A Brief History of the Cat Lady

cat-lady3

From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, countless thousands of cats across Europe were tortured and burned to death alongside the women whose “familiars” in witchcraft those cats were presumed to be.  Sometimes the cats themselves were believed to be witches.  The women were usually single and often elderly.  Medieval and Early Modern society’s mistrust of single women, cats, and any bond between the two lingers in today’s conception of the “cat lady.”  Like her persecuted “witch” predecessors, the cat lady is our culture’s envisioning of the woman who has failed to remain within the social order, who lies precariously outside it.  Continue reading “A Brief History of the Cat Lady”

Weekly Dance Break: Safe (Dumbfoundead)

This video has been out for a minute, but since the issues it addresses have no end in sight (thanks, Hollywood!), I thought it’d be appropriate to remind everyone that it exists, and that it’s great. Dumbfoundead talks whitewashing, media stereotypes, and more while editing himself into some of the most iconic white movie roles of all time.

Getting Angry at Strangers

Over the course of my late twenties and now into my thirtieth year, I like to think I have become increasingly confident and assertive.  There is one area, however, in which I still find myself feeling helpless and inadequate: I have not learned how to effectively communicate anger.  This is particularly the case in situations in which it is appropriate for me to express anger toward someone I don’t know.  I have recently gone through two minor ordeals, one of which involved someone trying to cheat me out of a significant sum financially, and the other of which involved someone making a professional mistake that could have physically and psychologically harmed me.  I am not satisfied with my responses in either case, as I think they were governed by the difficulty I have in finding an appropriate way to express my anger.

The first of these occasions was the more mundane; it began with a sudden billowing of smoke from the front of my car as I arrived home one day.  I assumed my car had overheated, and waited till the smoke had stopped before driving it to the nearest auto repair shop.  The mechanic I spoke to that day looked under the hood of the car, and explained to me that one of my radiator pipes was cracked.

As he spoke, the mechanic was no doubt sizing up my petite blonde self, my Bambi-like stare as he explained what he was seeing under the hood, and making fairly accurate assumptions.  My PhD in English literature would not help me here.  When it comes to cars, I conform pathetically to sexist gender stereotypes.  The car mechanic could probably have told me there were unicorns waltzing in my engine and I would have asked the price to have them removed humanely.

But the cracked pipe seemed—and probably was—plausible, and he said it could be repaired for $170, and would be ready that day or the next.  It turned out, however, that he would need to order the part, and thus the process stretched out over five days in which the mechanics were (they told me) waiting for the arrival of the apparently rare and elusive radiator pipe.  On day four, I was informed that the price would double, as the other radiator pipe, it had now been discovered, was cracked too.  I accepted this, mildly annoyed but still basically believing I was being told the truth.

On the fifth day, when I called—and when I was finally able to reach someone who seemed to know what was going on—I was told my car would finally be ready at 4:00 that afternoon.  I showed up at that time, desperate to have my means of transportation back.  Instead, I was told that now that the pipes had been replaced, the mechanics were able to see that the radiator itself had a small leak.  They would need to replace the radiator, which would require them to order one from Indiana and would bring my total up to $1,200.  I still didn’t believe that they were outright lying to me, but I am a graduate student, so I don’t have that kind of money readily available, and I was frustrated at how they’d kept stringing me along. 

Thus—much to my dismay—I found myself overtaken by one of my least attractive habits, Angry Crying.  In such moments, my very dislike of making a scene only makes me more frustrated and makes my crying even harder to stop.  I managed in the midst of this to tell the mechanics that I would pay them the $300 or so for what they’d already done and take my car somewhere else.  I drove off in a car that did not smoke at all, but I was fuming.

My father ended up taking my car to a mechanic he trusted.  That mechanic said that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my car.  Probably the initial radiator pipe had been the only issue in the first place.  But, naïve as it may seem, I was shocked that the first repair shop had tried to cheat me to such a degree.  Car mechanics don’t have the best reputations for honesty, but I still felt amazed that, had I had the money, they might have convinced me to order a new car radiator for absolutely no reason at all.

My car is running fine.  But I wonder why, in moments of deep frustration, all I can do is cry.  It would have been appropriate to express some anger to the men lying about my car, and certainly afterwards to write a scathing review of their business online.  But in those moments when some frustration that has been building inside me slides into anger, that anger always takes me by surprise, and my coping mechanism is a highly ineffective one.

***

The second event made me less angry, though it threatened me with more harm.  It left me for most of a day in bed, sleeping or too tired to move.  I was visiting my parents for the weekend, and that is very, very fortunate.  If I had had to go to work that day, or drive anywhere, or do anything at all, I would have been unable to do so.  I woke up at my usual (early) hour, but right after breakfast I felt exhaustion seeping through me.  Instead of getting dressed, I got back into bed, intending to close my eyes for a few minutes.  Not long afterward, my mother walked past the room, and I made some feeble excuse for not being up.  She laughed it off as me needing to catch up on sleep.  “I feel like I could sleep all day,” I said, perplexed.

Hours passed, and still the warmth of my bed exerted an irresistible pull on my limbs each time I tried to rouse myself.  I was starting to get worried.  My mother kept checking on me, asking if I felt sick, but I didn’t—just bone weary.  I tried to think of some reason for such intense fatigue, assuming it was somehow my fault.  Perhaps I’d accidentally swallowed an extra pill when taking my anti-anxiety medication that morning, though that was not a mistake I’d ever made before. 

Things got worse.  When I dragged myself down the hall to go the bathroom I realized I was stumbling around as if drunker than I’ve ever actually been.  I was dizzy, my vision blurred.  I fell.  My mother found me lying on the bathroom floor, and by then she was worried too.  I heard her speaking to me as if from a great distance, though I couldn’t see her through the stars floating in front of my eyes.  She tells me I asked her “Is that you, Mom?” but I don’t remember this.

It got through to me, as my mother led me back to bed, that she was asking if I wanted to go to the hospital.  I don’t know what or if I answered, but I remember how impossible a feat it sounded to get up, go somewhere, and answer questions.  I slept some more, roused only later by my mother to eat lunch, which I did without noticing the taste.  Finally, in the early afternoon, an idea penetrated my foggy brain.  I remembered that it was the first day I’d taken a pill from a new refill of one of my prescription anxiety medications.  The pill had looked different than usual, but I hadn’t thought anything of that at the time I took it, knowing that sometimes pills can look different when pharmacies get the medications from different manufacturers.  But now I went back to look at the pill bottle, and took out one of the strange pills.  As I ought to have done that morning, I read the description on the back of the bottle of what the medication was meant to look like.  The description was of a white, round pill, like the one I was used to taking—not the oblong yellow pill I now held in my hand.

At first I mistrusted the evidence of my eyes.  But I carried the mystery drug to my computer and Googled the numbers printed on it.  I felt a thrill strangely like vindication when I saw that the pill I had been given was not only not my usual anti-anxiety medication, but was in fact a serious anti-psychotic drug. (It was also a fairly high dose, I later learned, particularly when combined with my other medications).  I had found the explanation for what I was experiencing, which was a huge relief.  But the discovery also brought a chilling sense of recognition.  As a teenager recovering from anorexia, I’d been put on a medication to keep me calm and compliant.  I think I was on it for about a year.  It wasn’t until I was a college student taking Abnormal Psychology, when I saw that medication listed in my textbook, that I discovered that it was an anti-psychotic.  It was not the same one I had now accidentally been given years later, but it had served a similar purpose.  In sedating me it had leeched my will, my energy, my fighting spirit.  Perhaps that was for the best for me in the long run.  But even now I resent it, and those feelings were churned back up by the familiar enforced lethargy I was now struggling to shake off.

This is no means an attack on psychiatric medicine, which has been invaluable to me for years as I have battled chronic anxiety and depression.  Medications that allow you to be yourself, less prey to the distortions of mental illness, are wonderful things.  But there are also cases in which psychiatric medication is used primarily sap you of self, of will, of control.  The line is a thin one, and differs in every case.  But for me this pharmaceutical mishap was a reminder of a time when I felt that line had been crossed.  In both cases, I had unquestioningly taken what I was given, and was left powerless.    

Within twenty-four hours, the drug had pretty much left my system.  It took a few more hours before my concentration and focus fully recovered.  I soon returned to the pharmacy to exchange the incorrect medication for the correct one.  The pharmacist who had filled the prescription was there, apologetic.  My mother, possibly Earth’s least vindictive person, had nevertheless felt that he should lose his job over this.  But standing in front of him, hearing him apologize, I didn’t know what to say that would be worthwhile.  “I lost a day of my life,” I told him.  He apologized again.  I asked for the number of his manager, which he gave me.  And I left. 

I never called that number.  Nor did I ever put up a negative review on the auto repair shop’s website.  In the case of the pharmacist, I don’t actually want him to lose his job.  I hope he will be more careful, but his actions were accidental.  They also weren’t sexist.  It made no difference that I was a woman and he a man, unless you count the fact that women are more often diagnosed with mental illness, and so are perhaps more likely to be the victims of this kind of mix-up.  The auto mechanic’s actions, on the other hand, were malicious and probably sexist, as he saw a young-ish woman and assumed (sadly, correctly) that he could invent complete falsehoods about her car’s condition and she would believe him.  In both cases, I haven’t pursued any further action—besides writing this article.  Maybe this is due to weakness or laziness, but it’s also due to what was ingrained in me growing up: that I shouldn’t complain, cause a fuss, or stir up trouble.  I can be pretty assertive defending people or causes I care about, but expressing anger on my own behalf still makes me feel uncomfortably like that unpleasant kind of person: shrill, suspicious, impolite, rampaging.  Basically, the stereotype of the angry woman. 

I have written before about being a recovering good girl, and perhaps these two experiences happened to help me on my path.  I don’t intend to become paranoid that everyone is either conning me or incompetent, but I will focus on asserting myself on my own behalf, and reminding myself that doing so is not rudeness but basic justice to myself.  Ladies, let’s look out for ourselves, and, just as importantly, let’s speak up for ourselves.  We don’t have to be helpless in the face of our own anger or in the situations that provoke that anger.  In this one area, I am still working on finding my voice.  And I may also try to learn something about cars.   

#distractinglysexy and Drawing the Line

Last week, Tim Hunt surely earned himself a lot of love letters by claiming that women in the lab are distracting—you know, always falling in love with him (I’M SO SURE, TIM HUNT), crying, and other female shit.

(Incidentally, this sparked one of my favorite twitter hashtags of all time, #distractinglysexy, in which women in STEM documented how hard it is to hold tissues and test tubes at the same time! How conveniently a hazmat suit hides tear tracks! Etc. )distractinglysexy1

Tim Hunt’s sexist remarks were infuriating not only on their own merit (or lack thereof), but also because they make me fear that for every lumberingly blatant misogynist speech, there are a hundred Tim Hunts not voicing their misogyny—only thinking it. It was striking in the way he kept claiming he was just “being honest,” and shouldn’t have said those things in a room full of journalists, as if his real mistake was revealing the depths of misogyny in the sciences, not the misogyny itself.

This incident, and the responses to it, are yet another reminder of the way in which women who work in fields dominated by cis-hetero men (ie. most professional fields) must grapple with the policing (and self-policing) of their beauty. It’s no secret that women, whether walking into a grocery store, a first internship interview, or into their own corner office, deal with an overload of information on how to self-present—as competent, as low-key, as anything but #distractinglysexy. How much makeup can one wear in a lab? A boardroom? When does that extra swipe of eyeliner push you from “intriguing” to “overdone”? Like women’s bodies, women’s faces are a battleground where the war over modesty and “appropriateness” is waged.

Thinking about makeup and the performance of appropriate womanhood brings to mind Caitlyn Jenner looking into the mirror at her Vanity Fair cover shoot. Caitlyn Jenner marks a watershed moment in American thinking about gender presentation—as she went from Bruce Jenner, an emblem of masculinity in the Cold War Olympics, to channeling the immediately “legible” femininity of Marilyn Monroe and other screen sirens.

Photo @VanityFair / Twitter
Photo @VanityFair / Twitter

Her revelation to the American public was, of course, not going to be complete without a ‘glam squad’ supplied by a magazine in the business of selling femininity. In the write-up above, Vanity Fair lovingly details the individual products used on Jenner, and quotes makeup artist Mark Carrasquillo in saying,  “‘I didn’t want her to look like a man in a dress. I wanted her to look like a beautiful 65-year-old woman,’ said Carrasquillo—and that is exactly what he achieved.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with Caitlyn Jenner wanting to look like what she considers her most beautiful self. But the discourse surrounding Jenner focused on a very particular image of womanhood, which uses makeup to emphasize the person’s traditional and hetero-acceptable femininity. It thus erased trans-women (and cis-women) who either can’t or don’t want to conform to this image.

From high-school hallways to corporate offices, women walk a thin line between “successfully” inhabiting a beauty standard and stepping outside of it. The margin can be as thin as the missing half-inch of fabric on shorts that get high-school girls sent home. It’s not just about wearing makeup versus going bare-faced, but the ways in which powders, creams, and pigments play back into age-old virgin/whore dichotomies. In these cases, the onus is on women to use their purchasing power to present themselves as willing and able to adapt themselves to “appropriateness.” Sometimes they lack that purchasing power. Let’s not forget that looking “right” for the context is a class-based and racial issue as well, more often than not. To take a prominent example opposed to the more demure examples of Taylor Swift and even Beyonce, Nicki Minaj’s alter ego Roman and her “Barbie” phase were both memorable for their very intentional use of makeup as message. By wielding strikingly artificial pink hair, green eyeshadow, and lacquered lipgloss, Minaj reminded us of the extent to which femininity (especially femininity that dared to be loud, deep-voiced, and not particularly “feminine”) is a performance that others will try to police. This makeup made some people uncomfortable. That, like Nicki’s monster-rap voice, was part of the point. There was nothing “natural” about it.

Photo from Mypinkfriday.com | Official Site of Nicki Minaj
Photo from Mypinkfriday.com | Official Site of Nicki Minaj

This is not to erase the agency of women who use makeup or choose not to, but to prompt a more thoughtful consideration of the ways in which women are pressured toward the “right kind” of beauty construction. Makeup and the performance of beauty are complicated issues. No amount of misogyny and policing can fully erase the pleasure, for those who love it, of tracing one’s lips with a beautiful, velvety lipstick. These instances remind us that makeup and self-presentation serve purposes beyond “prettiness” as it’s traditionally defined.

And makeup can be a weapon. I wear thick black eyeliner all the way around my eyes these days. This veers just beyond the kind of eyeliner that is conventionally considered “attractive” or appropriate for daytime—except for those who see my eyeliner as an invitation to comment on my “exotic” looks. As a young Chinese-American woman alone in a new city, with a soft-spoken voice and a manner that can come across as naïve and trusting, this eyeliner is my daily ritual of preparation. At least, while others might see me as a quiet, malleable person tapping away silently at a laptop all day, I can look back at them with assassin eyes.

The author in disguise as a lemur
The author in disguise as a lemur