Women are catching a disease that makes them invisible. They don’t die………they just fade away to translucency. This is the plot of one of the short stories in the collection, Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado. This transformation happens slowly to the women, and they live with the awareness of their vulnerability in catching the disease. Once they have it, they are aware of how their bodies are changing, and they live in dread of the day when no one can see them anymore.
Real Women Have Bodies is a powerful story, because at its core, we know that it is true.
Women know how they are supposed to be in society. We know that the ideal woman is non-threatening, kind, gentle, and if there are unpleasant things to say, she must do it with a smile on her face, because she must assure you that her intent isn’t to hurt your feelings, and intentions are all that matter, you know, and if there are opinions to have, it is fine if she has them, as long as they don’t challenge the powers that be, of course.
Evangelical culture tries so hard to make being a woman sound appealing. It is an honor to be a wife and mother. You change the world by raising your children properly. You attend women’s bible studies where, unlike the men’s groups where they just confess and hold each other accountable for having eyes and desires, you actually study a book based on the Bible, and thank god that your life isn’t as hard as a man’s.
In evangelical culture, women are protected, secured, and confined from the struggles of having to be themselves. Being an evangelical woman is not so much about being a human, as it is about being invisible.
In the March issue of Brio, there is a short article teaching girls the appropriate way to have an opinion, and the correct way to share it. Above all, one must be kind. One must always consider everyone else before yourself, and one must always be open to having a reasonable conversation in which both sides are given equal weight, even when the subject at hand is of a college hazing assault.
Yes, really, assault. That example is what starts the article. The author tells how she responded angrily and with disgust on social media to a story about the assault, and how her friends quickly reminded her that she didn’t have all the facts, and she shouldn’t be so quick and harsh with her opinions.
She says that she realized that they were right, and even admits that in the past, she had lost friends because she was too opinionated, and she says that in those situations, she should have considered her friends’ feelings and had more self-control in sharing her opinions.
Oh, yes, self-control. That fruit of the spirit, which, as this article says, if you are lacking, means that you are not as close to god. Self-control, that abstract concept used to keep women in their place, because if they don’t control their lives so that they resemble 19th century ones, they have no self to be worth considering.
What I love about Machado’s collection is that these are stories of women who do not have self-control. These women know who they are and what they want, even though they live in the midst of a society, who if it was honest, wishes they didn’t exist, but since they do, must find some way of taming them. These stories are about passionate, dramatic women who are hungry for life because they know what it is to be intentionally starved.
Evangelical culture says women should not be so hungry. They should not be so forward with their thoughts. That there is nothing worth defending so passionately that it is worth upsetting the apple cart for. In one review for Machado’s book, the reviewer says this book is about how fear keeps women in line, and that attitude is exactly what this article is upholding.
To dare to be a woman in the world of evangelical culture — either in it, or in the breaking out of it — is to hold in your body the stress and fear of knowing you are being judged for taking up unapproved space.
To dare to be a woman who doesn’t hide her needs, desires, and opinions is to feel muscles tense, blood pound relentlessly, and skin slicken with sweat.
This article tells teen girls that even in the case of assault, both sides have equal bearing, and that how kindly you handle your anger is indicative of how close to god you are.
To dare to be a woman is to name the ways in which theology is harmful.
Under patriarchy, under christian conservatism, girls are taught that they are a threat to the world, and they are right. But rather than telling them to suppress that threat, we need to encourage them to burn down everything that is wrong with the world. Why isn’t a hazing assault at least worth getting mad about? Developing into a woman should be about learning to embrace your dangerous, passionate wildness, not becoming an expert in shutting yourself down for other people.
Other people’s opinions are fickle and hypocritical. They are not the standard to base responses to reality on. And neither is kindness. What is kind to one, is bitchy to another. Kindness is not necessarily true or good. Kindness doesn’t win over oppressors. What society calls kind is only that which doesn’t threaten itself.
In the book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ says, “To act in a way that is both sexist and racist, to maintain one’s class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner,” because society’s status quo is sexist, racist, and classist. The kind, self-control described in this article is the behavior that upholds this status quo.
The article in Brio quotes Ephesians 4:29, which talks about using words to build up others, as a means of controlling what and how women speak. Words are too dangerous a weapon to just let women have at them; they must come equipped with a safety guard.
In the feminist essay on women’s writing, The Laugh of the Medusa, Hélène Cixous, says that it is time for women to break out from the language of patriarchy that she has functioned in; “To explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of…Her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.”
While Brio might describe pursuing a life filled with self-control as a means of living an appropriately feminine godly life, in reality it means living a life governed by other people’s opinions and conditional approval. But living freely as a woman in a patriarchal society means not being afraid of your depth, even when it threatens others. As Cixous says, women are thronging to liberation; “those who will not fear the risk of being a woman, will not fear any risk, any desire, any space still unexplored in themselves, among themselves and others or anywhere else.”
Daring to be a woman in the world means daring to let yourself be seen, opinions and all.
This essay originally appeared at Fundamentally Free.