So I’m a little late to the party with the whole Frozen phenomenon, but last weekend the fam and I popped some popcorn and curled up on the couch to watch Disney’s latest princess adventure. I’m ambivalent about Disney princesses. At ten years old, I could recite the entire Little Mermaid by heart. I affected my voice so I could sound like Belle, using the word “primeval” whenever the opportunity arose (and most of the time when it didn’t). Yet, I admit as a feminist and a mother of a young girl, myself, I now want to shake Ariel’s little anorexic shoulders when she shouts, “But Daddy, I love him!” or stand between Belle and the Beast when he throws a big old mantrum about her touching his…em…flower. So I was not expecting to be so deeply moved by the exploits of Anna and Elsa the other night, to the point where I became a blubbering mess, trying to hide my tears from my two year old nestled on my lap. “That’s enough wine for you, my dear,” my husband said. But it wasn’t the Cabernet, I swear. I swear! What left me weeping like a little girl at a Justin Bieber concert was that exact moment when Elsa sings “It’s time to see what I can do, to the test the limits and break through.” And then, AND THEN, in her moment of isolation, she raises her hands and a glorious ice palace emerges. With no one there to judge her, shut her out, insult her, expect things from her, define her, objectify her, demean her, or patronize her, she is free to create something beautiful. Wow. Pass the Cabernet, bitches. I need another drink!
The next day, I had a gathering, via the magic of Skype, of the members of my online writing critique group. We are all moms who “met” on the internet through one of those “mommy” websites years ago. We bonded over attachment parenting, homemade baby food, breastfeeding, and babywearing, but each of us, in our own ways, are creative writers, and many of our conversations of late have been about how to maintain an artist’s life amidst the demands of modern parenting. This group was the first to read the “shitty first draft” of my novel, and through their close, careful, loving comments, I was able to revise, revise, revise and improve my writing in ways that I never thought imaginable. If it wasn’t for them, I never would have found the strength to move forward, to actually give my chapters to actual strangers (!!!) to critique, or to pursue a writing life. It was in this small community that I could create my crystal ice palace, raise it up, let it go, let it gooooooooo…
Anyway, on this day we were critiquing one of the other mom’s fan fiction pieces. It was excellent, but the part I liked the most wasn’t all the fandom stuff, but the world that she had created on her own. It was high fantasy at its best–complex social castes, ecosystems, dress codes, and magic so intricate it would require an encyclopedia to unravel. The world was so vivid, I felt if I put the book down, I would be able to see it right outside my window. She said that she was using fanfic as a way to practice her writing and that she was nervous about sharing her work with others. I said, a) did you read my shitty novel? and b) you’re amongst friends. We want to help. We’re here to make it better. Her reply really hit me hard, teary-eyed hard. She said she’s been working in isolation for so long, it was hard to let other people see her work. That word. Isolation. Oh, how I know it. The other mom agreed, sharing her own experience about finding the courage to publish her blog online for the first time. It made me wonder how many other women are out there, creating their shiny ice castles all by themselves and then shoving them into drawers, never published, never seeing the light of day.
Sometimes when I teach the gothic, I like to pull out some excerpts from Luce Irigaray’s Je tu nous. She begins the book with an homage of sorts to feminist Simone de Beauvoir and The Second Sex, elaborating on the profound impact this text had on her and women everywhere. Yet, Irigaray definitely has an ax to grind with de Beauvoir. She describes how she sent a copy of her book Speculum to the “mother” of feminism…and was met with silence. Not a thank-you note, nothing. Now of course we can never know why de Beauvoir didn’t respond. Maybe she got busy. I’m sure being John Paul Sartre’s girlfriend could take a lot out of a woman, but the snub was a real blow to Irigaray. In typical theorist fashion, though, she uses de Beauvoir’s indifference to analyze the lack of community amongst women, the importance for “mothers” (in this case de Beauvoir) to engage with their “daughters” (i.e. Irigaray). She goes on to explain how Western society is filled with stories about keeping mothers away from their daughters, from Persephone and Demeter to the modern fairy tale. Think about it. Why are there so many dead mothers in fairy tales? Because fairy tales are about teaching women how to live in a “man’s world.” They tell little girls how to be beautiful, cunning, and crafty in order to survive in a society that only values them as property. It’s a real jungle out there, ladies. But these “instructions” are at the expense of women’s knowledge, women’s experience, women’s ways of knowing. I mean, if you were Ariel’s’ mother, would you let your 16 year old daughter sacrifice her greatest gift…for some dude? Oh, hell naw. Go to college, fill that dingy head of yours with knowledge. Belle, you want adventure in the great white somewhere? Join the peace corp. Go out, do stuff, meet people. Fall in love, sure, but don’t lose yourself. In any case, when you have women around who serve as models for being kick-ass, there’s a greater chance of doing some ass-kicking yourself.
At the expense of sounding essentialist (I’m looking at you, Luce!) that is why it’s so important that we fill up the world with women’s stories, women’s art, women’s scholarship, women’s creativity. But to do that, we have to get our manuscripts out of the drawer. We have to come down from our crystal ice palaces on the north mountain and join a critique group, or a workshop, or a scholarly circle of researchers. We need friends. We need community. Because what every great artist, thinker, philosopher, or writer will tell you is that the only way to become great at something is to have other people discuss it, rip it apart, and help you put it back together again. You see, I’m not talking about the kumbaya, let’s sit around and hold hands and make everyone feel good kind of community. I’ll be the first friend to tell you your butt looks big in those pants. What’s important, though, is I’ll do it with love. “Have you tried…maybe a darker wash?” We need more opportunities for women to seek out communities of mutual respect, understanding, and positive, constructive criticism. Most of all, we need help foster a culture that allows women to fail, and for those of us who are used to being “the good girl,” “the smart girl,” this is perhaps the most painful part of the creative process we face.
*I’m writing this during class while students write an in-class essay, so I don’t have access to Irigaray texts at the moment. If I’ve referenced the wrong text, which is entirely possible, please feel free to note it in the comments and direct readers to some interesting reading. I’m just going to be comfortable with “failing” here and let it go…