(The Making Of) On Being Female

We have been continually thrilled to have Ali Vlahos as our Women’s Studies Graduate Assistant this year.  Ali will graduate with her M.A. in Creative Writing this Spring, and her contribution to our blog reveals the ways that her sensibilities as a writer and as a feminist merge to create a form of activism that is equally informed by language, politics, and performance.  Here, she not only shares some of her work with us, bust demonstrates the ways in which audiences–Women’s Studies 200 students, incarcerated young men, and, ultimately, blog readers–come together to give a text shape and meaning.

On Being Female (see below) is a spoken word piece that came into existence because of two things: a Women’s Studies Graduate Teaching Assistantship and Writing the Wrongs.  As the Women’s Studies GA, I assist with Women’s Studies 200.  Writing the Wrongs is a creative writing workshop I began with incarcerated youth at an all-male facility.

Both of these things have teaching component, both combine passions of mine (gender studies, creative writing, and social justice), and both challenge social and societal norms (and I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak.)  It didn’t occur to me that my Women’s Studies GA and Writing the Wrongs could be disparate and distinctly different things until I began encountering questions.  What’s it like working with only male offenders? and As a woman, aren’t you apprehensive about working with all-male criminals?  (by the way, I have a hard time thinking of the young men I work with as “criminals”) and Don’t you ever worry what could happen in the facility? and What safety precautions are there for you being around prisoners? 

Curiously, very few people asked me about what types of things embody Women’s Studies and/or about my job as the WMST GA.  It seemed my work with the juveniles was the more interesting thing I do.

I saw no reason to separate the work I was doing at the university and at the youth facility.  I spoke to the WMST students about Writing the Wrongs and vice versa.  During a particularly rambunctious workshop at the facility whereby the Volunteer Coordinator (a male, and not just any male but one who used to be a professional NFL player, you know, the stereotype of male masculinity with his muscles on top of muscles, sparkling white teeth, and an impeccable sense of style) had to reprimand the raucous group of young men after I had already told them to calm down.  Three times.  As I left the facility, the Volunteer Coordinator said to me, “You know the only reason they act out like this is because you’re female.”

Let me make it clear that the Volunteer Coordinator is my ally; he supports the work I do with the youths and understands the importance of allowing the youths to have a voice.  The VC is the champion of Writing the Wrongs.  He also coaches the youths on life skills and encourages they young men to make informed life decisions.  Together, we have spoken to the guys about healthy relationships, about male masculinity and it’s correlation to violence and how it’s influenced the choices they’ve made (especially in relation to their incarceration), and about gender stereotypes and how problematic they can be.

A majority of the Writing the Wrongs guys loved hip-hop.  I managed to convince a good friend of mine who is a spoken word artist, rapper, and poet to come to the facility with me to perform for the guys.  They loved him and with each subsequent workshop, the group kept asking me when I would rap for them.  When the Volunteer Coordinator said the bit about me being female, he meant no sexism or insult; he was simply being honest.  But it gave me an idea about how I could present the frustration I feel sometimes with being a female, but also a female educator.  A female educator of short stature at that.

With the subject matter of Women’s Studies 200 in mind, I gave the Writing the Wrongs crew a challenge: if each of them wrote an entire short story (whatever ‘entire’ meant to them), I would rap for them.  When I began attempting to rap, I quickly realized it was an art for which I was doing no justice.  So I amended my challenge to say I would perform a spoken word piece for the group.

The guys rose to the challenge and then some.  They really wanted to see me perform.  I wound up performing On Being Female three times because they were so stoked about the piece.  I’d never felt so much like a rock star.

It worked as an educational tool in many ways: a mini history lesson on Bikini Atoll and its pop-culture relation to Godzilla and SpongeBob SquarePants, a discussion on language and metaphors, and an introduction to new vocabulary.  We had a really good discussion on masculinity as well; we talked about what a double-bind was then I asked them what stereotypes and gender roles guys had and then furthered the discussion by talking about how those things affect women.

After our lengthy discussion, one young man asked me if I really felt the frustration On Being Female portrayed.

I replied honestly: there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of my gender in some sort of stereotypical way.

At the end of the workshop as the guys read their freewrites aloud, I couldn’t help but smile: they took our conversation and transferred it to insightful writing about race, gender, class, and even animal rights.  My smile didn’t fade: we were all simultaneously speaking our own individual language and yet also a shared language.

 On Being Female
       When I was little, I never questioned the dolls in my hands or the pink on my clothes; I was too young to realize I was tangled in the threads and throes of social control hard at work.  I was too young to differentiate between a smile and a smirk.  I never cared for dolls though, I’d rather have a book, but all that was commented on was my looks.  “Oh how pretty” and “Oh how cute” until I stopped wearing dresses.  Then society stripped me into disrepute.
       I became friends with Webster and Oxford, started using big words.  Words that spurred me, turned me into more than a pretty bird.   I learned brains equal intimidation…cuz a girl with intelligence is an aberration.  I’m programmed to be cute, dainty, and shy; and it’s taboo to speak of the things politics are divisible by.  I haven’t the voice for race, nor gender, nor class, nor religion.  Nah, I’m to be treated as a domestic pigeon with clipped wings, caged in a kitchen.  And there’s no room for anger or being aware.  Uh uh, I’m just a pretty face with a head full of air. 
       I’m not to curse, work, converse, or even go berserk at all the things that tie me down, like these apron strings and unfunctioning wings.  This de-volving, revolving, never-ending role has me dissolving, frantically problem solving, tryna get off of this Bikini Atoll, home of Godzilla, the ultimate guerilla from a poisoned radiation…a parallel to the media of this nation.  I have to wonder what this media does to my gender, photoshops us into oblivion; we throw up our food because we dare not digest as we obsess about our size and how to dress.  We are forbidden to be hairy, sweaty, or loud.  Oh why don’t I just shut up and do another load?  Let me air dirty laundry, let me clear the air:  the standard society has for women just isn’t fair.
       It’s hard to traverse this space that’s laced with displaced disgrace but every day, every day, I navigate this runway: I’m a spectacle to be gawked at, my anatomy on display.  As I walk, I’m hawked at, taunted, seen as prey.   When I walk my dog during the day I’m asked if I’m as kinky as my hair, but if I were to be attacked at night, I’d be asked “Well, what did you wear?”
       Being a woman is a double-bind, a catch 22: I’m damned when I don’t, and damned when I do.  I am perceived to be refined by but instead I am defined by, confined to my gender roles: I cannot escape, I cannot see and it’s hard to breathe through this scarlet tape over my mouth.  Always that Easy ‘A’; I can be pretty or smart, but never both.  It’s worse than a doctor violating the Hippocratic Oath.  I cannot win no matter which way I spin, much to my chagrin.  You see, I can’t have sex or I’m a slut, and if I don’t “put out” I’m a prude.  If I’m assertive, it’s aggression and I’m a bitch… but if I’m passive I’m weak and it’s a glitch.  There are so many rules, I can’t hardly think.  Think?  Women?  Uh huh, women don’t need to think, only do.  “Women take care, but men take charge.”
       The thing about that is this:  women are the foundation of the world.  Women are the foundation of the world.  We are the backbone and the muscle of life’s structure.  Our bodies twist and contort to be the child support that escorts life into this world.  Our bodies are strong, our minds just as much.  We are not a crutch but rather the tuck point that connects, the adhesive that binds this world into a cohesive design. 

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