Muses and Musings: The Past and Present of Gender Identity

Feminist, photographer, warrior, poet Grace Poppe’s Muses and Musings exhibition is on display in the Women’s Center on the second floor of Alumni Hall through the month of April.

I used to feel relieved when I learned another feminine trick, like I unlocked another drawer in the wardrobe of adulthood that would grant me access to classified grown-woman intel. However, as I get older, I find that unlocking drawers of womanhood sometimes means I am more trapped than free. I find that, once I open them, I often allow the drawers to suck me in, giving the entire wardrobe agency over me rather than the other way around. I find that I often want to take off my heels halfway through and just walk barefoot.

When I was 13, I opened the makeup drawer the first time I put on bright cherry lipstick for a dance recital. It was exciting at first, but once I was inside, other tubes of lipstick started pouring out–painting questions on my face in different shades of scarlet. Soon my cheeks were plastered with crimson question marks and my head swirling with ruby inquiries. “Does cherry suit your pale skin, or do you prefer plum? Is this for onstage or off-stage, too? Does it really match that dark top? I think it clashes with those boyish boots.” I had given lipstick the mouth with which to speak, and it was taunting me.

At 20, I tried to open the leg-waxing drawer just to snag a tube of Nair, but I was quickly pulled in deeper by a pile of protruding hairs, until I reached the depths of European Wax Center hell. There, the esthetician’s voice echoed among polished mahogany: “Is that stay-at-home kit really enough? Shouldn’t you be seeing a professional regularly? How did you become cursed with such horribly difficult hair?”

I know that my privilege will always be there to boost me over drawer dividers. My white skin, heterosexuality, and education can make it appear as though I am leaping with the leg muscles I worked hard to build—when actually, I was born into a Western world that deemed my calves strong before I even learned to walk. The drawers of underrepresented women, however, can include obstacles so high that not even Olympic track runners can hurtle them—and then entire groups of wardrobes will blame them for not moving forward in the maze.

So although I often become exhausted just from scrutinizing my own splinters, it is imperative to listen to those that have felt deeper scrapes than I have ever felt, to remember that strength comes not from deepening each others’ wounds but from lending each other a pair of tweezers.

What Marilyn Frye calls a birdcage in her 1983 essay “Oppression,” I call a wardrobe. Frye states:

“Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire… you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could [study] that one wire…and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around it any time it wanted to go somewhere. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere.”

Through this collection of muses and musings, I aim to illustrate not only the wires and drawers that restrain females everyday—but also the beauty and pain behind the wire-marks left on our skin from shaking the cage, the scabs on our foreheads from fighting fallen hangers. I understand that we may not be able to mold a master key to let us out. In fact, I do not believe that there is or should be one key to fit the boxes of all different types of women, or that these prisons can be destroyed with something as gentle as the turn of metal. But perhaps, through folding up enough stories and wedging them in the spaces between the wires or the cracks in the closet, we can show others what life is like inside the boxes—and then, together, we can help each other pry open the doors, and watch the walls crumble.

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