Monday, December 10, 2007
At the Table
Yesterday, I took my first trip ever to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I had heard a lot about this piece on view called The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago, and as I headed to the fifth floor to check it out I discovered it was part of a larger exhibit being done by the Museum on feminist art. While some of it I particularly didn't care for, there was a film by Australian Tracey Moffatt that really took me in. In a haunting montage of (mostly) classic Hollywood movies including Breakfast at Tiffany's, Butterfield 8, The Lion in Winter, Sunset Boulevard and others, she shows how women are often portrayed in film: swooning when in love, penitent and fragile when abused both physically and verbally, then driven to the edge of madness and rage. I found her film to be as much a commentary on portrayal of women in media as it is a summation of perhaps too many romances, and I'm really not doing it justice here except to say that it left a mark on me (more on this later). The highlight of the exhibit was the aforementioned Dinner Party, which was in some ways an abstract of pivotal women from prehistory until the 1970s. I learned a lot, was reminded of a lot, and started to wonder about where I myself would fall in the exhibit--or if I'd even be included.
I don't often speak about it, but something that I struggle with on an almost daily basis is my identity as someone with a deep reverie for the past who at once embraces the stereotypes of women before the sexual revolution while also loving the opportunities afforded to me as a woman today that weren't available to my mother, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and beyond. I've been criticized by my mom for wearing a corset--as she points out, women took forever trying to get out of them, and in her view I've taken a step backwards by putting myself back into one.
My struggle is further compounded when I consider my sexual identity as a submissive to my fiance. We play at BDSM--I do enjoy a good spanking, some rope work and a number of other things. As I watched the film by Tracey Moffatt and saw women so easily tolerate being beaten up by their lovers, I wondered, and not for the first time, if maybe I'd taken it too far. My man has a hard time with this, as he fears that I don't really enjoy our play together. This is partly rooted in a bad experience he had a few years ago, but also in the fact that I have a very difficult time identifying myself as someone who enjoys and even needs to be put down and lose all sense of control. As such, I rarely talk about my proclivities, and he takes this sometimes as a sign that I'm faking an enjoyment of our activities even though my body responds in due fashion. I find it oddly freeing when I surrender myself to it, but I'm also quite sensitive with a healthy guilt complex, so it doesn't take too much for me to start hearing critical voices in my head demanding how dare I allow myself to be debased, where are my decisions, don't let any man boss you around, etc.
It's a difficult debate, and one that I know won't give up any time soon--nor do I think it should. I think it's my responsibility to continue to question who and what I am as a means of constant reassessment, but it's frustrating for my man. He worries that I won't be at peace with this part of myself, and I wish I had some kind of definitive answer for him besides that I don't know if that kind of peace is really my goal. My sexual identity is an ongoing dialogue with myself and with him, and I kind of like it that way. My desires and instincts aren't going anywhere, but I enjoy trying to figure them out even if it puts me in a difficult headspace now and then. In the meantime, I believe I'm honoring my heritage because the choices such as how I'll dress, how I'll earn a living or who I'll be with are choices that I make on my own instead of ones that have been made for me by broader societal strictures. I'm not sure if all the women Judy Chicago invited to dinner would agree, but I hope that in my way I still bring something worthwhile to the table.