On why I can’t fit in and how I’ve learnt to admire women who choose to.
My best friend is getting married tomorrow. Well, she’s already married (in a registry office) and is having a party tomorrow. When she told her boss she was going to celebrate her union by wearing black, not shaving her armpits and have an online gaming competition with some of her geek friends (I am not cool enough to know what this is called) her boss had to lie down on the floor because she felt faint. “You’re a loon, darling, a complete and utter loon!”
My friend may be getting married, but if she’s going to do it, she’s making damned sure she is doing it on her own terms.
“if you’re a girl there’s no pleasing the patriarchy anyway”
Author, journalist and brilliant feminist Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote the famed Prozac Nation. It is the autobiography of a brilliant girl who nearly dies because she is too much – too sexy, too clever, too alive – for this world. She has depression and takes tonnes of drugs and has some messed-up affairs and tries to kills herself but, thank God, survives to be the wonderful thinker she is today. How did she do that? As I remember it, the book doesn’t really tell you. But I think she must have learnt the art of survival. Of learning to play by the rules sometimes so that she doesn’t get punished for living an otherwise unconventional life. She has probably learnt to find the intellectual relief she craves in her journalistic writing and job as a corporate lawyer. A way to rant and let off some steam without totally self-destructing. You should read Prozac Nation. It’s depressing, but great.
I want to read this book as a story of compromise. Compromise has been given a bad rep. Teenagers think of it as a bad thing, a failure to be yourself, and that’s why they laugh at adults in our jobs and relationships worrying about what bed linen best compliments the curtains and which sofa fits in the living room. And that’s why we adults hate teenagers back. For showing us the compromises we have had to make in our lives. We laugh cruelly back at them, because we know they will have to make the same choices or suffer the consequences.
Feminists can also judge women. When a woman has a big white wedding, or decides to have babies at the peak of her career, it is easy to call her a cop-out. It’s easy to assume that when she chooses a career in business over being a self-employed artist or in some other manner follows the heterosexist, capitalist pattern of life she is not thinking for herself. But what if this were her choice?
I think that compromise can be a feminist choice. Choosing to compromise demonstrate intelligence. It shows an ability to adapt and survive. It can be a strategy, a weighing up of the odds. The act of assessing your situation and decide how you are going to survive.
I used to think that the choice to take the path of least resistance was a sign of weakness, of failure, but now I have come to see it as a position of strength.
Compromise can be feminist because it means you’re clever and you’ve worked out the odds. You can’t have the baby, marriage and the promotion. You can’t live in a squat, work for free and still fund your artwork. Compromise means you’ve assessed your situation and you know something has to give. It’s up to you to decide what. For Wurtzel, she found some institutions in which there was the least restraint/most space for her to write out her crazy ideas. For my best friend, a career in art sales gives stimulation and a good relationship helps her to negotiate the craziness. For another old friend, getting married and earning good money in a banking job helped her survive the demands of her own massive intellect and some shit parenting. Me, my compromise is different. I may have to sacrifice children and financial stability, at least for a while, in order to follow my art. And this is a compromise because maybe I do want kids, and I definitely want a partner and a stable home, but I have learnt that I just can’t survive this world if I don’t follow my creativity. A 9-5 job, a ‘normal’ relationship; that is what nearly killed me.
It is of great importance to create alternative communities and imagine how to construct a society that is not inherently sexist, racist, classist, transphobic etc. But each person also needs to balance their feminist dreams with the necessity of living in the here and now.
“to survive in this world you have to know how to play your cards right, and you know women started off with a shit hand”
I am terrified of following my own path. Because I know it will take me to some pretty radical places and I am afraid that I won’t be allowed to survive. That they won’t let me survive. My parents and friends and the world who tells me to get a proper job, have a baby, your biological clock, tick tock. And when I don’t do these things, what will happen to me? It’s lucky that I’m queer really, or I might already be married, in Brittany, with lots of babies. (Yes, that is my parallel life.) But behind my desire to be a writer, I know that I want the option to have a baby and yes, realistically, I have maximum 10 years to do that in and I don’t even have a partner so what the hell am I going to do? Being queer stresses me out because it makes having a baby far less obvious, a much harder option. Goddammit, this life is so unfair! And this fear of the future contradicts my knowledge that now, right now, is the time for experimentation, for my art. I need to follow my own path but I know that path might lead me away from some other options. I know I couldn’t have a baby now. I know I wouldn’t survive, body and mind intact. That it might just kill me.
Thank God for wonders like Patti Smith who not only survive they do so whole and well and seem to find the support for their wanderings. She’s a Buddhist. Religion probably helps.
The fact that so many brilliant women I know compromise and appear to fall in line – get a job, a nice boyfriend, have babies, do the normal thing – doesn’t make them anti-feminist or failures. They don’t do it because they’re stupid and brainwashed by patriarchy, they do it because they’re clever and they know that living this hard and fast life outside of the rules is a sure path to death and/or madness. They do it because they know they couldn’t survive otherwise.
Women who form this kind of compromise are fucking intelligent and have a strong skill for survival. Because to survive in this world you have to know how to play your cards right, and you know women and queers started off with a shit hand.
“It doesn’t matter, really, what anyone else thinks of you”
In these past 2 years of depression I have learnt the trick of survival. Faced with the knowledge that I can’t have everything in this life, I have also made my choice. Just as my best friend chose a husband, babies and a career, I have chosen art and adventure. This may mean I won’t have time to have kids (I’m 40 in 10 years!), but I think I will survive this sadness. And I nearly didn’t survive the other option, so it seems I don’t have much choice anyway. It must be possible to be a healthy artist. Self-destruction is awfully glamorous, but no matter how cool it sounds in a biography, I don’t want to endure that kind of pain. This is why I like Patti Smith when she sings about revolution and then says ‘and don’t forget to brush your teeth.’ She remembers that in order to be a healthy artist you need to take care of yourself. Art and sleep. Art and sobriety. Art and sanity. It doesn’t sound that sexy, but it works.
Go to bed on time, eat well, do exercise and see a shrink. ‘An artist’s job is to balance mystical communication with the hard labor of creation’ (Patti Smith, Just Kids). Or maybe that’s balancing artistic work with the hard labour of keeping your mind.
I know that we all think there is a set of rules to do things properly. And not only in the mainstream. In queer communities you are expected to have multiple lovers, live communally and not get paid for your work (anti-capitalist). For me, none of these things feel right. But I am still queer and I am still a feminist.
It doesn’t matter, really, what anyone else thinks of you. We all know, deep down, that conforming to anyone’s standards just to be seen to do the ‘right’ thing won’t really please anyone (if you’re a girl there’s no pleasing the patriarchy, or anyone else, anyway) and it won’t make you happy either. So whether you’re a radical queer or a pregnant married woman, it doesn’t matter, so long as you are living by your standards and not anyone else’s. Remember, only you know what’s right for you and only you can decide what you need to do in order to get on in in this world.
By the way, when Patti Smith walked over me, down the aisle of a Catholic church she was giving a concert in, I had to restrain myself from rugby tackling her. From grabbing hold of her ankles and holding her and never letting her go. Good thing I have more common sense than that.