Friday, June 08, 2007

Feminist bakery

It was someone's farewell lunch at work today. It was a bring-a-plate lunch. I made cupcakes. This was for three reasons 1) I like cupcakes 2) I rock at baking (seriously. Cooking, we need a bit more work. Baking, I am the Queen. Or, you know. Non gender specific monarch.) 3) I had previously make cupcakes for someone's birthday and brought them in to work, and this guy had flipped his lid and raved about them. So I thought it was appropriate.

But it got me thinking. Why is it that compliments on my baked goods (or knitted items) make me glow inside with warmth and happiness, yet compliments about, say, my great work ethic or my appearence or cheerful attitude (tongue only slightly in cheek) make me uncomfortable and self conscious?

Is it because I don't think I deserve to be complimented on those things, that they aren't good things or aren't good enough to be complimented? Or do I feel that they are not representative of me, of myself, or that they are not appropriate topics for compliments? If so, what does this say about me? What does it mean that I slip so easily into the 'woman's role' when it comes to real world things like these, despite being just about the biggest mouth in the city when these issues are talked about in theory.

I pride myself on my independance. And sure, I don't need any of the men in my life (well, maybe my dad). But is that just a result of circumstance, and is it even a good thing, per se?

It's not that I don't think that the things I have made with my own two hands are worth praise. I do. But I guess I just am not sure where that level is. I hesitate to bring up that I knit, bake, or sew (a little) because that is not the person I wish to describe myself as to strangers. If it's someone I already know, I guess I feel like they know enough about me to judge me fairly - even if they judge me negatively, it won't be on one single fact. They can place the fact that I can and do do these things in with a bunch of other facts and feelings and give it context. I do knit in public, but that in itself is an act almost of subversion, something out of the norm, and sort of nullifies its 'women's work' image. But knitting at home in front of the fire with your cat by your side while waiting for your baked goods to be ready to ice as I did last night? Not so cool.

I remember telling someone about how I feel like it took me a year for my self-image to recover from being in China. Partly this was because I was just so much larger than everyone else that I always felt clumsy and huge, not a part of the same whatever that everyone else was - so different as to not even be in the same category. There was the same effect when it came to gender relations. The guys loved being in China, because the girls (and guys) there treated them like Men. They were expected to behave in the way Men behaved in the West in the 50's and before - and the Chinese girls (I suppose I should be saying 'women', shouldn't I?) acted accordingly. This meant that the guys had to call their girlfirends at least once a day, were required to say 'I love you' several times a day, and generally had to act in a way that made my stomach turn. And yet, as much as they complained, they seemed to love it. I suppose that is not so surprising.

For us girls, on the other hand, it was different. We weren't guys. But we clearly weren't like the Chinese girls.* We didn't giggle. Or twitter. Or try to walk up mountains with high heels on and then complain that our feet hurt. We didn't adorn our bedrooms with pink, frilly things, or, indeed, wear pink frilly things. I myself wore exactly two skirts in China. One was a denim mini skirt. The other was a long, black skirt with heavy, minority-style embroidery all around the bottom. Neither of which was what you'd call sweetly feminine. While in China, I bought mostly men's clothes and shoes, since that was what fit me. That, and tourist stuff, so lots of out there chinese style tops with dragons on, etc. Or, you know, stuff that was a little too tight and didn't really show off my various bumps and lumps to their best advantage.

In fact, most of us gals there were fairly hard-minded and hard-nosed. It takes a certain groups of personality traits to end you up teaching English in China, especially in Guiyang,** and the ability to faint neatly is not among them. So they Chinese people couldn't treat us like they treated girls (WOMEN) there. So they treated us as Foreigners. Which meant, like men.

Even to the foreigner men, we weren't really the same as women. I mean, here, at home, you get the girls-who-are-friends and the girls-who-are-girlfriends - the old, 'Damned Whores and God's Police'*** thing I guess, but it's not such a hard distinction, and the grey area in between in pretty enormous. In China, at least with the people I was with, not so much. I was just a person, not a Woman. Which in some ways was awesome. But the thing is, I am a Woman. I don't want to not be a Woman. So it was hard to adjust back into being able to be a complex human being in public, if you know what I mean. All this was going on on a pretty subconcious level, to the extent that, although I saw what was happening and articulated much of it, I didn't realise the extent to which it was affecting me.

So you remember how three paragraphs ago I was telling someone about this. I was trying to explain everything I've just said, about how I am not now, nor have I ever been, a girly girl, while Chinese Girls (as a whole) are. So I told them that I don't 'wear skirts or scads of makeup or frilly things or dress up to look nice for a man or bake and cook or sew or..."

Then I realised I do. I do or have done all of those things, while many of the mostly hideously offensively girly girls I knew in China wouldn't know how to cook, sew or clean if their life depended on it. In fact, in almost every way I am much more of a traditional woman than any of them. I do cook, and bake - in fact, I enjoy it, as long as there's no pressure to get it on the table. I knit and I know how to sew and I have extensive knowledge about things like how to get stains out, or the many varied uses for vinegar in the house, or how to sew a button on. Does this make me a bad feminist? I would like to think not, no more than not hand-sewing her children's clothes makes this woman a bad mother. But maybe I am a traitor to my class and cause. You tell me.
And what is the difference between being a downtrodden woman who cooks and bakes for her man because she needs his approval and an empowered, emancipated woman who cooks and bakes because she likes to and finds it a relaxing creative outlet and who also finds it pleasing when people appreciate her hard work and effort. (The last one's supposed to be me, FYI.) Is it perception and intention? Because those are such fluffy things, so hard to pin down. What about the downtrodden woman who cooks and bakes because she needs her man's approval but who also happens to find it a relaxing creative outlet? Oh, if only the villains would put their black hats back on and start waxing their mustaches, life would be so much simpler.

I'm a believer in the hoary old line that Feminism is about Choice. What you choose to do. It's your right to choose to stay home with the family or to become a CEO. Both these things of course require much sacrifice and hard work, but such is life. If that's what you choose, you should have to opportunity to make those sacrafices and work hard, as long as you don't have to make more and work more than others (men) in your same situation. I believe, deeply, that women and men are equal, but not the same. I think if you try to treat people the same, you end up treating them unequelly - expecting women to fit into a man's world, usually (although not always). And to not acknowledge the biology of us as a species is just foolish. To expect women not to want to have children, or to want to spend time with them when they have them, is unfair to women because it disadvantages them by making them work against their genetic and biological make-up.

As I said, I like being a Woman, I like being who I am, and I am not going to give that up. Not even for true Equality. That is the kind of Equality that Mao^ wanted for China - bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator, not lifting people up. But if that is the price of equality, does that mean we will never have it?

So much of who we are is tied up in our gender identities. And often these are good things, things we like. I was reading a book on the different ways Men and Women talk (it was called 'You just don't understand' and it was a fascinating read, but embarrasing on public transport) and at the end, the author was talking about assymetries in body language. When men and women hug, she puts her face against his neck - a one-down position that frames her like a child, the one to be protected. When they walk along, his arm is over her shoulders, or her arm through his. Again, framing her as one-down, inferior, in need of protection. These are things we do without thinking, that feel right to do, that we don't know how to do another way.

So what's my conclusion? Well, I'm not sure. But I do know that my cupcakes are all gone. And they were good.

This was on my friend's door.

Does anyone know who did it so I can credit it?

Can you read it?

*Note: I knew many chinese girls who weren't like this. OK. Several. But most of them did a Jeckyl-Hyde as soon as they got a boyfriend - especially a Foriegn one. Also, this refers only to Chinese girls in China, more specifically in Guiyang, where I experienced them. It should not be taken as a judgement of people of Asian descent. It is a genralisation about the Gender Culture in the city in which I lived.

** The pictures in the Wiki entry are stunningly beautiful. My overall impression of Guiyang was... grey. Bleack. Cloudy. However, the last two photos of the temple - that was right near the second branch of the school where I taught, I walked past it almost every day. It was beautiful.

*** Check out the woman in the 1975 edition's cover. She looks like she's having waaaaay too much fun... ;P

^Speaking of Mao - is this the best T-shirt ever, or what? I totally want it!

1 comment:

Rodrigo said...

Oi, achei teu blog pelo google tá bem interessante gostei desse post. Quando der dá uma passada pelo meu blog, é sobre camisetas personalizadas, mostra passo a passo como criar uma camiseta personalizada bem maneira. Até mais.