I finished reading Madeline Miller’s Circe a couple weeks ago, but it has been a pretty intense couple weeks over here, so I’m late on this review! This was my Read Harder 2019 book for the category of “a book of folklore or mythology.”
This book was exactly the powerful witch goddess narrative I needed in my life.
(There’ll be spoilers here. Also, content note for referencing rape.)
When I was young, and then when I was older, and then still when I was as old as I am now, so basically always, I have loved mythology. I loved all the old pantheons, but I also grew up in colonialism and so the pantheon I knew best was the Greek. But even though I knew the name Circe, I wasn’t as familiar with her as I was with others.
But Madeline Miller made her real.
The book is phenomenal, beautiful, moving. I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Perdita Weeks brings so much warmth and emotion to Circe’s telling of her own story. (This first person narration is the exact right choice for this book.)
More than anything else, I loved the complexity of the relationships.
Particularly the relationships of divine women living under patriarchy. The depiction of lateral and relational violence between women was woven throughout the book, but there was a subtext of making visible the power relations that forced women to act in complicity with patriarchy against each other. This was never more evident than in Circe’s relationship with her sister Pasiphaë (although her relationship with Scylla is a close, close second). I appreciate that Circe is not somehow above these pressures toward complicity, and I appreciate also that once she realizes what is happening, she resists it. This feels more hopeful to me than a narrative of someone who is just always above these pressures.
But it isn’t just the relationships with other women that are represented with complexity and nuance. Circe’s relationships with divine men are also vivid and complex. And, throughout this book, the operations of power are made visible. The way Glaucus’ behaviour changes as his social standing changes, changes that are echoed by her brother Aeetes once he gains his kingdom. Both of these relationships force Circe to re-examine her attachments, and her trust. Her relationship with her father is also interesting, especially as she learns to see him with less devotion and more insight. And her relationship with Hermes situates her as… not an equal in power or in social standing, but certainly an active and intentional partner in the relationship. I appreciated that contrast, of having at least an equal say even if not equal social footing, in her relationship with Hermes as compared with the other relationships with men. All of these are relationships with other gods.
And, of course, there are her relationships with mortal men. Daedalus and Odysseus and Telemachus – all the name dropping was delightful, but the fleshing out of relationships with each of them was just so well-done. (I loved Daedalus. Crush level: mega. Not as mega as my crush on Circe though.)
Power is a significant focus of the book. Circe’s first interaction with a mortal man is Glaucus before she changes him into a god, and they have a gentle, enjoyable friendship. But after Glaucus, after Circe is banished to Aeaea, Circe meets mortal sailors and they attack her, try to rob her, and the captain tries to rape her. Circe transforms the men into pigs. For many, many years, men come to her island and most of them are transformed into pigs. If they attempt to rob her, if they attempt to harm her, if they look like they might – pigs.
In her relationship with Odysseus, they share an agreement that distrust is often the safer and better approach. Both Odysseus and Circe have harmed and killed many, not all of whom deserved it. And I found this interaction interesting, because Odysseus moves through the patriarchal world with the power of being a man, and when he opts for distrust, there is a lot of systemic power behind it. Circe learned to move through the world with distrust because she does not have that same power under patriarchy, and it was the violence of patriarchy that taught her to distrust men. But Circle does have power. She’s a god. She can turn men into pigs when they try to harm her.
I don’t know where I take this noticing. It seems like there is something here about power and how we wield power, power in context, the difference between structural power and situational power. In writing this review, I read a lot of other reviews, and I agree with the assessment by Electric Lit (content note in the link for some ableist language), that Circe does not consistently challenge the definition or meaning of power, it just grants that same hierarchical power to Circe rather than allowing it to stay with men. This is exactly the thing that nudged at me, that made me think about white feminism and cis feminism and all the other feminisms that have claimed power (and yay! I love that!) but have not gone on to challenge the structures of power fundamentally. This leaves so many other vulnerable groups without access to this claimed power.
This absolutely was the power witch narrative I needed in my life, but it is also imperfect. There’s so much that is done so well in terms of demonstrating how power operates, and how patriarchy pushes the marginalized into competition with each other and complicity with the very system that is harming them (something that also applies to other systems of privilege and dominance – think of capitalism). But I wish it went further.
One part of the book that I keep returning to in my thoughts is the small interaction between Circe and Prometheus. It’s just a short interaction, but Circe returns to it many times when she’s telling her own story. It’s formative for her. Prometheus shows her that there is another way to be; that there are alternative stories available to her, despite how rigid the lives of the Titans and Olympians are. If any part of the book does challenge existing notions of power, it is Prometheus and Circe’s reflections on him. He took power from the gods, and chose not to hold onto it despite the cost to himself. He gave the power away and paid for it. I appreciated this. I wanted more from this – I wanted her to visit Prometheus on his rock, or to expand on this. It felt so important, but always just at the edge of my understanding. I just wanted more from this. But I think the fact that there wasn’t more was a wise authorial choice – it keeps me coming back, and even throughout the book I kept wondering.
Madeline Miller stays relatively close to the source material (I know, because every time a new name was dropped or action described, I paused the audio and headed to google!) but despite the fact that so many parts of the story were familiar already, the story was fresh and exciting. And feminist! The whole book just gave me happy feminist feels – patriarchy is apparent throughout, but it is also critiqued throughout. And I also appreciated the fact that the book acknowledges the presence and advancement of other cultures. Although the book stays within the Greek gods, there are references to other cultures and other pantheons – just small, but enough to alert the reader “hey, the privileging of this storyline and the way it is taken up in Enlightenment discourse and then in colonization… pay attention. There are other gods. There are other cultures. Those cultures are interesting and advanced enough that Daedalus wants to learn from them.” I appreciated this.
And I know I’ve already mentioned how much I loved the representation of relationships between women, but I need to take a moment to specifically appreciate the relationship between Penelope and Circe. This relationship happens at the end of the book, and it is such a stark contrast to the earlier relationships with women. Here, instead of being turned against each other by patriarchal power, two powerful women are able to join together to continue a legacy of resisting patriarchal power. Like Prometheus, this is another example where power is redefined and challenged.
When Penelope takes on the mantle of Witch of Aeaea, I almost cried.
Penelope and Circe are also both mothers. Motherhood is an important theme throughout the book, also. I appreciated that motherhood was not easy for Circe, and that the book challenged the idea that a person is either soft and warm and motherly and falls easily into the role, or cold and distant and abusive. Circe struggles with motherhood, struggles with how to raise Telegonus, and still loves him. She is still an attentive and caring mother even though it is not smooth or easy. This isn’t a narrative that I see reflected very often.
This will definitely be a re-read for me. I highly recommend it, and would love to chat about it if you end up reading it!
You can read my other reviews for the Read Harder 2019 challenge here!
My review of Binti for “a book by a woman and/or an author of colour set in or about space.”
My review of When They Call You A Terrorist for “a book of nonviolent true crime.”
My review of Washington Black for “a book by a woman and/or author of colour that won a literary award in 2018.”
My review of Fifteen Dogs for “a book with an animal or inanimate object as a point of view narrator.”
My review of The Widows of Malabar Hill for “a cozy mystery.”
Celebrating Transfeminist Activisms
“My feminism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit.” ~ Flavia Dzodan (@redlightvoices)
With Tiffany Sostar and Kimberly Williams
Friday, March 15th 5-8pm
MRU Pride Centre
Wyckham House, Z211
Join us for part or all of this FREE event to celebrate the continuing contributions of trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit people to Calgary’s feminist community.
5-6pm: Celebrating Resilience
A therapeutic conversation about the impact on trans folks of having our identities and safety considered debatable. We will center the insider knowledges and the lived experiences of trans, non-binary, and Two Spirit people.
6:30-8pm: Positive Impacts
We’ll identify and celebrate the numerous and necessary positive effects of trans visibility, trans theory, trans activism, and trans lives on our feminisms!
Dinner will be served!
Tiffany Sostar is a non-binary, bisexual, white settler living and working on Treaty 7 land. They work as a narrative therapist in individual, relationship, and group therapy, with a strong focus on working with
marginalized communities. Tiffany is the founder of Possibilities Calgary. Learn more: www.tiffanysostar.com.
Kimberly Williams is a queer, cisgender white settler. She directs MRU’s Women’s & Gender Studies
Program and is a long-time feminist theorist and activist. She tweets at @KWilliamsYYC.
Co-sponsored by: WGST: MRU and The Pride Centre
Here at Mount Royal University, we learn in Treaty 7 Territory, on the hereditary homelands of the Niitsitapi (the Blackfoot Confederacy: Siksika, Piikani, Kainai), the Îyârhe Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina Nations, and of the Métis Nation of Alberta.
Content note for referencing a transantagonistic event and rhetoric.
This event has been pulled together quite quickly, and I’m so proud to be involved.
It’s a two-part event celebrating transfeminist activisms, and it will be happening on March 15 from 5-8 at the SAMRU Pride Centre at Mount Royal University.
Although this event is a response to another event being hosted earlier in the day at MRU (which I’ll describe below), I think the event is important either way.
Trans lives, and the validity of trans existence, is considered a reasonable topic for debate. It’s considered reasonable and valid to debate whether trans folks are “really” their own gender, to debate whether trans kids exist and deserve gender affirming care, to medicalize, pathologize, and infantilize trans individuals, refusing to recognize our self-knowledge and the fact that we are experts in our own experiences.
There is also a dominant discourse that pits trans activism against feminist activism, ignoring and erasing the long history of trans activism that supports and has enhanced so much feminist activism!
In Transfeminist Persectives, author Anne Enke writes:
Just about everywhere, trans-literacy remains low. Transgender studies is all but absent in move university curricula, even in gender and women’s studies programs. For the most part, institutionalized versions of women’s and gender studies incorporate transgender as a shadowy interloper or as the most radical outlier within a constellation of identity categories (e.g., LGBT). Conversation is limited by a perception that transgender studies only or primarily concerns transgender-identified individuals – a small number of “marked” people whose gender navigations are magically believed to be separate from the cultural practices that constitute gender for everyone else. Such tokenizing invites the suggestion that too much time is spent on too few people; simultaneously it obscures or reinforces the possibility that transgender studies is about everyone in so far as it offers insight into and why we all “do” gender.
Bringing feminist studies and transgender studies into more explicit conversation pushes us toward better translation, better transliteracy, and deeper collaboration…
This event has a goal of inviting that explicit conversation from the foundational understanding that trans activism can enhance and support feminist goals, and that feminism can also enhance and support trans activism. This is a celebration of translation, transliteracy, and collaboration.
And it is in response to a debate.
As some folks in Calgary may have seen, on March 15 the Mount Royal University ‘Rational Space Network’ will be hosting a debate on the topic of “does trans activism negatively impact women’s rights.” Meghan Murphy, the founder of Feminist Current, will be arguing the “yes” side. For folks unfamiliar with Meghan Murphy, she is very vocal about her anti-trans, anti-sex worker views.
The fact that this debate is happening at all is part of the background radiation of trans lives – the knowledge that we are debatable. Our worth, our role, our nature – debatable.
This is actively harmful to the well-being of trans folks, especially trans women (who are Meghan Murphy and most TERFs preferred targets).
So, this event includes a one-hour therapeutic conversation where we can talk about these harms, followed by an hour-and-a-half conversation where we can celebrate the contributions of trans activism to our lives. Because, as Anne Enke notes, we all “do” gender, and trans folks have expanded what is possible for all of us, cisgender folks included.
As a note: I will also be attending the debate, which will be happening at 3 pm at Jenkins Theatre. I’ll be attending in support of the trans women arguing the “no” side of the debate. I’d love if anyone was able to join me for the debate, or for either part of the event following.
(This post was originally written for my tarot blog.)
I am tired of watching the people in my life suffer at the hands and words of people who claim to love them.
And it does not escape my notice that it is more often the femmes, the women, the disabled, the neurodivergent, the vulnerable who are experiencing violence and abuse from their partners.
I am overwhelmed with listening to people who consult me for narrative therapy, and who consult me as a friend, talk about what has been done to them, talk about what has been said to them, talk about what has been said about them, and to hear them questioning themselves with the oppressive voices of our culture.
Was it really so bad?
He didn’t mean it.
Am I too needy?
He was drinking.
They were having a panic attack.
Everything I say makes her angry.
He really tries.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Maybe it’s not so bad.
Of course they doubt themselves! Our culture chronically gaslights marginalized communities. Marginalized communities are often operating within transgenerational trauma, poverty, scarcity (if not in our families, then in our communities). Marginalized communities may also have to contend with other structural and systemic issues that make naming abuse and violence more challenging – Black and Indigenous communities are at such increased risk of violence from any system. Seeking help often means finding more violence.
There is so much normalization of violence in our culture. And although it is not an issue that only impacts women, or is only perpetuated by men, there are patterns. They are painful patterns to witness.
One of my friends recently posted this open letter to men:
Just wanted to let you know I am so over it. I talk to your partners every day. I see their tears and listen to their self flagellation in the effort to make you happy. I watch them cram themselves in tiny boxes so they don’t threaten you. I fume as they suggest, gently, kindly, if it’s not too much trouble, that you consider their needs, but your wants are more important. Men, I watch you casually ask for sacrifice as if it were your due. I seethe as your partners ask for the simplest things of you, and you just don’t even bother. I see you go through the motions and call it love, when it doesn’t even pass the bar for respect. And then, as it all falls apart you claim you need a chance, as if you haven’t been given dozens, that you didn’t know, as if you hadn’t been told relentlessly, and that you can change, as long as you won’t be held accountable.
Men, I am so over watching your partners unilaterally trying to fix relationship problems that are yours. I am tired of knowing your partners better than you. I am exhausted having to buoy them through the hard times because you cannot be bothered. I am tired of you cheapening what love means by buying the first box of chocolates you see (not even their favourite) and calling it an apology but changing nothing.
Don’t hurt my people. Men, do better or go home.
And still, the questioning. Maybe it wasn’t so bad? Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Because each incident on its own might not be so bad. Might be a bad day, a bad choice. Might be a bad moment. It’s not the whole story. Maybe it’s not so bad.
And on its own, maybe it isn’t.
Image description: The Ten of Swords from the Next World Tarot.
From the guidebook by Cristy C. Road:
This is the final straw, and the 10 of Swords is exhausted from counting. They have lost themselves, over and over, in the name of love, self-worth, trauma, post-traumatic stress, healing the body from abuse, healing the mind from manipulation, and unwarranted, non-stop loss. The 10 knows healing, they studies it and have been offered power, candles, bracelets, and messages from their ancestors through local prophets who run their favorite Botanica. They are listening, but they are stuck. Proving to their community that while they have known power, they have known pain they don’t deserve.
The 10 of Swords asks you to trust your pain, own your suffering, and don’t deny yourself of the care you deserve from self, and the validation from your community. That validation is the root of safety. The 10 of Swords believes now is the time to ask your people for safety.
I pulled this card after another conversation with a beloved member of my community about an incident of misogyny in an intimate relationship.
I had brought this question to the deck – “How do we invite accountability into our intimate relationships?”
I wanted to know –
How do we create the context for change without putting the burden of emotional labour onto the person already experiencing trauma from the choices and behaviours of their partner?
How do we deepen the connection to values of justice, compassion, and ethical action, for people who have been recruited into acts of violence and abuse?
How do we resist creating totalizing narratives about people who use violence and abuse? How do we resist casting them as monsters? How do we invite accountability while also sustaining dignity?
How do we, to use a quote by one of my fellow narrative therapists, “thwart shame”? (Go watch Kylie Dowse’s video here!)
In moments of distress, I often turn to the tarot. When I don’t know how to ask the right questions, and I don’t know what to say or do, I turn to the tarot. Tarot cards are excellent narrative therapists.
I flipped this card over and the image moved me immediately. These acts of intimate partner violence and abuse do not occur in a vacuum. It is not just one sword in the back.
A misogynist comment from a partner, directed towards a woman or femme, joins the crowd of similar comments she, they, or he has received their entire life.
A racist comment from a partner, directed towards a racialized person, joins the pain of living an entire life surrounded by white supremacy and racism.
An ableist comment from a partner, a transantagonistic comment, a sanist or healthist or fatphobic or classist comment – these comments join the crowd.
And so, how do we invite accountability while preserving dignity? How do we resist totalizing narratives of either victims or perpetrators, resist recreating systems of harm in our responses to harm?
See the whole picture.
Even though it is so painful to look at, see the whole thing.
Rather than locating violence and abuse as problems that are localized to a relationship, individualized and internalized to a single person making choices, recognize that these things happen in context. And for many folks, these contexts are incredibly painful.
It will take time, and patience, and compassion, and gentleness, and a willingness to do the hard work of both validation and accountability. It will take community to find safety.
We need each other to say, “it is that bad, even if this incident might not be.”
When the victim-blaming, isolating, individualizing voices start clamoring, we need each other to say, “this is not your fault.”
We need something more nuanced than “leave,” “report.”
We need to show up for each other, with each other. We need safety. We need validation.
Can we do this by asking questions like:
How did you learn what it means to be in relationship?
What examples of making choices in relationships have you seen around you? What was being valued in those choices?
Does what you’ve learned about being in relationship align with what you want for yourself, and what you value for yourself?
Do the actions you’re choosing in your own relationship align with your values or hopes?
Who has supported you in your values and hopes?
Do you share any hopes or values with your partner(s)?
What have you learned about violence and abuse in relationships? About who experiences violence and abuse? About who enacts violence and abuse?
When did you learn this?
Does this learning align with what you’ve experienced in your own relationship?
What insider knowledges would you add to this learning, from your own experience?
Have you ever taken a stand against violence and abuse in your relationship?
What enabled you to take this stand?
When violence or abuse shows up in your relationship, are you able to name it? Have you ever been able to name it? What supports this ability?
What have you learned about what it means to be accountable in relationship?
Do you have supports available to you that invite accountability while sustaining dignity?
Who can support you in being accountable for the actions you’ve taken when you’ve been recruited into violence or abuse? Who can support you in asking for accountability from a partner who has been recruited into violence or abuse?
Here are some resources if you’re looking for ways to respond to intimate partner violence:
The Stop Violence Everyday project.
Critical Resistance’s The Revolution Starts at Home zine.
The Creative Interventions toolkit.
(This post was originally posted on my tarot blog. You can find it here.)
Image description: A colorized hallway in what might be a hospital. Text reads:
Madness, Violence, and the Patriarchy
(or, When My Favorite South Park Episode Changed from “Reverse Cowgirl” to “Breast Cancer Show Ever”)
guest post by Emma McMurphy
This is a guest post by Emma McMurphy. Emma is a Mad Pride activist, a movement that celebrates and finds value in the states, traits, and characteristics typically categorized as mental illness. She is passionate about providing and teaching non-coercive, context-informed approaches to suicide prevention and mental health crisis. Emma blogs about Mad culture and disability justice at www.radicalabolitionist.org.
This post is part of the Feminism from the Margins series.
Content note on this post for discussion of self-harm, suicidality, involuntary psychiatric institutionalization
My Mad Pride activism began as a civil libertarian cause. I firmly believed that every individual deserved the inalienable right to bodily autonomy – full control over what to do with their own bodies and minds. I knew from day one of my activism that universal bodily autonomy meant bodily autonomy for individuals designated as Mad or mentally ill – those who were hearing voices, who were suicidal, who wanted to cut, burn, or injure themselves, etc. “Give me liberty or give me death” became a favorite quote of mine, and “People should have the right to do whatever they want as long as they are not violating another person’s bodily autonomy” became a line I often repeated.
A few days after I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward after expressing passive suicidal thoughts, a group of my friends happened to be watching an episode of South Park entitled “Reverse Cowgirl.” In the episode, the South Park police department enforces a strict requirement of wearing seatbelts while using the bathroom after a character dies by almost falling into the toilet. The episode resonated so deeply with me that I was almost in tears. This, to me, is what being involuntarily committed had felt like: a profound invasion and intrusion upon my body, personhood, and dignity, a violent assault upon my autonomy, all in the name of public safety and security – all when I had not done anything to violate anyone else’s bodily autonomy.
It was shortly after my involuntary commitment that I launched my activism career. The central focus of my activism was the rejection of involuntary commitment for those who had not harmed or threatened to harm any other person’s bodily autonomy. Like many feminist efforts, my activism revolved around the personal liberties and rights of Mad people. Along with my efforts came my striving to promote the message that Mad people are not usually violent or abusive – that being a danger to oneself and a danger to others should not be conflated. “People diagnosed with mental illness are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence,” I would often say.
At that point the line felt clear. I was innocent. A victim. I hadn’t done anything wrong and yet I had been locked up, strip searched, forcibly drugged, and restrained.
But life happened and things got more nebulous. My fiancé came home one day and said he wanted to break up, and I sliced my arm, threatening suicide if he left. Suddenly I was no longer an innocent victim quietly expressing passively suicidal thoughts in an emergency room. I was a full blown crazy woman, using tears, manipulation, self-harm, and suicide threats to keep my partner in our relationship. While I hadn’t violated my fiancé’s bodily autonomy, I had certainly made the shift from “harm to self” to “harm to others.”
The events caused me to carefully re-examine my activism. So many of my arguments had hinged on the notion that madness is not inherently harmful to others, that individuals should have the right to experience and engage in madness that does not hurt other people. But here I was, Mad as hell, terrified of abandonment, engaging in actions that would be considered abusive or even violent by most. Who had I become? Was I one of the violent, dangerous Mad people I had so frequently otherized? “Those Mads” – the ones who deserved to be locked up, separated from society, forcibly drugged even? Was I not even Mad – just bad? Just plain abusive?
A few months later, I found myself rewatching Gone Girl, a film I’d hated when it first came out. What a stereotyping, misogynistic film, I had thought! It makes all women, and especially Mad women, look violent. For context, the film is about a woman named Amy who frames her husband for murder after he cheats on her with a younger, hotter woman. In many ways, Amy is the classic and stereotypical portrayal of the Madwoman: she is manipulative, jealous, possessive, violent, and does everything she can to ensure her husband will never leave her. “When I tell people I’m Mad, they’re going to think I’m violent and manipulative just like Amy,” I had thought.
This time, I felt completely differently about the film. All of the sudden, I could relate to Amy. When she delivered Gone Girl’s “Cool Girl” monologue, a lightbulb went off. I got it.
Below is the famous “Cool Girl” monologue:
“Nick never loved me. He loved a girl who doesn’t exist. A girl I was pretending to be. The Cool Girl. Men always use that as the defining compliment, right? She’s a cool girl. Being Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker and dirty jokes, who plays videogames and chugs beer, loves threesomes and anal sex and jams chilidogs into my mouth like I’m hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang-bang–while remaining a size 2, because cool girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool girls never get angry at their men, they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner. Go ahead! Shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the cool girl.
I waited patiently-years-for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, organize scrapbook parties and make out with each other while we leer. And then we’d say, yeah, he’s a cool guy. Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation! Pretty soon every girl was Cool Girl, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.
But it’s tempting, to be Cool Girl. For someone like me, who likes to win, it’s tempting to be the girl every guy wants. When I met Nick I knew that’s what he wanted. For him, I was willing to try. I couldn’t have been Cool Girl with anyone else. I wouldn’t have wanted to. Nick teased things out in me I didn’t know existed: A lightness, a humor, an ease. And I made him smarter, sharper. I forced him to rise to my level. I was happier for those few years, pretending to be someone else, than I ever have been before or after.
But then it had to stop, because it wasn’t me! I hated Nick for being surprised when I became me. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love wax-stripping my pussy raw and blowing him on request. That my fantasy baseball team was not a labor of love. It had to stop. Committing to Nick, feeling safe with Nick, being happy with Nick, made me realize that there was a Real Amy in there, and she was so much better, more interesting and complicated and challenging, than Cool Girl. But Nick wanted Cool Girl anyway. Can you imagine, finally showing your true self to your soulmate, and having him not like you?”
The “Cool Girl” monologue describes many of the insidious, subtle, overlooked forms of violence that the patriarchy has subjected people to for decades. It lists all of the ways that women are quietly coerced to conform to patriarchal standards of beauty and femininity to be loved and valued: maintaining thinness, engaging in unwanted sexual experiences, feigning interest in hobbies and interests that are constructed as masculine, and performing a sense of nonchalance and detachment toward romantic relationships. These are violences that affect us all but that are felt differentially and responded to differentially by people. While Amy is a white, thin, relatively privileged woman, it is often the most marginalized groups of women – women of color, queer women, neurodivergent women, trans women, and fat women – who experience the highest degree of pressure to make drastic alterations to their bodyminds in order to conform to these standards. For the most marginalized groups, these violences may result in coercion to disguise or kill off entire parts of one’s identity; failure to do so may result in more explicit forms of violence such as hate crimes, sexual violence, intimate partner violence, or police brutality.
It was at this moment that it struck me that Amy was describing violence in the “Cool Girl” monologue. Being coerced to make painful, humiliating alterations to one’s bodymind in order to be valued is violence. “Nick Dunne took my pride and my dignity and my hope and my money. He took and took from me until I no longer existed,” Amy says. In some ways, it is murder.
But the patriarchy is hardly ever recognized as violent or murderous. Instead, it is seen as the norm, as acceptable. So Amy seeks to change that. She frames her husband for murder. She stages a violent, manipulative, crazy rebellion to the patriarchy. What other option did she have?
I had also attempted to be the “Cool Girl” in my relationship with my (now ex) fiancé. I had worked 80 hour weeks to perform capitalist ideals of success that he so admired, while still making sure to have enough time to spend with him every day. I had maintained thinness, forced myself to engage in strenuous exercise, participated in sexual acts I found degrading. I had given up real, important parts of myself – my Mad Pride, my Autistic identity, my outward disabledness. And here I was, being told that still wasn’t good enough. I had given up so much, and I was being pushed beyond a limit.
Slowly but surely, I started to get radicalized. I started to learn more about the systemic factors impacting not only suicide and self-harm but also violence. I began to think about the role that powerlessness and systemic devaluation play in driving people to extremes. I started to think about the ways people might feel trapped in situations and dynamics, and how sometimes they might see violence as the only or most feasible way to regain control or escape.
I still see Mad Pride partially as a civil libertarian movement. My belief that every person deserves bodily autonomy, including those who are hearing voices and those who are suicidal, has not changed. But Mad Pride is about so much more than that. I see it as a movement fundamentally about pain, and largely about the pain inflicted by systemic and structural forms of violence. I believe Mad Pride is about recognizing the validity and legitimacy of people’s reactions to this pain.
Like my earlier version of Mad Pride, I believe that feminism often attempts to distance itself from stereotypes. Many feminists have worked to reject the notion that women are more emotional, manipulative, hysterical, or crazy. They have fought to defend the fact that women are just as rational, intelligent, and sane as men. I recently saw a book entitled, “Strong is the New Pretty.” This echoes a sentiment I have often heard in feminist circles: women are not weak like men think we are. We are strong enough to rise above our impulses, to maintain a cool rationality and sense of logic, and to exercise our bodies to meet standards of physical able-bodiedness and athleticism. Of course, I am very grateful for these feminist efforts and lines of thinking; stereotypes are harmful to everyone.
However, I often wonder if, in working to reject these stereotypes, feminists disavow madness – particularly reactions to the patriarchy that may involve violence, manipulation, and strong emotions. What if sometimes our response to the patriarchy – to all of the violence that has been committed against us for thousands of years – involves being weak, being emotional, giving into our impulses to scream, to shout, to self-injure, to threaten suicide, to exact revenge? Is there space for this within feminism? Is there space to at least acknowledge the validity and legitimacy of these responses, even if they aren’t always the most ethically correct or appropriate course of action?
A few weeks ago, I watched the episode of South Park entitled “Breast Cancer Show Ever.” In the episode, Eric Cartman ruthlessly mocks Wendy Testaburger’s presentation on breast cancer awareness, with other students and teachers doing little to stop him. When Wendy threatens to fight him physically to stop him, she is disciplined by her parents. Cartman’s verbal abuse continues, and finally, the school principal, a woman, encourages Wendy to fight him physically. Explaining that she is a breast cancer survivor herself, the principal tells her that “cancer does not play by the rules” and that since cancer will not stop of its own volition, it is sometimes necessary to resort to extreme measures to defeat it.
The patriarchy will not stop of its own volition. It is relentless, demanding, and abusive, and although it does not always result in overt attacks of life-threatening or bodily autonomy-threatening force, it is violent and coercive, emotionally and psychologically. It is extreme, though it is not recognized as such. Sometimes such extremity merits extreme responses. Perhaps madness and particularly Mad women are sometimes violent, and perhaps that is exactly what is needed.
Instead of shaming women for having extreme responses to the extremity and violence of patriarchy, I believe that it is important to engage in practices of community care and accountability that seek to explore what overlooked kinds of violence may have led to these responses. I do not have an answer as to how survivors of trauma and ongoing structural violence can best be held accountable to their responses that may include violence or harm. However, I think it is critical that we begin by taking a closer look at what we define as violence or harm and what we define as acceptable or typical, and what types of actions do or do not merit an accountability process. As our justice system currently stands, a great deal of retribution is carried out against individuals who have committed violence or harm; almost no efforts are made to address systemic or structural violence. Similarly, physical violence – breaking the skin – is seen as the ultimate, most severe and punishable form of violence, while the pervasive psychological and emotional violence that coerces people to make alterations to their own bodyminds remains unaddressed. How can we begin to shift this dynamic? How can we create a system that focuses on addressing systemic and structural violence while still allowing for individual accountability?
This post is part of the year-long Feminism from the Margins series that Dulcinea Lapis and Tiffany Sostar will be curating, in challenge to and dissatisfaction with International Women’s Day. To quote Dulcinea, “Fuck this grim caterwauling celebration of mediocre white femininity.” Every month, on (approximately) the 8th, we’ll post something. If you are trans, Black or Indigenous, a person of colour, disabled, fat, poor, a sex worker, or any of the other host of identities excluded from International Women’s Day, and you would like to contribute to this project, let us know!
Also check out the other posts in the series:
- All The Places You’ll Never Go, by Dulcinea Lapis
- An Open Love Letter to My Friends, by Michelle Dang
- Prioritizing, by Mel Vee
- Never Ever Follow Those White Kids Around – a brief personal history of race and mental health, by Mel Vee
- Living in the Age of White Male Terror, by Mel Vee
- I Will Not Be Thrown Away, by Mel Vee
- Selling Out the Sex Workers, by X
- Holding Hope for Indigenous Girls, by Michelle Robinson
- Three Variations on a Conversation: cis- and heteronormativity in medical settings, by Beatrice Aucoin
- Lies, Damn Lies, and White Feminism by anonymous
- Responding to the Comments, by Nathan Fawaz
- Remembering and Responding, by Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany Sostar is a narrative therapist and workshop facilitator in Calgary, Alberta. You can work with them in person or via Skype. They specialize in supporting queer, trans, polyamorous, disabled, and trauma-enhanced communities and individuals, and they are also available for businesses and organizations who want to become more inclusive. Email to get in touch!
Image description: A blue and pink image of a gem. Text reads, “No matter where you are in your journey, no matter how you feel about yourself, we support you.”
Dearest tender trans friend,
This letter is the collective effort of part of the Possibilities Calgary Bi+ Community, who met on November 20, 2018, Trans Day of Remembrance and Resilience. Some of us are transgender and some of us are cisgender. We met on the traditional territories of the Blackfoot and the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta (Calgary), which includes the Siksika, the Piikuni, the Kainai, the Tsuut’ina and the Stoney Nakoda First Nations, including Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations. This land is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
We recognize and honour the Indigenous people whose land we live and work and organize on, and we are interested in knowing what land you are on, too.
We don’t know who you are, but we do know that we care about you. We know that the world is hard and scary, especially for trans women, and especially for trans women of colour. We know that it can be hard and scary for anyone who is trans or gender non-conforming.
We care about you, whoever you are.
We care about you, no matter what your gender is.
We care about you, even if the only place you’re “out” is in the mirror.
We know that you are responding with skill and resourcefulness to the problems and hardships that you face.
We wonder, what kinds of problems are you facing? We’re curious about this, because we know that sometimes people assume that the only problems trans folks have are to do with gender. But we have some experience with being queer and/or trans, and we realize that sometimes the problems in our lives have nothing to do with that! We are more than just our gender. We know that some trans folks are disabled, some are neurodivergent, some are Black or brown or Indigenous, some are poor, or unhomed, or working through school. We support trans folks no matter what else is going on in your life! And we know that sometimes problems have nothing to do with identity. Sometimes it’s about our jobs, or our art, or a fight with our best friend. Whatever is happening in your life, we know that it’s probably a lot more rich and nuanced than trans stereotypes.
We know that you are the expert in your own life; you know more than anyone else who you are and what you need. We also know that sometimes that means all you know is that you’re searching for answers. That’s okay, too! You still know more than anyone else about your own experience and your own values, hopes, and dreams. It’s still your story even if you don’t know who you are.
We trust you.
You are bringing skill and insider knowledge to your life, and you are getting through. The reason we know this is because you’re reading this letter!
We wonder, how did you get here? What would you call the skills and insider knowledges that allowed you to get to this point, to where you are reading a letter from a small group of strangers? Were you looking for support? Did someone send this to you?
We all, regardless of our own gender and journey, love you. We want you to know that.
We wonder, is there anyone else in your life who loves and supports you in your journey? This person, or people, could be either living or no longer living, or fictional, imaginary, or pop culture figures that you feel supported and encouraged by. Who is on your team?
If you feel alone, we would like to let you know that we would like to be on your team.
Ivy shared that for her, the biggest obstacle has been the experience of being rejected by family members that she thought would welcome her, particularly family members she had welcomed when they came out as gay, but who rejected her when she came out as trans. Sometimes finding your team can be challenging.
This kind of rejection can happen in communities, as well as families. There can be heteronormativity even within the trans community, and if you are visibly queer and also visibly trans, this can be hard. But it’s okay. As one of us said, “You don’t have to fit into a box! It’s fluid and a spectrum and that’s a beautiful thing.”
It’s also okay to set boundaries within the queer community, within your friend community, or within your family. If a space doesn’t feel welcoming to you because of one or more parts of your identity, it’s okay to decide that’s not the space for you or to decide you’re going to advocate for that space to become more inclusive. It’s also okay to decide that you’re still going to be in that space despite its flaws. It is never your job to make those spaces welcoming, but it is always okay if you want to take on that work. You can make the choices that are best for you. It’s okay to fight, and it’s also okay to rest.
As a group, we came up with this list of skills and strategies, in case you find yourself in a situations of rejection or isolation:
- Remember that you can make your own family. Quite a few of us shared experiences of defining family in creative and preferred ways.
- There is no obligation to keep in contact with people who do not accept you.
- It can help to find a community of people who have shared similar experiences.
- Community can be in person, but it can also be online. This is especially true if you, like some of us, experience a lot of anxiety or if you’re in a more rural location.
Are there skills or strategies that you would add to this list? We would love to hear about them.
Another thing we talked about was how finding representation can be challenging, but when you find it, it makes a huge difference. This is especially true for identities that are on the margins of the margins; non-binary folks, like some of us, and also asexual folks and folks who don’t fit into recognizable boxes. One of us is on the screening committee for the Fairytales Queer Film Festival, and last year (2017) she watched 100s of hours of content with no asexual representation. We know that asexual trans folks exist! Possibilities is an explicitly ace-inclusive (and trans inclusive) space.
Not seeing representation can make you feel so alone. Where have you found representation? Do you imagine yourself into your favourite books and shows, even when the creators haven’t explicitly written characters like you? Who is your favourite character, or instance of representation?
Representation is important because of how it shows us possible stories, or maps, for our own lives. And the lack of trans representation hurts because it offers so few maps. We wanted to offer you some affirmation when it comes to your trans journey. There is often just a single story of trans realization, and it includes a specific experience of dysphoria. This does not reflect the diversity of experiences in the trans community, or even in the small group of us who met to write this letter! If you have not yet seen representation of a journey like yours, know that your journey is still valid. The problem is in the lack of available stories, not in your own story.
We want to validate that gender euphoria exists, just like gender dysphoria does, and that sometimes we come to our trans identities through an experience of validation rather than through an experience of pain. We also recognize that sometimes dysphoria doesn’t feel like dysphoria – sometimes it feels like depression, sometimes it feels like being flat for a long time – and that sometimes we only recognize that we were feeling dysphoria when we start to feel something different.
There are many paths available, even though there’s not a lot of representation of this diversity yet. Each of these paths are valid! Some folks transition medically, others socially, others surgically, others only internally – these are all valid paths.
We also wanted to share a bit about internalized transphobia, because this experience has been so challenging for some of us, and we want you to know that you’re not alone if you’re experiencing this.
One of us shared that internalized transphobia is not about hating trans people. It’s about being surrounded by negative stories about trans people and not having other stories to counter them with.
The shame you might be feeling if you are experiencing internalized transphobia is not because you are bad, it is because you’ve been surrounded by bad ideas. So many of our cultural contexts – in our families, our friend groups, our schools, our churches and synagogues and mosques, in the media and in books and movies and even music – so many of these contexts are full of dominant stories that are not kind or just in their representation of trans people. These stories are not the truth about transness. There is so much more complexity, nuance, and richness to transness. Transness is so much more than the thin and dehumanizing stereotypes available to us.
But those stereotypes are powerful. Sometimes trans folks have to pretend to conform to stereotypes in order to access necessary medical care. This is gatekeeping, and, as one of us said, “gatekeeping is garbage!”
It is not right that you have to jump through so many hoops in order to get gender affirming healthcare, and it’s also not right that so many medical professionals (even when they aren’t directly dealing with anything to do with transness!) are not aware or accepting. That’s an injustice.
How have you been getting through those experiences so far? How did you learn the skills that are helping you get through?
We wanted to make sure you know that just because someone has been labeled an “expert” does not mean they know better than you. You might find yourself having to educate healthcare providers, or searching for non-judgmental and appropriate healthcare. We want to name this an injustice. And it’s okay if you need help navigating this!
We also recognize that so many queer and trans folks have been told that our identities are mental illnesses. We have been pathologized and medicalized, and this can make it challenging to trust or feel safe accessing therapy. We want to let you know that this fear is valid, and also that it’s okay if you want to work with a therapist. We know that you are already skillfully navigating your care needs, and we want to validate that working with a therapist does not mean you are “broken” or any of the other hostile narratives that are told about people like you. Also, if you do work with a therapist, you are still the expert in your own experience! You know more than your therapist about what you need and who you are, and it’s okay for you to be choosy about the therapist you work with.
Not all of us at this event are trans. Some of us are cis allies. Those of us who are allies want you to know that we recognize our role is to listen, not to talk over or speak for you.
All of us have different privileges and marginalizations, and we are committed to using the privilege that we have (any money, influence, or power available to us) to create space for you in the queer community and elsewhere. Some of us are white settlers, some of us are employed, some of us are neurotypical or abled. Others are not. We are a group that bridges many privileges and experiences, and we are each committed to making space for each other and for you.
Some of us didn’t say much at the event. For some us, there are no words available that can overcome the great horribleness of the current political climate and the ongoing violence against transgender communities and individuals. This event was part of a larger project collecting letters of support for the transgender community, and some of us at the event were there because we wanted to write a letter but we didn’t know how to do it on our own.
It’s okay to not know how to do something on your own. Maybe you feel that way sometimes, too. If you do, we want you to know – it’s okay. Sometimes we can be part of a community even when we don’t have many words or much energy. You do not need to earn a place in the community.
There are two final things we want to share.
The first is that we write this letter as a group of people who love, and are friends with, and work with, and are partners and lovers with, trans people. We know, because we have insider knowledge into this, that trans people are loveable and desirable in all the ways that a person can be loved and desired. There are not a lot of stories of these friendships, partnerships, and other relationships, and so it can be hard to know that it’s possible.
We want you to know that it’s possible.
And lastly, this:
Even if you’re feeling completely alone, there is a small group of people in Calgary who know you are complete, and worthy of love. You don’t have to feel complete, and we have no expectations of you. Our hopes for you, and our acceptance of you, does not require that you also feel hope or acceptance. No matter where you are in your journey, and no matter how you feel about yourself, we support you.
With so much warmth and respect,
The Possibilities Group, including
(This letter is part of an ongoing collective project of support. You can find the album of letters on Facebook here, and I am working on migrating it into an album on my website. There are also physical letters available – if you are a trans person, or know a trans person, who is struggling, get in touch and I will mail out a letter of support. You can also contribute to the project by sending either email or physical letters.)
Image description: a wooden heart among greenery. Text reads, “celebrating international men’s day”
International Men’s Day is celebrated every year on November 19. That’s today! (In my part of the world, at least. Belated greetings to my colleagues across the international date line!)
Image description: Twitter user @Erinkyan “happy international mens day, especially to trans men, disabled men, men of colour, queer men, mentally ill men, feminine men, elderly men, poor men, male survivors, and other vulnerable men. and a big fuck you to MRAs that further isolate and harm men in the name of misogyny.”
This post a celebration of this day, and also the official launch of a new project! Keep reading to find information about the new project at the end of this post.
There are so many ways that men are harmed and vulnerable under patriarchy. Because it’s not just patriarchy. It’s also ableism. Transantagonism. Racism and white supremacy. Colonialism. Ageism. Heterosexism. Patriarchy is a critical hub in this web of oppressions and privileges, but it is not the only hub, and it is not the only intersection that we need to address.
Men are differentially vulnerable.
They become more vulnerable the more they deviate from the ideal of white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, English-speaking, educated, middle-and-upper class, young, fit, neurotypical manhood.
Men are vulnerable in different ways.
Black men and boys face police violence at disproportionately high rates in both the United States and in Canada. Indigenous men and boys also face disproportionately high rates of police violence and incarceration. (This post at The Conversation examines Canada’s shameful treatment of Indigenous folks within the ‘justice’ system.)
Men are more likely to die of suicide (as this British Columbia Medical Journal discusses), and men who are victims of domestic violence (regardless of the gender of their abuser) are less likely to find support either socially or structurally (as this article by the BBC discusses).
Men who are victims of sexual assault, either as youths or as adults, also face a lack of social and structural support. Although there have been important shifts in this cultural landscape, particularly by men responding to #MeToo (Terry Crews most publicly), there is still a significant cultural pressure to maintain an idea of masculinity as impervious to harm (as this Atlantic article discusses). This pressure comes both from proponents of patriarchal masculinity who are invested in maintaining these rigid gender systems, and from some advocates who are invested in the idea of men-as-perpetrators. Acknowledging the vulnerability of men is destabilizing to patriarchy, but it is also destabilizing to some of the gendered ways of understanding violence that have helped women and feminists frame the issue of violence against women. As this article by the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism notes, “The domestic violence movement historically framed its work on a gender binary of men as potential perpetrators and women as potential victims.” (link is to a PDF)
This article by Scientific American also talks about violence by women, and makes the important point that, “To thoroughly dismantle sexual victimization, we must grapple with its many complexities, which requires attention to all victims and perpetrators, regardless of their sex. This inclusive framing need not and should not come at the expense of gender-sensitive approaches, which take into account the ways in which gender norms influence women and men in different or disproportionate ways.”
And it is important to also recognize that there are men who have been both victims of violence and have also used violence against others. These men are often unable to access any supports that recognize and respond to both sides of their story, since many services for survivors of sexual or domestic violence do not work with people who have used violence against others, and services for men who have used violence against others often do not include support for survivors.
Toxic masculinity invites men into violence and dominance, which means that men are often cut off from emotional supports and connections, and it also means that people around men are vulnerable to violence and dominance. Not all men accept this invitation into a specific kind of masculinity, but all men receive the invitation – patriarchy is the air we breathe.
And, just like it is men, women, and people of all genders who are harmed by these norms of masculinity, it is also true that men, women, and people of all genders uphold and support these norms of masculinity.
As Vivek Shraya writes in her fantastic book, I’m Afraid of Men:
“And so, I’m also afraid of women. I’m afraid of women who’ve either emboldened or defended the men who have harmed me, or have watched in silence. I’m afraid of women who adopt masculine traits and then feel compelled to dominate or silence me at dinner parties. I’m afraid of women who see me as a predator and whose comfort I consequently put before my own by using male locker rooms. I’m afraid of women who have internalized their experiences of misogyny so deeply that they make me their punching bag. I’m afraid of the women who, like men, reject my pronouns and refuse to see my femininity, or who comment on or criticize my appearance, down to my chipped nail polish, to reiterate that I am not one of them. I’m afraid of women who, when I share my experiences of being trans, try to console me by announcing “welcome to being a woman,” refusing to recognize the ways in which our experiences fundamentally differ. But I’m especially afraid of women because my history has taught me that I can’t fully rely upon other women for sisterhood, or allyship, or protection from men.”
That’s important to note, too. (Vivek’s book also speaks about the problem with the idea of the “good man,” and makes a strong argument for not using the term “toxic masculinity.” You can read more about that in this article by Vice. I highly recommend reading her book.)
But this is International Men’s Day, so let’s turn the focus back to men. And to a definition of men that is much more broad and expansive than the thin description of dominant masculinity, with its demands of ability and class and race and the tight confines of The Man Box (this page offers an overview of “The Man Box” study in Australia, which looked at men’s views and experiences of masculinity, and also includes a link to the full report).
There is no single truth about masculinity. (I am thankful for narrative therapy and its focus on multistoried lives and experiences. And I am thankful for Chimamanda Adichie and this TEDtalk about the dangers of a single story!)
Gendered assumptions about emotions mean that men, regardless of any other intersection of identity, are often not supported in their emotional lives. This leaves men at risk in their own lives, and less equipped to support their community members.
These issues are complex, and talking about them requires care and a willingness to invite complexity to the table.
If I’m honest, I found this post challenging to write.
This is partly because I am not a man. I have never experienced being read as a man in this patriarchal world. When I try to empathize with the experiences of men, I do so from my position as a non-binary individual who was assigned female at birth, as someone who is read as a “woman” by anyone who doesn’t know me.
But there are men in my life who have helped me begin to understand the complexities of being a man under patriarchy.
I am thankful for these men, who advocate for men’s issues and also support social justice. They challenge toxic masculinity (by which I mean, the gendered assumptions that invite men into performances of gender that are hostile to other genders, that coerce men into rejecting anything deemed “feminine”, that limit the range of emotions and emotional responses available to men, that locate successful masculinity in a specific performance of heterosexuality, ability, and capitalist productivity), and they look at this issue with nuance – toxic masculinity harms men, and it also harms everyone else.
So, how do men unlearn these hostile lessons of patriarchy? How do they learn other ways of being men?
I’m in the early stages of a collaborative project exploring how men have discovered feminism and learned about social justice. My goal is to speak with a wide range of men about their experiences, and create a collective document and resource that other men can learn from. If you would like to be part of this project, get in touch!
Image description: two books stacked with purple flowers on top. Text reads: “Men! Let’s talk about how you learned about feminism and social justice. A collective documentation project. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org”
If you appreciate this work, you can support me on Patreon!