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I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass. — Maya Angelou
I bought a girl pen.
I was curious. I was on a pen-buying binge, on Amazon, when I came across this purple thing with Swarovski crystals that purported to be just for me, because I’m a wo-wo-woman, which I guess means that all the other pens, including the pens I’ve been using all this time, are for men. Good to know.
The pen arrived two days later. I had forgotten I’d ordered it – I forget, it’s what I do — so my first thought upon opening it: What the hell is this?
My second thought: If you saw someone using a pen like this – whipping it out, say, at a boardroom meeting, or a book signing, or a conference – could you take her seriously? Perhaps she keeps it by her Barbies, her unicorn posters, her pastel pink notebooks decorated with fairy stickers.
It’s a girly pen. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with girly – except I happen to be a 40 year old woman who would appreciate some other options. The pen’s price tag (34.00) and the description (“The feminine slender body is filled with 160 sparkling crystals, creating magnificent light reflections as you write. It is delivered in a stylish velvet pouch…”) would seem to indicate that the pen is not being marketed to my (non-existent) teenage daughter, but to me.
Someone somewhere thought that this pen would resonate with my sense of who I am as a female.
More than that. Marketers don’t try to appeal to who you are, but who you want to be (or who they think you want to be). The product is a promise: by purchasing it, you close the gap between the real and the ideal, the norm and the aspiration.
This pen strikes me as an attempt to take ‘girly’ and upgrade it.
Because apparently that’s what a woman is: a girl with more money to spend on a more sophisticated version of a glitter pen.
Because the symbols we seem to have for femininity – butterflies, fairies, princesses, unicorns, glitter, pink – those symbols for marketers to try and use in their attempt to turn unisex products into something just ‘for her’ — isn’t for femininity so much as for girlhood.
What kind of symbols does this culture have to suggest an adult femininity? A womanliness?
An apron? A Porsche? A bikini? A briefcase? Animal prints? A baby stroller?
A stripper pole?
And many of us never really identified with girl culture in the first place.
I never did. I grew up thinking I had a strong masculine streak – even though I wasn’t a tomboy, even though I was very comfortable in my girlskin, even though, as I got older, I developed a rich, deep, sensual sense of being female that happened to be steeped in books instead of Barbies, black instead of pink, jeans and boots and leather jackets instead of dresses, writing fiction instead of socializing, ambition instead of caretaking, wanderlust instead of baby hunger (the baby hunger came later), hard dance music instead of sensitive singer-songwriters, thrillers instead of chick flicks.
I learned to take a certain pride in this. I learned to distance myself from anything that smacked of the girly-girl, to speak mockingly of mani-pedis and gossip magazines and Lifetime movies and butterfly tattoos and, yes, pink, because these things were weak. To be disdainful of them was to be not weak.
Only when I woke up to what I was doing – buying into a misogynistic contempt for the feminine that remains at the heart of our culture – did I start to look at things differently.
There are so many different ways to express the feminine; the struggle is to not get locked into the limited range of options with which we’re presented. There are so many different shades of pink – including hot pink, which I like to think of as a bold, in-your-face, rebel pink — the kind of pink that works for me.
There are so many different shades of meaning. When my website guy presented me with a butterfly (….a butterfly!…) design as my logo, I tamped down my initial resistance and went online to research the symbolism.
Instead of being fluffy, flighty, weak, the butterfly turns out to represent profound changes of the soul. Transformation, metamorphosis, resurrection. A butterfly is fragile yet fierce – Monarchs migrate thousands of miles through all kinds of weather, including ferocious electrical storms, every year. I also started noticing how freaking beautiful they are, how fascinating in their variations. I went from scorning butterfly tattoos to thinking about getting one of my own, tribal and edgy.
And I realized that by turning certain symbols into symbols of girlhood, these butterflies and fairies and unicorns, we’ve drained them of their original mythological power, we’ve made them cute and cuddly, as harmless (and about as interesting) as a watery pastel. We’ve turned them into things you can’t take seriously, because we have a history of refusing to take girls and women seriously. Less than a hundred years ago, women were taken so unseriously that they were not allowed – allowed – to vote. Femininity was regarded as inherently childish.
But beneath that flighty, fluffy, pastel-pink version of ‘femininity’, there’s something much deeper, richer, complex, bold, fierce. I’ll take my femininity from the goddess Athena, who stood for justice and wisdom and achievement. Or from Persephone, who overcame the trauma of rape to become the freaking Queen of the Underworld and a guide to lost souls. Or – skipping over to another culture – from Kali, who represents life and death, truth and transcendence, an ability to cut through the bull.
Here’s a little bit about Kali:
“Kali’s fierce form is strewed with awesome symbols. Her black complexion symbolizes her all-embracing and transcendental nature. Says the Mahanirvana Tantra: “Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her”. Her nudity is primeval, fundamental, and transparent like Nature — the earth, sea, and sky. Kali is free from the illusory covering, for she is beyond the all maya or “false consciousness.” Kali’s garland of fifty human heads that stands for the fifty letters in the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes infinite knowledge.
Her girdle of severed human hands signifies work and liberation from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth show her inner purity, and her red lolling tongue indicates her omnivorous nature — “her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world’s ‘flavors’.” Her sword is the destroyer of false consciousness and the eight bonds that bind us.
Her three eyes represent past, present, and future, — the three modes of time — an attribute that lies in the very name Kali (‘Kala’ in Sanskrit means time)….
Kali’s proximity to cremation grounds where the five elements or “Pancha Mahabhuta” come together, and all worldly attachments are absolved, again point to the cycle of birth and death. The reclined Shiva lying prostrate under the feet of Kali suggests that without the power of Kali (Shakti), Shiva is inert.”
Destroyer of false consciousness.
Without the power of Kali/Shakti, the great god Shiva is inert.
Slap some pink on that.
This reminds me of something my therapist once told me, which I didn’t really understand at the time. I was about to turn 40. She told me that I was someone who was going to “be a woman”; she meant this as a high compliment.
“In this culture,” she said, “every female gets to be a girl. But not every girl gets to become a woman.”
This might be because, according to the bulk of pop culture, most of the female species seems to disappear around this time, whisked off to the faraway land of wrinkle cream and mom jeans. When it comes to a woman’s aesthetic sensibility, a woman’s sense of who she can be or still wants to become (other than a good wife and mother) the culture shows a distinct lack of imagination.
So the powers-that-be take a pen, or a car, and turn it pink, and offer it to us as some essential sign of who we are. That’s how they see us, regardless of how we see ourselves.
My own brand of femininity includes pink – hot pink – but also black and midnight blue and rock’n'roll purple. It includes tigers and disco balls and snake rings (which I collect), tribal butterfly tattoos, empathy and wisdom and the power to inspire. It includes lots and lots of books. It recognizes the strength and stamina inherent in all women, the ability to, as Liz Taylor once put it, “pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.”
So I would say to those marketers who think they know me, who think I want to spend thirty five dollars for a glitter pen with a “feminine, slender body”:
You know who I want to be? A fucking badass. A very…womanly…badass.
Market to that.