Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Straight-Girl Summer Camp

Bear with me, kind bloggees. Not to beat this poor horse into the ground, but in yesterday's "Need an Interpreter" post, you had some very interesting things to say.

The "straight-girl summer-camp" thing is something I've wondered about for years. That particular phrase was born during conversations between myself and my housemates and other close female friends as a short-hand way for me to say, "you've suddenly started speaking a completely alien language, in terms of my cultural experience, and I need you to explain in explicit and simple detail just what it is I've missed, that you take for granted" whenever we reach a point in the conversation where someone is looking at me as if discovering I was raised by wolves.

Flippant as the phrase is, nonetheless sometimes I must wonder.

Jill said, in the comments: "Straight girl school? Ha. My mom was a hippie chick. I learned zilcho from her re: being a woman and she didn't know to send me to that place.

I'm still trying to figure it all out. Though most times? I just do ma own thang."

Not zilcho, Jill--cuz didn't you grow up to do years of public-interest law? Seems like you learned rather a lot about being a human being, at least.

Are we all making it up as we go along, like Jill suggests? Where do you credit learning how to be an adult woman in our culture?Are there things we learned from our mothers, either by observation or direct communication, that still are valuable?

How fast are things changing? How big an influence do you really think the various entertainment media is, on girls-becoming-women? Does that thing about white shoes after labor-day still matter in anyone's reality?

Because I have to admit, I think of myself as a human sooner than I think of myself as a woman. For years I suspected that sense of gender-alienation had to do with being queer--but now I'm not so sure. I wonder if I didn't choose, on an unconcious level, to reject the limitations sometimes inherent in gender-specific labels for ourselves. Because I don't feel in any way as if I reject my actual sex--I enjoy being female, and wouldn't change that for anything.

I wonder, though, if there isn't a reality gap growing between sex and gender. I also wonder where those gender rituals that serve to identify us to one another become stifling, rather than providing safety and comfort.


Jill said...

First, let me tell you that I'm touched that you've quoted me. Wow. Another friend quoted me back to myself yesterday. That's weird! Ok - thanks, I think.

As for the being a human before being anything else - I agree completely. I've always felt that way.

Short vignette: I lived and worked in Israel for a year after college. Part of the time, I spent on a kibbutz. I worked in the gan - which is the nursery and cares for three to six year olds, kind of like a Montessori school actually. I got this rotation because my Hebrew, though not great (one four year old asked me why I spoke Hebrew like retarded person - and I had to have someone else translate his insult for me) was adequate.

So my first day on the job, I walk in and I'm asking about the kids, the makeup of the group and I say, how many boys, how many girls? And the madrichim - counselor/teacher/day care type people - look blankly at me and each other, put their hands on their hips, curl their brows and finally say, we have no idea. We don't think in those terms.

How do you like them sunflowers? (that was the main crop at the kibbutz)

Ms M said...

The questions you raise Mac are really interesting and I pretty much ponder these or a similar selection of them just about every day on some level of my consciousness. Making it up as we go along and being shaped by our parents may be compatible. One way of looking at is that the muddling through reinforces or incorporates practices that come up for re-negotiation.

I'm wondering if this "straight-girl-summmer camp" phrase is a strategy to reduce the gender alienation that you experience in those moments when you are distanced from the cultural intimacy of your female friends. On some level you feel uncomfortable about their talk and recognise that what they are doing is reproducing a particular model of gender which is oppressive. Their bond consolidated through acts of intimacy in the group dynamically reproduces the gender divide and what it is that separates not just male from female but also certain characteristics of being from other characteristics of being. Your comment is reflexive and analytical and it points to the limits of gender - that anyone who doesn't go to the school or may not have access to the school or who may be kicked out of the school or whatever, is excluded from all the reunions.

Now I'm going a bit out here for a moment but I'm wondering if these choices you have made are really that unconscious. Well, let's put this another way. You have embodied these choices through habit so they seem unconscious but your body is speaking loud and clear - your gestures, the way you work your face and move your body, what you put on in the morning. These are all bodily dispositions that have become habit over time. Automatic yes but unconscious I'm not so sure. Maybe they become more conscious or recognisable in these moments of re-negotation where alienation and disalienation is performed and re-enacted. I don't know maybe I'm not making any sense. But I so know what you mean.

Mac said...

Jill--sunflowers? How fucking FABULOUS is that? It just makes me smile to think about it.

I love the notion of not sorting by gender, from the very beginning. How did that play out between adults, later?

MsM--wow. Just, wow. You've articulated beautifully what I was sort of crabbing sideways towards.

Sure--you're dead about concious/unconcious and reflexive choices regarding gender re-negotiation.

I find personally an amount of discomfort in what, on some level, might be interpreted as rejection of gender identity--not to be confused with rejection of sex.

Which brings to mind Margaret Atwood's very smart labelling of queerness as "gender treachery" in A Handmaid's Tale.

How much were all our parents making it up as they went along, as well?

Ms M said...

If that was crabbing sideways I'd love to see you in mid flight! I feel a little naughty somehow because I was sort of trying out some of the concepts from the master class I just attended. Please know though that it was not just trying out my new set of power tools. I really do grapple with this one constantly and it has been particularly poignant in the last few days at this workshop. I loved the Handmaid's tale and you have reminded me that I'd like to re-read it.

Mac said...

MsM--Power tools? Heh, let's just shift the whole conversation into male-identified metaphors of power, eh? *grin*

What else are new power tools for, if not to try them out whenever the occasion arises...heh, no worries, what you said was relevant and helpful, and raises a whole new batch of questions to explore.

So how does this come home for you? The more I listen to other women talk about gender-identity stuff, the more convinced I am we all feel some degree of that alienation, staight, queer, married, single--it seems almost an identifying characteristic.

Mac said...

which then, of course, raises the question of how a sense of gender-alienation plays out in masculine models, as well...

Any of the guys lurking care to jump in?

Kira said...

I've never thought about whether I'm a woman or a human first. I don't know that I've separated the two in thoughts about myself before.

Maybe I just listened to "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor too many times. Or maybe it's that I come from a very matriarchal family.

About six months ago I was at a friend's house for dinner, and his whole family was there.

The men ogled photos of a new sailboat, and the women--and the friend's new girlfriend--meshed into one unit of domesticity in the kitchen. This one stirred a pot while holding the oven mitts out to another, that one advised on a why a cream pie curdled, another chopped vegetables while reciting a recipe to a fourth.

It was a blur of arms and spoons and potholders that all blended seamlessly into one movement.

And I didn't know what to do. So I sat and watched and wondered how women do that.

The women in my family couldn't have done that without a full-blown domestic disturbance.

I kept wondering what I was missing by not knowing how to participate.

Ms M said...

How it plays out for me? Wow big question. I feel it every day in lots of dfferent contexts, as I think many people do. Being a lesbian and considering having a family with my partner has brought up ALOT of stuff and is amplified by the current social political climate of conservatism in Australia modelled no less on a very limited notion of 'the family'. I do rant occasionally about this on my blog but should alot more! There is so much I feel uncomfortable about and haven't articulated. By the time I have worked through it all I'll probably be post menopause. Is this a strategy of my (un)conscious self? Oh dear, oh dear. I think it might be.

Anonymous said...

dangit, you're making me think hard again. I've written about half a page of stuff that I have to revise and edit and add footnotes to.

Here's what I'm pondering:

what is culture? how are my cultural experiences different?

is it really culture or unique experience or personality type distinctions -- I've felt like I'm not from the same gender as some women I've met, don't get me started on cheerleaders and cheerleader moms.

Isn't it cool that we can join up in communities of interest on the net and relationships are built on the text we post which often reveals very little about our gender unless we choose it

self-revelation and honesty --yeah, it's a stream of consciousness headed who knows where next.

I'm gonna have to respond later or in my own blog as these thoughts gestate.

Mac said...

Kira, the women in my family cook, too--and damn, even without having gone to straight-girl summer camp, I can cook, and even cook in a communal setting. :)

I'd be lost trying to throw a shower. You don't even wanna think about it. When my little sis was getting married, I threw her a big party and hired a stripper. her husband-to-be was a good sport. Mostly.

Her friends handled the "shower" part, and one of them kindly advised me on what sort of gift to buy, and that I should plan to leave early if I didn't want to play odd games involving gift-bows and lingerie.

But I'm never more at a loss than when attending a holiday function with a current fling, and they have a catered meal. Holidays in my family mean a noisy and crowded kitchen, with the women moving in almost choreographed precision to produce a complex meal.

What I think I'm seeing, though, is a parallel in everyone's experience of feeling "other" and finding oneself at a bit of a loss as to how to re-engage with a group, once marginalized to that alienated place.

We (inclusive, generalized "we") can be absolutely brutal to someone who steps over the lines of our comfort zone. Lesbians usually ostracize a member of their community who chooses to sleep with a man. Women with children tend to apply pressure--either wittingly or unwittingly--on women without children; and vice versa.

How do these divisions serve the community as a whole, I wonder? There's an odd politics of exclusion that seems self-defeating, at least in some contexts.

And how much do we do it to ourselves? I've been following Dawno's blog, and watching her discuss her internal conflict about reclaiming a more distinctly intellectual identity--after years of family and career.

MsM--you sound as if you're struggling with the same issues Dawno has, but in reverse--you're considering starting a family in a socially conservative political climate, having spent the last few years pursuing academic and intellectual goals?

And thank you all, by the way--for your honesty and considerable participation in this discussion. Y'all freakin' ROCK.

By the way, lurker-folks, don't be shy. Jump right on in. :)

Jill said...

Mac wrote in an earlier comment: Jill--sunflowers? How fucking FABULOUS is that? It just makes me smile to think about it.

I love the notion of not sorting by gender, from the very beginning. How did that play out between adults, later?


Yeah, can you imagine? Fields and fields of sunflowers. Awesome, except when I had to get up at 4am to paint the fields' irrigation pipes grass green to blend into the fields so that they wouldn't get bombed (true).

As far as how the not sorting by gender thing played out with the adults, that's a great question, especially when it comes to the Kibbutz I lived on(Tel Gezer - Gezer means carrot and a "tel" is a archeological site, like a large mound over old ruins, which we had on the kibbutz, way cool).

This kibbutz has had several incarnations, but during the time I was there (spring 1985), it was a trilingual, extremely liberal - even my Israeli standards - kibbutz. The founders were American, Israeli and Brazilian, so even the kids I cared for spoke fluent English, Hebrew and Portugese.

There were also numerous gay couples, including a German lesbian couple. Now, this is particularly fascinating because first, they were not Jewish. Second, they were German and third, they were lesbian.

Now, being lesbian - no biggie at all on a kibbutz. Being German, eh - also not such a big deal. But to have non-Jews on a kibbutz, that's quite radical given the economic and historical underpinnings of the kibbutzim.

It was a fantastic place to learn about a different way of life. I loved every minute there.

And - back to your post and the comments (great comments - cool people) about gender, doesn't it all just make you wonder how and why what actually seems to almost be a completely false and cruelly paradoxical dichotomy between two homo sapiens? What was nature or God thinking?

(I was a sociology major in college - can you tell?)

Great thoughts, thanks, Mac.

DD said...

Something Ms. M posted bugs me, "On some level you feel uncomfortable about their talk and recognise that what they are doing is reproducing a particular model of gender which is oppressive."

Oppressive to whom? And why oppressive?

Mac said...

>>Something Ms. M posted bugs me, "On some level you feel uncomfortable about their talk and recognise that what they are doing is reproducing a particular model of gender which is oppressive."

Oppressive to whom? And why oppressive?<<
Ah. Oppressive to themselves and to women in general, in that--on some level--identification of self through gender-modeling is by definition restrictive.

That is, when people develop a specialized set of customs or community rituals for situations, they put themselves into a box.

In this specific example, how any of us really felt about the items my acquaintance sent home with me wasn't supposed to matter--there's a set of customs in place to observe. Anyone not observing those conventions puts herself outside of the immediate community--even if only briefly.

So any behavior outside of the expected is proscribed by popular opinion--the perception of that behavior ranges from mildly eccentric to outright taboo, with accompanying levels of appropriate reaction.

The problem is also, I think, within the perception of the outsider, in this context.

Which would take us immediately into a discussion of positive versus negative freedom.

Because I think what I hear you driving at, DD, is that there are benefits to those conventions.

That's completely true--and an informed community member could be said to be choosing whether to remain within the norm, or whether to behave eccentrically and refuse to participate.

The problem is when the choice is unconcious rather than deliberate: At that point, the system becomes oppressive.

Make sense?

Anonymous said...

There must be a 'hard wired' component to this. The key word that brought this to mind was outsider. The animal mind is wired to reject the outsider as a danger, right? Could it be that some unconscious reaction coming from that animal past out of our deep brain structure underlies all the conscious and subconscious rule making to define what is 'one of us' and what is 'the other'?

Ms M said...

DD - yes you hit the nail on the head (just to continue the power tool metaphors) in identifying the most troubling word in this piece. Troubling because as Mac pointed out gender identification is not always experienced as oppressive and that being on the outside can have benefits because it literally and metaphorically enables another orientation but it is alwasy defined in relation to it by the fact of its exclusion. This other orientation may be negatively valued by the group (thus the potential for oppression) but may be highly valued by others wishing to share that orientation. One of the aspects that intrigues me is the movement between the inside and outside - how groups may also appropriate other orientations and what this then means for the incorporated identities.

Ms M said...

Dawno, your words make me wonder though whether the threat from the inside is not just as great i.e. dissolution of the group and that having an outside is a rather strategic way to keep the group intact.

Kira said...

Without the outside, there would be no group.

Anonymous said...

I've always been on the outside looking in. I've often wondered what it's like to be on the inside but obviously I didn't wonder enough (or I didn't think it looked like much fun) because I'm still on the outside looking in.

I have a neighbor that keeps telling me, 'Look in the mirror. You're a beautiful woman.' The first time he said that I looked at him like he had just spouted Zulu. ??? I thought, (and probably said,) 'What's that have to do with anything??'
Would I have had an easier time in life if I 'thought like a woman'? Is it too late for me to learn how to be one? Do I even WANT to be one? (not like I have a choice, you follow?)

What does it mean to be a woman and how far from the 'womanly norm' am I?

I think I'll go back to lurking. It's easier.

Ms M said...

Hi Anon? I think your comment is a really interesting one. How do you 'know' the norm. How do some people seemingly perform the norm better than others and how is it measured? They are all key questions.

Mac said...

Kira hit a key point, as well-not only are we defining outsiders in terms of difference, in some ways that difference describes the bounds of community, as well.

In case y'all haven't clicked over there, Ms M says some highly pertinent and interesting things about this on her blog, too. I'd try to reproduce it here, but I'd likely muck it up, and also I'm still smarting a bit from having misspelled "taxonomic" over there.


Mac said...

Welcome, Anon--I'm glad you came out of lurkdom. I think you've articulated a universal characteristic--to varying degrees, we're all outside looking in.

Jill points out her Hebrew made her an object of ridicule for small children, for example. It's still a lot more Hebrew than I could possibly muster. :)

We're so painfully aware of our differences, and make social decisions all the time about whether or not to strategize to either increase or decrease our status to the community--that re-negotiation Ms M was talking about.

I'm wondering about this, developmentally, now--some of the most poignant moments of childhood are those "outside looking in" moments, where we're learning how these social contracts all work.

Anonymous said...

I'm pondering your topic a bit. (Just til it starts giving me a headache - then I stop. :)

Negotiating to fit in. Redefining norm. What is norm, etc.

I think I must have subconsciously chosen, "If I can't be myself, then I don't want to play." I can't play someone else's role in life; not their own, nor one chosen for me. It's like wearing shoes that don't fit. Uncomfortable in the short term, painful over a long haul, and down right crippling if you have to wear them all your life.

Do you think that might be why some people go 'crazy'?

Mac said...

Ms M said, in response to Anon: How do you 'know' the norm. How do some people seemingly perform the norm better than others and how is it measured? They are all key questions.

Which brings us full-circle, then, back to Straight-Girl summer camp, where women learn this stuff as little girls. :)

Seriously, Anon, in response to your last post--I dunno if it makes people crazy, but I can tell you there's a pretty solid literary tradition, especially in writing by women, that suggests perhaps it does. The Madwoman in the Attic explores some of those themes, especially in 19th century women's fiction.

So great characters like Rochester's mad wife, the narrator of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, or Edna in Kate Chopin's The Awakening--who illustrates this discussion nearly perfectly.
From the link above about The Awakening:
"Edna is not Creole, but her husband is. She has never felt like she fits in with their lifestyle. Edna has always done what is expected of a woman, including marrying a man she did not love. He regards her as a possession rather than an individual.

While on vacation, Edna falls in love with Robert Lebrun. She often goes to the beach with him. She begins to realize for the first time, at age 28, that she is an individual. Edna feels like one who awakens gradually from a dream to the reality of life."

Kira said...

Anon...I do think trying to fill a role and life a life you weren't meant for could drive a person crazy.

Meet my Grandpa. He didn't want to get married, and he didn't want to join the Navy. He did one because his mother wanted it, and the other because it was the only way to escape his father. Meet him at 17, a corn-fed midwest farmboy who played football and blew up bridges with his buddies.

Add 45+ yeas of marriage to a wife in New England who's as domineering as his father, children who he can't relate to and years spent on cramped submarines. Add retirement from the Navy and a career in drilling and blasting business ownership (love of his childhoos) that's twice doomed to failure.

Meet Grandpa and his nervous breakdown. Meet his depression, and his bottles of xanax, prozac and more I can't name. Meet his two heart attacks.

Yeah, I think societal roles can drive a person mad.

And you don't want to meet Grandma. We're still trying to slip her anxiety, mood and personality disorder meds in her tea, with little success.

Kira said...

I read this in the paper today, thought you guys might find it relevant to the topic here: Transcending Gender: