Posted Monday, November 17th, 2003
Call Me Deborah
Sometimes the journey to awareness takes us back where we began. When I was a small child, my awareness was of my own blissful world. My mother was a goddess in this world. My mother built elaborate tents in which we acted out plays. My mother was just and loving and fanciful and taught me about nature and Shakespeare. My mother took me to see Disney movies and would read the age-old stories to me over and over. My values were founded on Prince Valiant’s love and courageous rescue of Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and the Indian tribe’s respect for the dignified Tiger Lily, the capability and imagination of Mary Poppins, the music and love of Maria Von Trapp and the legacy of my own name. For I was a small hero in that world, named Deborah for the Hebrew general who led her people to victory when there was no one else brave enough to do the job. I was strong and courageous and trusting.
I’m not sure when in my journey I cleared the fog of my Disney-based perceptions. Perhaps it was the discovery of my uncle’s Playboys. The illicit poses and vulnerability of the women in the magazine frightened me. Perhaps it was the oft-heard adage on the middle school playground and at my uncles’ houses: “Women belong in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant.” Perhaps it was when my dad went on a rampage about women drivers. Perhaps it was when he told me I’d have to try harder, because it was a hard world out there for a woman—and women are naturally weaker, unstable by nature and less rational than men. Perhaps it was my father telling my mother that she couldn’t get a job, reminding her that the rib of Adam being her origin, she belonged at home and under his submission. I’m not sure just exactly when I realized that my own Southern, religious, old-fashioned family was comprised of misogynist men and submissive women embracing their own chains. But, somehow, slowly, my mother ceased to be a goddess and revealed herself to me as an ill-treated wife, a dutiful and undervalued daughter, an oppressed woman. As I began to see this, I was afraid and I was angry.
However, I felt that this reality was not inevitable. It was my world. I could change it by expanding my horizons. And I continued on my journey. At age 11 the piano tuner felt me up; four years later, I sprained my wrist in the back of a seventeen-year-old’s car, fighting him off; but I still kept hoping that these circumstances were endemic to my life and my surroundings. I knew that somewhere there were many men that respect women as equals. I knew that growing up in an old-fashioned Southern environment had altered my perceptions. One day I would be validated for being a woman. Surely there was somewhere that I could be respected for who I was and not judged and treated for what I was.
I do know when that hope was shattered and I was overwhelmed by the darker vision that had been threatening to envelop me: senior year of high school, first period government class. The teacher, a middle-aged man, asked if I had my homework. “Of course you do,” he answered his own question. “Debbie Does Homework.” In addition to holding the name of the Hebrew general, by unfortunate coincidence I also share the name of the infamous star of the porn movie Debbie Does Dallas. I had heard this reference countless times in middle school and high school, but never from a grownup, a person in authority. At the reference to Debbie Does Dallas, the boys in the classroom howled with delight, as did some of the girls. My best friend turned around in her desk, her expression of disgust giving way to some consoling words directed my way, some angry words directed at the teacher. I do not know what they were; I could not tell you how class resumed. My face burning, I suffered in my desk as the remnants of that strong and courageous young Deborah finally gave way entirely to the bitterness of being a girl in this world.
I knew that I had lost. I abandoned my courageous, heroic self for a mincing, well-behaved young lady who didn’t upset others around her or her family. I did what was expected of me, suffered greatly over what those in my family thought and tried to enjoy cooking and cleaning. But, inside, I was unhappy with the world I had ended up with.
My bitterness grew. As the years went on, it became irrepressible, and occasionally, I spoke my mind, objecting to the comments and situations that are often faced by women. By recognizing and commenting on the issues faced by women, I was labeled a “feminist,” a “man-hater,” and worst of all, “insecure.” But I also began to realize that I wasn’t the only woman who felt this way. During a discussion in a college class, comprised of women, a reference was made to teachers deferring to men in classroom discussions. Several women disagreed that this was an issue. But a few agreed! Those several that agreed became those I would seek out, interested in their stories. I began to hear stories that were akin to my own.
As I entered my late twenties, many of my girlfriends began to get married, and a new challenge entered our worlds: the bachelor party. We were divided into two camps. Those girls who were “secure” felt that it was no big deal. The rest of us were devastated that our boyfriends and future husbands would participate in such a barbaric rite, enjoying other naked women. “It’s so objectifying!” I wailed. “Knowing that he’s looking at other women makes me feel like I could be anyone at all.” Those women that agreed, the “insecure” women, or, as I thought of us, the “aware” women, would tell our stories, huddled together like inmates contemplating a break, or anti-establishment guerrillas plotting an uprising. My own story consisted only of fearing that my boyfriend would eventually attend such a “party.” I heard stories: an old friend’s husband “got naked” with a stripper in the privacy of his hotel room; another friend, knowing a new husband had slept with a dancer at his party, was tortured each time she saw the new bride.
Many of the wonderful men in my life, my boyfriend, friends, family, told me to “loosen up.” Unable to deal with being thought “prudish” or “insecure,” superficially, I listened to their protests that “It doesn’t mean anything!” and “There is no problem with chauvinism or inequality for women anymore. We live in an equal society!” “Chauvinism is dead – only older men and men in other countries feel that women are inferior.” But, deep down, I knew that things weren’t right. I felt that women might be getting lip service, but that women could never be viewed as equal as long as they were viewed as objects. I continued to ask other women about their experiences with men. I heard stories of molestation, humiliation, rape, and overwhelming feelings of inferiority.
My awareness continued to grow, but I was afraid to be too gung ho. Perhaps many of these experiences were left over from the misogynist code of the early 1900s. But then, the catalyst occurred that showed me that the vision of women as less than equal is alive; my doubt in society’s viewpoint of me and the existence of women’s equality was validated.
At a recent party, a liberal, educated co-worker in his mid-twenties, was very drunk. “Remember,” he warned those around him, “don’t be beholden to the vaginas – for the good of the company.” The women discreetly gathered to discuss his statement. Perhaps he was drunk, but it was suspected that perhaps this was his true feeling about women in the workplace. Their worried faces and hesitant reactions bore a more dramatic reaction in myself. I lay awake nights, unbelieving that this educated and otherwise nice young man would make such a statement.
In the weeks that followed, I mulled over what this meant to me. Did I still feel that I should “loosen up?” Even though I no longer feel that my own story is unique, do I want to risk being labeled as “feminist” or “insecure” or “prudish”? In answer, I feel something stirring, something I haven’t felt for over fifteen years. The little hero’s values are rising from the debris of a high school classroom. The brave general inside me, my initial courageous and hopeful self, is asserting her presence. She is simply who she is and does not need the support of misogynists in society. This being does not falter when she stands alone. She does not give up in the face of ridicule. She sticks up for her originality and right to respect. And she definitely, definitely, does not “do” Dallas.
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