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23 January, 2007

While we're talking about monsters

Consider Lamia, or her brood; a dreadful, dangerous creature, by some tales a vampire, devourer of children and consumer of the life of men. Perhaps originally a shark, by later days she was, in at least some tales, a serpent taking woman's form or partially shaped like a woman; Keats's Lamia asked to be granted human form in payment for a favor given a god. Aristophanes, in Peace, suggested that the creature has testicles, despite her female presentation. Perhaps she was one of Zeus's lovers who was cursed and made monster; He was said to have given her the ability to take her eyes out, like a sybil, in order to spare her the visions of her dead children.

When we are considering monsters, please, consider the lamia.


So you know that Aretha Franklin song? "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman"? When I first heard that thing as a kid, it gave me a nasty case of existential angst. What does it mean to 'feel like a natural woman'? What does a natural woman feel like? This implies the existence of unnatural women, too, and how do I know whether or not I'm one of the changeling brood?

I never figured it out.

I spent most of my life trying to figure out what the trick was, what it was like to be a woman, feel like a woman, all of these things, feeling like the dancer on the end of the line who's a half-step behind because I gotta see how the people who know what they're doing move so I can mimic.

Somewhere in there, I lost my voice. One of the ways you can trick out a lamia is by getting her to try to speak, and then you see the serpent's tongue and hear the hiss of the snake in woman's clothing. There were things that got dulled down, hidden away, blanketed off into the quiet, because someone might notice along the way that I don't know how to be a woman.

And getting caught as the monster among us, as the infiltrator and the interloper, that never goes well for the alien. There are enough stories about the victims of the demon bride or what happens to the one the changeling replaced that people get touchy when they learn about the snake in the grass. (Keats's Lamia, when revealed as having been a serpent, was killed by the revelation; her death also took her lover with her.)

So I try to understand the narrative. There is a story of womanhood, and faking it requires knowing how the structure of it goes. Knowing what shows, knowing which places the scales show under the occluding veils and how to communicate without letting out the forked tongue and the sibilant song of the siren.

I listened to the stories. When I hear people talk about what it is to have gendered experience, I wind up sitting on the outside. Like, "Kids that age still think the other sex has cooties", which I've heard a couple of times in the past month or so. I can say, quite securely, that I never went through the "boys have cooties" phase. Or a "girls have cooties" phase. In fact, I'm pretty sure I missed the entire cootie phenomenon; I didn't even have the game with the plastic pieces for assembling the technicolour caterpillar.

I mean, I had a couple of Barbie dolls as a kid. They came out when I had a friend over who was a girl and who cared about those things. I sort of played with a doll's house on occasion, but I much rather fancied my mother's, which was a huge Victorian mansion with a slate roof, and she was building it and furnishing it herself. There weren't dolls to play with in there, there was just the art of the craftsmanship, and that was actually interesting. Nobody would go build dams in the stream with rocks with me unless I armtwisted to get the assistance.

And I had -- still have -- a collection of Breyer horses, including the ones based off of Black Beauty, and a vast collection of stuffed animals, and I played the flute, which were all girl-gendered things, somehow, but I don't see what that means, or whether it should mean any more than climbing a tree to get a better view of the egg drop physics competition in high school or having enough sheer aggression to take on a fellow student a rank or two higher than I was in the martial art I studied and hold my own. It's just stuff, and people are interested in stuff.

So every so often I used to go poking around to look for explanations of what it means To Be A Woman, trying to find the piece that I was missing, the thing that would let me shed my dubious Pinnochio status and take my place as a real girl. I figured that somewhere, there had to be a story where I could fit in, shed my scaly skin and settle in.

So I contemplated biology, the "You know you're a woman because you have girl bits." And on the one hand, I even use this sometimes, in the empowerment sense -- it makes no damn sense to say "Women can't do that" when damnit, I'm doing it, so clearly women can do that, so the people who say women-can't are clearly not attached to reality. But that only goes so far, it doesn't provide any sort of meaning, any sort of sense of what it is to feel like a woman.

And I come away with the feeling that, well, okay, I can say that feeling like a woman is feeling like I have a uterus -- which I am quite aware of right at the moment thankyouverymuch -- and that's, well. I feel like I have a liver, too. And a left pinky finger, which is also annoying me because it hurts. And I can't figure out why one of these organs is more critical and defining than any of the others. Okay, I have bits. I have other bits that don't get filed as part of my identity. I don't like the idea of having some essential beingness reduced to whether or not I possess one penetratable orifice between my legs or two. It just seems ... blowupdolly to me. Being a woman has to be about more than having a cunt and tits, because having people all wound up about the cunt-and-tits end of things I wind up feeling like an object, not a person, and feeling like a woman is feeling like a kind of person.

So I bleed. I deal with the ebb and flow of my hormonal cycle. I get hot flashes. And this is just ... biology. It's not ontologically much of anything. It has no more meaning to me that right now I want a pad to sop up excess meat than that also right now I want my cane to walk; these are facts about my body, not facts about my nature. (The cane is much more important at the moment, but using it doesn't give me a different pronoun than when I don't need it.) And it's nature that I'm looking for. It's narrative.

So I tried looking at the nature of female experience, as some people presented it. Oppression, patriarchy, the whole works. And I looked at the sexual harassment I had to deal with -- some of it when I was too young to understand anything other than that the comments were directed at me, and they were directed at me because of the girly bits. And I looked at the sexual assault that gave me a history of flashbacks, warped my sexuality, and may have contributed to the nature of my plurality.

And you know something? If that's what womanness is all about, I don't want it. Because I have worked hard to not be defined by the assault, to not frame myself as the target of junior-high-school brats or the victim who suffers from the flashback trauma. I don't want to live there. And it took me a hell of a long time to heal from being there in the first place, because if I talked about it I was sure that people would stop dealing with me as me, and would instead treat me as the victim, the survivor, the damaged goods. If womanhood is defined in terms of victimhood, then it's not worth having, and nobody should ever have to understand it, no matter whether they have an innie or an outie between their legs. Speaking here as a representative of monsterdom, I understand hoarding things up, curling up around them and charbroiling those who would take away those precious, sparkling treasures -- but really, this shit is the mediocre pewter and the tacky paste gems.

I looked at a bunch of models of what a woman should be like, what a woman should do; more explicitly stories, these, though not always coherently put together. I poked around in the madonna/whore dualism, and encountered a bunch of interesting glitches. (Like the time I spent hanging out with a bunch of frat boys, who were uncomfortable around me in the Fallen Woman sense because I had a fiance and was hooked up with one of their membership for a fairly light and in retrospect ill-advised relationship, but who had no problems with the person who was slowly sleeping her way through their membership because she only had one at a time, which is the Good Girl way.) I learned that there was the Brainwashed Pawn of the Patriarchy, who is a good housewife and mother to her 2.5 children, keeps the house clean and tidy, is dedicated to her husband, and has no particular professional goals or desires; I learned that there was the Liberated Woman, who had a high-end professional job and centred her life around it, who put off having children until her mid to late thirties if she had them at all, and who made her life a constant example that yes, women damn well can do this. I found no models of womanhood that I liked, none that felt that they fit me; if I had to put one on, the one that pinched the least was Brainwashed Pawn, but for some reason I didn't much fancy it.

I tried looking at the things women were supposed to like. I shaved my legs once to see what the big deal was, and when I stopped the bleeding, I said, "Well, that's not worth the effort" and I didn't do it again. I got a bottle of perfume for my senior prom. I still have it, over a decade later. I still don't understand why people give each other flowers, but handing out the severed genitalia of decorative plants never really struck me as a romantic gesture. I didn't learn how to do makeup, even the most supposedly basic stuff, as a teenager, because it was never interesting. I'm not even a big fan of chocolate. As cultural stereotypes go, I'm a complete flop.

(I was really, really self-conscious about my moustache, though. My hair is dark, and so the fur on my upper lip is actually visible, and I wondered a lot whether this would betray me as a poser. Eventually I came to the conclusion that nobody seemed to notice, or if they did they didn't comment, so I should stop fretting about it, laugh at myself, and carry on with my life rather than waste any cognition fretting about my membership in Class Mammalia.)

I've met women who could honestly rhapsodise about the spiritual experience of their menstrual cycles. I've met women who did female-marked things without any trace of apparent self-consciousness, because that suited who they are and what they wanted to do. I've met women who didn't, every time someone did a "Men are like this, women are like that", have a response of, "There I go, not being a woman again." I've met women for whom femaleness appeared to be something that they did, naturally, natively, without affectedness, for whom femaleness was an intense, almost religious experience. They had a story of being a woman, a narrative, an ontological understanding.

Whereas I, if I start trying to plumb the essence of my soul, I find true androgyny. My spiritual nature has a penis to go with its tits. (And some miscellaneous other bits that aren't even human standard issue, besides.) I've been told in religious gatherings that I have a great deal of "male energy", and I'm not sure what that means any more than I know what "female energy" would mean. I can no more embrace my femaleness religiously than I can embrace my maleness, because I cannot for the life of me figure out what I'm supposed to be getting a grip on. Gender, if it exists as a thing independent of the shapes people cast, is a slippery, wriggly thing, and trying to catch it is like trying to catch a guppy with my fingers while standing up to mid-calf in the Reflecting Pool, watching it skitter away into the clouded depths, leaving only the hint of a fin or the memory of a twist and slide away on my fingers. (And I find myself remembering, just now, the people who said that no man could be attracted to a woman with a figure like mine without being gay and in denial. And contemplate lamia's testicles.)

I spent a while actively avoiding a bunch of things that were tagged "female" because of my sense that it was all masks and illusions, because I knew that someone would catch me doing it wrong. When I did male-assumed things, or neutral things, there wasn't that same sense of precariousness -- if I did it strangely, if I didn't fit in, then, well, at least nobody expected me to. A friend once told me I wasn't butch as a chosen persona, I was butch because that was who I was, and I stared a bit and said, "Am I?" Because your typical butch doesn't have the ass-length hair and the habit of the long skirts, I knew that much about gender.

And then, a couple of years ago, I sort of looked at my perspective and said, "Okay. If we talk about the biology of the stuff, I'm female; I have to deal with that and I'm fine with that. I have to deal with people's weird constructions around that, too, but that's not going to be avoidable. But as for what femaleness means ... clearly I have no clue." At which point I adopted the Ru Paul philosophy -- "We're born naked, the rest is all drag."

So in the past couple of years I've picked up a bit of eyeshadow. Which I use improperly, because that's how I want to use it; not just the occasional tracework over the eyes, but sworls and patterns across my face, occasionally deliberately to invoke the liminal and the fey with the sacrifice of powdered gemstone. I play with perfumes, on occasion.

It's all drag. It's not freighted with the concern about its femaleness anymore. I can be genderqueer, embrace the serpent form as well as the woman form, and slithering on that sinuous body does not cut my feet like pretending I know how to walk the walk does. (That poor mermaid, lost her tail and her voice both, and her feet hurt to boot.)

I have found my voice again, and you can hear the sweet music of my hiss.



(Related reading: Elise Mattheson's "elf-identified bisexual" speech.)

(Also: I did not title this "How do you solve a problem like Lamia?" But it was a very, very near thing.)

8 comments:

little light said...

Pure gold.
Thank you for this. I know I've heard a lot of it from you before, but thank you for this.

I have more to say, I guess, but it's..noodly. I'll try for some figuring.

HeartShadow said...

random sideways comment:

that song "you make me feel like a natural woman" has ALWAYS made me feel it was about transvestites/transgender. Who else needs to feel like a natural one but someone who isn't?

I know what it is to not fit into the skin you're given. And while my experience of it wasn't quite as extreme as yours, I know what it is to not belong as you are and not know where "belonging" lies.

Somewhere I settled into my woman's shape. (I think, oddly, it was the pregnancy. Part of it was hubby - I could not have him if I was not female, and so, female it was. But more of it was pregnancy. Because only I-as-woman could do this. Only I-as-woman could grow life in my belly. and as much as a pain as it was, it was also a miracle). I've even grown vain about my shape and figure, which baffles me immensely. I even fit to some extent into the Brainwashed Pawn category! (but hubby does a good chunk of the housework .. so not so much!)

But I wonder how many women would read that and nod, and say "yes. I have been faking it." We don't have the same dialogues of what it is to be a man. There are more options, more freedom to be half this and half that. Men "can" do anything, even if some things are "beneath" them.

I know what it is to hide my otherness behind a smile and a wink. To pretend and act what I always wonder how other people take seriously. And I honor every single person that learns to be other, and not hide it behind the mask of human skin.

belledame222 said...

"WON'T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE LAMIA??!"

Brooks Moses said...

Heartshadow: "We don't have the same dialogues of what it is to be a man."

My flippant answer to that is, "Well, you wouldn't, no." More seriously, I wonder how much of that is that men in general don't have such concerns, and how much of it is just that we're so strongly socialized not to talk about such things when we do have them, so we hide them pretty carefully rather than letting other people see. (And it's sort of a double bind, because "men don't talk about insecurities", so being worried about the matter makes it even harder to talk about it.) And, for that matter, how much of it is that there are such dialogues, but you and I, for our own different reasons, haven't been part of them much at all.

When I was a young teenager, I guess I didn't really think much about what it meant to "be a man"; I didn't feel like a grownup, had no desire to be one, and "man" was a category of grown-up. But I was very much aware that I didn't fit with the other boys that I was around. I wore my emotions on my sleeve, and got my feelings hurt pretty easily, and didn't join in the harsh teasing that they'd do to each other. In hindsight, it pretty much sums up to "I was a geek and they weren't", but at the time mostly all I knew was that I had very little in common with them, and seemed to have a bit more in common with the girls I knew. I had girls tell me I "wasn't a guy", meant as a compliment, and it felt more true than not. Had I not been raised with a very strong sense of "You are you" from my parents, I'm sure I'd have been all over the "Am I really a boy?" identity crisis thing.

And I don't think it's just me. There have been relatively popular books about what it is to be a man; I remember several of them, about a decade ago. My mother bought me a copy of Iron John, because she thought it would be good for me or something; it's all about that question, and about claiming maleness and male power and stuff.

For that matter, though it's not the thoughtful sort of dialogue ... what is Arnold's trademark "Girly-man" insult all about, if not the question of what it means to be a real man, and defining everything that's not defined by raw testosterone as not it? "Promise Keepers" is also an attempt to define what being male is all about, as something completely different. And I think a lot of homophobia comes from yet another manifestation of a need to define what maleness is.

In some ways, there's probably something to the observation that "Am I an (adjective)?" is something women are socialized to admitting to, whereas men are socialized to ask "Are they an (adjective)?" instead, so the same sorts of things take very different shapes -- but that doesn't mean it's not the same kind of self-doubt underlying it.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Boston has a tune on the subject, too, Brooks.

Anonymous said...

I just found your blog. I am in some ways the same as you (as I read you being in this entry...)--submissive, a biological woman, someone who has experienced sexual assault. I am in a lot of ways different--I haven't the perseverance for a blog, the idea of being a secretary terrifies, I *love* shaving my legs...

but so much of what you said in this entry articulates things that I struggle to say so often--about how deeply frustrating it is to know that the work I do (something artsy) will always be judged, no matter its success, first and foremost, as the work of a woman...that my femininity is the first and primary thing that will be seen in work that has nothing to do with it.

Thank you. For being here, and sappy shit like that. but I mean it.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Thank you for letting me know, anonymous. I'm glad that it meant something to you.

That whole 'female first, person afterwards' drives me batshit too...

Agla said...

This post is much love.

Monsters forever.