Published on June 20th, 2016 | by Juniper Fitzgerald1
The Objectification of Female Suffering: JUNIPER FITZGERALD’s Notes from the Desk of a Crazy Bitch
I know you’ve seen her—shoulders hunched, toes pigeoned, and head hung low, she is the most docile and unassuming kind of creature. She is sad, but in a cute way; she doesn’t implicate others. Like women’s bodies more generally, there is a hierarchy to the presentation of female sadness—nihilistic and sentimental, that manic-pixie-dream-girl kind of sadness, the kind of sadness that indicts no one, is a fetishized object, an accessory for the entertainment of others, and is thus the most privileged kind of sadness. This kind of sadness makes a woman interesting, it is a “mark of refinement, of sensibility,” writes Susan Sontag. But what happens when our sadness implicates others? What happens when our sadness is less of a quirky object to be consumed under the male gaze and more an indictment of systemic mistreatment?
I’m a pretty fucking emotional person. But I wasn’t always. In fact, it was a litany of childhood trauma that saddled me with an excess of emotion. Over the course of several short years, I transformed from a fun-loving six-year-old into an anxious and permanently frowning human. I came face-to-face with the human capacity for violence, apathy, and hatred; I learned how to fetishize violence against my own body and, also, how to apologize for it. When finally I learned the language of reclamation and empowerment, I became burdened with a complexity of sadness that, today, looks a little like passion and a lot like anger—definitely not the cute kind of sadness.
Indeed, if I were transported to the 19th century, I’d surely be diagnosed with hysteria. My tendency to funnel sadness into “trouble,” a term historically reserved for rowdy women, would most likely be the culprit, to say nothing of my predilection for selling sex and, up until recently, remaining actively single. What an irony, then, that the 19th century was also the same historical epoch in which female sadness–inasmuch as it could be objectified and controlled—became “interesting.” Comparatively, when female sadness lacked capital as an object of consumption, as it often did in situations wherein a woman was an agent of her own sadness and subsequently implicated others through it (like Janet Frame and others), the woman in question was forcibly committed and often administered electroshock therapy without her consent. It is not lost on me that my current husband, if he were also to be transported to that time, would have complete jurisdiction over my body; he would have what Foucault deemed “biopolitical power” over me. Biopolitical power refers to the ways we carve out various populations in order to estimate their value and, of course, whether said populations are deserving of life. Rowdy women—particularly whores—are one population deemed undeserving of life. And one way we take away whores’ lives (whether actual whores or merely mothers who exist outside of cultural respectability) is by taking away their kids. This is my daily, crippling fear.
Hand in hand, my daughter and I cross the flooded prairie grasses. Clumps of mud beneath our feet make sponges of our tender toes, softening the hard earth below us. My two-year old teaches me the way of the sludge—she teaches me that sometimes, messiness serves as a cushion.
It is a distinctly feminine wisdom that finds strength in messiness. My daughter embodies this wisdom—fearless, her joy lives in that space where Joyce found great art, between the profane and the didactic. Since meeting my daughter as a seedling growing inside me, ours has been a divinely sacred and beautifully sordid path toward greater messiness. Through the little death that set sail my pregnancy, through the violence of birth, the postpartum madness, and the darkness of having a body paralyzed by fear and ripped wide open for all to see, to say nothing of my daughter’s—a body thrust between the proximity of privation and cultural apathy—my maternal love is a daily reminder of the sacredness of my sadness. And yet, it’s cost me my marriage.
“Your emotions are too big, your expressions of them feel like… an attack,” my lover, the father of my child, says to me on the porch of our 100-year-old home on the eve of Mother’s Day. “I cannot stay in this marriage.”
My sadness has been the greatest source of conjugal dissatisfaction since giving birth; this is not the first time I’ve been reproached of my emotions by my partner. Borne of the immensity of vulnerability and maternal love, I found myself prevailed on to indulge repetitive tasks in postpartum. Obsessed with the idea that my newborn might randomly die in her sleep, I rarely slept for more than thirty minutes at a time for the first year of her life; I navigated a frightful and persistent landscape of “what if”s. In the rare moments in which I reached REM, my dreams centered on just one theme—that my child and I were drowning. I came to resent my husband’s relative autonomy—his seemingly unscathed ego, the way he’d get drunk and hide it or the way he’d steal a nap on the couch at work, the joyously flirtatious ways he continued to engage with the world, etc. My resentment wore him down, no doubt. All the while, I seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into my own shadowy parts. My sadness started to take on a larger role of indictment—I wanted a more egalitarian relationship and I was deeply saddened that my partner seemed more committed to his own privilege. It wasn’t his fault, after all, that I’d decided to breastfeed our daughter. It wasn’t his fault that there were subsequent struggles as a result of my bodily sacrifices. Indicting him was unfair, despite his participation and propagation of systems that devalue domestic labor and paint portraits of resentful housewives in the nuanced language of hysteria—”crazy bitch,” as one example. “Just like your mother,” my partner would say.
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness,” writes Herman Melville in Moby Dick. Sitting on our porch, my soon-to-be-ex partner presents me with an ultimatum: either apologize for my “indicting” sadness or lose the marriage. Of course, I am compelled to apologize for having big emotions, for the ways they implicate others and for the ways they ostensibly manifest as “attacks.” I want to say, “I’m sorry for being a crazy bitch.” I want to take on the burden of blame because it’s much easier to blame myself than to believe that my progressive, artsy, so-called feminist man might actually be too wrapped up in patriarchy—and all its spoiling of riches—to see my daily subjugation.
This is exactly how the cultural construction of female docility works, though—women must apologize for implicating others, whether it’s through larger “redemption” efforts associated with all kinds of social programs (typically directed at unruly and unsavory women) or in interpersonal interactions wherein a postpartum wife is made to be ashamed of her sacred sadness. If you own your sexuality, as one analogy, you must repent as “victim” in order to steer clear of defamatory implications about the nature of consent. Whores, by our very nature, implicate people; it’s why our only cultural path to redemption is through apology and repentance. Likewise, when women own their own sadness in heterosexual romantic partnerships, we are deemed “crazy bitches;” we are made to apologize for our “attacks.” This, my friends, is sexism. It is rampant in our cultural fondness for the meek, manic-pixie-dream-girl and in our simultaneous pathologizing of women who are actual agents of their own sadness.
And while I cannot control the subjective experience that others have with my emotions, I can stop the chain of systemic sexism that devalues my experience in the world as “hysterical,” “dramatic,” and “crazy.” I can implicate this system, a system wherein the alleged intellectual inferiority of whores exists on the same continuum of the hysterical, crazy bitch. I can make a call to arms to my sisters in sadness: Sisters, our sadness is not meek, muted, or wounded; our sadness is not a demure posture, a disappearing or sunken-in body for others to admire, or a fashion, or a kind of cuteness. Sisters, our sadness is a fucking implication of the structures that sustain violence and the cultural apathy that apologizes for it. And, sisters, our sadness should never be sorry.