“Safety lights are for dudes.” — Jillian Holtzmann, Ghostbusters (2016)
We saw the new Ghostbusters movie last weekend (spoilers herein).
It was AWESOME.
AND, importantly, it was a movie about women: a lesbian, a fat woman, a black woman, and a hopeless nerd. I was asked a few months ago how I could possibly be excited to see this movie just based on the knowlege that it was a gender-swapped reboot, and the answer is, because gender MATTERS.
We’re not talking about Charlie’s Angels. This was a movie about women being the main characters, driving the plot, existing for their own stories rather than being the decoration or the macguffin in someone else’s. There were no gratuitous shots of cleavage or pantylines, no slow-motion walk-ups in full hair and make-up, no jokes or lines about the characters’ attractiveness.
The jokes were about female experiences: Kristen Wiig’s character is taken aside by her boss and immediately assumes he wants to talk about her attire being inappropriate for the workplace (even though she is dressed very conservatively). There’s a practical joke that features a queef. There are jokes about high-heeled shoes being impractical and getting stuff stuck in your bra.
The tension is also about female experiences: A white dude is given a media platform to crucify the Ghostbusters as an “expert,” to audit their narrative “objectively.” The GBs are told over and over again that their work is a hobby, amateur, unprofessional, unnecessary, poorly-conducted, and that they should expect to be publicly shamed and disavowed even by people who know about ghosts (which Melissa McEwan at Shakesville sees as an extended metaphor about feminism).
I was excited to see this movie from the first time I heard about it. I wanted to see a woman in a major motion picture who was as much of a sexual being as Venkman, as much of a hopeless nerd as Ray, as scary-smart as Egon, as frank and relatable as Winston.
And this movie DELIVERED on that. Robert said it was like they put the original GB characters in a blender and poured out four new characters– but it’s more than that. Each of the four is her own person, with her own priorities and her own story arc. All of the important aspects of the Ghostbusters as characters carried through to the rebooted characters, in new but simultaneously familiar ways.
And, like Brave and Frozen, little girls are going to see this movie and it will expand their horizons. They’re going to see that science is cool, that femmefolk can be friends without being catty and spiteful, that they can be funny, powerful, irreverent, strong, smart, scary, sexual, fat, brown, and heroic, just like guys can.
They’re going to see that, even if The Man doesn’t recognize your accomplishments, people will still see you and value what you did.
They’re going to see that they can be the heroes in their own stories.
And little boys are going to see women doing and being all that stuff, too. And that will change the world for them.
Too much has happened to me this week. There’s too much anger and sadness in me to compose a few blithe paragraphs about handwork right now.
I want to share with you what’s on my mind instead of what’s in my work bag today.
Today is the first day after the heat wave here on the west coast. I know that the majority of media sources in this country have just started to cover the record-breaking heat, because, as with most things, if it doesn’t happen at least as far east as Chicago, it might as well have happened in another country.
Don’t get me wrong, I love living on the frontier. I love standing knee-deep in the Pacific, looking west, and feeling the wilderness around me.
But I didn’t hear about the oil train derailment that happened a scant 10 miles from my house for hours after the fact, and even then it was only because I went to a local news website trying to figure out why there was so much traffic stacked up on highway 30.
We were so very lucky in Mosier. If the train had crashed the day before, the winds would have made the fire worse by orders of magnitude. If the explosion or fire had been bigger, Mosier would have lost a school, homes, lives. If it had been raining, which it frequently does in early June, there would have been no way to mitigate the spill of oil into the Columbia. If the derailment had happened 10 miles further west, it might have taken out a freeway overpass, a number of local businesses, or even my house.
I remembered the first time I was sexually harassed– in line at the drinking fountain, in kindergarten, age 5– and I remembered how embarrassed I felt. How I stood there stupidly and let him keep touching me even though my stomach was knotting up and my legs wanted to run. How the words he said were permanently etched into my psyche. How I never told anyone. How I felt ashamed by the incident, like it was my fault.
The little boy who groped me and made sexual comments about my prepubescent body probably doesn’t even remember that it happened.
I remember him, though. I remember his name, his face, his hair cut, even though we moved across the state the summer after I finished first grade and I haven’t seen him since. And when I hear about men who are so assured of their right to touch women, who feel as entitled to their sexual attentions as the Stanford rapist obviously does, I think about that boy and I wonder if he ever learned about consent. If he became the kind of guy who tells rape jokes and makes his sexual partners feel obligated to engage in acts they don’t enjoy. If he went on to rape someone at a frat party in college. If he became one of the relatively few men who are serial rapists– how many victims would he have by now, at nearly 30 years old?
I think it’s that survivor’s sensitivity that made me uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders from the beginning. I wanted to like him. I bought into the hype of his being a challenger from Clinton’s left who would force her left during the primary at least. But then, I watched him debate with her. I heard the dogwhistles when he accused her of “yelling”, tried to paint her as manipulative and dishonest, insinuated that she could be bought. I read the things he wrote about women and sexual relations when he was younger. I watched him treat his wife with incredible disrespect onstage at a public event. I heard the contempt in his voice when dealing with female reporters. I heard him insist that people who didn’t support him didn’t know their own best interests. I watched his campaign double down on the idea that supporting Clinton because she’s a woman is stupid, wrong, even traitorous.
I watched him lie and cheat and steal and take no responsibility. I watched him blame everyone else for his problems. I watched him allow his supporters to run wild, threatening women and disrupting events.
I voted for Hillary Clinton. Because women’s rights are human rights. Because she listens to people and genuinely cares about them. Because she plays by the rules. Because she cares about indigenous people’s issues. Because she has been a tireless advocate for the rights of children and women for her entire life. Because she’s always been ahead of the curve on LGBT issues. Because her staff is diverse and well-trained and highly skilled. Because she admits it and apologizes when she is wrong. Because she says the word “abortion”.
Last night Clinton became the presumptive nominee. The first female major party nominee ever. EVER. I watched her speech. I watched the commemorative video. I cried. I was so proud to have been part of getting her this far. I was so excited for the general election.
This morning I read the news and learned that at his event last night, Bernie Sanders, who has repeatedly claimed that he’s an advocate for women, allowed 15 seconds of booing and hissing directed towards Hillary Clinton, the nominee of his party and the first woman EVER to be a major party nominee for president. He didn’t even recognize the glass ceiling she shattered this week.
I realized that he doesn’t see her. He doesn’t see women. He doesn’t see ME.
And I’ve had about enough of being trivialized and ignored. I’m done being relegated to the sidelines.
I have no more patience for those who marginalize me, be they east-coast-centered mainstream news sources, legislators who insist that shipping oil by rail is safe, teary-eyed rapists who think they’ve done nothing wrong, or political candidates who think it’s irrelevant whether they actually have a good record on women’s issues or just say they do in interviews.
My life is too wild and precious to spend it legitimizing all this bullshit.
So I am renewing my declaration of war against the patriarchy this summer.
And that is the work I have in progress this week.
RBF, or Resting Bitch Face (also known as Bitchy Resting Face), is a term for the common neutral noncommittal facial expressions of some women. Not ALL women, mind you, but some women. Certain women, you might say.
Certain women with a reputation for being too serious. Or thoughtful. Or introverted. Or intellectual.
Certain women who are well-known Feminist Killjoys.
Certain women who are “attractive” enough to merit street harassment.
Certain women, in short, whose default facial expression is somehow out of alignment with the harshly-enforced cultural mandate that, in order to occupy the space marked “feminine,” people must fulfill a decorative function at all times.
Let me be VERY clear: this is about objectification. This is about women LOOKING a certain way, regardless of how they feel or what they desire. This is about the society dictating what is acceptable in terms of the impression given to random passers-by on the street by a woman’s facial muscle positions and activities.
Obviously this is bullshit.
I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for months waiting for inspiration to finish it, because I could get as far as “bullshit” but no further. I wish I could convey dismay, shock, or outrage, but those are hot-burning emotions and I don’t really feel them about this subject anymore.
Not because it’s unimportant, or because it’s not worthy of passionate criticism, or because I’m not upset about it, but because, as someone who has met the appearance parameters for a sexually mature woman for 15 years, I have burned through all my hot and passionate feelings on the subject of street harassment and society telling me that the impression my appearance gives to strangers is my responsibility to manage. I am left with impotent frustration, and a kind of righteous indignation, which are much less motivating to write about.
But I think that the very fact that I’ve become inured to this kind of policing, at the relatively young age of 27, makes it worth talking about.
So, let’s break it down.
As social animals, humans create a social order, which is constantly adapted and maintained by displays of threat and submission behavior. In apes, the most salient submissive behavior display is the baring of teeth, also called the fear grin. Some extremely hierarchical groups of macaques use teeth baring almost reflexively upon the approach of the dominant animal, and the most common result of the interaction is that the dominant animal allows the submissive to retreat, which removes the submissive animal from the risk of physical abuse. Apes in more egalitarian societies, such as chimpanzees, use teeth baring as an appeasement gesture that seems to invite social interaction within the group by reassuring the other animals that the bared-teeth individual does not intend to cause them harm.
The analogous smile, in humans, serves many of the same functions: it reassures others that the smiling person does not pose a threat, it is an invitation to social interaction, and it often accompanies courtesy phrases (such as “excuse me” or “my mistake”) used to signal a known violation of social norms. There is evidence, however, that smiling is also perceived by humans to be more feminine than other facial expressions.
In one study, babies dressed in green and yellow were paraded before a group of onlookers. When the infants cooed, gurgled and smiled, the observers tagged them as girls; fretters and criers were assumed to be boys. The effect persisted when a different group of participants was presented with images of cheerful or angry adult faces. People readily identified smiling women as female and wrathful men as male, but they took longer and stumbled more often when confronted with furious female countenances or beaming male ones.
The Slate article goes on to rather weakly associate women acting as smilers with social affiliation management– positing that girls and women are trained to smile more in order to do “emotion labor” (i.e., smooth over social situations and bridge differences between groups of friends and extended family)– before lamely concluding that everyone should smile a bit more because it would make the (female) journalist herself smile.
The truth is that humans have a range of emotions– and related expressions– almost unique in the animal kingdom, even among social animals (only orcas are believed to experience more emotional states, and it’s not entirely clear yet how they communicate them without the mobile face of the ape). So for most people, most smiling is the companion of genuine positive feeling, whether they are remembering a funny joke or glorying in the sun on their face for the first time after a long winter. But there is another kind of smile that isn’t related to emotion.
The Duchenne smile– named after a 19th-century French neurologist– is the genuine kind. Its display is correlated with positive emotion, and it involves both the muscle groups around the mouth (zygomatic major) and the eyes (obicularis oculi). It’s fairly rare, and occurs with similar frequency between men and women. The smile that humans use purely for its ability to diffuse tense social situations, often called the botox or Pan Am smile, uses only the zygomatic major, and women report using it much more. (The open-mouthed play smile, by contrast, is not related to the bared-teeth display, and is instead itself present in lower primates in the “play face”, and eventually develops into laughing in humans.)
The early smiles of human infants are a mix of Duchenne and Pan Am smiles, and while their cause is not well understood, it is likely that the Duchenne smiles are a response to pleasure and contentment (joy is a more mature emotion, and develops at around 9 months of age), while the Pan Am smiles are socially-driven or even reflexive. Even near-term premature infants learn to mimic the facial expressions of their caregivers (it only takes about 10 days to train human infants from about 34 weeks’ gestation onward to stick out their tongues in mimicry), and the relatively immature human infant relies on social affiliation to live, so it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that babies are trained to smile in reflex to adult smiles, even in the neonatal period.
But when does gender enter the equation? For many American parents, gender policing starts long before birth, and many studies show that parents have different expectations of infants as young as four months old based on their physical sex. By the age of five years, female children are adapted to performing more emotion labor than their male peers, and are more likely to exhibit a smile (a Pan Am smile, of course) in response to receiving a disappointing gift.
The false smile can take a real toll on your health. Flight attendants, from whom the Pan Am smile got its colorful name, report feeling robotic, artificial, or even distant from their own emotional realities after a long shift with the zygomatic major engaged. While it is true that deliberately smiling can trigger more positive emotional cues in the brain, smiling because you are told to– when you’d rather not– can be damaging.
What does all this mean about Resting Bitch Face?
Smiling is gendered work, and women are expected to do it. Even little girls are tasked with a disproportionate amount of emotion labor.
Social smiling is based on a primal, non-verbal language, and women are under a greater societal expectation to communicate that they are non-threatening and open to interaction or afraid and subordinate.
Women who appear in public without their smile are perceived as hostile and aggressive partially because of mammal-level animal reasoning, but there is no way to ignore the gendered nature of smiling, especially when street harassers so often publicly shame and threaten women for their neutral or negative expressions.
At its core, the tyranny of the smile is about gender policing. At its core, the gendered nature of emotion labor is about allowing men to have full rights and freedoms at the expense of women. At its core, the social smile is about fear and submission. At its core, RBF is about women being objects.
TODAY wants to reassure you that you can get plastic surgery to fix your RBF (apparently that’s a thing), or you know, you can at least work on smiling a bit more so people will be less worried that you might be doing something dangerous, like thinking:
Ann-Marie Stillion, a communication strategist and artist from Seattle, says she’s recently made an effort to wear a smile when in public after having her resting face repeatedly misinterpreted by strangers, friends, and colleagues.
“I look mad when I am thinking which has gotten me in a whole lot of trouble,” she says. “So, I smile a lot now, not because I’m so happy but because I know it makes people more comfortable.”
(TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of body hatred and self-harm.)
Until very recently, I hadn’t made myself any clothing in years. Part of that was a scheduling issue– I had tiny babies who were always outgrowing their things and then active toddlers who always needed new shoes and new patches on their pants– but mostly it was a self-love issue.
I’ve never loved my body. Not ever. My earliest memories related to my own physicality are about feeling awkward, being too big, too fat, taking up too much space for a girl. I was too tall, my feet were too big, my hands weren’t dainty enough. I spent years outright hating my body, wishing I could afford to have it surgically mutilated into a more socially-acceptable shape and size. I didn’t always wash my hands before eating when I was a teenager because I was hoping I would get a tapeworm. In college I wished I would get mono or even tuberculosis. I had a persistent fantasy as a young adult about literally carving away the parts of myself society deemed excessive with a kitchen knife, and how much more attractive I would be afterward, even if I could never show my skin.
And I was punishing myself whenever I acquired new clothes. I was buying cheap synthetic crap for myself at enormous retail markup (even though I worked hard to never pay full price) and I was stuffing myself into too-tight, too-short, and poorly-designed clothes that pinched my arms and gaped over my belly when I moved and simply didn’t work over my breasts. Worst of all, I didn’t feel entitled to complain about it, because I had internalized the notion that the clothes were intrinsically, even morally, correct, and my body should change to accommodate them. I wore the angry red welts from clothing designed too small as a mark of shame.
I wish I could say that I had an awakening and decided that my body was worthy of love, but actually it was my penny-pinching that saved me. I decided that commercially produced clothing was a waste of money. I stopped buying new clothes. What clothing I had continued to decay in the way that fast-fashion does: ripped seams, patches where the elastic snapped out and the fabric became translucent, runs and pinholes, pilling. It was amazing and disheartening how quickly my gorgeous new favorite top became pajama-quality, and then finally a rag, as the shoddy workmanship and poor materials took their toll on something that, I finally realized, was only designed to look good long enough to sell, and had never been made for a body like mine, regardless of what it said on the size tag.
One day, when Númenor was recently home from the NICU and having trouble gaining weight, and I was snuggling him, dressed in my appallingly ratty pajamas, we were listening to a song from “Free to Be…You and Me” called “When We Grow Up”, and it all came together.
Yes, I thought. My 10-pound former micro-preemie is nice small. And I don’t have to change at all. We are both okay, and we are both still growing up, and however we end up, we’ll be okay then, too. I might be pretty, and he might grow tall, but we don’t have to change at all! I realized that I deserved to be happy, and deserved to have better clothing, and I became committed to making myself some new things– nice things– that worked for my body and were made from high-quality materials. I realized that I deserved to take up space.
And that’s why, as I mentioned, I’m currently in the middle of a big infusion of new, homemade things into my own wardrobe.
So far this year, I’ve made two tops, a skirt, pajama pants, and a shawl, and none of them is quite perfect, but they were all faster to make than waiting for shipping on something storebought, which would not be perfect either.
The draped velvet top with the satin sleeves is quite pretty in a Tudor-ish sort of way, and shows off the tattoo on my back. It’s still a little big, even after I went back and took in all the seams by half an inch. I might sew up the shoulders a little further yet to make it a bit more modest.
The faux cable velveteen yoked top is actually an adaptation of a top I bought once, and my version is better in every measurable way, except that it’s a little too short. I’ve been casting around the studio for something to add to the hem to lengthen it, and when I find it, this will be an awesome piece.
The skirt is a Victorian-style gored piece with a flat front and elastic gathering over the back waistband to recall the effect of a bustle. It’s a little too big in the waist, but otherwise lovely and sweeping and dramatic, just like I wanted.
The pajama pants were quick and easy to sew, but have two major flaws: first, the yoga-style waist isn’t enough to hold them up when I’m active (say, chasing chickens around the yard), and second, the rise isn’t quite enough, which is why they’re in the mending right now and not picture-able– I tore the seam out trying to sit down!
The shawl turned out beautifully– but even after adding another half-skein of the original yarn, I was some 20 stitches short in the bind-off and had to meet the sewn binding I prefer with crochet binding from the other edge, so there’s a little strangeness in the elasticity of the bottom edge. I was also expecting it to be bigger when I finished blocking it, but not using any lace means that there was less “spring” to it than I anticipated.
None of these pieces is just right– they are all workable, though, and well-made, and will last longer and better than what I could have bought. They were also an order of magnitude cheaper, since I only had to pay for materials, even though those materials were better quality.
I’m excited for the next elements of the collection– some undergarments, which probably won’t be featured here, and some accessories, which likely will. There is such pleasure in doing things right, and I am finally coming to accept that my body is worthy of having well-made clothes. I like what I look like, and I don’t have to change at all.
Which, over the course of time, includes basically all well-nourished people. Yes, some are characteristically thin, some have trouble keeping their weight up due to disease or dysfunction, but in general, as human beings, we gain weight as we age.
I’ve been re-watching Ally McBeal lately. I could give some bullshit reason for why– something about posing interesting questions about the role of feminism post-1995 or providing a positive and evolving model for the distinction of “eccentricity” from “mental illness”– but the simple truth is that it makes me laugh.
I like absurdity. I like character-driven comedy. I like quips and one-liners. I like relationship angst.
But this little exchange blindsided me with its brilliance:
I say to people “Informed consent is your right– insist on it!” and they reply “But I trust my doctor. My doctor wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t necessary for my health or the health of my baby.”
Cue laugh track.
If allopathic doctors were the trustworthy and stalwart agents of shining humanitarianism society paints them to be, theywould insist that patients do their own research, they would encourage patients to seek second (and third!) opinions, and they would champion informed consent.
Trust is no substitute for consent. Naïveté certainly isn’t.
It was my grandfather’s birthday dinner. We were at a restaurant where they know my extended family quite well, and we were having a great time. Then, Robert took the smalls to the restroom, and suddenly my mother was equating losing weight with being worthy.
“Well,” she says to my grandfather’s wife, “[little brother] is going to have to buy some new clothes since he lost 90 pounds.”
A big freaking red flag goes up in my head.
And sure enough, my mother rests on the subject of just how much weight my brother has lost and how great it is for so long that I can tell he’s uncomfortable with it, too. My grandfather’s wife is shocked that he could have had 90 pounds to lose, she reminds him of previous weight cycling, she compliments his appearance and resolve, and she lectures him about how it’s obviously wonderful that he lost weight but he shouldn’t lose any more now that he’s skinny, as if he had lost weight to please her. Then my mother wants him to stand up and display how ill-fitting his clothes are, like it’s a badge of honor. He didn’t want to, he was embarrassed, he demurred. She relented, but only on the promise that he would allow everyone to scrutinize his appearance later, when he stands up to leave the restaurant.
During this last exchange, my children have returned to the table. I’m helping Númenor get settled again with his crayons, when I hear my grandfather say to my brother “Well, I wish you’d rub off on–” and then he gestures to his wife.
“EXCUSE ME!” I interject, loudly enough to catch the attention of the whole table, “We will only be discussing our bodies in POSITIVE ways in front of the children.”
An awkward silence. I wish I had interrupted earlier, I wish I had taken a stronger stance, I wish I felt secure forbidding diet talk in my presence instead of only feeling able to object to it on behalf of the developing psyches of my children.
I want to be angry. I want to channel righteous indignation and lecture these people, make them see the terrible impact of their casual violence in what is supposed to be a loving family environment.
I want to say “How dare you publicly criticize the appearance of your spouse?!”
I want to say “Do you know you’re telling my brother that he’s more worthy of love now that there’s less of him? Do you hear yourself purporting to be the authority on what he should and shouldn’t do with his body?”
I want to say “Did you even get your son’s permission before holding a public conference on his body and sharing his private health information?”
I want to say “Diet talk and other forms of body shaming are not child-appropriate, and I don’t care for them, either!”
Instead, I help Númenor read a few numbers on his placemat, and conversation resumes around me, thankfully on a different topic.
As we’re getting ready to leave, after cake and presents and singing, I brush past my aunt and my mother having a reprise of the same weight loss conversation at my brother, who looks as uncomfortable as ever. I roll my eyes and give him a look that I hope says “solidarity, bro” as I shepherd the smalls past so they won’t hear someone telling him how his body should look as if everyone gets a vote.
In the car on the drive home, with the smalls safely asleep in the back seat, I cry. And I yell (sotto voce, like you do when smalls are asleep). And I say “That is fucked up.” about 9874259 times. And I quote theological texts, which is not something I’m prone to do. As a very outspoken person by nature, I mourn my reticence, but if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change the way I acted.
The fact is that I’m trying to have patience with my family, because we are all flawed and we all have to learn to get along anyway, but mostly because I don’t think they understand what they’re doing and if I try to dunk them into the Pool of Elizabeth’s Standards at the deep end, they will drown and think it’s my fault for having such an unreasonably deep pool. I’m letting them enter from the shallow end, in the hopes that they’ll want to learn how to swim over the next few years. I don’t know exactly what the timeline is, but I do know I won’t be tolerating this stuff by the time Númenor and Ithilien are tweens.
I don’t think that, when my parents were raising me in a liberal ’90s household, they truly understood how that would interact with my high sensitivity to injustice. But, as Beth recently pointed out, the Bible does say that I’m their God-given reward, and they are clergy, so they can’t claim they weren’t warned.