Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up

Ernie Banks

I love Ernie Banks and my Chicago Cubs. When I was around eight, or maybe ten years old, I had a not-so-detailed but what I thought to be a winning (insert joke about the word "winning" used in reference to Cubs…I dare you) plan that I was certain would land me on the Cubs roster. [, Charlie Sheen's definition of winning?]  I won’t go into the plan but let's just say I always carried a baseball and glove with me in case the scout drove down Tulip Drive (ABPB...Always Be Prepared Baby!). Spoiler alert: I never made it on the team. I know your thinking that the Cubs are so stinky that I should give it another try.  Yeah, maybe.
Something happened though when I hit the age of twelve or thirteen. [Your womanly hormones?] I began to lose my confidence. I no longer felt that I could compete with boys, although in reality I still could, but the confidence was gone. I wanted to be a professional baseball player a few years before but now…I was sort of being steered toward other careers like nurse or, god help the children, a teacher. I remember at some point mentioning that I wanted to be an airline pilot.  I was quickly steered toward being what we called then an airline “stewardess.” Had I been a boy, no one would have doubted my ability (although to be fair, my god I would be a terrible pilot).
Peggy Orenstein

Of course I didn’t realize any of the above until I read what remains to this day as one of the most important, life-changing books I have ever read; Schoolgirls by Peggy Orenstein.  For an entire school year Orenstein shadowed and interviewed eighth graders from two different communities in an attempt to discover when girls first begin to doubt themselves. What she finds is not only heartbreaking but somewhat shocking.
Not long after reading Schoolgirls I went to hear Naomi Wolf speak at a conference. She asked the entire audience to think about what they wanted to be when they grew up at the age of five, then seven, then nine…some women shouted out their dreams: spy, priest, explorer, and inventor are the ones I remember.  And then Wolf asked, “Well what happened?”  The room fell silent. For the first time I asked myself, what did happen? [You would have been a terrific priest....]

Naomi Wolf
Everyone (yes, I said it) should read Schoolgirls and Flux by Peggy Orenstein (she also has a new book called Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and you don’t have to be a parent to get that reference). Naomi Wolf has written several books; The Beauty Myth and Promiscuities are both excellent.

And while perhaps it is too late for me to play for the Cubs, it’s certainly not too late to learn how to fly.


I wanted to be Hakeem Olajuwon.  Then I injured my ankles.  I wanted to be writer.  I still sort of secretly harbor that ambition but at least I work in my chosen field.  I believed in certain inalienable rights guaranteed to all humans...and then I went to college.  

Backing up, there are many, many things about growing up in a tiny town that I resented and against which I've struggled for most of my life.  It's an invisible cloak that, for better and worse, I will never shed.  Small towns--and I'm talking a town of 2,500 residents--are gossip factories and offer limited resources.  At the same time, though, I am well aware that, though I couldn't take Latin in high school, I could participate in any activity I chose.  Sure, there were the mean girls who terrorized junior high and high school as detailed in the wonderful Queen Bees and Wannabes and Tina Fey's adaptation Mean Girls.  By the fifth grade, though, I threw down, told the worst to go to hell, and though junior high had it's petty, girl-on-girl spats, I mostly worried about other things.  Like band.  And basketball.  And academic competitions. And pretty much any activity in which I chose to participate.  One of the good things about small towns is that in order to have teams and activities, everyone has to play, and there weren't stigmas about being a band geek or jock or whatever.  The drum majors for the band were also captains on the football team and stars in the one act plays.

These images are all over the web...
and they are appalling.
When I arrived at college, though (and again, this was a small university of 1,250 students), I encountered both more opportunities and open minded approaches to the world...and the backlash.  Sure, I could now take a greater variety of classes and participate in more activities, and I took advantage of many of those opportunities.  I majored in English and History, took a zillion hours worth of Women's Studies courses, worked on the Residence Life staff, was an officer in several campus organizations, and played intramural sports.  I also encountered the a minority of women and more of the men who were buying into the backlash against feminism.  Girlfriends cleaned their fraternity boyfriends' frat houses.  What the fuck?  Women worried about working out because they might sweat or get muscles. Women talked about wanting families and babies.  There's nothing wrong with families and babies, but I never understood how these could be the limits of one's ambitions.  I myself suddenly worried about the way I was perceived.  I panicked about speaking in class.  I worried that I wasn't good enough to compete against big city-educated students, and I worried about the ways I was perceived outside of the classroom.  It was a gut check.  This was supposed to be a liberal university and the feminist professors were an extremely vocal, powerful group on campus.  Why were the students pushing back against them?  It baffled me, and to an extent it silenced me.  (College friends who might read this entry will guffaw at the idea of me being quiet, but there was a time when I was afraid to state that I liked a book or movie or song for fear of judgment.)

Susan Faludi wrote a classic book, Backlash, about the movement to tear down what advances Second Wave feminists made in the 60's and 70's.  While it was at play while I was in college in the 90's, I fear that it's only grown worse in the 15 years since then.  Women are called "chicks."  Worse, they accept that label.  Sarah Palin.  That's a whole backward trend wrapped within the facade of "liberated woman" in and of itself.    Women's healthcare is toxic and women on birth control are called "sluts." Preteen girls are sexualized, often encouraged by their mothers who want princesses and mini-Barbies.  Rick Santorum pretty much wants women wearing burkas.  What the fuck? The things about which Susan Faludi wrote in the 80's, and which Margaret Atwood predicted in her dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale, have either grown worse or eerily become reality.

I am proud of my job. I work in a field that was a childhood dream--I always wanted to be involved in some way with books (assuming that I'd never be Hakeem).  I am proud of my sister, who always wanted to work in the space program and now is an aerospace engineer in a male-dominated field.  I'm proud to work for a company where I see women at the top ranks of the management and make up a significant part of what was a boys club back in the day.  I am treated as an equal with my male counterparts.  Books are tricky, though.  I also see what's selling, what the general reading public wants to read.  I wonder if there's a chicken-and-egg argument going on here--do publishers print books glorifying submissive women because that's what readers want, or do readers want books about making the husband the focus of one's life because that's what we suggest is correct as publishers of the material?  I think it's probably some of both.

This is a weird, weird, imperfect world.

1 comment:

  1. Giana, I don't think it's too late for you to become a priest. And I think you would make a goddamned good one.