Friday, December 3, 2010

Bad Object: Musings from the Periphery of Femininity

I have been a bad object for as long as I have wanted to be a good object. During my preschool years, my sister and I spent a lot of time with the sons of our mother’s best friend at the time. The eldest boy was obviously smitten with my little sister who was closer to his age. I asked him if he thought I was pretty too. He considered my question and after a while answered, “You have a better personality. Sarah is prettier.” (I know, I know, but these are the children of college professors; that is the way he spoke.) A half-decade later, my godfather confided that he would much rather be me than my sister, implying that the benefits of intelligence outstrip the fleeting and superficial magic of beauty.

As an early teen, my best friend Dayle and I spent a fair amount of time with a boy who was 18, an orphan who lived in a garage conversion and had his own car—paltry solace offered in part from a sympathetic aunt and the Social Security Benefits due orphans. While Dayle and I looked nothing alike, we were a fair match on the continuum of beauty for a couple of years when I could still be considered thick, as opposed to chunky. Where I was thick, she was plainer of face. Her hair was a beautiful natural red, but it was thin and lank. My hair was thick and full, but medium brown of no distinction. She was petite with huge boobs. My boobs were huge too, but I was curvy from head to toe, solid, while Dayle was waifish. She was not skinny, but there wasn’t an ounce on her body to spare. I, on the other hand, well, I had not completely puffed up, but you could see it coming—clearly I would either grow 3 inches taller or grow up to be the plumpling I am. The 18 year old was in love with Dayle, and there was nothing I could do about it.

As we aged, Mike had the hots for Dayle, too. Tom wanted Dayle. Keith, the blond guy we met at Pizza Chalet wanted Dayle. Everyone wanted Dayle. Hell, sometimes I wanted Dayle. Some of the guys who wanted Dayle figured out that they would have more undisturbed time with Dayle if they brought along a homely friend for me. Why homely? I don’t know, except that perhaps I have hugely over-estimated my success at being a good object at that time. The friend proffered for my consumption was invariably not only a little chunky, like me, but also, not particularly attractive as a person—neurotic, creepily shy, or damaged in ways that paled to my own. Perhaps I have also underestimated my own damage and its obviousness to others. Maybe what others saw in me was more accurate than the person I saw when I looked inward. But, then I think about the damage my girlfriends carried during those years and know that I was no more or less damaged than any of them. The theory that damage is unattractive just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, the girls with the most serious afflictions were often the girls who had boys lined up anxiously awaiting their turn.

The more vulnerable the girl, the more likely the boys were to pursue her, damaged or not. I was not vulnerable. There was nothing soft or inviting about my personality. I made few concessions to modulating my personality for the comfort of male companions. I want to say that my body may have been soft, but my heart was hard, even at 14 years old.  However that isn’t the full truth. I wanted desperately to be wanted, cherished, consumed, devoured, swept away, taken, held rapturously in the embrace of physical and emotional symbiosis. What I was not was accommodating. I did not and did not understand how to conform my behavior or appearance to the narrow bandwidth in which women are supposed to exist. I was a bad object.

Costuming was a problem. Also, I couldn’t get the makeup right. In eighth grade, my mother said I looked like a whore, but before I started wearing the full face of makeup my friends encouraged, they had said I looked too innocent, too much like a little girl with tinted lip balm on a clean face atop fashions my mother helped me select for their timelessness and the tastefully demure impression they were supposed to impart. By the end of junior high, no one commented anymore. The complaints from all quarters died down as I reached a sort of homeostasis. One friend admiringly opined that I looked like a plus size model. High praise that, but not what I wanted to hear. Plus sized models were freaks, freaks no one wanted to make out with in high school where I was headed. I had finally gotten it right: I fit snugly into a cultural role, but it was one that wouldn’t get me the results I wanted. Teen aged boys aren’t interested in plus sized models. Very few full grown men are interested in plus sized models. I had managed to fail upward, but I was still failing. More than costuming and cosmetics, the problem, clearly, was my body. My body was wrong.

Unfortunately, even then, I knew that the bodies of all women are wrong. None of us could be skinny enough. None of us could have breasts large enough, and if they were large, they weren’t pretty enough. None of us could have buttocks free of cellulite and fill out a pair of jeans nicely. None of us smelled like summer fields of newly mown grass. We looked like normal girls with pussies that smelled like pussies.

That knowledge made it easy to say, “Fuck it” and become a punk rocker. My friend Laurie cut off all my permed curls in the lounge of our alternative and experimental education program one high school afternoon. When I came home, my mother cried, “You’ve ruined yourself!” Apparently, plus sized model had been good enough for her. Teen aged boys aren’t particularly interested in Goth queens either, but the power inherent in being vaguely intimidating can be more intoxicating than the power inherent in being desired, especially when being desired is a rare occurrence and being intimidating can be a comforting and consoling constant.

Ruin is an interesting concept in the world of the failed object. Existing in the narrow bandwidth of culturally acceptable female self-presentation often means (or meant in the early ‘80s) avoiding looking or acting like a bad woman, a slut, a whore, a woman unsure of her own worth. Conform because the person you emerged from childhood being is incorrect, but be confident in the new person you present, even though she is, at best, a sock puppet with yarn hair and smeared pink lipstick hastily pulled on when the rules changed. I was already “ruined” in my own mind at 13 because the person I knew as myself was inadequate. However, I was not yet “ruined” in my mother’s mind because I was a virgin and was still presenting the scrubbed face, soft curls, and daintily dressed girl child she felt was appropriate to my age. No one was sophisticated enough at the time to emphasize the only socially and personally useful concept lurking underneath all of these rules: self worth.

My godfather tried to explain the connection between self worth and sexuality through stories: When he would go on leave in the Army, he and his friends would always try to find the ugly girls so they could score easily. Before that, playing on the rooftops in Brooklyn, he and his cousin would play with the boobs of a neighborhood girl who, amazingly, would let them. And this signaled an insecurity in her that they exploited. He felt bad about that looking back.

The combination of demeanor and costuming that signals self worth has escaped me in every context save church and office, where the uniforms are easy to mimic. Demeanor I’ll have to get back to you on…still working on figuring out how to be sexual but not desperate, how to desire and still invite desiring. Sort of.

I do want to be “diminished” by the ogling stares of strangers. When I was 13 or 14, I had a French terry cloth shorts set in a coral-tinged pink. The cloth clung to my body. The t-shirt had a deep neckline, and the shorts were short. I would change into this outfit after school and mount my new ten-speed to ride down Olive Avenue to the construction sites just before Teracina Street. I sat up straight as I pedaled past the construction site. The workers whistled appreciatively. I went back again and again. I was a good object in that moment: They wanted to fuck me. Unfortunately, I knew enough to know there was something wrong with full grown men who wanted to fuck 13 year old girls, even if the 13 year old in question could pass for 20 in the right light, with enough atmospheric perspective to blur her still baby face. 

That self-consciousness is part of being a bad object. Consciousness of one’s attractiveness, of others’ reaction to one’s attractiveness, of the larger cultural context of attraction and desire is fundamentally counter to being a good object. Guilelessness is what is needed. Guilelessness is one of the reasons some people go searching for “barely legal” porn or purchase “schoolgirl” costumes for their female sex partners.

The passive role of desired object is hard to get right. Apparently I’m supposed to be desired while not being degraded by said desire. Everyone should want to fuck me, but no one dare? No that’s the domina. She exists outside these petty rules. Everyone should want to sleep with me, but it should be clear that I am not available? That’s the good churchwoman or wife and mother. That may be the age appropriate role for me now, but it’s kind of boring. Everyone should want to fuck me, but be a little bit unsure of whether or not they would meet my demanding expectations? That’s closer, but not quite it. Be fuckable, but unfucked? Closer still, but still not quite capturing the complete picture. Desired without being complicated by one’s own desire. Lacking guile. Lacking the intellectual means to purposefully inspire lust. One’s attractiveness must be accidental, instinctual, untested.

I left high school convinced that the world of admiring suitors was not one with which I would have any familiarity. When I turned 18, I got my first tattoo, a black heart with a dagger through it. I was hard hearted. Cynical. I assumed that whatever was going on with the hearts of others wasn’t something in which I was going to be able to participate.  I assumed I would be able to fuck other similarly desperate and/or disaffected souls. I went to parties dressed to amuse myself and with no illusions about being able to hookup. It just simply wasn’t going to happen. Sometimes I flirted aggressively, knowing that my overtures were easy to dismiss at best and frightening at worst. I bludgeoned the man-children around me with an adult sexuality born of an encyclopedic familiarity with Penthouse letters.

With almost no real experience, I went years without so much as kissing another person. Then when my need outweighed the shame inherent in possibly failing, I would get as drunk as I needed to be and find someone, anyone. I now know that this pattern of behavior is similar to that of some closeted or uncomfortable gay men, which may explain my deep affinity with gay men. Gay men get me in ways straight men never will.

The getting has something to do with understanding what it is to be deeply, desperately sexual and not be able to effectively deploy that sexuality in the world with any hope of receiving the approval of others. (Undesirable women who have the nerve to still desire reap the rage of men. Our existence is cause for anger. I can piss men off sitting still reading a book, perhaps the more so for having a dim glimmer of what I could be if: If I wore the right clothes, if I lost fifty pounds, if I bothered to wear more than lipstick, if I were younger, if I were myself skinny, dressed by a stylist, and twenty years younger. Otherwise, I am easily ignored. Otherwise, I am invisible.) The getting of me by gay men also has something to do with a particular bearing born of a need for dignity despite the indignities of unmet desire. All of which is to say, John Waters would worship me. David Sedaris might be deeply fond of me; John Wayne would find me distasteful were he alive to pass judgment.

Being a good object ripples across a woman’s entire life, not just her sex life. Being a good object is a moral imperative. Consider those good Christian ladies for whom appropriate clothing, hair, makeup and deportment are part of what it means to be a good Christian lady. For these women, it is important to be desired by not only one’s own husband (which, let’s face it, is shooting ducks in a barrel), but to be desired by most men. Being mildly desired is part of being pleasant and of good cheer. The unstated, and probably unacknowledged, goal is to be desired by all the men at the Knights of Columbus hall, and at the same time put forward the impression that none dare ask. Desired, but unsulliable. Hence the deliciousness of stories like the Marquis’ “Justine.” Hence the anger, playful and good-natured or not, behind such stories and fantasies. The underlying theme being, Oh come on, lady, you know you want it.

[Note: Beloved said that paragraph gives him pause because that underlying theme is part of the thinking that justifies rape.  Yes, it is, but it is also why men have rage about or toward bad objects: all women are responsible for the lust or lack thereof we inspire in others. How we are perceived is our fault as is how people (male people usually) react to that perception. That slippage (being responsible for the reactions/actions of others) is one of the sources of the complexity of BDSM relationships. Who is in power if the passive object is responsible for the psychological state and physical responses of the active subject?]

The imperative that we be good objects and at the same time "not want it," while processing the anger of men over whether we have succeeded or failed (both equally occasions for anger and/or resentment) is a double bind that made me miserable as a young teen. As an adult, playing with that anger consciously is deliciously fun in multiple contexts.

Being a good and moral object means making an effort to conform to societal norms of beauty, but not slipping into the dangerous and threatening waters of the seductive or in any way erotic. When I was a couple of years out from starting my period, my mother was anxious that I style my hair and wear some lipstick before leaving the house. Dark eye makeup and red lipstick, however, made her even more anxious.

Aha! you say, what about the MILF? Thinking naively that you have unraveled my brilliant analysis of beauty bondage. Oh please, get over yourself, I counter. I have spent more time obsessing about this than you have spent in lifetime aggregate styling your hair. The MILF falls under the cleansing male ownership of a husband, and is therefore not sullied. The MILF is not a young single mother in the popular imagination. In the popular imagination the MILF is a middle-aged, married woman of some civic and moral standing in the community. She is the MILF, not that whore who lives up around the corner with her husband. She is the MILF, not that hot piece of ass with the kid. She is the MILF, not my friend with the toddler. MILF is other: she exists in relation to the friends of her own children (and perhaps some of her husband's friends) but the term originated with adolescent boys owning up to their fantasies about some of the mothers in the neighborhood. The MILF is wholesome in her fuckability. It is precisely her lack of overt sexuality that is so titillating. Her tight jeans are accidentally delicious. Her big breasts got that way the old fashioned way, breastfeeding. Her subtle use of cosmetics and carefully pleasant while not the least bit purposefully seductive dress place her in the middle-aged section of the neighborhood occupied by the bespectacled hot nerd girl, who likewise is accidentally hot.

The bespectacled hot nerd girl has a hot bod, but it’s hidden under baggy and practical clothes. Her face is beautiful, but without any makeup it’s hard to distinguish her among her more colorful twenty- and thirty-something peers. She identifies as a mind primarily and does not conceive of herself as particularly attractive. Popular mythology says she’s a ravenous sex fiend when you coax her into relaxing enough to show you the tigress inside her. Her emergence as a popular icon, I would argue, coincides with the emergence of raunch culture. As it has become acceptable in some circles for young women to wear T-shirts proclaiming “Slut” and “Porn Star,” that is, as it has become acceptable for young women to admit sexuality and sexual longing, the hot nerd takes the stage. This is progress, but the hot nerd is still responsible for the actions and reactions of others in ways she shouldn’t be, and her hotness is partly due to her lack of guile.

When I was in school there was much discussion of “rape culture.” I don’t dispute the prevalence of “rape culture,” but I have problems with any political or philosophical rubric in which I cannot, in Trent Reznor’s words, “fuck like an animal” or be fucked like an animal. Nine Inch Nails’ song “Closer” received more tsking and headshaking than it should have back in the ‘90s. The psychological complexity of the song was lost on many. I like to fuck. Five years from now when I am fifty, I expect will continue to enjoy fucking. I am not anti-sex, and want to stress that to question rigid definitions of attractiveness and gender roles is a position far from anti-sex. Rather, I am planting a flag of conquest for all the aging women of questionable attractiveness who nonetheless enjoy a sound rogering, a vigorous fuck, an active sex life.

No comments:

Post a Comment

All comments are welcome.