An Anger-Hued Girlhood

Originally published on the LA Times

  Art by Tracey Emin, Barbara Pollack

Art by Tracey Emin, Barbara Pollack

There’s not enough time. There’s not enough time to talk about all the things wrong with the world, every single fracture in this disastrous, puddled, broken hodgepodge of humans and brutalities, not enough time to fix all the brokenness, to soothe and seal all the wounds. There’s not enough time to be everything for everyone, to face every injustice at once. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

I’m writing about something here that makes me emotional. That word – emotional – is, in itself, a problem, according to the world I inhabit. To be an emotional teenage girl, to be emotional when discussing politics, is to lose logic, lose rationale, be blinded by personal experience and anger and feeling so big it represses our ability to be intelligent, fact-based, and pragmatic, which is all code for: like the men.

I’m writing about something that affects me everyday, that is a now fundamental layer of my identity, background noise to my existence, a hum of constant frustration but a familiar, now unremarkable tune. I’m going to write about sexual harassment. About sexual assault, about the Me Too movement and why no, it isn’t a witch hunt, it isn’t mass hysteria, it isn’t an antithesis to the sexual revolution. It’s about justice. It’s about recognizing the tumultuous, pervasive, poisonous wells of hurt that too many women, that too many people, experience again and again and again until there is no period to the suffering, no ending, only an indefinite existence of small sufferings here and there until we crack.

In class, I sit there with my nails dug into my palms and try to bite back the words festering under my tongue, afraid of my own anger, afraid to let it bleed out of me in the open in an academic space. I am told that this is not the place for emotions, for feeling all of this, for attaching my own baggage to the educational.

My experience, my everyday, is a theoretical conversation for most of the men in the room, and I am expected to adhere to this format of restraint, of intellectualizing and believing that there is any room to debate whether or not sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment, homophobia, even exists. This is not theoretical for me. It is not theoretical for a lot of us.

I am tired. I am tired of being known as the angry feminist at school. I am tired of feeling like the only person who will say something, feeling like I must be the endlessly eloquent, sharp-witted, impenetrable representative of feminism and women and queer people everywhere all the time.

I am tired of feeling so angry, so exhausted, so gut-wrenched by the people around me and the things they say and do. I am tired of explaining, of justifying, of having to rationalize and legitimize my personal experiences to boy after boy.

I am tired of feeling like a tiring thing to be around. I am tired of feeling every moment of injustice in every part of my being at once, at being unable to ignore it, to disregard it. I am tired of being a girl. I am tired of being everything all the time for everyone.

I’ve put this burden of being the bearer of justice on myself, undoubtedly, but I can’t help but think – what about all of the girls out there who have it so much unfathomably more difficult than I? I cannot stop being the angry feminist when there is so much to be angry about. When so many women cannot speak up for themselves. I examine this existence of mine and I cannot help my anger, cannot quiet or suppress anything. I look at the people around me and think, how aren’t you all as disturbed as I am?

The privilege I am so bathed in does not escape me. My half-whiteness. I’m cis. I’m physically able and I know where my next meal is coming from. Privilege is not to be denied, it is to be recognized, palpated, confronted.

I don’t believe, usually, that I have a right to feel this tired, this soul-drained, this achingly unmotivated to keep doing this whole activist, woman thing. I think that maybe, though, pushing and pushing is the worst thing we can do. Listening. Listening must be the priority now. If we shy away from the experiences of others, experiences and lives we cannot quite recognize, that we do not understand because we have never experienced, we perpetuate oppression, we ignore the hulking malignant tremors amongst us.

There is this thing I do. It is a thing most of the girls I know seem to do, something insidious, something small but brutal. I soothe male feelings whenever I speak about feminism. I try to be polite, to cater to the comfort of those who do not understand, who question whether sexism really exists, because even though millions of women, for centuries, have answered that question, that still isn’t enough for them.

I subdue the swellings inside of me, the bubbling bursting burning rage and the exhaustion and the desperation to scream until my voice goes raw, to make them understand me, make them listen to me, take me seriously. If I allow that messiness to bleed out, to slip for even a moment, any argument I have will be disqualified, invalidated by my unfortunate humanness.

I read a lot of feminist theory. In conversations about feminism, though, what I’ve come to recognize is that most men don’t. There is a deeply fractured mentality here: that it is on the oppressed to explain and legitimize their oppression. It’s not. It should not be a person of color’s responsibility to explain to a white person why reverse racism is not a thing.

I want men to do some introspection before they question things they don’t understand. I want it to be a norm to do your own research, to read some Angela Davis and This Bridge Called My Back and Audre Lorde and expose yourself to the material out there. It exists, and it is accessible.

There comes a point when merely existing becomes activism in itself in which getting out of bed is a miraculous, extraordinarily brave moment, a feat. The everyday thrums with self-possession, with the tenuous ferocity to keep on moving and living in this bruised universe, amongst so many aches, so many cuts, so many moments that have such a severe capacity to break us apart.

And if we do succumb, if we do collapse, we are not fighting hard enough, we are traitors to the cause, we are weaklings and should advocate for ourselves more. These are the truths we swallow even from our own peers.

Let me sit in a classroom and not have to speak up when someone complains about how we’re talking about sexual harassment too much. Let a boy do it, let him say, ‘this is important. When we have so many women who tell us it is important, so many people, it should be more than enough to justify talking about it.’

Let a person of color not be coerced into speaking about something controversial by a teacher, as the token minority kid. Let the conversations be messy and complex and difficult but let them embrace the nuance that our politics is so lacking. Let yourself listen instead of speak over anyone who has had an experience, an existence, you cannot understand. Let yourself try to grapple with your privilege and know that it does not negate your own suffering, but rather, that it is something we all must reckon with in order to live our lives with compassion and that is not so damn difficult to do.

To be listened to does not seem too much to ask. To have your personal experiences, your traumas, your identity unquestioned as valid and legitimate does not seem too much to ask. To feel safe at school, in a classroom, does not seem too much to ask. To be treated with (mutual, reciprocal) respect for your existence, and with compassion, does not seem too much to ask. None of this is asking too much.

The point of my feminism is not to demonize anyone, but the fact that I’ve had to explain that so many times is disheartening. It disturbs me deeply that men seem to think that equality means I must want to strip them of their rights and lock them all up. The Not All Men hashtag felt like a punch in the stomach. We know not all men. We know not all white people. The point is, though, all men benefit – whether they recognize it or not – from the systemic patriarchy and male hegemony that govern our world. All white people benefit from white supremacy, even if we don’t want to. This should not make you feel guilty; it should make you angry, because you want to change it, do something about it.

I must clarify time and time again that no, I do not hate all men. What I do hate is a society that makes me so adamantly, necessarily, fear them. What I hate is the everyday, every minute, every moment, walls-closing-in feeling that is my girlhood, when it should be a celebratory and unthreatened part of my identity.

What I hate is forcing myself to ask uncomfortable questions on college tours about sexual assault, about fraternities and blue light systems, rape culture and drinking on campus because I’m terrified of what happens in the backlights of what is supposed to be the landscape of my learning, of my growth.

What I hate is hearing every girl and woman I know apologize for speaking, for getting upset, for feeling feelings unapologetically. What I hate is sidewalk stares and gruff whistles and the intangible understanding that my body is public space, is a burden, a thing to be put away and hidden, a weight. What I hate is being touched by men everywhere simply because they feel entitled to grab and grope as much as they like.

What I hate is hearing the 15-year-old boys behind me in the bleachers at a school basketball game yell “cunt” and “pussy” and “gay” out into the court, hurling those words like they’re funny at the opposing team because these are the words that comprise humor, I guess, that comprise weakness, and the worst thing you can be is female or gay, apparently.

What I hate is reading a graphic rape scene in class, always taught by a male teacher, without any forewarning, any acknowledgement of the reality here, of how many girls (and students) might feel sickened and uncomfortable in that room, that might be reliving their traumas, something that could’ve so easily been prepared for, but wasn’t, was thrown out at us without any thought on the matter.

What I hate is listening to boys I know, boys who I consider my friends, laugh about a Snapchat video of a drunk 14-year-old girl giving a blowjob, saying “what a stupid girl, stupid decision, what an idiot” instead of the words that ache and brim to my head: “sexual assault, sexual assault, sexual assault.”

What I hate is watching the news every day and watching men make decisions about things they’ll never experience, never know as intimately and deeply as I will, as women will, as people suffering will, about my body, about my health. What I hate is hearing the rap my brother blasts in his bedroom, catchy and lyrical but plagued with “bitch” and “fuck that bitch” and endless other creative renditions of that word, that one simmering word.

What I hate is listening to my eight-year-old sister describe how the boys make fun of her and her best friend for playing soccer, for playing on the field, for being girls daring to do something that makes them feel alive, for having fun so unapologetically.

What I hate is having a male substitute teacher tell me no, you cannot go to the bathroom despite the fact that I have an A in the class and that we are doing nothing and that I am bleeding, bleeding, bleeding, that my lower half is in carnage. “Is it an emergency? Even in the bloodbath, no, you cannot go to the bathroom. What I hate is saying the word period” and having my PE teacher say, okay okay that’s enough, no need to be so graphic!”

What I hate is feeling like I must hide and clothe away and bury and scratch apart every part of myself because the female body is not supposed to be this way, be so human and incessantly messy and difficult and painful, because my body is only to look at and to touch but not to understand, because my body is dirty, something to hide away and not talk about.

What I hate is being the only girl in a room full of men debating without hesitation, without any attention to fact or reason or evidence, saying what they think without thinking, and I wish I could do that, be that mediocre, be that abrasive and loud and not have to contemplate every word I say and get praised for it, get away with it.”

What I hate is this whole damn thing, feeling like I’m whining, I’m complaining endlessly, and feeling this insurmountable guilt rise up inside of me.

What I hate is being a girl.

If those words don’t unsettle you, they should. I love girlhood, I love my fellow women-identifying humans, I love feeling sisterly and connected and uniquely girl, but I cannot say that I really love being a girl in this country, in this world. The heaviness in my gut doesn’t just go away. It can’t.

To act like it isn’t there in order to console the people around me, the people who don’t get it, is a disservice to all of us. I am emotional, I am messy, I am complicated, I am a muddled dance of grey area, and we all are.

There comes a point when the personal cannot be separated from the political, and I don’t believe that it should be. Pieces of your fundamental self, your very identity, should not be up for political debate, but they are; your skin color, sexuality, gender, etc, all of it becomes not facets of who you are but the entirety. You become generalized and politicized and dehumanized.

My body should not be politicized; to have to fight to have control and ownership and autonomy over my own anatomy should not be a fight at all. Persecution of my sexuality should not something we discuss as a legitimate viewpoint, because it is not political, it is a part of me, of who I am. I wish my mere being wasn’t such a radical act.

If the experience isn’t yours, don’t claim it, but listen to it, absorb it, try to understand it, at least to validate it. Unity stems not from sugarcoating or forced reconciliation but from recognition of the past and present, of the darkest dark. We find our histories there and we should look them in the eye.