We are all shaped by everything around us. What we see, what we hear, choices we make, stories we are told. Everything. So it is no wonder that it isn’t always easy to pinpoint exact events that alter our perceptions or life path.
But, it certainly is fun to try to pinpoint those events, ideas, or stories that shaped a portion of who we are!
I have been reflecting of late on how I entered the world of feminism. I was born into a very conservative, patriarchal culture. And yet, here I am as a feminist. I have always felt like a feminist, though it has been fairly recently that I’ve exploded into feminist activism. How did that happen? What shaped that course?
As someone who eats stories all day and everyday, I have undoubtedly been influenced by various stories, whether they come in the shape of books, movies, plays, anecdotes, etc. So here are some of the top stories that I think influenced me over the years.
Let’s face it: The 90’s were fun. Grunge, plaid skirts, clunky boots, great teenage movies. 10 Things I Hate About You caught the tail-end of the 90’s with its 1999 release and I ate it up. I was a mere fourth-grader when I saw it for the first time and my favorite character was, of course, Kat Stratford.
Kat Stratford is the stereotypical “angsty feminist.” She had some hard times when she was a younger teenager and one day decided to only do things for her own reasons, instead of everybody else’s. Everyone calls her, “scary.” Or, “the shrew.” (A reference to the Shakespeare play that inspired it, The Taming of the Shrew.)
Kat issues incredible responses to the perpetuation of male-dominated literature in English class like, “I guess in this society being male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time. What about Sylvia Plath or Charlotte Bronte or Simone de Beauvoir?” Not to mention in response to Patrick Verona’s question, “What’d I miss?” she says, “The oppressive patriarchal values that dictate our education.” (I’ve seen this movie so many times I can read those lines with the exact tone and inflection with which Kat spoke them.)
Kat reads constantly, uses words that force one to open up a dictionary, questions everything, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Can you see how as a fourth-grader this character might have had an impact on me? She stood out among the sea of female characters that were homogenous and boring.
Lest we forget, 10 Things I Hate About You is a teenage romantic comedy. So naturally Kat needed a love interest. We all know that in the end Kat and Patrick make up and decide to be together, at least long enough for the end of scene kiss and camera pan out. But what did she do when she discovered he was a bounder? She didn’t let his awkward, silencing, rapey kiss make it all better like so many other characters in so many other movies. She slapped him and left him standing like the lying fool he was. She eventually forgave him, which is fine, but I loathe when guys in movies “shut a girl up” by kissing them mid-sentence in an effort to force women to forgive them for their wrong deeds. Thus her initial rage and slap and leave were great. You go, Kat Stratford.
Two characters stick out in Disney’s Mary Poppins. The great Mary Poppins herself (of course), and the suffragist Mrs. Banks.
That song! “Sister Suffragette” reeled me in with a burning question as a child, “Why weren’t women allowed to vote?” Even at a young age it seemed utterly preposterous that a group of people wouldn’t be allowed to vote. “Sister Suffragette” introduced me to the fact that throughout history, and even today in some places, not all adults have been allowed to vote.
I love Mrs. Banks’ enthusiasm, her “Votes for Women” sash, her stories about women chaining themselves to places, her awesome bloomers. And I really must say, “Well done, sister suffragettes.”
And as for Mary Poppins, well she’s a proper lady who does what she wants. “Let me make something quite clear: I never explain anything.” And, “Oh, I make it a point never to give references. A very old-fashioned idea, to my mind.” And those purple shoes! It’s no wonder she’s practically perfect in every way.
Eighth Grade Anecdote
As an eighth-grader I took Second Year French. My teacher allotted most Fridays to be cultural lessons (often only in French) instead of typical French language lessons. One such Friday, we learned about French idioms and sayings. A part of our assignment was to choose an idiom and create a mobile/sign with the phrase in French on one side and in English on the other side, which would then be hung from the ceiling.
I don’t recall what idiom I chose (something about a fool) but the most popular saying was, “Boys will be boys.” This phrase was especially popular with the other girls in my class. Everywhere I looked hung that phrase: Boys will be boys, boys will be boys, BOYS WILL BE BOYS! As I was inundated with those words it occurred to me: I don’t like that saying.
I declared as much to my teacher (I can’t remember if we were conversing or if I just said it aloud when she was nearby) saying, “I don’t think I like that phrase. It excuses any bad behavior a boy does.” My teacher agreed with me and that was that. For the day.
Our signs hung from the ceiling for a good while and I recall sitting in class staring at them, screaming in my head, “Why don’t these girls understand what they wrote?”
I remember it bothering me tremendously that it was girls who chose that phrase. Most likely, my fellow classmates chose “boys will be boys” in the spirit of crushes and love interests and being boy crazy, like junior high girls are wont to be. But at the time, I couldn’t really wrap my head around it. My realization about “Boys will be boys” was one of those things that seemed so obvious after the fact that it seemed like everyone should have had the same one. That’s junior high brain for you.
As an adult I realize that our culture is infused with the idea that boys will be boys and therefore aren’t to blame for misogyny, sexism, rape culture, etc. But I disagree that “boys will be boys” is a good excuse/explanation for why it’s okay for a guy to stare at me like–to use one of our own sayings–a piece of meat (such an icky feeling!). And I think back to that day in French class and wonder if it helped me down my current path.
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray is the first novel in a trilogy. I read it for the first time in junior high and loved it!
It is the story of Gemma Doyle, a British teenager attending an all-girls’ school in Victorian England. But in a time when young girls are married off to old men and have no choice in their futures and aren’t allowed to run or have original thought, Gemma has the power to use magic.
Gemma–on the coattails of tragedy–discovers she is the conduit to a magical world, and that she has potential to gain great power. She and her friends break rules, make choices for themselves, and begin to question the lives that have been predetermined for them.
These stories of girls and women who question the status quo must really have gotten to me as a youngster.
In my final year of junior high, I delved into the glimmering world that is Classic Movies. One of my favorite actresses from that time is Katharine Hepburn.
The same can be said of many actresses from that time period, but Katharine Hepburn showed me an actress who was quick with her wits, independent with her thoughts, and represented a broad spectrum of characters. Not to mention she is credited for being the first woman to wear pants on-screen.
And the fact that she was considered “Box Office Poison” for a while even adds to my liking her. People thought she was snobbish and conceited and just didn’t like her at all during that phase of her career. But that’s part of what makes her great. She didn’t pander to the audiences like a good girl. She did what she wanted. AND she starred in The Philadelphia Story (both on stage and in the film), which is perfect.
This is the third time I have mentioned The Goose Girl on this blog. So clearly it is one of those books that greatly impacted me.
On the one hand, The Goose Girl plucked at my taste for magic. There is magic in the book itself, yes, but I mean real magic. I came upon The Goose Girl the novel only days after reading the Brothers Grimm original fairy tale and falling in love with it. It was fate! It was magic! Then I spent the afternoon drinking tea and reading. Good day.
On the other hand, the protagonist Anidori-Kiladra Talianna Isilee (what a name!) is an awesome heroine. She travels the hero’s journey with gumption and fear and love and loathing, all while working as a goose girl in the king’s pastures.
And once you read a book by Shannon Hale you can’t help but be introduced to the author herself–sometimes literally if you go to a book signing. Shannon Hale is a modern trailblazer. If you–like so many publishers, writers, directors, producers–think that girl characters have to be boring or one-dimensional read her books! And/or mention your attitude to Shannon Hale and see what she says!
Most of what I have mentioned above come from my early teenage years or younger. But I didn’t read The Feminine Mystique until after college (though I credit 10 Things I Hate About you for encouraging me to get around to it).
This year marks the 50 year anniversary of the first publication of The Feminine Mystique. That is quite an accomplishment, but at the same time it begs the question: Is it still so relevant that it warrants a 50 Year Anniversary Special Edition? The answer is: Yep.
Since the book is 50 years old, some parts are naturally dated. However, as I read it I found so much of it to be very much applicable to today. Betty Frieden wrote about women who took tranquilizer pills just to make it through the day. She wrote about women who, after they finished having children and all their kids were in school, began to feel like they had no worth. She wrote about kids who were never able to fully grow up and develop emotional maturity because their mothers stifled them with an overabundance of affection rooted in the notion that raising/coddling children equaled individual worth. She wrote about the objectification of women as well as the dumb-ification (my own made up word) of women in magazines.
These days, women are visible in almost every industry in the United States. On a large scale, women can do whatever they want. But, how many times a day do you see women objectified? How many interviews with women include questions about kids and housework even though the interview is supposed to have nothing to do with kids or housework? How many women still feel like their worth and value lies in what they do with their body?
Big deal, that book.
Georgia Nicolson is a groovy British girl–fictional, of course. She is a boy-chasing drama queen who once dressed up like a stuffed olive for Halloween. She introduced me to British culture, and once you start investigating other cultures…. Well, your questioning of the status quo merely increases. And so does your vocabulary.
Just A Girl (No Doubt)
“Just A Girl” is a song that I played on repeat for hours. It’s possibly the first song that inspired deep thought or action. I remember having a sleepover at a friend’s house trying to get my friend to listen to it. She wasn’t a fan of No Doubt but I kept insisting, “Just listen to this song! It’s important!” I’m not sure if she ended up listening to it or not, but I remember it pressing against my thoughts daily.
I was in sixth grade.
Listen to “Just a Girl” here: