When I saw the video below of Beth Ditto live, performing “Standing in the Way of Control” with her band, Gossip, I was profoundly affected. I’ve been thinking about femininity, shame, and femme performance a lot lately. My latest forays into femme fashion as a genderqueer person have been inextricably tied up in the shame of being a teenaged girl, the pain of rejection by my peers, and the power of shame to shut me up as I move through adult society.
I’ve always been a loud, boisterous person. I tend to be proud of my accomplishments and sometimes a bit of a know-it-all. I love karaoke, dance performances, and anything else creative. But as I’ve moved through my teenaged and young adult years, the pressure of etiquette and embarrassment have had a painful effect on me. I read a lot about how it’s important to focus not on what girls’ bodies look like, but what they can do. Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I’m shamed by the realization that what my body can do is not as good as what others’ can do. I’ve stopped singing and dancing as much in public because of external ridicule and growing internal embarrassment. Throughout college and law school, clothes went from fun performance to a way to be invisible, proper, and fitting into what I saw as my role. I’ve been trying very hard to speak less and listen more. Sometimes, that’s a good lesson to learn, but it also has painful effects.
When I first saw the Beth Ditto video below the cut on the commuter train, I cried. On stage, Beth is joyful, radiant, and unashamed. She dances in a purple dress that fully exposes her thighs, in bare feet, fully occupying her space. She belts the song diva rockstar style, and certainly doesn’t look nervous or ashamed about the thousands of people watching. Though I may not exactly have Beth Ditto’s voice, I do want to use this video as inspiration. It reminds me so much of being a little girl, singing in my nightgown at the top of my lungs, dancing, crashing into furniture, convinced that my voice and my body were awesome. Whenever there was a chance to perform, I took it. There’s something to be learned from that. It’s also why cried when I saw this empowering video about girls and body image. You know what? I deserve to be a fucking rockstar.
I hear a lot in feminist circles about strength. Strength is a value that’s really embraced in feminism, along with independence and anger. And of course, women do have a great big right to be angry. The stereotype that women should be soft, weak, sweet, submissive, etc., does a great injustice to an entire gender. But feminism is also, as I see it, about recognizing a wide range of possible behaviors that doesn’t depend on gender. It’s about safe space. And for me, it’s much more important to have a space in which it is safe to be soft, sweet, and react to negative events with sadness and a need for protection than it is to have the right to be angry.
The fact is, not everyone feels anger. And no one has a responsibility to feel angry, to be strong, or to be independent. You’re not a bad feminist if you just can’t react that way. It’s okay to depend on other people for support, reassurance, and even protection. If someone threatens you, gets in your personal space, or uses innuendos that make you feel uncomfortable, you’re not a bad person if you can’t “handle it” on your own. My reaction in such a situation is to freeze, and to feel embarrassed and sad. And that’s okay. For a long time, I thought that I needed to work towards instead feeling angry, getting hostile, and yelling at the person in question. But that communication style goes against my personal values. I don’t really want to confront anyone. I want the world to be a place that’s safe enough that I don’t have to.
Of course, the world isn’t that place now. But I would honestly rather be harmed or attacked than I would go against my values and my personality in an attempt to defend myself. My pacifism and my conviction that my communication style is 100% as valid as the alternatives are worth sticking up for. In the mean time, I’m going to keep working to educate those who aren’t familiar with radical feminism about how to make the world a safer place, and I’m going to keep working with my own process of feeling proud of myself as a somewhat shy, anxious, sweet person who needs a little protecting from time to time.