A friend of mine posted something on Facebook which made me laugh.
My grandmother, Sally, would be the perfect feminist role-model — she graduated from medical school in 1960, and didn’t pause her successful career in anesthesiology until retirement decades later — if not for her repeated admonitions: “I am not a feminist!” Normally she waves a butter-knife or a fork while saying this, and the light of the chandelier bounces off her glasses, to the various wine glasses before her, to the window-panes behind us, obfuscating her dark eyes but multiplying the twinkly lights around her. Adding to the witchcraft effect is her curious young-ness. I can never quite pinpoint what exactly gives this impression. In real life, Sally is eighty.
“No,” Sally says, “in the forties, in high school, I knew that I was the lesser of every single boy in my class. And honestly, if I had been born a boy, I don’t know if I could have made it back then. Boys really had to produce.”
“So are you a misogynist?” my sister asks.
Sally considers this for a moment. “Yes!” she says. “Yes I am. I’m sorry but women will never be men, as much as they seem to be trying to be men these days. They’ll never be as strong as men — that’s obvious. But they’ll also never be as brave as men, or have the grit that men do, or even the intelligence.”
“Now,” she says, from one end of the table, looking past her children and grandchildren to the other end, where her husband sits, “I really need John. He’s a lot smarter than me, but there’s something very calm and fatherly about him, and I need that.”
She picks up a wine glass with one hand, and stabs an endive with the fork in the other. Now, her eyes are solely on John. “I knew I wanted him from the moment I first saw him, and I made sure I got him” she says. “You were helpless, John.”
Now Sally looks at me. “It was my father who made me go to medical school,” she says. “Honestly, I would have been a much better nurse. And I’ve always said that the best thing that came of medical school for me was meeting your grandfather. That’s where you meet straight-arrows — medical school.” Then she pauses, “Franny, is there any chance that you could still go to medical school?”
None, I tell her.
What’s so surprising about my grandmother’s views is that anyone asserts them at all. My other grandmother, Regina, told her daughters that they would marry someone “dark, handsome, and smarter than you,” but she would have never called herself a misogynist.
We, at Misadventures, are feminists. Behind us is the very basic idea, one not so strange or contestable as even one of the world’s major religions, that men and women are basically equal; that the spectrums of strength, courage, grit and intelligence operate across the female sex just as they operate across the male sex. There would seem to be nothing to refute, except that there is.
Only a small group of people are subject to my grandmother’s opinions, and, as I’ll get to soon, it would be wrong to take her opinions at face value. But feminism at large, lately, has been vexed by Fifty Shades of Grey and the rabbit-hole of questions that it poses. How could a notably feminist director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, volunteer to direct the movie? Why do so many women like the book? If you are a woman and you choose to play the submissive role in a sado-masochist relationship because you enjoy it, are you liberated, or are you demeaning yourself? And what if you think you’re meta-feminist for entering a sado-masochist relationship with the goal of sexual liberation, but your partner knows that you’ll think you’re meta-feminist for doing so, and has set up this sort of puppet theater where your every move is orchestrated by him (or her) so that your partner meta-meta-dominates you. What then?
Two things which used to seem antitheses of each other — sexual and elsewise submission and feminism — aren’t. Or at least, images of popular culture (and this extends beyond Fifty Shades) suggest that they aren’t. Meanwhile, I have the uneasy feeling that while I looked away, some sort of equivocation has happened. Yes, this is a real rabbit-hole. Thankfully, my grandmother has prepared me for rabbit-holes.
Sally, like my Facebook friend, is the type of person for whom the phrase “Sorry I’m not sorry,” was created. From her background, people assume that she’s a feminist. Well guess what — she’s not. And it’s not just feminism; she resists generally-accepted opinions of all types. If anyone tells her to do one thing, she’ll do the exact opposite. She would have been a bad, if entertaining, Anastasia Steele in this way.
The actual events of her life are quite different from the record she presents when on the subject of feminism. In young adulthood she was extremely ambitious. She was smart, and knew that she was smart. Medical school was her decision. Her aggressive pursuit of her husband, I’m not sure if she realizes, was extremely un-anti-feminist. And her cooking and cleaning probably comes from excessive nervous energy more than fondness for traditional gender roles. My grandfather must have seen her and realized that he could never, ever control her or influence her or even guess what she would do next.
Unlike Christian Grey, John wanted that. It reminds me of Helena (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) emerging from the forest in the morning, pondering her newfound romantic fortune, and saying “I have found Demetrius as a jewel; mine own, and not mine own.” In other words, Demetrius will never be all Helena’s. The space between two individuals can’t just collapse, so part of him will always be a little mysterious to her. This is the fundamental strangeness of the individual. Some people, like Sally, like to accentuate it, but everyone has it. You could say that the truly strange thing about it is, given all the gates and moats and ramparts between one person and another, that love doesn’t mind knowing the beloved (or owning, or having) only in part.
No, not even handcuffs will change that. And that is why I’m sure that for the future of feminism and for the future of love, Fifty Shades of Grey will not be such a big deal.