Monday, August 12, 2013

I Love You

Her mother regularly told her daughter she loved her. The words were not warm and brimming with sentiment, but rather cold and austere, as much of her mother’s communication tended to be. In the phrase, too, lay a hint of anger and defensiveness, as in I’m not like those crappy parents who never tell their children they are loved, or try to accuse me now that your childhood is bad when I have said, on record, that I love you, every day for the last ten years.

Her father, too, emphatically expressed his love for his children at the end of every conversation, stated both as a fact and a departing signature, substituting for ‘be good to your mother,’ which was awkward, or ‘see ya later, alligator,’ which the children had quickly outgrown. She understood her fathers actions better because, as an irregular parental figure, he may be days or weeks out of their lives, and she felt he sincerely wanted to leave his children with a concrete assurance of his feelings for them, lest they doubt it in his absence.

The frequency of “I love you”s was so pronounced in both parents that she eventually grew to suspect that they had conversed on the subject at least once, during that unknowable time period when they had been a couple and assumedly had conversations. Like most parenting decisions made at the time, she suspected it was a reaction to something that had occurred in one or both of their childhoods, or, at the very least, in the childhood of someone they both knew or a fictional character whose childhood was used as a parable in the church they attended, whereby both mother and father to-be learned the terrible damage that could be wrought by not telling your child, often enough, that they were loved.

They had decided or been taught that the best way to convey their unconditional love was to repeat the phrase “I love you,” eagerly, regularly, at socially acceptable intervals, such as when the child is departing for school, or at the end of a phone conversation, and she suspected that the habit of this action had eventually overshadowed the underlying intention of the act, leaving her mother’s disregard for conveying love or ensuring the feeling of love in her children, and left only the oft repeated phrase.

Like most of the values that her parents fervently persisted in, she suspected this stemmed from a cultural fad that had existed in the mid to late seventies, or general movement of social consciousness which had developed at that time and since evolved considerably so as to be unrecognizable in its present form. Like being a born-again Christian**, and the Muppet Show.

As in all things parental, the line between love, resentment, and socially-accepted obligation was blurry at best.

The mother cares for her children because she loves them. The mother cares for her children because she’s legally obligated to do so and would be judged by others if she does not. The mother cares for her children because she expects said children to acknowledge her care as a sacrifice made due to love and to never imply that such sacrifice is due to legal obligation or societal pressure, lest they be screamed at in high pitched tones, which they are to understand stems from an intense abundance of love, but also hurt and anger and dislike, because all such emotions freely coexist, as in “I love you, but I don’t like you,” a phrase which was frequently heard in her early childhood.

The daughter views “like” as the lesser version of “love,” thus negating her mothers views on the subject entirely. The daughter grows defensive of this connectedness, holding it central to her world view, becoming incensed and eventually tearful if anyone argues that the terms are not directly linked. She takes care to assure her loved ones, specifically her two dogs and sister, and her mother to a much lesser degree, that she both likes them and loves them, and she does so at intervals which are not predetermined and thus vary in frequency but still often include the ends of phone calls and times of departure.

**Christian, in this case, meaning ‘evangelical,’ just like Jimmy Carter’s sister who, if I remember it correctly, was reported as going around and performing freelance exorcisms. The fact that members of this evangelical  branch of protestantism refer to themselves just “Christians,” as though there were only one real kind, is usually enough to characterize them, at least as far as I was concerned.

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King
posthumously published audiobook* version
(*so the spelling and/or punctuation is my own and therefore may be wonky)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

School Dress Codes are So Sexist

I’ve been on a feminist kick lately - not the act of kicking feminists, though that is a popular activity among some circles, I’m sure - but the looking at everything and everyone and proclaiming with disgust “that is SO sexist!” and then looking to other people, mostly women, and demanding that they emphatically agree. (The act of looking primarily to women to validate sexism is, in fact, so sexist.)

This started when I was reading through the classics: the Iliad and Odyssey, specifically. It didn’t help that these stories were age-old tales of rapture and pillage, that most of the female characters were war booty, and that women, at the time of the writing of said tales, weren’t seen so much as people as prized possessions with added sentimental value - a bit like a particularly loyal and well-bred battle horse. Or a favourite ram. Homer? Sexist. Trojans? Sexist. Greeks, and their gods? So sexist.

The whole world, in fact - sexist! - so much so that the Wikipedia timeline for women’s rights (which isn’t about “equality” so much as “the giving of rights to women”) doesn’t start until 1718 AD.

But even that was, arguably, a long time ago. Temporarily running low on fury, I looked to modern times and my own life in an attempt to prolong my rage.

I asked my mother, a teacher, to read to me the dress code of her high school. She wasn’t able to remember it, offhand, and couldn’t be bothered to dig it out. I fumed. I wanted references to skirt length and tank tops - items who’s name implied gender. Actually, I wanted reference to gender directly - and, depending on the age of the text and its author, I might find it. And even if I found no evidence of such language in the dress code, I felt secure in my knowledge that the high school dress code is one of the more obvious examples of good-old-fashioned misogyny in action: namely, the covering up of women so as not to unduly tempt the men. (Undeterred by my mother, who was lazy and quite possibly sexist, a short google search confirmed my suspicions.)

Sure, there might be an entire sentence or paragraph on the prohibition of gang insignia, and a dress code might readily proclaim its ultimate desire to promote the “neat and tidy” appearance of students, but in my experience this code was enforced with one goal in mind - getting girls to hide their bodies.

Stained, torn, and worn-out clothing were all prohibited by my high school’s dress code - but I never saw anyone asked to cover up a ripped or grass-stained knee. All items specifically prohibited - spaghetti straps and shorts less than one half the length of a student’s thigh - were aimed at women’s fashion.

Administrators argued that boys, too, could theoretically be affected by such prohibitions, should they come to school in short shorts or spaghetti straps (which of course could not reasonably happen as no retailer within fifty miles of Tilbury, Ontario, housed any such clothing in men's sizes). But that argument falls apart when you note that male sports teams and gym classes often allowed students to go entirely shirtless, and that a popular school comedy sketch involved our male French teacher wearing a sequined, strapless dress. It’s an obvious double standard.

Sure, I understand school systems wanting at least a semblance of decorum, of respectability. And I understand everyone’s feeling of being very, very uncomfortable upon first witnessing a fourteen year old’s thong and/or ass crack. It seems logical to want to make rules against such things. But in making and enforcing those rules, teachers and administrators inevitably end up targeting girl’s clothing and wanting women to “cover up” or “hide your distracting female form in a more thorough manner, please, because I am acutely aware that you, as a woman, have breasts.”

There’s a pretty huge historical precedent for this not being okay. These acts are grounded in the practice of men feeling attracted to women and controlling the actions and appearance of women in order to assuage said attraction. Rather than addressing men’s sexual attraction or behaviour directly, we decide to control women’s behaviour - and we’ve seen this as the reasoning behind everything from mandating bee keeper costumes and keeping girls out of schools entirely to not allowing women outside unescorted and blaming victims when sexual violence occurs. And we’re supposed to be at a point in gender politics where were refuse to tolerate that shit. 

Plus, uniforms are a pretty obvious solution if school administrators are actually concerned with the presentability of their student body.

This blog posting is dedicated to Margaret Atwood, who is the less-likeable Canadian version of Ursula K. Le Guin