of course, I have long been familiar with the trope of naked woman as liberty (it pervades much of Western European and North American art), but I decided at that moment to reject this millennia-old trope.  I decided I had had enough of naked women, sculpted or painted by men, given no name or identity, representing some concept of male liberty, placed in town square after town square, and here placed between the pétanque court and the “Fraternity” bar.  For whom is this liberty represented?  And, how sick are we of white women representing some male concept of purity (and the implied converse representation, the supposed impurity of women of color)?  Where are artistic representations of named women, and where are the women and men of color?  As I chewed on all of this out loud, my 17-year-old son smiled, recognizing that his mother can be what the wonderful Sara Ahmed calls a “feminist killjoy,” even on a lovely vacation.

(Pétanque in Fayence. Photo by P. Bradley)

(Building in Claviers. Photo by E. Mayock)

(Statue of “Liberté” in Claviers. Photo by C. Mayock-Bradley)

Paris’ amazing collection of museums—such a treat, even for a feminist killjoy—reminds us again how the art world pitches men as the doers (the actual artists, but also the figures of agency, such as fishermen, farmers, kings, politicians, popes, and cardinals) and women as muses to the men.  See, for example, a photo of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” below.  In fact, my daughter and her cousin, both wholly uninterested in museum visits, kept themselves busy by counting women’s naked breasts (featured in paintings and sculptures as nurturing, liberating, or torturing).  After just a few days of trampling around museums, they counted 365 breasts.  Don’t worry about the odd number; you know how those statues and sculptures go. The classic art museums—the most visited art museums of the western world—remind us and reinforce for us the dominant position of men yesterday and today.  As Ahmed has said in Living a Feminist Life, “A decision made in the present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past.”  These museums, gigantic, impressive, well-funded, represent such unbelievable momentum of the past that they surely influence how we view men and women, colonizers and colonized, white and black and brown, wealthy and impoverished.  Painting after painting after painting reinforces these tropes for us, making sustained systems of power and the continued representation of these systems seem somehow natural.  It takes a lot of thought and deliberate action to undo the repetition of such seemingly seductive images and expectations.

(Auguste Rodin’s “Le Penseur” at the Rodin Museum, Paris.  Photo by E. Mayock)

That is why I loved observing that some forward-looking Paris city planner placed statues of real French women—mostly queens and saints, but they were real women—throughout the Luxembourg Gardens.  None of the statues I saw represented women of color or women of lesser means, but at least they acknowledged the existence and representation of some women before the 20th century.  In addition, I was gratified to see throngs of people at the chapels of Saint Paul Chen and La Virgen de Guadalupe at the Notre Dame Cathedral.  People and groups clearly wanted to see their nations and cultures represented in this most iconic of Parisian sites (and, as we learned on a tour, the most visited tourist site in all of Europe).

As you can see, feminist killjoys never take a vacation from observations of gender, race, and religion.  The ones I have offered here are neither profound nor surprising, but they are worth pointing out.  As Ahmed has said, “Rolling eyes=feminist pedagogy.”

Over the next few weeks, I will probably write about armed guards and their treatment of pedestrians and travelers, fashion impositions and arguments, sports stores and how they mark gender and race, and what we can expect from next year’s World Cup soccer tournament in France.  (Note that 2018 World Cup is called “World Cup” and that 2019 World Cup is called “Women’s World Cup.”  Sigh.)