I don’t believe artists have an obligation to produce feminist work. Even feminist artists. But I’m getting tired of reading literature and seeing movies that only contribute to the stereotypes the feminist community is working so hard to dismantle.
I don’t mean to pick on you, Ms. Atwood. Cat’s Eye was written in 1989. And, sadly, you’re far from a pioneer on writing about the ways in which girls hurt each other. And you’ve written much more complex, much more responsible, much more feminist things since then; Siren Song is a tiny piece of genius. But Cat’s Eye is yet another book on Mean Girls, and I am fatigued by that bullshit. Did you really need to write an entire novel about a nine year old who was contemptuous of other girls before and after she was bullied by some of her female friends? And who then spent her entire life looking down on other women? If you were writing a “slice of life” novel, congratulations. You succeeded. But why was that an important perspective to represent?
I know girls are mean to each other. Everyone knows that. Why they are mean to each other, especially in the grade school years, is the important question. But Cat’s Eye does nothing to examine why young girls might feel competitive, or pressured or even expected to be cruel to each other.
There are so many feminist issues. They may all be traceable back to sexism and misogyny at the root, but to dismantle stereotypes and truly empower women, feminists need to fight a million small battles every day. This is one of the ones I’ve chosen to tackle. Given the pervasive influence of the media, it seems essential to counterbalance this trend of women as catty, manipulative, weak and cruel*. I’m not a prize-winning author, so I’ll be waging war the only way I can: by hurling one tiny pebble of feminist reality into the seemingly endless well of trite stereotypes.
I met my best friend Kaye** in first grade. We had the same teacher, and while I don’t remember whether I noticed her on the very first day of class, her first show-and-tell presentation instantly commanded my attention. I learned three essential things about Kaye in those fateful five minutes: she was a talker, she was sharp as a tack, and she didn’t take bullshit from anybody. During her exhibition of some lovely family jewelry, she anticipated questions the class might want to ask her, and preemptively answered them for us, in an astute attempt to streamline her presentation so we could move briskly on to snack time. I was impressed by her admirable commitment to efficiency.
We made friends in the usual way, or at least the usual way for children in a bucolic miniature town in the 90s. We were in the same short-lived Girl Scout troupe, and my mother, most likely in an attempt to civilize me by making me hang out with some Good Influences, encouraged us to play together. We discovered a ton of shared interests, like being bossy and marching around the playground with Great Purpose. Once she “saved” me from a bee. She has never let me forget how brave she was in informing the gym teacher that he needed to carry me to the nurse’s office. Also she has never let me forget that the reason I got stung in the first place is because I was pretending to be a unicorn and not paying attention to warning buzzing.
In the years between first grade and high school we were good chums, but not constant companions. Kaye had another close friend for many years who LOATHED me, and she politely split her time between us. We had some classes together, and saw each other at Harvest Festivals and Girl Scout trips and at the town pool during the summer. I’m not sure exactly how it is that Kaye and I, considering my poor social skills, her angry friend, and our lack of any organized activities to participate in together (I was sporty, she was crafty), remained solidly friends throughout the capricious elementary school years and the stressful middle-school years, but we did. If I had to guess, I’d say it was because Kaye never betrayed my initial impression of her—she was, and always has been, a smart-ass, a tough cookie, and an immensely intelligent and entertaining companion.
When we all chose instruments in fourth grade, most of the girls chose violin. Kaye chose the snare drum. Kaye was the ten year old who identified as a hippie. When we made marionettes in our English class, Kaye made Sneezy. The dwarf. Because she had nasty pollen allergies. Get it? Hilarious. Kaye was the kid who would find something creative to do with homework assignments. Kaye was the girl that none of the boys picked on because they sensed that she could not possibly have cared less if they did.
Kaye was interested in things in a way that made me want to learn about them, too. I read books after she’d finished them and raved about them, and was never disappointed. She was compassionate, a rare quality in a fifteen year old. She was one of the first people I came out to. She was smart, and fun to argue with. She was loyal. She was open-minded. She made me feel safe, and she made any gathering a party.
We stayed friends through college, writing each other long letters and shouting over each other on the phone when we could spare an hour or two. She was the maid of honor at my wedding. She was the only friend I wanted at my father’s funeral.
These days, we see each other a few times a year–she’s in medical school in another state, and I’ve got my hands full with blog-writing, volunteering, a full-time job, some ornery rabbits, and a flourishing garden. We communicate mostly by text, giving each other small (and in her case, hilarious) glimpses of our daily worlds. Sometimes I’ll walk the three miles home from work and tell her about the different gardens I pass. Sometimes she’ll call me for five minutes from a gas station to wish me well before a job interview. We rant about the patriarchy over Facebook. We send each other pictures of flowers.
My life would be much less rich, much less vibrant, much less meaningful without this friendship. It is the longest relationship I have ever had, and it means the world to me.
I didn’t come out as genderqueer, and I didn’t start living as a masculine-of-center person until I was well into college. Kaye and I were raised as girls together. We never competed for the attention of the boys in our class (Kaye turned out to be straight, I turned out to be…not…but in high school, we were both at least socially oriented towards boys). We never compared our bodies, we never shamed each other. We fought, occasionally, but it was always about some tangible thing, like an insensitive comment. There was no vitriol in our relationship.
There’s nothing inherent about girls being cruel to one another during adolescence. It’s not genetic, and it’s not specific to girls. And yet, we really seem to like to perpetuate this stupid stereotype. Simply being friends with a woman, especially as a teenager or young adult, is a feminist act.
So, I told you mine, tell me about the girl (or woman) in your life who is or has been a source of strength and inspiration to you!
*Just like Bridie plans to do in her awesome memoir, working title: Chocolate Frosting AND ALSO FEELINGS, AMIRITE LADIES?