When I was a kid, much to my feminist mother’s chagrin, I adored Barbies. I spent my allowance money on Day-to-Night Barbie, Pretty-in-Pink Barbie, and Barbie and the Rockers. One entire corner of my room was drenched in Barbie pink. The Barbies’ house, built by my father, contained everything from a refrigerator with fake food, to tiny pink coat hangers, to a goddamned Barbie toilet.
Thirty years later, that same Barbie house, with a paired-down menagerie of accessories, still adorned a wall of my adult house. When my friend, Kelly, came to visit, her daughter rebranded Barbie in a more sophisticated light, referring to the dolls as “the Barbaras.” Since Barb’s over 60 years old now, I think she deserves the extra respect.
National Barbie Day, which was actually yesterday (I know, you’re pissed you missed your chance to celebrate), conjures mixed feelings for me. I’m nostalgic for the time my best childhood friend, Kim, and I spent weaving storylines inspired by our favorite soap opera, Santa Barbara. (It just now occurred to me how appropriate that title is for Barbie play.) I’m also inclined to snort at how ridiculous Barbie’s tiny waist and permanently high-heeled feet are and to ponder the effect that has on young people’s body image.
It turns out, though, that Barbie, despite her nefarious image by the 1970s, began as sort of a feminist icon. And, maybe it’s time for her to take it a step further.
My ninth-grade English teacher was obsessed with Charles Dickens. She made all of her classes read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. She was a member of the Dickens Society and attended Dickens-themed soireés where all the guests donned 19th-century garb and spoke in 87-word, obtusely-structured sentences. I assume.
We had to memorize the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities, which didn’t seem like a big deal until I realized it takes up the ENTIRE FIRST PAGE OF THE BOOK. I still fail to understand how it can be “good writing” when you have to go back and re-read the first part of the sentence because, by the end, you’ve forgotten what the subject and verb were.
I remember parts of that sentence. My brain cannot recall where I put my phone or what time a soccer game is, but it holds onto useless detritus like my childhood phone number, the lyrics to an old Velveeta cheese commercial and, yes, the beginnings of famous novels I don’t even like.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” is how it begins. It then trails on for another sixteen lines with a series of very similar (and unnecessary) oxymorons. “Epoch of belief, age of incredulity…blah, blah, blah, noisiest authorities…blah, blah, blah…superlative degree of comparison only.” WTF, brain?
I hate it when he’s right.
BUT. Despite his mellifluous method of stating it, I’ve grudgingly decided Dickens had a point. That sentence applies to just about every era on the timeline of significant history. The heroics of the American Revolution alongside the appropriation and slaughter of indigenous peoples. The discovery of radiation’s miraculous cancer-killing properties and the deaths of thousands of innocent people in the form of a bomb. A new awakening for feminist activism but spurred by the election of a presidential misogynist.
My own, private heaven/hell/Idaho
It even works on a personal level. My twenties were filled with fun, friends, partying and carefree selfishness without guilt. I had a job and nothing to pay for except myself. And I cried a lot, lost four pregnancies and was in an unhealthy relationship.
My 30’s were an incredible time of self-discovery. I felt confident in myself as a person. Jason’s and my relationship grew deeper and wider. I had kids and discovered a love like I’d never known. I also worried a lot about fucking up and struggled with breastfeeding to the point of tears. I mourned the loss of time to myself. It was great and terrible, just like Oz.
The best of times weren’t that good.
I read somewhere that we recreate good times as better than they actually were. We look back on an overall fun vacation and remember playing in the ocean, relaxing on the sand, snuggling in bed with a mate. We forget the one rainy day we were bored, the lost luggage or the fight we had on the plane on the way home.
It’s helpful when thinking about now. With all the challenges — worry about kids, working on relationships, concern over finances and all the stuff I am constantly forgetting (with the exception of outdated commercial jingles) — I know I will look back on these years and smile wistfully to myself. I’ll remember the kids young and not yet jaded by adult experience. I’ll recall learning to be a writer, the freedom to work from home, and the security of the built-in social network that comes with school-age children. Overall, this is a good time.
There have been some true, worst of times, where the “best of” part was indistinguishable: the immediate aftermath of my miscarriages, the throes of divorce, intense struggles with depression and loneliness. In comparison with those, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Why didn’t you just say so?
So, what I took 618 words (Dickens would be proud) and 15 minutes of your life that you can’t get back to say is this: PERSPECTIVE.
“The evil men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones. So let it be with Caesar.”
(I never get to use the partial Shakespearean quotes that float around my brain, so now I’m just showing off. This is where you nod, virtually pat me on the head and roll your eyes. Go ahead. I totally deserve it.)
Every time I make up a bed, I think of my grandmother, June. She’s the one who taught me the secrets of fitted sheets. First, do the hardest corner, then its diagonal. She schooled me in their folding as well. Because of Grammy June, I don’t share the rest of the world’s fitted-sheet angst.
It seems like a trivial thing to remember, but with the memory of learning to wrangle sheets comes a feeling of zenlike order. Grammy June was a calm and soothing person, a creature of routine, and with the sheets and everything else she did, she taught me the peaceful feeling that can come with a task well-done, efficiently accomplished.
Grammy June baked and read us stories and did water aerobics. Dinner was served at the stroke of six in the evening, and no one ever ate more than one piece of pie for dessert. Grammy June, for her calm demeanor, was loved by every baby and every dog she ever met. She giggled a little “tee hee” when she laughed; she was the quintessential grandmother.
Granny Sue was not. Granny Sue was loud. She stayed up until the wee hours of the morning arguing about politics, and she was a bit overwhelming. At Granny Sue’s, you got to eat a whole can of vanilla frosting while sitting in front of the TV.
Granny Sue worked outside her home at a time when most women didn’t. She was a writer and a poet. She was fiery. She ran hot and cold and was hard to get along with sometimes, but she was a force to be reckoned with. She was a friend to all lost souls, welcoming them into her home like family. Her car sported a bumper sticker: Well-behaved women rarely make history.
Granny Sue taught me to say the uncomfortable things when they need to be said. She taught me to stand up for myself, and the last thing she said to me was, “keep writing.”
My two grandmothers were diametrical opposites. They got along okay on family vacations, but Grammy June sometimes discreetly turned down her hearing aids when Granny Sue ranted on too long and too loud.
I feel a little of each of them in me — Grammy June’s calmness when I feel overwhelmed, her sense of peace, order, and comfort. Granny Sue is there, cheering me on when I write something controversial and am afraid to hit “publish.” She tells me it’s okay that I feel like a mess sometimes.
It’s a thing people say, that people live on in those who remember them, and it is only now that I realize it’s true — how often I think of them, how I can feel them at different moments, two very different women. Sometimes I feel like two different people, and that can be confusing. But I loved Grammy June, and I loved Granny Sue, so I guess I can love them both in me.
That’s the first question people ask about a newborn baby. It’s what determines nursery themes and the attendant comments of well-wishers.
She’s got her mama’s good looks; you better be careful! (Insert jocular ribbing.)
Get a football in that kid’s hands. He’s a big one!
These are obvious gender-stereotypical comments, especially when made in reference to a newborn. But what about the more insidious stuff? What about all those memes about women shopping to relieve stress and men acting like just another child for a woman to take care of? It’s like an extension of the “boy or girl” question. We act like every behavior hinges on gender.
The memes are funny. I know I’ve laughed at them, but as they’ve gotten more pervasive, I’ve started to get an ominous feeling. It’s like we’re extracting ourselves from our old stereotypical gender roles and building ourselves new ones.
Instead of the “yes dear” housewife, we have the eternally exhausted shrew who does all the household work, complains about it and continues to enable her family by doing everything for them. Instead of “Father Knows Best,” we have the idiot husband who is oblivious to everything that goes on around him and, despite living an adult life, is helpless to fix his kids’ hair. It’s not a flattering picture for anyone.
These dichotomies do exist. It’s why all the memes are so funny to us in the first place. But as time goes on and the memes become more pervasive, we as a society start to assume everyone is just like that and has no nuance or depth to them. And then, we start to fit ourselves into those roles, or we feel weird that we’re not like everyone else.
We humans seem to be good at extremes. A person can be a boy or a girl. Men can have all the power and women can have none, or women can be smart and men can be stupid. Middle ground, people. It exists in many of my day-to-day interactions with friends and neighbors but not so much in advertising or on the internet. It’s like we can be nice to each other, but we can’t acknowledge it.
Ultimately, I’d like for the world to get to a place where “boy or girl” isn’t foremost in our minds, whether we’re talking kids or adults. Yes, gender differences exist, but they are not as concrete as we treat them. Gender is more of a continuum than a set of diametrical opposites, and we are all so much more than the set of behaviors and traits society assigns us according to gender.
What if kids’ clothing stores didn’t have “boys” and “girls”? What if they had a pants section, a dress section, a shirt section, so kids could choose what they like without feeling constrained by their biological gender? Adults clothes are trickier because our shapes vary more, but I could work with something like a “shirts for people with boobs” section. This isn’t just semantics;There are people with boobs who don’t identify as female.
I know it may take us several generations to get there, but I hope we evolve into a society that asks what a person is like, what a person can do, and gender becomes more of a sidenote. I’m pulling for it — true person-first thinking. Then, we could all stop bickering about who is better and who should wear pink and get to work on the world’s bigger problems.
This morning a wonderful thing happened. It was a small thing.
The kids had the day off school, so I dragged them to my 8:30am Camp Gladiator workout in the park down the road. They didn’t want to go, but it was a beautiful day, and they could play soccer or run around the playground adjacent to the basketball court, where we were exercising.
I like Camp Gladiator (CG, to those in the know) mostly because of the nonjudgmental, fun atmosphere. There is no talk of “bikini bodies” or “go hard or go home.” Everyone’s there because it keeps them active, both physically and socially. It’s like P.E. for adults; The burpees or deadlifts or whatever usually come in the form of light-hearted games.
This morning, at the end of class, this guy, whom I know reasonably well since we both attend CG regularly, offered to show me a stretch for my perpetually tight back. I was definitely interested, but he hesitated for a moment, then said, “I’m going to touch you now if that’s okay.” Then, (and this is key) he waited for my response. It was totally okay if he touched me to show me the stretch, but I really appreciated being asked.
To understand the personal significance of this, I have to take you back to my college days. I have always liked men, not just to sleep with, but as friends too. I enjoy the different perspectives they tend to offer from my women friends. But in my early 20’s I discovered something best illustrated with a scene from When Harry Met Sally:
Harry: No man can be friends with a woman that he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.
Sally: So you’re saying that a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive?
Harry: No, you pretty much want to nail them too.
Sally: What if they don’t want to have sex with you?
Harry: Doesn’t matter because the sex thing is already out there so the friendship is ultimately doomed and that is the end of the story.
Sadly, I found this to be true. It seemed that guys thought my simply making eye contact with them was an open invitation for copulation. They sometimes got angry when I engaged in polite conversation and then rebuffed their attempts to stick their tongues down my throat. How dare I be such a tease.
So I eventually stopped being nice to male people. I wore Doc Martens, big baggy t-shirts, baseball caps and an “I will end you if you talk to me” look on my face, fondly referred to in certain circles as the “kill your mother” look. If Meghan Trainor had been around back then, “My name is ‘No,'” would’ve been my theme song.
I was resentful and angry. One boy, Mike, befriended me my freshman year in college. I was clear with him from the beginning that I wasn’t interested in anything beyond the platonic, but I guess he thought if he hung around long enough I’d cave. He eventually quit talking to me altogether — as in wouldn’t acknowledge my existence if we were in the same room.
Another, Andrew, lived on the same floor of Jester Dormitory (that infamous living space designed by a prison architect) as I did. Again, I was clear from the beginning about my expectations. Again, when he discovered I was for real about not having a romantic relationship with him, he got mad and stopped talking to me.
I’m not saying I didn’t want to get touchy-feely sometimes. I had my share of spontaneous makeout sessions back then — some drunken, some sober — and I enjoyed them. I just didn’t appreciate that so many guys thought they were entitled to my body. I did encounter a handful of outliers. James and I were friends. He wanted it to be more than that, but he respected my boundaries and hung out with me anyway. He was the exception that proved the rule.
The good thing about being in my 40’s is, now I can be friends with men without the assumption it’s leading somewhere. It also helps that we live in a neighborhood of mostly married people with families; most of us are off the market and have kids that make us too tired to have affairs.
Because of my history, which I suspect is a shared experience for a lot of women, I appreciated this small act of respect — asking if it was okay to touch me. And I was glad it happened in front of my oldest son, glad he saw what respecting another person’s physical boundaries looks like and glad he could see that men and women can have platonic friendly relationships.
I hope that the next generation, my kids and their peers, will grow up in a world where this kind of thing is the norm — where they won’t feel compelled to write about it because it’s not noteworthy. But for now, I just want to say, “thanks” to Nick who laced his arms through mine and lifted me off the ground this morning to show me how to take better care of my back… but asked first.