The root of many, dare I say all, fears is the notion of not being enough — the idea that we are somehow less than we really are. That we are not strong enough (mentally, emotionally or physically). That we are not capable enough. That we are not beautiful enough. That we are not wealthy enough. That we haven’t lived enough. This is simply untrue. It’s a lie that feeds on our deepest insecurities, which become compounded and create many of our fears.
To truly understand this source of our fears requires us to recognize how pervasive it is. Whether we like to admit it or not, at one time or another we’ve all suffered from the notion of not being enough. This sometimes stems from childhood experiences or our parents’ own issues. We’ve all experienced it and dealt with it in our own way, often by overcompensating and striving for perfection or, at the other extreme, falling into self-destructive patterns of behavior that merely serve to reinforce the very notion.
At the same time, the notion of not being enough constantly surrounds us, underpinning so many of our social and economic constructs. Buried beneath these are the many narratives we’ve been fed and internalized, negatively impacting our sense of self-worth.
These narratives fuel our economy — everything from home and beauty makeovers, to lifestyle, celebrity and matchmaking reality shows, to plastic surgery and fillers, all leading to the excessive consumerism that ultimately leaves us feeling overweight, overspent and overwhelmed.
We’ve allowed these stories to inform our decisions in many ways from generation to generation, thus enslaving ourselves to a system and, in effect, allowing a small cadre of pseudo-elites (in the media and in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Washington) to assert their superiority and control over the masses. It’s the same lie that historically enabled a select few (from monarchs to Popes) to assert their supremacy over entire populations and nations, the lie that enabled whole races to become colonized or enslaved. It’s the same lie that today continues to keep people on a treadmill of achievement and spending and accumulating debt; the lie that keeps people from seeking true loving relationships and preventing them from accepting the truth, which is that they are deserving of love; the lie that keeps them from realizing their true potential. And it’s the lie that ultimately disempowers us all.
Once we can understand this source of our fears, it takes more to move past it. Seeing beyond the lie takes open-mindedness and compassion to understand how each of our decisions (or lack of decision) or responses has contributed to its continued existence. It takes accepting responsibility for the many times in which we were complicit in reinforcing the lie through our conspicuous consumption. It requires taking ownership for the fact we have, in one way or another, allowed this lie to be perpetuated. And ultimately, it takes forgiving ourselves for this and for the fact that somewhere along the way we gave up on ourselves and ceded our personal power.
What’s most challenging about overcoming the source of fear is facing life after it. That will be the most exciting or most terrifying day because our identities and self-perception have been so wrapped up in the external that we haven’t known our true selves. Up to that moment, we had been directed by the lie at the root of our fears to look outside of ourselves (focusing on what we didn’t have) and to want and desire. We will no longer have to look outside of ourselves to make us feel whole and alive. We will no longer accept half-assed relationships that demand we compromise our self-respect. We will no longer tolerate jobs that drain our life force. Instead we will be able to look within, to learn to friend and love ourselves, to find the kind of pure joy that has eluded us for most of our lives. We will be able to show compassion and receive love in return.
Healing isn’t about just letting go of the lie. It means embracing that it defined who we were, but not who we are — and that is strong, powerful agents who have the power to write our own story irrespective of our pasts. The moment we can truly accept that is the moment when we are truly free of all of our fears. And that is the moment we can create a new world.
During my senior year of high school, I experienced a deep personal crisis, one that severely impacted my relationship with my family, friends, teachers, and school administrators. I won't go into the messy details, but let me just say that the adults in the room overreacted to an inappropriate, unwise, and unfortunate decision by a teenager. At the time, my spiritual mentor, a highly spiritual and philosophical man I met while working part-time at the local public library with whom I'd share many deep and insightful conversations, told me something quite profound: we choose everything that happens to us and we must critically examine our life experiences with the understanding that they all have a purpose and are part of our spiritual growth.
These words gave me perspective, and I was able to make some sense of my crisis, but it wasn't until several years later when, a bit older, I found myself in another difficult situation that I came to understand the true significance of those words and their relevance to my spiritual growth and maturity.
In fact, it had been my own fear of their import—a fear I believe similarly experienced by many—that kept me from fully comprehending and accepting his words earlier. And that is, our spiritual maturity requires that we first acknowledge and own our individual responsibility for our decisions and actions.
This is not easy. It requires us to see ourselves not as victims but as the architects of our reality. By taking ownership of and responsibility for the act that drove me into my deep personal crisis, I was able to view the experience more holistically.
Discovering a universal purpose behind our experiences isn't simply ascribing a lesson to each and moving on. As a matter of fact, finding a reason for something that has happened to us is the easy part. The greater challenge is to not only accept the fact that that experience forms a part of our life’s tapestry but to understand that we ourselves are the weaver of that tapestry. In order to achieve full spiritual maturity, we must accept that we alone are responsible for our lives and everything that happens to us.
This demands complete compassion towards ourselves and those who may have hurt or disappointed us. It requires us to explore why our higher selves, our souls, would choose a painful and difficult experience to grow. It involves an active, not passive understanding, one that assumes that we are the creators of each and every one of our stories.
In this regard, many in this world are limited by the normative view of God and humankind's relationship with God. Through that lens, we are all viewed as God's children. Having been raised Catholic and after nine years of Catholic school, I had derived some comfort in the notion of God as the father figure. After all, in the Catholic faith, the Nicene Creed, begins "I believe in God, The Father Almighty." Yet, in this relationship dynamic, we are always children whose fate is dependent on some higher being and are challenged to view ourselves as mature, autonomous beings who are ultimately responsible for our own fates. We must recognize that we are the true makers of our own lives. My mentor once told me that this requires us to view God not as our father but rather our equal.
We also live in a modern society that, in many ways, has perverted our views of individual responsibility. Especially today, we live in such a culture of blame and victimization that we do not share accountability for our own welfare—both physical and spiritual. Moreover, we’re also in danger of developing a culture of dependency on government.
To achieve spiritual maturity and understand our purpose in this world requires that we first accept our personal responsibility toward our own lives and then recognize how it plays into our collective responsibility toward one another, the recognition that in one way or another all of our decisions impact others.
This kind of spiritual maturity can take years to develop. It involves accepting our mistakes and understanding what it means to be a soul having a human experience. Achieving this level of consciousness is not easy in this world because it’s been ingrained in us that so much is outside of our power—whether in the hands of government or some unseen force or an omnipotent god—while the reality is that we are complete, capable and powerful beings, with the power to create and live our own lives, the lives of our choosing. The moment that we can accept that we are truly the architects of our lives and our world is the moment we can truly take responsibility and realize our power to change the world.
As a society, we’re continuously fed the idea that happiness is the end goal, some permanent state of being to be actively pursued and capable of being achieved and maintained. It’s this very notion, however, that leads people down the rabbit hole of the unending pursuit of happiness, which, in many cases, leads to its very converse. Is it any wonder that, as I look around, the people I know who place the pursuit of happiness above all else are the most unhappy, unsatisfied and self-destructive people I know.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with being happy. It is an extremely powerful emotion that we, as humans, are capable of experiencing. It’s the precursor to joy, which is an essential aspect of self-love. Yet, what makes us most human is our ability to experience a wide range and varying degrees of emotion. Happiness, which by its nature is ephemeral, is just one point along the emotional spectrum.
When we can embrace all of our emotions while recognizing and accepting their transience, we can be our most evolved selves. This isn’t easy to do when our understanding of emotions is so narrow. In embracing our emotions, we must do so without judgment and with immense compassion since we tend to judge feeling certain of them as wrong or bad. In accepting them and the fact that they are a part of us, we are able to transcend and evolve, achieving a level of self-actualization not possible when we deny or limit our emotions.
As a child growing up with an Asian “Tiger Mom” (well before that was even a term), displays of emotion — especially extreme emotion — were not tolerated. As I got older and hormones took over, emotional suppression became my coping mechanism. I didn’t attempt to negate my emotions, but rather I figured out a way to compartmentalize them. I came to understand emotions as fluctuating states of being over which I had some level of influence as opposed to being ruled by them. While this allowed me a measure of emotional maturity at a relatively young age, it denied me the experience of feeling certain emotions to their greatest depth.
Fifteen years of marriage to a husband from a culture that doesn’t shun emotion — and seemingly encourages outpourings of it — taught me the power of all emotions from passion to rage to excitement and anger. The greatest lesson I learned in opening myself to it all is that you are what you feel — and there’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s not difficult to understand why we want to escape certain emotions. We’ve been sold the happiness myth for so long that it’s difficult to embrace anything else because it’s too uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
For many years, the emotion I didn’t allow myself to experience was anger. I believed it was a waste of energy to get angry. Yet, when I gave myself permission to experience it and to own it, I realized that I had denied myself something that can be incredibly constructive and powerful. Rather than suppress anger, which is how it can morph into something perverse and violent, I sat with it and it offered me a solution to a situation I had found myself in that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to resolve, at least not without a lot of compromise on my end (which would’ve been the passive/aggressive Asian approach). Since then, the moment I find myself feeling anything that seems remotely unfamiliar or strange, rather than push or rationalize the emotion away, I let it be so that it can become me. Once it becomes us, it doesn’t overwhelm us, but rather finds a place within our hearts alongside all other emotions.
I’m not suggesting giving yourself permission to act out in anger or to punish others when you’re feeling sad. Acting out of an emotion is not how we discharge it. Rather, it’s one of the many ways in which we deny the emotion because we’re forcing it outside of ourselves when it’s very much a part of who we are. When we break something, slam a door, or even threaten others, we’re keeping the emotion from really entering us. This is understandable because it can feel so foreign and strange and we’ve been taught we shouldn’t feel things like sadness, anger or anxiety. However, so long as these feelings remain outside of us, they’re never really dealt with or accepted, so they sit there until the next trigger — or until we manage to stop telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel such emotions and invite them in.
So often our emotions become amplified because we’re instructing them to be something they’re not, which results in the pain that so much of our world is in.
We are so much more than many of us have allowed ourselves to believe. In not giving ourselves permission to experience fully what we are capable of as sentient beings, we have denied our true nature. Only when we allow such a profound connection to ourselves can we recognize our tremendous creative power. This demands that we be able to embrace those emotions that we’ve been taught were bad, or strange or wrong, just as we embrace the “positive” ones. The moment we can accept them is the moment we realize we have nothing to fear.
This month marked the 20th anniversary of Jerry Maguire. (For me, it also marked the 20th anniversary of my 20th birthday). It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since Tom Cruise first uttered those three words that had women in theaters across America gushing: "You complete me". I must confess his delivery was so fierce, how would someone not believe or want to believe it to be true? However, a husband, two kids, thirteen Romance books and twenty years later, I’ve come to understand the fallacy of those words and how they represent part of a patriarchal system that forces us to sublimate the very essence of who we are, ostensibly in order to coexist with one another.
Those three words, “You complete me,” are a fallacy of the patriarchy that stifles our ability to become self-actualized beings. The truth is that our real power resides within each of us.
As humans, we are uniquely capable of complete emotional and physical autonomy, and yet, many of us never realize it because the notion of dependency—whether on another or on government—has become so ingrained in us that we sacrifice our personal power to the other and to the collective. We give up this power to the patriarchal system and the hierarchical structures that reside within it, from religious institutions to corporations, seemingly in exchange for the assurance of our survival.
Jerry Maguire, like so many Hollywood narratives and so many of the prevailing stories in the Romance genre, foster the notion that we ourselves—we alone—are not enough and that we need someone to complete us. They reinforce those seeds of self-doubt within us, the fear of not being enough, and blind us to the fact that what we really need is not someone else to make us whole but to own our own power as individuals. And rather than confront our doubts and fears, which can be both humbling and painful, we cling to these stories and the corresponding beliefs that somehow make us feel comfort or comfortable and result in limiting us and our potential.
In fact, patriarchy is an expression of power in its ego form. Power in this form is perceived as political, as wealth and as celebrity, which like any exclusive club can only belong to a select few against whom the rest of us measure ourselves. And in this construct, we, as individuals, come to surrender to some purported higher power. But the reality is that no one is greater than us individually. NO ONE.
Not a single being is greater than we are because we are all the SAME. Our differences on the outside do not erase the fact that underneath it all, under that thin layer of skin, we are truly the same human beings. At our very core, we are perfect, complete, whole and infinite.
Only we have the ability to change our own reality, the power to take responsibility for ourselves and in that to exercise our own personal power, enabling us to step into our greatest selves with the knowledge and belief that we can do anything we set our minds to.
That is the core of our being, the most perfect and god-like because it's our creative power. To own that power will enable us to free ourselves of the patriarchal system that promises to take care of us because we will know that we can do it ourselves. This requires having absolute faith in ourselves. And, in order to have this kind of true, unwavering faith, we must also have compassion for those parts of ourselves that we’ve judged harshly or have felt judged as not good enough or ugly or deplorable. It demands that we choose to be truly honest with ourselves about who we are and accept that even in our missteps and perceived failures, we are still whole.
We need to reject the false Hollywood and Romance narratives that make us believe or feel that we are not enough, or that we need someone else to make our lives better, and to avoid the traps of co-dependence—whether emotional, psychological or even financial.
When we can approach relationships from a place of self-actualization and self-love, we can understand that they are not about completing one another but inspiring in each other the expression of one's truest and greatest self.
The strong reaction to Dean Ellison’s recent letter to incoming first years informing them that the university will not “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’” nor “support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’” tells me that we’ve reached a crescendo in expectations around political correctness, and it deeply concerns me that universities having to be sensitive to students’ feelings and life experiences are beginning to frustrate the important purpose that universities are supposed to serve.1
Some have argued that there’s more to Dean Ellison’s message than meets the eye, that it’s a move to mask the fundamental issues students claim should be at the forefront, namely greater transparency with regard to the private police force, support for students (e.g., mental health), and basic accountability toward student interests.2 Another former student (class of ’09) argues, “The publicized outcries of politically demanding students and the drastic administrative actions that can result from them are not the cause, but rather the symptom, of a corporate university system more concerned about ratings, money, and reputation than the effective conduct of student education.”3
The corporatization of universities and colleges across the country is a very real and alarming issue that deserves greater scrutiny. And, while there’s probably some validity to these arguments, as an alumna, I believe that something even bigger is at play, which is that universities such as Chicago are struggling to preserve the intellectual freedom that has allowed students to recognize differences in thought, experience and opinion and to transcend them.
The demand for safe spaces recognizes that these differences exist; however, safe spaces do not allow or push for a transcendence in thought, which requires examining and understanding the roots of discord. Only when that point is reached can any individual develop the kind of discernment necessary to be able to reach true objectivity, that is to see a problem, any problem, for what it really is.
In a speech to freshmen back in August, Yale President Peter Salovey also warned of the “false narratives” that so many people, both young and old, cling to in order to make sense of their worlds.4 Universities do not exist to support any kind of narrative but to dispel them in order for students to reach that kernel of truth that resides at the core of any thought or experience. The truth is that there are many ways to view one’s reality. We live in a very subjective world that tends to adhere to the prevailing belief of the time, which we may conveniently choose to adopt if it suits our personal cause. When we study history, we untangle these perspectives and can see the event — whether it’s colonialism, slavery, or war — and objectively examine the motivations and consequences. Of course, it’s much more difficult to be objective when we are standing so close to the precipice with regard to what’s going on around us today.
As a writer, I reject the idea that any restrictions should be placed on my words. People may not like my use of the word “cunt” because it makes them uncomfortable, but I use it precisely because it does so. I want to challenge the status quo of Romance writing just as I want to challenge people’s narrow ideas about love and relationship, which I believe are limiting us as a society.
Making readers uncomfortable is exactly the point. It’s the only real way in which they can achieve any kind of breakthrough by being forced to self-examine and self-assess, to seek and understand the reason something doesn’t feel right to them. Only then are they either able to dismiss the idea as no longer their truth or to strengthen their own truth because they can resolutely affirm that it is truly what they think and feel.
The University of Chicago understands it’s performing a disservice if its students do not manage to transcend their discomfort. I can certainly appreciate a demand for safe space where one feels physically threatened. However, the reality is that many of those who are doing the intellectual bullying and the threatening are doing so because they themselves are unable to make sense of the constantly shifting world of ideas and thought as their own personal beliefs and the narratives they ascribe to are crumbling around them. It’s much too difficult and challenging for many of them to even synthesize and see the truth, so they hide behind their hateful words and threats to find comfort from a world they fear is leaving them behind.
As I’ve written before, the way to deal with a bully isn’t to ostracize him or her, but to embrace the person who is unable to intellectualize or conceptualize their own fear, which blinds them from the truth. (To be clear, embracing the person does not mean embracing his or her ideas.)
If we keep demarcating safe spaces, we risk missing the opportunity to challenge these bullies and to force them to be accountable for their thoughts and words. By stifling dialogue, interaction, and debate, we contribute to a more polarized society.
As the pendulum continues to swing more to the sensitive and politically-correct end of the spectrum, I caution against criticizing an institution like The University of Chicago that wants to stand above the fray regarding safe spaces. It doesn’t take more than looking at news outlets (talk about false and often one-sided narratives) to see the many ways in which our society is allowing a hostile environment to exist with regard to self-expression.
Condemning individual statements and words isn’t the problem. It’s when the goal of such expression is to harm and destroy that we enter a danger zone. Yet few are making these distinctions because they are too busy reacting.And these reactions are distracting us from seeing the truth, which is that we are only scratching at the surface of what can be an incredible breakthrough if we stop demanding safe spaces and ask ourselves what are we doing wrong as a society that we feel we need them. That, I believe, is what we must address first, instead of continually flinging half-hearted solutions toward the symptoms. Like I learned at Chicago, deeply rooted beneath our human existence is a truth, and we must be able to wade through our questions, doubts, and fears in order to reach it. Only once we do can we truly be free. It is that freedom of thought that will release us from the cycle of reactivity and violence that’s beginning to grip and choke our nation.
1 For a copy of the letter, see http://www.uchicagonyc.org/article.html?aid=863.
2 Sophie Downes, “Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Free Speech, Too,” The New York Times, September 10, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/opinion/trigger-warnings-safe-spaces-and-free-speech-too.html).
3 Maximillian Alvarez, “Cashing in on the Culture Wars,” The Baffler, September 9, 2016 (http://thebaffler.com/blog/cashing-in-on-culture-wars-alvarez).
4 Scott Jaschik, “The Chicago Letter and Its Aftermath,” Inside Higher Ed, August 29, 2016 (https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/08/29/u-chicago-letter-new-students-safe-spaces-sets-intense-debate).
After one rather hideous encounter on a recent flight from San Diego to New York, I had to write about it.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” He asks in a less-than friendly tone into the narrow gap between the seats in front of me.
“Not really,” I whisper back, hoping not to wake the sleeping passenger next to me. I turn off the flashlight on my phone and grope around to find what I’m looking for, the power outlet for my iPad, to no avail.
I briefly try again, stubbornly refusing to be beat by the plug, only to receive yet another sarcastic comment about my lack of night vision. Rather than risk another between-the-seats confrontation, I surrender and sip my wine.
“You know, I’m really not a dick,” he says to me. “It’s just . . . your flashlight was bouncing off my window and created glare.”
Never mind that he could’ve closed his shade for a minute so I could find the stupid outlet that seemed to elude me. Or that the inconvenience of my flashlight coming from the seat behind him, not next to him, mind you, was hindering his enjoyment of that incredibly riveting movie, London Has Fallen. (I watched that one day because it was free on demand. When a movie is free and stars Gerard Butler, you know it’s not going to be good).
Alas, I decided it wasn’t worth my effort or the prospect of a third attempt on his part to shame me for bothering him. I convinced myself it was better that I give up rather than wake most of the passengers who appeared asleep. I settled for the movie being played on the overhead screen, which ended up being a very delightful and touching movie about a woman coming to terms with widowhood and being on her own.
Unfortunately, the fact that I didn’t smile or validate his dickless statement only furthered his cause. When he returned from the lavatory, after his second vodka-whatever, he looked at me and motioned with his finger to listen to him. Clearly he didn’t seem to mind interrupting my movie.
“I swear I wasn’t being a dick. You understand that, right?”
I stare back at him, incredulous that this is really happening. In my experience when someone says, “I don’t mean to be a bitch but . . .” or “I don’t mean to be a dick but . . .”, they’re expressing on a subconscious level that their behavior actually is entirely bitchy or dick-ish, however you want to describe it. My mental conversation with this man went something like, “While you’re saying you don’t mean to be a dick, you’re acknowledging that your behavior is entirely dickish but you’re trying to sound self-deprecating enough so I don’t call you out for it. It’s the guise of the weak, the one who lacks self-respect, and I see through it all.”
I get it. Deep down this man is that insecure that he can’t deal with the fact that someone out there recognizes what a dick he is. So he points it out first, but it’s far from an apology. His statement was a mere validation of what was obvious to me when he was telling the man across from him about his house in Southampton and his numerous accomplishments and homes and retirement fund—oh and not to mention slipping into his elementary Italian just to impress this other guy before the plane even took off.
Had he actually apologized for his rudeness or condescending manner I would’ve accepted it. But he never offered it. Not once in his selfish need to take up my time did he actually say he was “sorry.” Rather his statement about not being any of the things he knew his behavior and words would lead to me to think about him was merely an effort to get me to excuse it all. In that moment, I realized I was being mansplained. And the hideous converse of this was that I understood so clearly in that moment that not only did he expect me to believe him, and in him, but also to doubt my perception of him. It was a clear and obvious attempt to manipulate the situation: “oh gee, I didn’t mean it that way” and therefore any reaction on my part to the contrary would be wrong. I would be wrong.
And really, how gross is that? Had my husband been sitting in my seat or next to me, the man wouldn’t have addressed me or my husband in the same way. Hell, he probably would’ve offered to help him while bragging about his enormous IRA or 401(k). Nevertheless he was speaking to me that way, and while I wanted to reply, I didn’t. I looked at him, hoping my silence would indicate how his attempt to garner some empathy wasn’t working.
“Do you hear me?’
I couldn’t believe he said that. “I’m not a dick” was bad enough. The condescending “Do you hear me?” was enough to make me want to throw my wine at him, but I didn’t want to waste it. Eventually I nodded and said, “I hear you.” Because I do hear him. I hear his words, his stupid excuse for intolerance, for believing that he’s entitled to his comfort at my expense and for attempting to elicit my acceptance of his non-apology and feeling he deserved it.
This brief exchange crystallized why I consider myself a feminist. So long as men like him feel entitled to excuse their dickish behavior and flip it to make the problem ours and not theirs, we need to uphold feminism as a platform for equality. Because it’s precisely about how important all lives are, and it is unacceptable for anyone to shame a person for seeing the truth. That’s the lie, and has been this whole time—that the truth we know at the core of our beings is wrong. We’ve been taught by twisted words and the power of those who hold it, who exercise it—often men in this case—that they know better. That’s called patriarchy, and as a feminist and someone who is so over it, all that needs to be said in response is: “I hear you, but I do not accept you and your non-apologies and weak explanations that are meant to cast me in a bad light. Your need to convince me of how right you are is not appropriate, and I reject your attempt to shame me.”
But you’re right, your behavior was dick-ish, but you’re not a dick. The reality is that you are just a subject of patriarchy as we all are, and being a white male of a certain age and economic bracket makes you think you’re entitled to the takedown of one petite Asian woman seated behind you if you so choose. That’s how patriarchy works. It divides us by economic class, by race, by gender and makes us fall into roles, where you get to assert some socially perceived significance over me and I’m supposed to be okay with that. The reality is that patriarchy isn’t here anymore. It only exists when we buy into those divisions. But like love, it cannot exist where it is not allowed. And in my reality, there is no divide, no patriarchy. We just are.
So I’m the petite Asian woman seated behind you, and you are the truly unpleasant person who’s had his way a lot in this lifetime. It’s time you show me the same respect you expect from me. Maybe then you will no longer be locked into your role in this patriarchy. Although since you’ve probably had a good run of it, it may be difficult for you. In the end, it’s your call. But just realize that you will find more of my kind, those women who see through your façade, who will no longer buy the lie we’ve been fed, so it will probably make your role more difficult and your “I’m not a dick” excuse will be ignored and fail miserably. You will be rendered obsolete. In the end, you can choose to be a dick or not, and I will choose to accept you or not. It will make me no better or worse than you. We’ll just be different.
Does a half-naked man make you curious?
While feminists have long decried the negative effects of the male gaze, whereby literature, film, television and other artistic media are singularly produced to appeal to a heterosexual male demographic, I’m starting to see a trend toward its hazardous converse, the female gaze. In the recent Ghostbusters reboot (whose girl power message I totally appreciate), it made me uncomfortable to see how Kristen Wiig’s character, Erin Gilbert, drools over and objectifies the hot and sexy but truly moronic receptionist, Kevin, played by Chris Hemsworth. Even though his dumb but cute parts in the movie garnered a few laughs, I couldn’t help but think that if the roles had been reversed and the receptionist had been cast as a woman, many women would have found the role highly offensive.
It concerns me that as Hollywood and the media seek to pander more and more to the female audience, they will end up promoting the female gaze as an antidote to the male gaze, but this swing of the pendulum won’t ultimately serve our interests as women.
The female gaze has long persisted in the Romance genre. This myopic lens through which many female Romance writers create their MCs (Romance speak for male characters) serves to objectify the opposite sex and establishes in female readers false notions about what the ideal man should be, whether hot, wealthy, brooding, military, rogue or tattooed. I call this phenomenon “Recreating Adam”.
Sadly, by Recreating Adam, Romance writers are guilty of doing exactly what the male-dominated media does, that is to objectify, thereby reinforcing the patriarchal standards that distort both male and female roles and keep them locked in a sexist game.
You don’t need to look far to find evidence of this. Half-naked (or mostly naked) men grace the covers of a substantial majority of Romance novels, both in traditional print and ebook format. Placing a hot guy on the cover is designed to invite the female reader in with his bedroom eyes or feral scowl, if she even sees his face since a six-pack is usually enough to grab her attention. However, these covers also have the perhaps subconscious effect of placing the man at the center of the romantic relationship where the reader is inclined to care more about him than the female character. In fact, I often find in reviews that what predominantly determines the female reader’s opinion about the Romance story is the likability or desirability of the MC who rarely, if ever, reflects any kind of normal or even realistic person.
By Recreating Adam, Romance writers are shaping the perception of what it means to embody masculine energy. At the extreme, masculinity is exclusive, violent, domineering, and emotionally stunted — think Christian Grey, although look at pretty much any Romance book and you’ll see that the majority of MC’s all posses at least one or more of these attributes. Upholding these types of characters as an ideal man puts men in a difficult position of either living up to or defying a set of expectations.
The standards set by these largely one-dimensional, unrealistically gorgeous, ripped, wealthy, strong and virile men are not true ideals that make for a well-rounded being or life partner.
These characters fail to come even close to realizing the potential of what it means to be self-actualized individuals. And while this may be acceptable to those who deem Romance fluff or escapist trash, I truly believe that such depictions of men and women are hurting the potential for real relationships. Dating sites, millennial blogs, and magazine articles continue the endless cycle of What’s Wrong with Me or What’s Wrong With Him?,which doesn’t lead to any real self-assessment. But for all the back and forth, few, if any, are taking a critical look at the stories we’re consuming as a society and questioning how they influence, however subconsciously, the way in which men and women perceive one another.
Feminism is fundamentally about equality. Therefore, placing men in objectified roles as a way to show women in power is not ultimately going to empower women. Instead, if we want women to be elevated within societies around the world, we must also elevate men. By this, I don’t mean putting them above women in terms of stature, but rather giving them the space to be more than what they’ve been allowed to under patriarchy. This means subjecting men to a different standard, one where their emotional and psychological maturity matters more than whether or not they can maintain a six-pack, play hero or make a seven figure salary.
We must destroy the view that men are somehow superior, but we cannot do this simply by asserting our superiority.
What we need is a new Recreation of Adam in which men are actually portrayed equal to their counterparts (whether male or female) and where the power dynamics are more balanced. We need fewer MC’s who are Navy SEALS or Alpha assholes and to have more fictional “book boyfriends” (as many Romance readers like to call them) who reflect the attributes of men that we most need in our society, namely men who are present, supportive, gentle and encouraging and most of all men who respect themselves.
As much as we must fight to change the male gaze, we must be equally committed to stop perpetuating the female gaze, which can be just as insidious.
Narrowly defining what it means to be male in this world based on superficial qualities sets us back. We need to allow our fictional male characters, as well as men in the real world, to inhabit those internal, caretaking spaces we’ve been expected to fill under patriarchy just as we aim to inhabit the external, public spaces of leadership and social revolution. Men must be encouraged to cultivate these sensibilities with our support because, as women, we understand what it means to have been pigeon-holed into societal roles.
This begins with writing a new story for both men and women, one in which both are whole and complete, where their existence does not depend on the other but is entirely interdependent. Radical transformation of this world that does little to truly honor women or men is well overdue. As authors, one way to effect positive change is for us to write it.
Fiction takes us to those deep places that reside in our subconscious where we find our deepest fantasies, as well as those core beliefs that form the foundation of our perception of reality. Romance writers have incredible power to influence change because Romance books capitalize on emotion. Regrettably, far too many have only managed to do the opposite by playing off stereotypes of male and female roles, thus supporting repressive, and sexist patriarchal beliefs. It’s time to see beyond the bare chests, ripped muscles, and wavy hair and to stop imbuing men with our narrow ideas of them but instead allow them to express themselves in a balanced way. If it’s what we want for ourselves as women, we must allow them to do the same in these fictional stories as well as in reality.
Disney’s Broken Record: Sexism and the Marginalization of Women of Color in Disney’s Latest Remake of Beauty and the Beast
Disney’s new trailer for Beauty and the Beast recently broke the record for the most views within the first twenty-four hours of its release. This latest fairy tale remake has me shaking my head once more. At the risk of sounding like a broken record myself, I ask again: When is Hollywood going to stop “retelling” these stories that — in this case, by its very name — smack of patriarchal sexism?
As The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri tweeted, Beauty and the Beast “is just another story about a hairy guy with a bad personality whose friends think he deserves a beautiful smart woman.” Ain’t that the truth. What’s also upsetting, however, is that in selecting the fair Emma Watson to play the role of Belle in this live-action remake, Disney chose yet again to define beauty as a white woman.
From the feminist perspective, the message behind Beauty and the Beast, like its fairy tale brethren, is insidious. Nonetheless, a recent article by a female journalist on Time’s Motto.com lauded six positive things girls can learn from the story, including that “[i]t’s not always the man that does the rescuing”.1 To me, the very notion that a person needs “saving” is one of the most insidious aspects of these stories, as well as much of today’s romantic fiction. Fundamentally, the fact that even the male protagonist needs to be saved is just as sexist as the man coming to the woman’s rescue. That is, the act of saving itself puts the rescuer in a position of self-sacrifice, which does not allow her to evolve to a greater state of being beyond martyrdom.
Moreover, when a man saves the woman in a story, he’s branded as the hero. Yet, when a woman saves the man, she’s generally portrayed as exhibiting her good and virtuous self. This subliminal theme, which equates goodness with sacrifice, is detrimental to women. In fact, from a young age, girls are conditioned to be “good girls” while it’s acceptable for boys to be “bad”. The underlying message to young girls is that in order to be “good” they must ultimately sacrifice themselves for another, in this case a beast who manages to prove he isn’t just a sad, insecure, pathetic creature.
The very title of the film, Beauty and the Beast, is objectification at its worst and reminds us that no matter what the story preaches about looking beyond the surface to know someone, beauty is still everything with regard to women while men can be beastly and hairy or even have a “dad-bod”. Part of the problem with this objectification of beauty is its abject subjectivity, which serves to marginalize those who don’t fit within certain prescribed parameters, especially women of color. We’ve been socialized, not only by these stories but also through images in the media, to regard a very particular type of body, hair and skin color as the paragon of such beauty.
The obsessive focus on being beautiful has kept women from remembering that they already are beautiful. They were born beautiful and a profound and ageless beauty resides within each of us. And yet, that sense of their own beauty is squashed by the dangerous storytelling to which young girls are exposed during their formative years, inculcating in them that they’re not pretty unless they’re a Princess who looks a certain way.
Disney’s latest remake is just another incarnation of the same story that continues to hurt women who face patriarchal values of beauty every day, as well as minorities who are faceless and underrepresented in these insipid princess movies as well as Romance stories.
As a Romance writer, it’s clear to me that our distorted notion of beauty has also warped our view of love, keeping it superficial and void of anything truly real. In our world, beauty is measured, literally and figuratively, by how others perceive us. If our view of beauty expands so too will our capacity to understand holistic love because it would be inclusive rather than exclusive.
The Beauty and the Beast retelling is just one of many examples of what is sorely lacking in the story-telling arena. Minority women, misperceptions of beauty, misogyny and sexism continue to prevail. The challenge remains for people to begin to expand their limited perceptions to see beauty in every being, to reverse the damage that has been done and is being done to girls and women with dark skin, with layers of fat, or with less-than-proportioned features. It’s time to recognize that the only way in which we can lift up the next generation of women is to give them a new story in which they can see themselves portrayed as they are — perfect — not because of their external beauty, but for their ability to see and express their internal beauty. Enough with the broken record, I say.
For all the success of the Twilight and 50 Shades series, in terms of their central romantic theme, there was nothing novel about either. In fact, they merely mirror the sexism and misogyny long contained in the Romance genre. What’s worse is that the plethora of fanfiction and erotic romance books spawned by the commercial success of these two series merely continues to perpetuate the same antiquated stereotypes surrounding virginity, patriarchy, and the imbalance of power between men and women in relationships.
These books and others like them serve to brainwash women into thinking that a wealthy man will save them, or that love in the form of sacrifice will redeem them, all the while reinforcing notions of their own lack of self-worth and inequality.
A recent study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior surveyed 715 women between the ages of 18 and 24 and found that those who had read some or all of the books in the 50 Shades series held more sexist views than those who hadn’t. The study found that women who had read 50 Shades and described it as “hot” and “romantic” were more likely to exhibit “hostile sexism”, or the belief that women are inferior to men, while those who described it as “romantic” were more likely to exhibit “benevolent sexism”, or the belief that men should provide for women.*
What I also find upsetting is that the women in this group ranged from 18-24 years old, which indicates that yet another generation has already been brainwashed into believing that unequal partnerships are a good thing if the man has money and can take care of you or that if he’s abusive and controlling, all the better, because that’s how you know he loves you.
It’s this same group of young women who came of age during the Twilight phenom and were influenced by the misogynistic and patriarchal aspects of this male vampire-human girl story, which was the basis for E L James’ 50 Shades. For some reason, however, Twilight gets a pass. Perhaps the story seems more innocent because the main characters are teenagers (or in a teenage body) or perhaps it’s because the vampire didn’t really hurt his woman except in the throes of passion. She can’t say he didn’t warn her. Edward, like Christian, continually warned Bella about how dangerous he was, but she just couldn’t help herself and stay away. Her “love” for Edward was too strong.
In fact, Bella wasn’t in a position to help herself, which is why she needed a guy, be it the sexy vampire Edward or the very human werewolf Jacob. Without either, she probably would have fumbled her way through life because of her clumsiness and never realized her “special” gift. However, it was ostensibly love, not her low self-esteem or sad, empty teenage life, that drove Bella to Edward. According to Stephenie Meyer, “true love is that you would hurt yourself before you would hurt your partner, you would do anything to make them happy, even at your own expense, there’s nothing selfish about true love. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what makes them happy.”*
And that’s where I think the self-proclaimed feminist Meyer is plain wrong. Love, at its core, is equal. It must be. Real love cannot reside where equality—and importantly, self-respect—does not exist. It’s not possible. The only thing that can exist in that circumstance is lust or like, but those are poor substitutes for what real love is.
Meyer’s sappy and self-sacrificing notion about love is how we women have landed ourselves in this place, one where a significant percentage of us ascribe to some forms of sexist beliefs and stories like 50 Shades and Twilight (and thousands of other similar Romance books) continue to be published and voraciously consumed.
Bella and Anastasia are empty, vapid characters that reflect what women living under patriarchy experience every day, having little to no agency if they do not have a man and lacking any true sense of self-respect or self-worth. And not just any man, but one who is immortal, wealthy, and virile. If this doesn’t smack of anti-feminist patriarchy, I don’t know what does. We will be better off when we recognize the way in which these stories continually set back feminism and women’s notions about relationship and equality. We will also be better served when Romance writers deliver real stories about empowered women who want the most human and beautiful thing of all, namely Love, instead of continuing to write these insipid stories about billionaires, virgins and immortals.
* Alison Flood, “Fifty Shades of Grey readers show higher levels of sexism, study finds”, The Guardian, May 10, 2016
** Kira Cochrane, “Stephenie Meyer on Twilight, feminism and true love”, The Guardian, March 11, 2013.
I can vividly remember watching Top Gun with my family. I was only ten years old, and the moment Take My Breath Away started playing and the on-screen kissing began, my mother quickly covered my eyes. The memory makes me laugh as much as it makes me cringe. I had been curious about sex from an early age, and her attempts to suppress my exposure to it only made me more so. Regrettably, by leading young people to think that sex is forbidden or shameful, they’re effectively being taught that there’s something inherently wrong, not only with the act itself but also the natural desires that come with adolescence. Yet sex is life force. Next to love itself, sex is one of the greatest connectors between people. We don’t just have sex to have babies. Sex can remind us of what’s good in life, regenerating that life force which becomes dulled by the daily demands of our lives.
A very large part of the problem with children’s understanding of sex and sexuality today, as Peggy Orenstein recently noted, is that the visual imagery of sex, especially porn, which is now more prevalent and accessible than ever, leads girls as well as boys to view sex as purely performance. On the contrary, the more we enable sex to figure in the pages of fictional stories, the more we can potentially see it in a greater, more holistic context, and the more we can aid young women’s and men’s understanding of true and meaningful sex. I’m not advocating using fiction to teach sex, but rather to inspire a greater version of it. The more open we can be about sex in literature, including young adult books (think Judy Blume’s Forever), the more able we will be to push the conversation further so that sex doesn’t have to be something that is “taboo” or makes us laugh nervously or worse, something that puts women, including young women, in a position of pure subservience to their male counterparts.
What we really need is a portrayal of sex in literature that is consensual, respectful and equal. And yet, the very stories that feature the most sex, namely those in the Contemporary Romance genre, depict it in a misogynistic and almost always one-sided way, singularly focused on male pleasure and need. Take for example two bestselling Romance books. In one, the Alpha-Male Gazillionaire extorts sex from a woman who can’t afford her brother’s healthcare, only to wind-up falling in love with her because she’s so amazing and giving (ahem). In the other, the male character (MC in Romance speak) treats his ex dismissively and engages in forcible revenge sex because she lied to him about her age.
Like porn leading girls to view sex as performance, the mainstream “mommy porn” that has long been pervasive—even before the huge commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey—has an extremely negative effect on women of all ages who consume these books. These Romance writers, nearly all of whom are women, continue to reinforce the patriarchal fantasy that sex means love and love means marriage and marriage means babies. Or even worse, that sex means sacrifice.
But the truth is that sex doesn’t have to make a person fall in love. Sex for the sake of sex and pleasure can be great and is an essential step in coming into what I call True Sexual Openness, which to me is complete sexual communion with another. Yet there’s no way we will be able to get there if we cannot own that which is most natural and vital to ourselves as a whole—the sexual being that resides in all of us, male and female. So long as there are efforts to censor and repress this natural element that makes us human in a fun, beautiful way, the interpretations of sex and how they are acted out in the world will be both dark and insidious.
The power of literature lies in the fact that, unlike the static visual imagery of pictures from the magazine pages to billboards, or the often awkward on-screen portrayal of sex in TV and film to the highly aggressive portrayal in porn, words have the ability to communicate perspective, sensation and emotion—words that can describe in beautiful detail the arousal, the intimacy, the experience, and the intensity of sex. Words that can evoke the sensuous climb to orgasm of a woman, with a focus on her distinct joy and pleasure.
What is needed now more than ever, as we confront yet another generation of young women being objectified and sexualized in media, is an honest, open, and frank discussion about sex. We cannot allow today’s young women to follow in the footsteps of the older generation of women who cling to the fantasies in Romance stories because these stories reflect their own experiences of suppression. The sooner we mainstream an honest, realistic, healthy and balanced portrayal of sex in literature, the better off future generations will be with regard to how they view and approach sex.