In the summer of 2007 I won a fellowship to attend the University of Washington’s two-month Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities. One day we were given 20 minutes to write something about a specific aspect of our identities.
Here’s an excerpt from mine:
“All terrorists should be middle-aged women,” I once said – only partly in jest.
It’s the ultimate undercover. You are there, but not seen. More precisely, you are not valued.
You’re probably someone’s wife, someone’s mother, walking into a building with a clean tie or a forgotten lunch.
Such functions do have value – but only as they apply to someone else’s needs.
Your own needs? Who needs ’em?
The only need we have is to be needed.
I was surprised how easily these sentiments fell out of my pen. But not too surprised. Finally I was beginning to discover the vocabulary for subversive thoughts I’d been having for years.
A lifetime of inculcation
Ever since my mid-teens I have been taking care of other people and pretending to have no needs of my own. I’ve spent four decades being defined in terms of how I look, whom I serve and which rules I might be breaking.
Now, in midlife, I am examining my life – not because I can, but because I must. I cannot consent to another 20 or 30 years of an existence that gives too little and takes too much.
This kind of change isn’t simple. (If it were, Oprah would be out of a job.) After a lifetime of inculcation you really do believe that guests will instantly judge the cleanliness of your carpet; that your children’s successes belong to them but that their failures are all yours; that if someone in the room needs something then it’s up to you to provide it.
You grow up inside a body that is not your own but instead must be shaped and adorned according to media images. Your feelings don’t belong to you, either; women are trained to be attuned, always, to the desires of others. Your ability to rebel is limited: To buck the system means to risk losing social approval and thus the chance for love, family, advancement at work, the right to exist at all.
The perfect disciplinary apparatus
The philosopher Michel Foucault refers to observation as an integral part of discipline, whether that’s in a boarding school, a factory or a prison. A person who can be seen at all times has two choices: to conform, thereby avoiding punishment, or to act in ways deemed unacceptable by society and thereby risk trouble and/or ostracism.
“The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly,” Foucault notes.
Women have been subjected to the constant gaze for so long that we’ve become the agents of that power as well as the objects of it. We police ourselves. We watch our weight. We watch what we say. We watch TV to see how we’re supposed to look, what drinks we should order, which shoes we should buy, whether our eyelashes are thick enough and our ankles thin enough (hi there, Hillary Clinton!).
We also watch what happens to other women when they challenge the status quo.
By contrast, we’ll never watch Rush Limbaugh checking the mirror for flaws, or watch Henry Kissinger confess to Larry King that maybe he should have had his hair straightened.
I bought into all that. I didn’t feel that I had a choice.
Now I do.
And as I noted in that 20-minute essay, my new tactic is resistance:
I’ve learned to turn invisibility into stealth.
The slightly frumpy middle-aged reporter walks right past the “media area” and into the laundromat where a mother weeps in despair. A woman who looks like me is probably there to pump quarters into machines.
But while the TV reporters freshened their lipstick, I got the scoop.
Or take my presence here at the university. Usually I’m mistaken for staff. Not for a teacher; I don’t dress well enough to be a professor.
Yet here I am, inhaling subversive readings, exhaling deliciously forbidden thoughts on power and praxis.
Who let me in? I let me in.
I’m learning to knock on doors, to speak up instead of swallow pain, to ask for not just a chance to excel but to learn how to stop taking shit.
At which point I realize: All middle-aged women are terrorists.
Or could be.