Have you ever watched a scary movie and covered your eyes at the really frightening parts? And then, despite your fear, did you peek between your fingers because for a moment your curiosity was greater than your fear?
That is how much of my Women’s Studies work felt 25 years ago, and my heart is back there again since November 8th (yet another date that will live in infamy.) At times when studying the long and ‘secret’ history of women’s accomplishments in arts and literature, I wondered why I ever wanted to open that Pandora’s Box of Misogyny Via Information Blackout. Why did I enter this theatre in the first place—I knew the show would be disturbing. But now I want to see it all, even when I think I can’t stand it. So sometimes I have to sit on my hands to keep from covering my eyes.
Let the show begin…
There are other women in the theatre, I am not alone. Some say, “This is frightening and infuriating.” Others say, “Well, of course it’s scary, but it’s only a movie, it’s not happening to me.” Still others smile and say, “What movie?” These last women are not watching or listening. They are very comfortable, huddled under their theatre seats.
Of course the problem is that discrimination doesn’t discriminate. All of us, no matter how liberated we are, have listened to jokes that demean women. When we frown, we are told, “Aw, come on, it’s just a joke!” We all have witnessed women’s images used as targets of disrespect in advertising, calendar art, the media, and even supposed ‘fine’ art.
Many of us have also witnessed it first hand in our families, when we saw our mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers smile uncomfortably as the men of the family had a good belly-laugh over the latest ethnic or sexist joke.
We women have all, at one time or another, turned the other cheek, turned a deaf ear. We were taught how to do this early in our lives. And now, sometimes, it doesn’t even feel so terrible. We are used to it by now. The older we get, the more skilled we become at “overlooking” things. If not, we become strangely depressed. Or we become angry. These symptoms are often called “the change of life”.
But some women did not continue to look the other way, nor did they conform. I think first of my favorite “Troublemakers”, the women artists such as Artemisia Gentileschi, Georgia O’Keeffe, Judy Chicago. I don’t know how they did it, but I am glad they did. Sometimes we blame ourselves for not having known about these women sooner; we wonder why we never attended the sort of “movie” which features heroines. (Why does that word sound more like a deadly drug than a female hero? I need a new word.)
I believe we are all in a huge movie theatre, whether we are watching the screen or are cowering under the fold-down seats. This is a huge, multi-screen theatre actually; each screening room is showing a different film. There are separate rooms for African American men, Asian American men, and white men. Women of color and white women each have their own screening rooms too.
Most of the movies are either thrillers or tragedies except in the white male image room. There they show sporting competitions, political speeches, stock market reports, and pornography. Like all movies, the ones in this room have winners and losers, but the winners in this screening room resemble the audience.
Of course not all of the white men are fascinated with the WMF (White Male Flicks), and so a few of them ask to visit other shows. Some are allowed to go, but they must stand by the back doors of the other movies, and cannot stay long—they certainly are not allowed to enter and sit down. It is simple really; these movies are not happening to them, not personally, just intellectually.
If anything is to change in this pattern, it is not by shifting rooms, or thinking we can leave the theatre. We can’t leave, because this is where we all live. The secret is to take over the projection rooms every chance we get, and to dig out old films, or create new ones, where there are no victims. The new movies will be exciting, but we must remember that there are many people who are not ready to give up their old heroes and victims yet.
There is a white male who wanders through all of the viewing rooms. We all fear him, because he is the Casting Director. One day, he comes into my section of the theatre, where we are watching one of the new underground films entitled, “Women, Art & Society”. The Casting Director frowns at the screen, then taps me on the shoulder. Quickly I turn and say, “Shh! I’m busy”. He struts down the aisle, thumbs tucked into his belt loops, and spies a well-dressed woman huddled under her seat, eating Raisinettes. He approaches her, bends over, and taps her on the wrist with his gold cane. She looks up, smiles, and listens attentively as he whispers, “Come with me, my dear. You will be the star of my finest film yet. It is to be called ‘Confessions of Suburban Erotica’:
“Who, me?” she responds as she struggles to her feet, tugging at her skirt, adjusting her bra-strap, and picking up her alligator-skin purse. As the Director leads her up the aisle toward the cinema exit, the woman looks back over her shoulder toward the screen. When she reaches the last row, she leans over to the dungaree-clad teenage girl who is sitting cross-legged in her seat.
“Excuse me,” the older woman whispers. “I have to go now, but could I call you later to find out how the movie ends?”
The teenage girl looks up at the woman, then glances back over her shoulder at the man who is impatiently beckoning to the lady in the skirt. The teenager shrugs.
“Gee, I’d like that,” says the girl, uncrossing her legs and turning toward the woman. “But this is all new to me and I’m having a pretty hard time understanding it myself. There’s so much to learn here. I don’t know if I would be able to explain it to anyone, even another woman, by the time it ends.”
The suburban woman sighs, looks back to the screen, and again at the Casting Director. Finally she makes her decision.
Well, that’s the end of the story. She either sat down or walked out with the Casting Director. We’ll never know which. But does it matter? After all, it’s just one woman. Or is it?
(Of the Fable, Not the Reality)