Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Fairer Sex

This thing I will one day be writing about womanhood – in Ancient Greece and in general – is ticking away, developing in the back of my mind. An overused metaphor, I know, but it’s as if it’s alive somehow, in utero, like I’m going around in the early stages of pregnancy. I often find that metaphorical truth and literal truth blur together.

This project is beginning to feel dangerously as if it will one day be a book. I wonder if I will ever be able to write a whole book. I don’t have the discipline… I wonder how one acquires self-discipline. I’m realising, though, that the idea doesn’t stop at Greek goddesses, archetypes, women’s roles, women’s identity in terms of self-image and social identity. There’s so much else that it needs to encompass.

The self cannot be separated from the body. There’s the body, so food and sex. From this, eating disorders and rape. I was fairly shocked to discover a couple of weeks ago, in a seminar on Menander’s Samia, that the sexual union which starts the whole play off is not consensual. The translation didn’t make this clear, and the Greek isn’t explicit: it’s one of those things you only pick up by knowing tonnes of background. It’s vital to the play, and yet the issue of the rape is never confronted. The rapist is never condemned. He marries the victim and it’s happy ever after.

I think most people today would struggle to understand this – or they dismiss it as the Greeks being terribly unenlightened, thank-goodness-we’ve-moved-on-since-then. Except we haven’t moved on that far, have we? We live in a rape-apologist culture. There’s still an attitude, by no means universal but very much alive, that if a girl wears a short skirt she deserves everything she gets. If you don’t see that, you really need to open your eyes.

I need to explore all this stuff – yes, hopefully for the sake of writing something, but also for my own sanity. I’m so entangled in all of these issues. I’m a young woman, presumably out of adolescence by now, or nearly out of it… and still baffled by my own identity, and by my roles in society and how they fit together. Food and weight are constant obsessions – they always have been. I’m a victim/survivor/pick-your-favourite-emotive-word of male sexual violence. I think most women are, to some extent. And as, I think, for many women, there is a tension between sensuality and disgust with regards to my body, which expresses itself in self-violence.

I must read Holy Feast, Holy Fast. It ties together all the issues, with particular regard to food, obviously, and links them back into religion. It’s tempting to swap my Medieval Studies MA application for Classics. This magnum opus I want to write is not specifically academic or exclusively classical enough for an MA or PhD thesis. It could be an alternative version, perhaps. I did wonder, briefly, if I should apply for both courses at once, keeping my options open, but I think I will stick with Medieval. Good thing too - I've got a place now! The course does look fantastic. It’s dreadful: 21 years old and I don’t know what I want to study, let alone what I want to do as a career.

I wonder if wanting to write this thing makes me a feminist. I wonder what a feminist is. The dictionary definition is: someone who believes in equal rights for both genders (I do), but I was laughed at for giving this definition in a Women in Classical Antiquity seminar last year. Which perplexed me a little. Of course, with feminism comes this whole man-hating, bra-burning stereotype, which kind of puts you off signing up, doesn’t it? I find bras to be incredibly useful: they stop my breasts whacking me in the face whenever I am obliged to raise my pace above a brisk walk. And I like men as well, generally speaking. Is a feminist simply someone (a woman?) with a pervading (academic?) interest in womanhood, or “women’s issues?” What are “women’s issues?”

That discussion on Samia threw me on Friday, particularly because it laid open the whole question, which I’ve been struggling with for … well, years: how is one to respond to sexual violation? The Greek model, that it’s not even an issue, is, obviously, extreme, and yet, I honestly don’t even know whether or not it applies to me. Provided it’s not actual rape, is one supposed to be okay after a cup of tea and a sit-down? How affected is one supposed to be? How much angst is justifiable? Is this proportional to the severity of the assault? How does one measure the “severity” of sexual assault? And how much angst do other people imagine victims/survivors/pick-your-word to be dealing with?

I believe that feelings don’t have to be justified – actions have to be justified. Feelings can’t be controlled the way that actions can. They have to be accepted and worked through. The suffering is the issue, rather than the event which caused it. It’s okay to feel however you feel. The idea of prescribed reactions, to anything but more specifically to sexual assault, is partly what I believe Amanda Palmer is reacting against in Oasis. Yet somehow the question remains open, and gapes at me.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Piece by Piece

Reading for pleasure is not a luxury that I usually allow myself during term-time, because, if I’m really, heart and soul, into a novel, I’ll want to read it in one sitting. I have a difficult enough time motivating myself to do academic reading as it is. Today, though, I had a train journey and nothing with me that I should be reading, so I put Tori Amos: Piece by Piece into my handbag.

I am only a few pages into Piece by Piece but it has already proved a surprise. I was expecting pretty much straight autobiography, light reading, a chance for a spot of fangirling about one of my heroines. It turns out that this is a book that I’m going to need to read very, very slowly, and that I’m going to be copying out quotations and extracts from. It’s already mother-revolutionising my view of womanhood, of self, of creativity and of myth. It’s written as much by various journalists and women in Tori’s life as it is by Tori. Sure, there’s a fair bit of gushing about how great Tori is, but there’s so much more than that, I had to put the book down after a few pages because my head was spinning. I need to spend a long time processing this book… can I cram any more into my summer besides planning a wedding, getting wed, going on honeymoon, setting up home, learning to play the guitar, more genealogy, preparing for my Medieval M.A.…? Still, I need to write something about this, probably something quite academic, drawing on my knowledge of Greek literature and myth, and the Women in Classical Antiquity course I did last year. Sadly, I can’t make it count for my B.A. – my last two sizable essays in Classics are on pilgrimage and tragedy, and I’m not sure the department would take kindly to that much Tori Amos. Hopefully I’ll one day find the time to do it just for myself.