Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

I just finished reading an article in The Philosopher's Magazine about the Twilight phenomenon. This book series and the movie it spawned have gained so much cultural attention from feminists that I'm tempted to go and rent the DVD right now just to experience what all the fuss is about.

But then I remember that I avoid Twilight for the same reasons I've mostly avoided Harry Potter: those tricks are for kids, and they sound like bad tricks. I say mostly avoided Harry Potter because my family seems to be hell-bent on watching all of those movies, and I got dragged along to the Prisoner of Azkaban during the holiday season of 2004.

They also once tried to make me watch Armageddon, but I chose to go drive around town listening to music and smoking cigarettes instead. Those people have the worst taste sometimes.

Anyway, the article by Bonnie Mann, an associate lecturer in philosophy at the University of Oregon, is about how she as a mother discovered her daughter's love of Twilight and subsequently lamented it. Apparently Twilight is all about a girl who is devoid of personality, attractive only for her ability to service others, and the virile young vampire who loves, protects and saves her. She goes on to say that Twilight is a stunning example of what Simone de Beauvior described as society's expectations of women in The Second Sex. That is to say, women are valued in relation to their connection with a man. He goes out to create and conquer, and the woman gets the praise for being awesome enough for such a man to love her. It's like that scene in Party Girl when Parker Posey's character Mary tells her boyfriend Nigel that he lowers her worth when he pees in the shower. She says that a woman can be seen with a man and that man raises or lowers her worth.

The idea that women's worth should be independent of the men with whom they're involved is not what I take issue with. Immediately after I read the Twilight article I read a review of the documentary film Who Does She Think She Is? in Bitch magazine. The film is about how women struggle to be both artists and mothers. Common themes between the two articles reminded me of one of my biggest problems with mainline feminist thought.

It is essentially us buying in to a cultural ideal that is faulty for everyone. It comes across as women wanting to be selfish just like men.

The quote that stood out to me in Bonnie Mann's article was at the very end. "But in her insistence on resurrecting the promise that a meaningful life comes through self-annihilation in the interests of others, comes through appending oneself to one of the special creatures who lives the adventure of life first hand, she promises our daughters the same things our mothers were promised." And, of course, what our mothers were promised was a life of self-sacrifice to a man--and that's a bad thing.

The other day, while jumping on the mini trampoline, I watched the Sex and the City movie. There's a scene I've seen a thousand times wherein the ladies are wondering if it's better to be shit on in their relationships or be all alone. Samantha says, "Is it all about the other person? Is that love?" Every time I watch this scene, I get perturbed. The implications, much like the implications in the above quote from Mann, are endless and wrong in their extremity.

Self-annihilation in the interests of others is a spiritual practice recommended by the majority of spiritual traditions for both men and women. The harm that I see in these arguments is that they follow the American cultural ideal of self-centered independence. They present harmful gender identities for both men and women. Men, we are led to believe, are just a bunch of selfish assholes who will take advantage of the weak-willed woman. Women need to be selfish just like those assholes if they're going to get anywhere in life. Being selfish is manly and, therefore, the path to success.

So, in America, our idea of success is being the best at cultivating the worst traits in ourselves.

The idea here, too, is that giving is always opening oneself up to being taken advantage of. This is only true, though, when we have skewed views of what it means to give. If you see relationships as 50-50, you're opening yourself up to "being taken advantage of" because you look at relationships as a transaction. "I'll give you this now, but I expect that later." A woman gives the man her steadfast love and support in exchange for his paycheck. All of this ignores the beautiful transformative power of giving for giving's sake. A phrase that comes to mind is, "For fun and for free." Everything I do for others I do with no strings attached. This doesn't leave me open for being taken advantage of. If anything, it alleviates the risk because I didn't have any expectations of return. And what if I'm constantly giving to a person who doesn't appreciate the receiving? Well, I always have the option to stop giving.

If another person truly appreciates what they've received, it will show in some way. And if I truly appreciate the giving, I can't be taken advantage of. When I feel as if I'm being taken advantage of, I'm being selfish. I'm abdicating my responsibility for the choices I've made. I always have the option to say I can't do something.

So, is it all about the other person? Is that love? The reason this statement is false is only the presence of the word "all." No, it's not all about the other person. But if you're keeping score and resenting all the giving you're doing, I would propose you don't know much about what it means to love someone. Love is such a tricky word. It means something different to everyone. But I believe it does not mean possession, which is really what someone is aiming at when they're more concerned with what they can get out of it than what they can put in.

And this brings me to my other problem with these statements. They make it sound as if independence and self-sacrifice are mutually exclusive. In reality, I believe you have to be a wholly independent being to truly self-sacrifice. It is something you choose to do, not something you do because you are enslaved to the idea of what you will get if you give. It is a capable person choosing to take interest in the happiness of another, not a desperate person trying to buy the security of another's interests.

I always leave these kinds of arguments from feminists wondering why they're trying so hard to turn me into the kind of person I don't want to be. I don't want to be the image of the silent housewife popping Valium to numb out and forget her complete absorption by the identity of her man, but I don't want to be reactionary and therefore become...well, what I was: a woman so afraid of being taken advantage of that she cultivated her own selfishness and self-centeredness, which only fed a growing sense of self-loathing that, in the end, was more destructive than comforting.

I mean, really--are these my only two options?