“…and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake…
[but] you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love…”
–Warsan Shire, “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love”
(for more of her beautiful poetry, check out her blog!)
If anything, I am an accidental lady and probably not even a lady at all. It took me years to forgive that about myself. And many more years to decide, with some relief, that in this world, where pearls and polite politics and the freak we keep out of the streets won’t save us, what we need more than ladies is women.
There are those scratches in every generational record (or whatever is the less anachronistic analogy) and for me, the collective reaction to Rihanna’s pummeled face one morning almost four years ago was all the glitch I needed to send my otherwise taken-for-granted politics spinning.
She must have done something to make him hit her, folks concluded. You know she’s crazy. People entangled themselves in intellectual gymnastics, ready to convict Rihanna of a crime no one, not even Chris Brown, had accused her of, or to diagnose her of a mental illness no one, not one specialist, had tested her for–all so they wouldn’t have to confront the one thing that could be said with certainty: Rihanna had been hurt that night.
Rihanna’s subsequent behavior not so unusual of many survivors of relationship violence or even just of the very young–her vacillating attraction to Chris Brown; her purported substance abuse; her loudly sexual expressionism–was taken to be all the evidence people needed to conclude that somehow Rihanna deserved what she got. See, they insisted, she’s one of those girls.
Then, Rihanna had the nerve to commit the most cardinal of sins. Though she wasn’t who called emergency responders the night of her attack, and perhaps would have bled on the side of an empty highway before she did so, Rihanna was the one who decided not to remain quiet about the assault later. She’s ruining his career, people complained as Rihanna finally decided to open up about a horror many others hide under wide-rimmed sunglasses and long-sleeved turtlenecks. Can’t she just take the quiet, moral high road? That is, can’t she be more of a lady?
I, as much if not more than the rest, believe in forgiveness and redemption and realize that healing should mostly occur between Rihanna and Chris Brown if it hasn’t already, but the public discourse around that attack, even many years later, worries me. The lessons I learned from Rihanna are these: only a certain kind of woman deserves the dignity of being described as victimized and when she is hurt, there is an expected code of conduct. At the heart of those rules are anxieties about presentation and performance. Don’t be hurt too loudly or too long at the embarrassment or inconvenience of those who have hurt you, particularly if you who are hurting are black women and those who are doing the hurting are black men.
Along different, but interrelated lines, I have always been frustrated by the critique of “video hoes” who have the audacity to air their sexual exploits. Men of the entertainment industry are rarely censured for the ways they openly expose the women they are sleeping with–no objection there to their loose-lipped braggadocio. The moment those women attempt to take part in and transform the narrative, we punish the Kat Stacks and Karrine Steffans for outing men with marriages and reputations to preserve. The same is true of the mistresses, escorts, and sex workers of other kinds of famous men. I am not arguing those women provide a model example of empowerment or entrepreneurship, but I am curious about this how dare she talk objection. There is a one-sided code here that we pretend is about dignity and self-respect, about doing what is right. Ladies never tell. Whether the sex is consensual or not, whether the story has already been revealed or not, women are only supposed to the victims of the telling, not the tellers themselves.
If you are a woman, your deservedness of empathy, defense, and safety is tied to your success at performing “ladylikeness” and is a luxury that is hard to earn and easy to lose. One unveiled nipple or one video featuring stylized body fluids and a whole legacy of beautiful, fearless, artful living hangs in the balance. Certainly, there are rules for being a “good man” and a “gentleman,” but they don’t offer nearly as punishing and fragile a membership nor are they as determinative of human worthiness. Breaking the rules of being a lady can not only be socially disadvantageous, but downright dangerous.
The unspoken contract of ladylikeness is not only unfair, but it also pacifies with false promises. The truth is bad fates are meted out to “ladies” and “good” women as much as to the “deviants”, the “sluts”, the “hoes”, the “bitches” and the “ratchets”. Pretending that oppression is justified by the failings of the oppressed is easy distraction from the misconduct of the oppressor in the way other forms of respectability politics have never saved our black boys; even when our boys pull up their pants, stitch together the brokenness of their English, shape themselves around white phobia like tortured clay, they can still be shot in their own cars under the dim light of their own driveways. Similarly, your skirt could be the right length; your faith could be biblically obedient; you could suffer in silence and sacrifice with enthusiasm; your politics could be dainty; your orgasms could be collateral accidents of your polite sex; you could be quiet, light, small, poised, dignified, neat, clean, stoic–whatever it takes to be easy to regard and love–and still be visited upon with as much violence, betrayal, and disrespect as the next woman.
The cult of ladyhood is a fraudulent buy that can also strip women of their power, their resources, and their joy. The scandal is that not only has male sexism driven we “whores” into the dank corners of our Madonna-ness; but also the so called spaces erected to protect us from male sexism–sister circles; anti-violence support groups; our loving mothers, aunts, and sisters; and some feminism and womanism that insists upon a singular image of what empowerment must look like.
For most of us, there are so many iterations of a Rihanna in our daily lives. We all have encountered hundreds, if not thousands, of women on our college campuses, in our offices, and at our Bookclub Thursdays that are in grief or are in danger and spell out their vulnerabilities in the many languages ladies forbid themselves to hear or speak, whether it is publically toxic relationships or sexuality that screams, and so many of us–and in my biased sample set, particularly other women–are so fixated on policing the unladylike ways in which women hurt, that we find ourselves terrible advocates for those who need our courage the most.
The silence that ladylikeness commands has also seduced men and women, but again in my biased sample set, mostly women, to believe in the myths about female sexual desire. Recent science is calling into question the biological absolutism of tropes that have held us hostage to the ideas that women do not lust as much as men; that they are more inclined to monogamy; and that they must be coaxed, coddled, coerced into the sex they otherwise would not want. The women who crave, explore, and vocalize about sex find their distinct kind of punishment, but women suffer generally whether they do or do not follow the rules. I imagine a world in which women and men are taught to tend to their desires absent the shame. I imagine a world in which together they rewrite the rules of their partnerships–rules that are moored onto their own tailored truths and wants instead of the fantasies of what they should believe and crave. I imagine a world in which their ability to demand and evolve in bed offer a fertile analogy for the ways a brave, confident self can also negotiate happiness in whatever workplaces, courtrooms, sandwich assembly lines, and sidewalks they find themselves on or in.
As an antidote to what I guess is my disease of singleness, I have been told that my strong beliefs intimidate men and that I should keep some of my voice to myself. I have also been told that what makes me dynamic renders me an excellent candidate for love affairs that married men think fondly about, but a poor choice for marriage itself. I cannot imagine I am the only woman that has been told she must quiet, calm, and settle down–be more of a lady–before she is acceptable enough to be wifed. As if fierce, smart, opinionated, creative, vocal, ambitious women can’t be good partners and a happy, stable marriage must be reduced to a stale, joyless arrangement one sacrifices selfhood to have. How many times has pop culture settled love triangles by telling men to take home the “good woman” that bores him to tears ( Chris Rock’s “I Think I Love My Wife”) or have punished the women who dare to want men who excite them? There is something dangerous, volatile, and unmarriable, we seem to believe, about the women who aren’t quite ladies and who own up to not quite ladylike desires. And I can only imagine that some of the ghosts of hetero-love also haunt queer love. I would argue, or at least hope, that life is too long for all of that and that the most durable union is one between partners who will challenge each other and evolve together.
I, like many, admire the Michelle Obama and Claire Huxtable flow. But I’m hoping that what I love about Michelle is not only her structured coats and coifed hair. The woman is a BOSS on so many levels. I’m hoping what I love about Claire is this and this and this. I am hoping that those two women are paradigms not because they play well and behave, but because we recognize the full force of who they are. The reasons why we cannot always fetichize ladyness and encourage fierceness in our girls at the same time is that there will be moments in their lives in which they are called upon to be women in contradiction of the rules of being a lady and I at least hope that females feel no conflict in choosing to be the women they and the world need. We should trust that when we raise confident, empowered, fully themselves women, that what we covet about ladies–poise, tact, and style–can come from other, perhaps deeper, places than convention. Not all women find their liberation in announcing and pronouncing themselves and in fact find solace and authenticity in the spaces ladyness creates. That is fine. I love that. I’m not asking to refurbish the rooms we have. I want to create new ones. In addition to the women who earn our respect and adoration for their appropriate hemlines and perfect posture, we need women who will stand out and stand up. We need women with big hair and red lipstick and hoops. We need women of defiance. We need women who sometimes cuss and shit and uncross their legs and make love but also fuck–on their own terms, for their own pleasure, without apology. We need the Frida Kahlos, the Billie Hollidays, the Ella Bakers, “Ain’t I A Woman,” the baggy pants- and-eyepatch Aaliyahs, and the TLC that wears condoms like political statements and fashion accessories. Not only should those women exist–they always will!–but we need to further develop the imagination and the language to adore and respect them. To you wild shrews, you “impossible highways” and “burning houses,” you women that are “so [damn] difficult to love,”–you too deserve safety, justice, partnerships and this is my ode to you.