author – activist – faculty – mom
She begins the long essay with reflections on teaching that include being sexually harassed and utterly dismissed as a writer by the male editor of the Rumpus. But then she reveals the heart of the piece: she has spent her career up until that point “writing to impress old white men…a beseeching, approval seeking, people pleasing.”
Over the weekend, I continued to reflect on her essay, as well as reading others’ reflections, such as Marie Phillips, Nichole Perkins in the LA Times, Alison Herman in Flavorwire, and the lively conversation on the Word Of Mouth Bay Area (WOM-BA) women authors list. In the course of reading many women’s perspectives, I had yet another revelation about this groundbreaking essay.
Part of what made it so fabulous was about what she revealed about women and insecurity. In a society where women are constantly self-deprecating in so many areas, she illuminated a type of insecurity that is actually taboo.
Women get an endless amount of airtime in our society for airing our insecurities, but only on particular topics.
Insecurity about our appearance: hair, fashion, makeup, body image, diet, manicures, cosmetic surgery, airbrushing, fashionista or faux pas? Who wore it best? Billions of words per month are written and consumed about these topics.
Insecurity about getting male approval: Whether it’s getting male attention for dating, or getting a partner to commit to a relationship or marry us or stay faithful in marriage, there’s a neverending lament among heterosexual women about getting men to desire us, love us, fall in love with us and stay in love.
Insecurity about our performance: we worry about our competence at work or school and our ability to please our bosses or teachers, (frequently male).
Insecurity about motherhood: whether or not to become a mother. Have we ruined our lives by choosing or not choosing motherhood? How will we balance our ambitious lives once we take on the massive unpaid labor of motherhood? Can we feel superior or inferior to other women who made different choices? Shall we patronizingly “encourage” them to emulate our lives, even when they don’t have our privilege?
These female insecurities have become tropes and clichés. They show up in women’s magazines, chick lit, rom coms, sitcoms, TV dramas, and popular music. But what all these approved insecurities have in common is that they are about women competing with each other for male attention in solidly female pursuits. However, competing for male attention in a traditionally male pursuit is a different story.
In this arena, there’s something particularly taboo about competing with men as opposed to competing for male attention. Vaye Watkins dared to compete for male attention in the area of “serious literature.” The definition of “serious literature” itself is ever-changing. When novels were written by women, they were considered frivolous. But once men began to write them, novels became serious, and a procession of terms were developed to ensure women’s second class status within the field of fiction (domestic, romance, chick lit, womens fiction, sentimental, beach read, etc.)
In some professions, there are objective criteria for excellence in performance, even if the fields are riddled with sexism. In law or medicine or science or business or engineering, there are undeniable benchmarks of success: her experiment was a success, she won more trials, she made the most money, her surgery saved the life of the hopeless case patient. But in writing (and the arts in general), the criteria is totally subjective. So, since the artistic industries and institutions are totally male dominated, sexist gatekeepers can continually gerrymander the standards to maintain women in an inferior status. Classical musicians have to audition behind a screen to keep male gatekeepers from “noticing” weaknesses in women’s playing that miraculously disappear when they don’t know the musician’s gender. But in writing, there’s no screen to hide behind. No abstract, non-verbal criteria to master. Our characters generally each have an identified gender. Their interactions either conform to the scripts of male domination or they challenge them. In order to effectively compete for recognition, women are rewarded for assimilation into the male gaze and male preoccupations. As Vaye Watkins so beautifully points out, we can take on a male-centered perspective to allow us some external success, but we do so to our own internal detriment as women. As she says, “I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind.”
Yet the underlying yearning for approval she is writing about is the most subversive one of all: we yearn to have the unfiltered and unadulterated brilliance of our minds recognized and rewarded by the entire world, not just by women. Such recognition is rarely forthcoming—these days it’s a battle against the odds simply to get published. So most of us have two choices: we can settle for bending our brilliance toward the approval of male dominated institutions (like flowers grow toward the sun) or we can settle for unleashing our unassimilated female brilliance and forfeit the full augmentation of the sexist industries (like night blooming plants, we have our cult followings, our niche superstardom, our accolades filled with qualifiers and disclaimers).
As feminist leader and thinker Diane Balser says, every woman suffers defeats and has to make compromises in a male dominated society. The key is acknowledging our compromises and grieving our defeats. What I love about Vaye Watkins’ “On Pandering,” is that the essay itself is an open acknowledgment and a public grieving.