Preface: Letter to My Daughter . . . 7
Introduction: Some Notes for You, Reading . . . 9
Chapter 1: Notes on Rape Culture . . . 47
Chapter 2: Notes on Friendships . . . 111
Chapter 3: Notes on Feminist Mothering . . . 153
Postscript: Sometimes Refusal is a Feminist Act . . . 187
I don’t know how to do this, wee one. Let’s start there. Let’s start with a blank page because despite the tiredness of the metaphor there is something beautiful and expansive and awe-inspiring about a blank page. Let’s start with the page because starting with your little body in the world is too much for me right now. You are too tender. Let’s start with the page.
Before you were born, when we called you Fetus Maximus because inscribing personhood onto the cluster of cells doing their work felt wrong, because the time would come (too quickly, too often) when the world would inscribe its expectations onto your little body, because I couldn’t wrap my mind around you. Before you had a name and a gender and a heart that fluttered on a screen and dared me to disavow your possibility, I got a package in the mail in anticipation of you. In it, amongst the handmade quilt and the comically small slippers, was a book of envelopes. Each of the envelopes was labelled with an occasion: first week, first tooth, first day of school. The idea was to write you a letter for each of these occasions and to collect them in the book to be given to you when the time was right. I liked this idea. I liked the thought of telling you about yourself, of being your archive and your witness. But I didn’t write a single letter. I couldn’t. When I tried to start I didn’t know how to begin. How could you be addressable as a “not-yet-you”? I didn’t want to write my story as though it was yours. But here’s the thing, babe, my story is your story. My body made your body, as bizarre and banal as that feels to write. We are each other’s indexes at a cellular level. And so, my girl, these essays are first and foremost for you. Their partialities, their tenacious vulnerabilities, their fallibilities, and their insistent graspings at joy are my small attempts to show you that it’s okay to try. It’s okay to want to make your voice heard, and it’s important to know your voice isn’t the only one or the most important one. When I write about having a gendered body in the world, I think, now, about your tiny infant body. I think, now, about the only kind of prayer I utter with fervency: May you be comfortable in your body and know it is yours. If your body doesn’t fit you, may we find ways to make it yours. May your body only know pleasure and empowerment. May we give you the language to say yes, to say no. May the world be gentle with you. May you not lose that unselfconscious you-ness we hear from your crib when you wake up, singing. May you know the fierceness of strong friendships with women. May you be kind. May you feel held. May you write your own stories.
I have a bitchy resting face.
You know what I mean: When I’m busy thinking or walking or going about my daily business, my natural resting expression is one that reads to others as bitchy—or mean, or angry, or sad. Perfect strangers have told me to smile, cheer up, or simply not to look the way I do. Much to my chagrin, my automatic response is often to flash a grimacing smile. My reaction drives me bananas. I continue what I’m doing while thinking of witty (& not so witty) comebacks. I imagine crossing my eyes and sticking out my tongue. On a few occasions, though, I’ve had an inverse response to the automatic smile: I’ve given the happiness-seeking stranger the finger.
Not because the stranger necessarily deserves to be told where to go (though let’s be frank, often the stranger does). No, I’ve given people the finger or imagined doing so because there’s something incredibly condescending about telling a woman to smile. Whether or not this smile-seeker is well meaning or a creep, there exists in much of the Western world a long and entrenched history of telling women how to think, feel, and act. And how to look. This history is complicated. It’s varied. It shifts depending on your racial, gendered, ethnic, and class identity, but we can, for the sake of simplicity, call this the history of patriarchal culture.
In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. And this meant that I smiled rarely, for in truth, when it came down to real smiling, I had less to smile about. My “dream” action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their “pleasing” smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them.
Essais. That’s the name of the series this book is published in—essais. This book is a record of me trying to write about feminism at the interstices of critical and literary theory, pop culture, and feminist thinking. At the intersection of those methods and epistemological routes is me. I’m writing in the I. I’m inserting myself in a long and varied tradition of women and other marginalized people working from a situated position of knowledge. I’m also busting in on and turning over tables within the other long tradition of speaking subjects who use I without thinking twice about the privilege that entails. Me, I think twice, three, even four times about that privilege.
Who do I think I am?
In April 2016, the Canadian magazine The Walrus published an article by Jason Guriel entitled “I Don’t Care About Your Life: Why Critics Need to Stop Getting Personal In Their Essays.” In the essay, Guriel laments the hybridization of the confessional and the critical forms. The confessional—shorthand, in Guriel’s article, for shitty, navel-gazing writing—dilutes what might otherwise be pure critique.
(Arguments for purity make me cringe, usually, unless of course we are talking about water quality.)
Despite my training as an academic, which taught me that I could be a cool and impartial professional reader, writer, teacher, and critic, this article got under my skin. Reading it, I felt acutely uncomfortable. I felt seen (called out?) in a way that was vulnerable-making. It felt as though he was taking aim at writers who inspire me enormously, at me, and at the deliberate stylistic and genre choices writers make. I felt all the work I do to situate my own knowledge—as a teacher, as a reader, as a writer—was suddenly and impudently invalidated.
I don’t know J.G., but the Internet tells me he might like baseball, and the Blue Jays in particular, so we do have that much in common… And yet…
I was reminded of a similar feeling of vulnerability that occurred during the first week of graduate school: I was sitting outside smoking with a bunch of my fellow (male) students and they all got to talking about how much they hated Margaret Atwood. I didn’t hate Margaret Atwood. Nor did I hate her writing. And, as I sat there listening to these people talk confidently about how she was a hack writer and a bitch, I got quiet. I didn’t speak up. I most certainly didn’t stick up for Margaret (she doesn’t need my help, I thought), and I definitely didn’t talk about my favourite writer at the time (Eden Robinson, in case you’re wondering). Instead I sat, smoking, listening, and nodding like one of those dashboard bobbleheads.
I’m not really known for keeping my opinion to myself these days, so why did I then?
And why did Guriel’s article bother me so much?
Does. Why does it bother me so much?
About a week after Guriel’s article was published, Mandy Len Catron published a response entitled “You Should Care About My Life: The First-Person Pronoun Isn’t Trivial, It’s Essential.” She says so many things that get to the heart of what’s wrong with Guriel’s stance.
Like: What do you mean by conflating the confessional with the narcissistic and lazy?
Or: Who is privileged enough not to see that all writing is deeply and inherently coloured by our subjective and individuated experiences?
And that so many writers— including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Timothy Tu, James Baldwin—write from the I perspective in radical ways because their experiences—their own I-positions—are marginalized.
Yes, I nodded as I read. Yes.
No mention of women in either article, though.
No mention of women, save to imply that I-writing is feminized (because the confessional as a genre is a feminized genre save for the outlier/insider Robert Lowell, pretty much. Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell. Those poets who crack worlds open with their honesty. I learned in school to mistrust their realness and read it as excessive feminine blathering. I learned to read their writing through their suicides as evidence of some sort of weakness. Their poetry became a kind of cautionary tale about exposing too much of yourself. I exaggerate, but that’s the point, isn’t it?).
What gets under my skin about the Walrus article, then, is that it’s one in a long and tedious line of literary dismissals of the vital necessity of being able to say I in a public space… and of having your own authority over your life trusted. Who gets to say I without having to shore up that utterance with justification for the right to speak? To exist? Not women. Not women of colour. Not people of colour. Not queer people. Not trans people. Not differently abled people. Not a hell of a lot of people, as it turns out. So why is the I so easily dismissed?
Because, I think, it’s risky. For the speaker. For the status quo.
I’m taking a risk here.
When I started writing this book I thought I was going to write a handbook. A how-to on Sara Ahmed’s concept of being a feminist killjoy, that irreverent figure who lights a match and joyfully flicks it into the dry hull of patriarchal culture.
There were going to be key terms and quizzes and ten easy steps.
Turns out, there are more than ten steps.
Turns out, this isn’t a handbook.
Why do I feel so invested in the I? I asked my partner this one evening as we sat in a small, dark café off the square where we were living in Spain for a few precious weeks. It’s a cliché to say that we are rarely out alone together these post-bébé days, but it is also true, and in those rare moments I can feel us both reaching towards each other, our once more familiar way of thinking and being together in public spaces, of talking and thinking, and falling contemplatively silent.
That’s hyperbole, of course. On that evening, I don’t actually know what he was thinking or feeling. All I can described is what I saw and felt and observed from my own corner of the tiny table.
And that’s it, I realized, as he took up my question and unspooled it with me. The I is an interstice, not an intersection. An opening. Not “relatable” (a quality our freshest students so lamentably look for in almost everything), but a possibility. I invites observation at the level of the personal and the intimate without allowing the observer to mistake the observed for anything other than what it is: individuated. Familiar, sometimes, yes. Radically other, often. But I is an invitation to listen. It is an invitation to follow one body’s thinking, one possibility’s path.
In the language of my academic training, as a student of the 1990s and 2000s, I is the reason that standpoint epistemology matters. We need to learn how to approach the experiences—gendered, raced, classed—of others as contextual. We need to learn how to approach our own experiences as contextual. And I is a wonderfully messy shorthand for all those blurred borders of experience.
The intersection of the personal and the critical—the theoretical, the “hard”—is crucial for me and for this book. Creative nonfiction is… interesting prose that bears witness to fact, life, and the problematics of having a body in spacetime.
When I started writing this book, I didn’t think I was a writer. I thought I was a teacher. After all, I had spent nearly a decade teaching in post-secondary institutions. I had written a doctoral dissertation and been given the funny-looking hat. I had been a feminist-academic blogger for almost five years. I chaired the board of the Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, which is a national not-for-profit organization focused on fostering representational justice in Canadian literary culture.
What I mean is, I felt that I knew how to write, I just was not a writer.
I think, now, that there are questions to be asked about access, ownership, and agency. I think, now, that claiming space and having a place at the table of Big Ideas and Important Thinking are not the same thing. I think, as I write myself into being a writer, that there’s a lot of work to be done on many different levels. Figuring out where and how I stand, myself, seems crucial in order to try to stand with others who are affected differently by aggressions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, class, and, and, and…
And then the problem of audience came up: Who is the audience for this book? I asked myself. I was also asked by others. And I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t tell you. Not in a few words, like we’re taught. There was no elevator speech ready.
It would seem that I am writing this book for everyone. And also for myself. And for the wee one who is napping as I write. The risk, of course, is to be called (or to be) navel-gazing. I’ll take it. I’ll take that risk.
The act of writing is “bodying forth” another iteration of me, of my thinking, of how I’m able to move through the world. It is another iteration of how I see others and how I see myself.
So here is what I found myself explaining to myself when I was thinking through why the Walrus piece bothered me and why I worried about my lack of defense of Atwood and how I would try to talk to my extended family about this book you’re reading and how I would try to talk to my students about feminism. Here is what I found myself thinking: this whole “I is a feminized and therefore narcissistic and less-than position from which to write” thing is a denizen of patriarchal culture.
And what is patriarchal culture, Erin? I can hear my dad or my first-year students asking, albeit in different tones of voice.
(Don’t assume my dad is the one with his eyebrow raised, skeptical. Don’t assume my students are, either.)
Here’s the start of an essay—an essai, a trial, attempt, endeavour—that reaches towards some answers.
Patriarchal culture is by definition a culture in which masculinity—in people and in things—is privileged as inherently foundational to other states of being. In a patriarchal culture, systems, institutions, and social interactions reinforce this hierarchy. When you live in a patriarchal culture, as in any culture, you begin learning its rules and regulations, as well as the way you fit into them, almost immediately. It’s important to note that patriarchal culture is not an equitable culture. It’s unfair for women and women-identified people, and it’s also unfair for men, though these unfairnesses are not the same, nor do all people experience them the same way. Like any culture or way of being, patriarchal culture appears to be inscrutable. It is so entrenched in our psyches and our ways of moving through the world that it seems impossible to change.
I am most acutely aware of this entrenchment when I catch myself in the midst of an automatic grimace/smile, hating myself for responding by rote and hating the stranger for demanding a rote response. My responses feel programmed at gut-level. They feel unimpeachable. It’s intensely difficult to reprogram oneself. And who even knows where to begin deprogramming a stranger, much less a series of interlocking systems that lead to an automatic and regretted smile?
Yet, as the science fiction writer Ursula K. LeGuin points out, totalizing systems are built to appear inscrutable: We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. The first step to resisting inequity and changing it must be learning to see it. And seeing that unequal power catches us each up differently.
When, as a younger person, I learned that in many professions in Canada women were paid seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man is paid for the same work, I was shocked. How was this possible? Now? Wasn’t wage differentiation a thing of the past?
In March of 2016, Huffington Post Canada published a piece entitled “Canada’s Gender Pay Gap: Why Canadian Women Still Earn Less Than Men.” Its author, Arti Patel, cites studies from Statistics Canada that measure the current wage discrepancy at seventy-three cents on the dollar. In other words, women in Canada who are working full-time earn on average seventy-three cents for every dollar a man working full-time in Canada earns. That’s to say that the wage gap has increased since I first learned about it. And as Patel points out, these numbers are even lower for Indigenous and women of colour. So no, wage differentiation is not a thing of the past.
What the actual fuck?
The answer—to this fact, to my F-bomb, to why I didn’t see the wage discrepancy before I learned about it in a university classroom—is, of course, like so many other structural inequities with long and violent histories (think racism, colonialism, homophobia): complicated. Why didn’t I “see” this wage discrepancy before I was eighteen or twenty years old? In part because it’s a hidden facet—and fact—of patriarchal culture and also in part because I hadn’t been directly confronted with the wage gap. Moreover, not only did I lack the language for articulating inequitable power systems and for naming my place in them; I also lacked the experiential awareness that many other people experience earlier for a variety of reasons I’ll go on to discuss. What I mean is this: my family was middle-class. Both my parents worked, though my mom stopped working as a cardiac nurse when I was about five years old. She stayed home with me, dad worked.
She stayed home.
As if child care and household labour aren’t work. But I didn’t see or understand this subtle division as a gendered division of labour. Moreover, given that my family is white as well as middle-class, I didn’t see my parents experience the additional micro- and macro-aggressions of racism that affect how much and, indeed, whether, people get paid fair wages for their labour. I lacked experiential awareness. This lack of mine was demonstrated in my inability to see these hidden, though obvious things—these open secrets of the gendered and racialized wage gap. Naming the lack and speaking the open secrets are some of the tasks of a feminist killjoy.
It occurs to me that being a feminist killjoy is a more than a full-time job.
But wait. I realize that before I sketch out just a few of the myriad ways in which patriarchal culture creates and perpetuates inequity, I need to talk about why feminism is important.
The first step to shifting patriarchal culture into something more fair and equitable is to recognize the imperative and urgent need for feminism. Yes, still. Yes, now. Yes, in the first few decades of the 2000s. Yes, in North America. Yes, to form coalitions. Yes, across class lines. Yes, across gendered lines. Yes, in different iterations to speak to different people. Yes, in conjunction with anti-racism. Yes, in cooperation with policy reform. Yes, for people with children. Yes, for people without children. Yes, we need it. Yes.
Feminist: one who recognizes that the material conditions of contemporary life are built on inequities of gender, race, and class. One who recognizes that patriarchal culture is inherently coercive and stifling for women and other Others. One who works to make those inequities visible and one who works to tear them down. One who recognizes the enormity of the task. One who keeps working.
We need feminism as a way of thinking, as a way of being in the world, as a methodology for teaching children, as much as we need it as a methodology for enacting policy changes at the federal level. But the term “feminist” still pulls many people up short. It’s at once antiquated (weren’t they the bra-burners of the 1960s? Answer: yes and no) and too politically risky [aren’t they the left-wing, angry man-haters? Answer: yes, sometimes (but we need to ask what conditions exist that make this possible) and, no, not necessarily]. Feminism is complicated, sure, but throwing out the term simply because it’s freighted means throwing out the histories and struggles that have brought the term forward. So how do we both reinvigorate our understanding of the history of feminist activism and come to terms with the ongoing and urgent need for feminist consciousness in this not-so-new millennium?
When I started this book, I wanted to write something unimpeachable. Something so clear and objective, it could be a little dictionary or translation phrase book for how to speak a feminist language and live a feminist life. I wanted what many other writers—the many-gendered mothers of my heart—had already written. I wanted A Room of One’s Own, Sister Outsider, Willful Subjects, Islands of Decolonial Love. I wanted Feminism is for Everybody and The Dream of a Common Language. I wanted No Language is Neutral.
I wanted books that had already been written by people whose experiences of moving through the world are different—often radically so—from mine.
I got stuck.
I read some more.
I remembered that I tell my students that reading and writing are attempts at joining conversations, making new ones, and, sometimes, shifting the direction of discourse.
I sat down at my computer again.
When I began this book, I was pregnant. When I began writing again, I’d given birth. This matters to me, but it needn’t matter to you in the same way. What’s important to know, for now, is that something had shifted between my first attempt to write this text and my next one. Something subtle. I loosened my grip on some things (I’ll never write those books that hold my heart and shape my thinking), and I tightened my grip on others (I can talk with them, those books, those thinkers, you.)
This book is a collection of attempts. Notes for conversations, notes from conversations. It is a book that uses some critical theory and some cultural references to offer concrete suggestions for manoeuvring through shared experiences and spaces. It is also a partial book that bears the limitations of its author. Me. She of the bitchy resting face.
This book is divided into four main sections. After this introduction, there’s a chapter on rape culture, then one on friendships, and, finally, a chapter on feminist mothering. I wrote the chapters one at a time without knowing, initially, where they were going. I call the chapters notes because that’s the form they took. My writing happened in small bursts, on what seemed like little Post-it notes of time. As I’ve mentioned, our daughter was born just after I started writing, and by the time she was six months old, I was… six months behind schedule. My partner was teaching what is more than a full load of courses for an academic, and I was teaching two courses as a sessional. We didn’t have child care in the fall, and in the winter of this writing, we had a total of eight hours a week of help from two wonderful humans, N. and C.
This all matters because the conditions in which I was working shaped this book profoundly. Not only have I written in snippets of time—in the oh-my-god-it-is-too-early morning; while bébé was napping; in the late evening; in the tiny moments of time I might have been spending with my partner—I also wrote in small chunks. I wrote, I sent my brilliant editor my words, and she’d think with me on them. We wrote notes to one another in the margins of my thinking, and these notes—the questions, suggestions, and proddings—got incorporated into my writing.
To J., then: This book was a thinking with you. Thank you for becoming friends with me and with my thinking. Thank you for nudging this book into being.
I also wrote notes to a few trusted friends. R., especially, helped me think through rape culture and how to talk about it. She taught me that “victim” and “survivor” are terms that might better be traded for “endurance.” Living in rape culture is an exercise in endurance and enduring. Thank you, R.
So, yeah. Notes. Notations of moments in time. Notes from my memories of conversations. Notes in the margins of other writers’ thinking. Notes written to my daughter. Notes written to you.
The chapters bring together my training as an academic, a reader, and a blogger. There’s theory, pop culture, and me. I open with a chapter on rape culture because gender-based violence permeates our world. When I was writing the first draft of this introduction, the trial in Canada of the former media-darling Jian Ghomeshi was in process. While I’m revising, I’m reading about the ways that cultures of toxic masculinity emerge: the Stanford rapist, his father’s apologia for twenty minutes of action (i.e., raping a woman while she was passed out behind a dumpster). While I am revising this, Pulse: forty-nine beautiful humans massacred for being on a dance floor in a gay bar. Forty-nine people, most of whom were people of colour. As I revise this, Alton Sterling. Philando Castille. Dallas. Baton Rouge. Turkey. And as Rebecca Solnit writes in Men Explain Things To Me,