As part of our 2022 Centring Women’s Voices Challenge, this month I’ve been reading ‘Cassandra Speaks’ by Elizabeth Lesser. (The challenge this month was to read a feminist critique.)
I’m only half way through the book and I believe it changes tone slightly in the second half, but the first half would certainly be of interest to anyone who’s curious about the history of women’s voices in Western cultures (particularly those influenced by Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, and Shakespeare’s tragedies) and in how history shapes our perceptions of ourselves today.
Lesser is one of the co-founders of the Omega Institute so unsurprisingly, the book weaves feminist analysis, with memoir, and self-help. (Note to all attempting a similar thing; don’t be afraid to footnote your sources. This is one of many such books I’ve read recently which feel inadequate when it comes to citing their sources.)
Here’s a sample of some of my other notes from part 1: Origin Stories.
✨ What happens when women are the storytellers? How does the narrative change?
✨ The origin stories in Western cultures were not told to help women respect their bodies, intelligence and legitimacy. They were told to bury the truth of our equality, values, and voice.
✨ Retelling the origin stories allows us to expand our notions of what’s possible for women. Eg; recasting Eve from original sinner to the first human to step away from childlike consciousness and journey toward mature self-responsibility. Or Pandora, from scapegoat of all human problems to the embodiment of the fertility of the earth, a life giver and holder of hope. Or Cassandra, from victim of gaslighting to the impetus for women across the globe to speak up, use their voices, and claim power.
✨ ‘Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are’ Jose Ortega Y Gassett. What if our history books celebrated peaceful actions, collaboration, inclusion? What if our monuments also celebrated teachers and mothers delivering babies? What does it do to our collective psyche to be told that our history is made up almost exclusively of battles and wars and male violence?
This final point really stood out to me. What does it do to our sense of ourselves to be told that what matters most are our acts of violent push back against oppressors? What does it say to us about how we should show up in the world? Is it any wonder that corporate heads look to military resources to work out how to ‘win’ in business? How do we shift this?
Interestingly, in the week I was writing this, the 2022 Oscars occurred. I guess for the rest of time it’ll be known as the Oscars where Will Smith slapped Chris Rock. What a perfect example of what Lesser is pointing to.
The Oscars had many amazing moments; Troy Kotsur was the first deaf man to win an Oscar for acting. Ariana DeBose was the first openly queer woman of colour to win an Oscar for acting. Jae Campion won Best Director which marked the second year in a row in which a woman took out that award. There was a beautiful expression of support from Lady Gaga toward Liza Minnelli. Then there was the grace and dignity of Jada Pinkett Smith and the glorious way she was able to communicate to women with alopecia everywhere; we can be proud, we are beautiful, we have nothing to be ashamed of.
And yet so much of this has been overshadowed. Most commentary treated that one moment between Smith and Rock as the only thing worth mentioning.
(Note: I’m not saying that it’s not important for male violence – both verbal and physical – to be discussed, but the behaviour of men doesn’t have to take up all the oxygen in the room either.)
The Oscars happen to have given us an opportunity to see ourselves in action, doing exactly what Lesser points to; fixating on one narrative. It’s an old habit and it’s one that’s going to take us time to break down. But with awareness of our collective habits and responses, perhaps we can start to build a new habit. One of reflecting on the entirety of the human experience, rather than one small slice of it.
(Further note: This post isn’t an invitation to discuss the rights and wrongs of Smith and Rock’s respective behaviour. Privilege of any kind gives people the impression they’re entitled to an opinion on things that patently aren’t their concern. The straight community thinks it’s entitled to an opinion about gay marriage. Men think they should weigh in on how a woman uses her reproductive system. The white community thinks it should weigh in on the behaviour of black people on pretty much everything, including how two black men interact vis-a-vis a black woman. In fact, the black community in question is perfectly capable of taking care of its own and sorting this one out without interference from outsiders. As an outsider myself, I have no desire, nor any authority, to hold space for that conversation and won’t be doing so.)
The invitation I’m making here is to consider the point Elizabeth Lesser is making in her book; that it’s imperative for us to become more self aware of our individual and collective responses to various cultural, political and economic events as they occur. To notice the record we keep of those events.
One version of the 21st century to date might reference the following (most of which involve violent acts and words): September 11, the war in Afghanistan, the return of the Taliban, the wars in Syria, Yemeni, Darfur, and Iraq. Brexit, Trump, people storming government buildings and seeding a global movement to try and overthrow democratically elected governments, a global pandemic, the 2021 coup in Myanmar, Putin invading Ukraine.
Were that the narrative of the 21st century thus far, the patriarchal gaze would be satisfied.
But in so doing, we would have forgotten Jacinta Ardern’s compassionate response to the Christchurch massacre, or her taking her baby into the United Nations to feed. We would have forgotten Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s pleas for peace, entreating the Russian military to put down its weapons and return home. We would have forgotten the great slow down in response to COVID and the way families and communities came together to support one another during a pandemic. We would have forgotten all of the extraordinary acts of kindness and courage that occurred and continue to occur as towns face unprecedented fires and floods. We would have forgotten the extraordinary technological leaps we’ve seen, and the beginnings of a great shift in the way we work and balance our domestic and working lives. We would have ignored the great surge of women’s voices speaking collectively to change the way we discuss sexual harassment, abuse and assault. We would have missed phrases and concepts taking root in the collective vernacular to help explain the world in ways that weren’t possible even one generation ago. Concepts such as privilege, fragility, and anti-racism.
When we paint the whole picture, we see more than just the patriarchal perspective. We look beyond our conditioned fixation to glorify male violence and give ourselves a chance to write a different narrative about humanity. One that honours the complexity and the diversity of the human experience.
What we focus on and what we choose to ignore matters enormously.
This week and every week, we can choose to focus exclusively on men and violence, or we can broaden our perspective and notice other people.
Yes, toxic masculinity is a problem. A huge problem that each community needs to address. We also need to be very alert to the ways that our perspective has been conditioned to fixate on male violence, competition and battle and that this fixation in turn, helps to perpetuate toxic masculinity.
We can’t open up the door for more voices to be heard if we keep reporting only on the male experience. Other experiences, other stories, other narratives deserve our time and attention. And when we turn our attention there, our perception of ourselves changes, which in turn, alters behaviour.
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