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Mastery Is A Feminist Issue

June 6, 2010

Yesterday, in her post about Janelle Monae, Mary B touched on a point that is of constant concern for feminists who write about rape and abuse.  (It isn’t so much a concern if you mostly write about mandles.  But alas, mandles are merely my surprisingly popular side beat.)  Anytime we deal with the topic of victimization, there is the problem of parsing out how much oppression is external and how much is internal.  As Mary puts it in her post:

[O]ur whole selves are shaped by social norms that we internalize and help to enforce–and thus that the walls of gender law or race law or mental health law don’t have to be complete to keep us in check, because we’re right there doing the job on our own… it’s not that you have all the answers, or that you’ll be ok as long as you block out the voices of the haters and the yes-men.   You are part of the haters and the yes-men.  But that’s ok.  Because the walls that you build–those are incomplete too.  And occasionally, you can find the inspiration to jump on through them. [emphasis mine]

The same applies to abusive situations.  The hallmark of an abuser is that he leaves a coating of fear like a sticky residue over everything he touches.  He teaches his victim to be afraid of herself and of the world.  He ingrains so deeply within her a sense of her own worthlessness that soon he doesn’t have to be around in order to police her.  She pretty much does the work herself.  When the abuser is finally gone, those self-constructed walls can take a long time to break down, even for the strongest women.

Lately, I’ve focused a lot on the power of the walls that I’ve built for myself.  But I’m tired of that topic.  I know that talking about the effects of abuse is important.  I remember vividly the times when I was too afraid to speak up, when I needed someone to give voice to the things that had happened to me. But I also know that too often survivors are seen as nothing but weaklings, as pathetic women who lacked the self-confidence and the willpower to fight off their abusers and tormentors.  Today is about proving that image wrong.

Right now, in my life, I’m proving it wrong in at least two different ways: with my roller skates, and with my guitar.

Back in April, as I’ve mentioned before, I joined my city’s roller derby league.  (Learn more about us – and about derby –  at Live Derby Girls, the website my rad derby big sis created!)  I didn’t do so with the intention of curing all my ills by smashing into other women on skates.  I didn’t really have a plan for derby at all, so much as I had a desire to have fun, and to fulfill the dreams of my inner seven-year-old.  Quickly, though, I realized that derby is helping me regain the sort of physical mastery that I’d forgotten it’s possible to have.

Physical self-mastery is something very easy to take for granted.  I’d imagine that most of us view our bodies as our own, most of the time.  Abuse and rape can take that sense of ownership away.  They can make every inch of skin feel foreign.  When your body has been marked by someone else who wants to control it, you’re left to live with the evidence day in, day out.  For me, even after the marks had gone away, my limbs and muscles didn’t obey the way they should.  My body and I moved as though we were afraid of one another.  I didn’t want to be reminded of its presence, and so I stopped giving it any attention.  I became the world’s greatest klutz, falling, tripping, dropping, breaking.  My hands shook almost constantly; I didn’t eat properly.  Sometimes I didn’t eat at all.  Because I wanted to forget my bones entirely, shed my skeleton and find a new one, untarnished.

Lately, though, I take pleasure in every ounce of feeling.  I take pleasure in those moments when I wake up and stretch, when I’m conscious of the tension and release in every muscle.  I take pleasure in feeling again.  My body moves with me, rather than against me.  This is almost entirely because of derby.  It reminded me that I have control of my body again – that really, I’ve always had control.  The authority anyone else seemed to have was always a lie.

I don’t want to dwell too much on this here, because I’ve already promised posts on this very topic to two other blogs and I don’t want to go repeating myself all over the net. (I promise to spam you with links once those posts are up!)  For now, though, suffice it to say that my limbs and muscles are learning to obey again.  My brain is syncing back up with my bones, and I’m no longer afraid to look at my own skin.  I still bare marks, but this time those marks are the result of the tough workouts and training I get with my Fresh Meat friends every Tuesday and Thursday night.  The bruises on my knees come from well-executed falls.  The bump on my thigh is from endurance drills, from sprinting, sliding to the floor, and rising up again.  No one else is responsible for those marks.  I can lay claim to them as a sign of strength – of trials that I endured by choice rather than by force.  I can lay claim to them as a sign that I’m not afraid, that I’m strong, that I will keep on going no matter what.

As I’ve begun paying attention to my body again, I’ve lost a lot of the klutziness I once laid claim too.  And, in fact, I’ve remembered that I’m actually the opposite of klutzy.  I’m graceful.  I keep my balance.  I don’t eat dust unless I’m hit pretty hard, and even then I maintain control.  I’m small for a rollergirl, topping out at 5’3″ and weighing in pretty low.  My strength is not my size; it’s my form.  I catch on quickly, and my body learns new tricks with speed.  I’m not perfect by any means; I have a long way to go to catch up to our league’s amazing players.  But already, even in the scat few months I’ve been with the league, I’ve proven to myself that I’m capable.  I’ve rejoined forces with my arms and legs and neck and shoulders, with the nerves at the very edges of my skin.  I want to feel again, to feel everything.  I want to feel the soreness when we practice, the breeze when I sprint, the pain when I get hit.  And I want to feel the hugs and touches of the girls, the grip of someone’s hands on my hips as she takes a whip, or the rough touch of a high five.  Everything.  I want to feel everything, because it’s mine.

Popular myths about abuse survivors aren’t just about physical strength, though.  No matter how strong and agile my body is, my mind will still be called into question.  Because for people who have never been abused, the decisions that lead a woman to an abusive partner seem unfathomable.  Even those who claim to offer their full support to survivors, who claim to understand that abuse is never the fault of the abused, often have internalized beliefs that abuse is only meted out to a certain type of woman.  Abuse is for the stupid, the fragile, the meek.

The irony is that the abuser himself is the one who creates that fragility.  It doesn’t have to be there to start with.  When I was with my abuser, I felt weak-willed.  I felt like less than a person.  I felt like someone without her own identity, someone who fell into lockstep with the background.  Because he created that scenario for me.  I wasn’t an automatic fit.

Every moment since then has been filled with reminders that I never became the person he tried to create.  I never became weak or incompetent.  I never became useless or dull.  In fact, I sometimes think I come through even brighter than I used to.

About two weeks ago, I spent some time visiting an old friend, someone I haven’t seen since I was 19 years old.  We passed most of our time in the way you might expect to with someone who was once long-lost.  We laughed too hard, until we practically collapsed in fits of hysterics on his living room floor.  We drank our weight in beer.  We sat about talking about nothing, experiencing the difference between our past and our present, staring across a nearly ten-year-long gap of time.  We talked until there was no air left between us.  We wore ourselves out.  Technically, this visit in and of itself represents something of what I’m trying to say with this post.  If I were the person I’ve been told – if I were dull and weak – I wouldn’t have been capable of having so much fun.  If I had no personality, there would have been nothing for me to say, no jokes for me to crack or clever stories to tell.  But the laughing and the talking and the drinking (and did I mention the laughing?) are not the only pieces of the weekend that served as proof against the naysayers who sling labels at abused women.  Instead, it was the guitar.

On our last day together, when we’d finally become too exhausted to be clever anymore, my friend pulled out his guitar.  He’s the sort of person who possesses musical prowess, who’s played instruments of one kind or another for ages.  The guitar was fairly new to him, though, and he brought it out to show me what he’d been practicing.  He was good, of course, in the way that people with musical ability tend to be good at any instrument they hold in their hands.  The strings were like extensions of his fingers, and I mentioned to him how music, to me, had always seemed like something of a magical power.  No, he insisted.  No magic involved.  Just a careful ear and lots of practice.  And, of course, a few good callouses on your fingertips.  Then, in order to prove his point, he placed the neck of the guitar in my hand and curled my fingers around it*.

I’ve barely touched an instrument since I quite piano at around age 10.  I had always just assumed that music wasn’t one of my abilities.  It never especially bothered me.  I could do other things.  But for some reason, on this particular night, in this particular circumstance, I was suddenly enticed by the level of mastery I’d witnessed in my friend.  His fingers worked the way he wanted them to; his ears could divine slight changes in tone and he could adjust his hold on the strings accordingly.  He had control.  And that night, more than just about anything, I wanted to learn that same kind of control.

I was terrible, of course.  I don’t imagine anyone’s too brilliant their first time around and, as my friend pointed out later, it was such a new thing for my fingers to learn how to do.  Nonetheless, I loved the feeling.  After work the next day I headed straight for an old storage closet where my father’s acoustic guitar has sat dormant for years.  I pulled it out of its case, slung it around my body, and began to try to teach myself to play.  I began with what I remembered of the chords my friend had shown me the night before, but I needed help.  I dug about for old songbooks, the kind with finger charts in the back.  I sat for hours, strumming badly, trying to get used to the feeling of the strings beneath my fingers.

As I played, as I listened to myself go from horrible to just plain bad, it occurred to me that mastery really is a feminist issue.  Mastery is generally treated as a property of masculinity – mastery over music, mastery over sport, mastery over the body.  There is plenty of coded language in the world that teaches women that their own abilities – whatever those may be – have more to do with accident or talent or nature than with the tough work and dirty hands of mastery.  And part of this is because mastery involves a level of control.  It involves power.  And the more that women can be convinced that they have no control, the more likely we are to be able to maintain the status quo, in which women’s access to careers, to hobbies, to positions of power – to particular identities – is limited.

My ex was incredibly fond of implying that I had no mastery, no control.  He saw me as a flighty thing, someone unable to really apply herself to a task.  But when I execute a great hit during derby practice, or when I sit with the guitar strings under my fingers, I’m proving that control is something I’ve always possessed.  I have strength, I have intelligence, I have ability, and I have the willpower to focus those traits, to harness the strengths of my body and my mind.  I’m capable.  I’m awesome.  And anyone who has ever tried to tell me differently has a made a grave error in judgment.  When we tell women who were hurt or abused that their abuse was a result of a lack of self-esteem, what we’re really implying is that they’re at a permanent disconnect from themselves.  We’re implying that we know their capabilities better than they do, and that we’ve found them lacking.  It might do us some good to take a look at all of those women and pay attention, even for a second, to all of the things that they accomplish everyday.  Because those things mean a hell of a lot more than the wicked damage dealt to them by someone else.

As Mary B reminded us in her post, we all have our own walls that we’ve helped to build.  But we’ve all jumped over those walls at times, too.  We ought to be able to define ourselves by the better parts of that story – by the moments of freedom, rather than the moments of entrapment.

*A well-earned feminist shout-out to my friend here.  This is the moment when many, many people – dudes, mostly – would balk at showing anyone else the secrets of their abilities.  As Silvana pointed out in her Dude Music post at tigerbeatdown, guys are notorious for attempting to convince women that their tiny ladybrains couldn’t possibly understand the technical, difficult, less emotional aspects of music.  Guys do NOT generally want to acknowledge music as something accessible to anyone willing to practice, no matter their gender.  The fact that my friend immediately handed over the guitar and showed me some chords speaks volumes for him.  And I, as arbiter of my own corner of the feminist internet, salute him for it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. forestfirecity permalink
    June 6, 2010 7:56 pm

    Great post!
    I feel like I have so much to relate to here.. so much of what I love to do is about finding myself again.. be it riding my bicycle and learning how to fix it, or more directly through my photography – http://hollynorris.ca/spaces

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