Tag: personal (page 2 of 4)

Sinful Sunday: Cunt

“An ancient title of respect for women, the word “cunt” long ago veered off this noble path.”

– From Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, by Inga Muscio

Apparent 3/4 nude of author holding the book Cunt over her cunt.

I read this book a lifetime ago when I barely knew my own anatomy. Re-reading it now, I’m struck by how deeply it affected my thinking on feminism, semantics and the female body politic.

I love the word cunt. It’s strong and forthright. It stands straight with its shoulders back. It takes your measure and meets your eye. It’s the opposite of an apology. It’s the kind of word that owns itself, and asks you to do the same.

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Sinful Sunday: Room with a View

There are two architectural elements that fascinate me. Windows and staircases are so full of narrative (and real life) possibility, that I could literally scroll through images for hours, weaving scenarios and situations for each one, which is why I was so happy about this month’s prompt.

Windows lend themselves to the imagination and, as much as I love looking into them as I walk down the street, I also love looking out of them. I imagine who might see me and what they might think. Or who might be behind me, photographing my body surrounded by light. I imagine what might happen when the photographs are done but I’m still in the window, waiting….

Sinful Sunday picture for windows prompt inspired by Room with a View

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Sinful Sunday: Boxing Day

I love Christmas and always have, but I also love the day after. Boxing Day is the afterglow after weeks of anticipation. It’s a chance to sit quietly and think, or write, or read one of the million books I was given (I always get a million books for Christmas, and I’m always ridiculously happy about it).
The build up and excitement of the holidays is wonderful but, just as with sex, so is lying in bed afterwards, enjoying the slow unwinding that brings in the New Year.

Author reading in red chair on Boxing Day

NB:  The book I’m reading is called Zombies vs. Unicorns edited by Holly Black. I am definitely Team Unicorn.

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Sinful Sunday

On Virginity, or A Case For Not Throwing It Away

Image of a man and woman sitting on a fence. His hand is going up her skirt while she looks away.

A Voyage of Discovery by Jack Vettriano

I would love to say that the loss of my maidenhead* was a magical experience. I’d love to say that it set a healthy tone for the whole of my sexual career. In reality, it went more like this:

I was nineteen and deeply frustrated. I’d had boyfriends but none who would go past second base with me, (I dated a couple of Irish Catholics. Confession was a thing). I was sexually aware to the point of discomfort, but I’d never gotten close to do anything about the live wires beneath my skin. I was massively frustrated and burdened with this thing that I didn’t want anymore. So, one night I decided to get it over with.

I met the guy through an acquaintance. I knew him just enough about him to feel relatively sure that he wasn’t going to kill me and dump my body in a lake. I say “the guy” because I don’t remember his name…Jason maybe? I’m not sure. I was sober, so I assume that I must’ve blocked it out. In fact, I’m fairly certain I did – not because anything terrible happened, but because, even at the time, I knew I was making a subtle but serious mistake. It was the start of a pattern that would do me no favors. But more on that in a second. For now, let’s stay with “the guy”….

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because it wasn’t about him. It was about me and the fact that I was approaching twenty and the only virgin left in the city (not really but it felt like it). So, there we were in the back of his mom’s minivan in a mall parking lot. The foreplay was minimal and consisted mostly of my going down on him briefly while he held my head. After that, we moved to the back seat where I gave it up to the age old rhythm of my head whacking against his baby brother’s car seat.

I lost my virginity with less care than some people give to cutting their hair. At the time, I remember feeling a grim satisfaction, one that I now recognize as a defense mechanism. I knew even before he dropped me off (in the minivan) that I wasn’t going to see him again, even if I wanted to (I didn’t). The fact that I’d been a virgin had thrown him. I literally saw him panic the second his cock hit my hymen.

Holy shit! A virgin! They get hella clingy! Finish this and get out of there!

So, the grim satisfaction was both for a job well done (I was no longer a virgin – Ha! Take that, virginity!) but it was also because I needed to own what I’d just done. I knew that wasn’t how it could have been.  I knew it wasn’t a good start.

Now, looking back with roughly eighteen years of sexual experience to call on, I can see that I set a pattern for myself that night – one in which I disregarded the rounded whole of my needs in favor of satisfying temporary dissatisfactions. That pattern is pretty much broken now, but not without effort and a nice collection of regrets.

Should I have taken more time and given myself a positive, even loving, first time? Ideally speaking, of course. I should’ve. But the truth is that I was wired for sex and self-injury. I can’t pretend that a different decision would’ve saved me from years of mistakes. That said, if I had waited and not pushed, I might have developed a sense of myself sooner, and that would have made a difference. Who can say….

Virginity is not a magical thing, nor is it a marker of moral, spiritual or physical worth. The loss of it is, however, a pivotal event in a person’s life. Your first sexual experiences set a tone, even if only subconsciously. Would my sexual development have been different were it not for the minivan and the parking lot and the goddamn car seat? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. And that’s the thing that stays with me. I will never know.

I have wanted to write that phrase into something for ages.

Sinful Sunday: The Classic

They say every woman needs a little black dress. This is mine. I brought it fifteen years ago when I first moved to L.A. and it’s been my go-to ever since. I’ve danced in this dress, had sex in this dress, been to the ballet, symphony and theater in this dress. This dress and I have gone to drinks, dinners, weddings, clubs, funerals, readings and even the odd breakfast (it even looks good when all you’ve got is chapstick and freshly fucked bed head).

I’ve lived a lot of life in this dress, and I hope to live quite a lot more. It’s a classic for a reason.

Black and white self portrait of Malin James in her little black dress

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A Girl’s Guide to Growing Up

Mother and daughter by Pascal Campion

Image by Pascal Campion

Today is my daughter’s 4th birthday. It’s an unabashedly happy day, but for me, deep down, there’s also a little edge of melancholy to it… or, if not melancholy, contemplation.

When I look at her now, I see only a shadow of the moon-faced baby I had four years ago. She’s left that phase and has enthusiastically assumed the role of little girl. Of course, the irrational part of me wants to fill my arms with her while I can, because I know it’s only a matter of time before I look at her and see only a shadow of the little girl she is now. And I’ll tell you right now, I’m indulging that irrational impulse. I’m kissing and swinging her and holding her hand like it’s the most natural thing in the world because, right now, it is.

That irrational part of me wants to keep her a girl forever. But the rest of me knows that, for all that I love and protect her, the best thing I can do is to teach her how to love and protect herself. Right now, I’m reveling in the fact that she’s mine, but that’s temporary. My claim on her will last only as long as it takes her to grow up and claim herself. My most bittersweet job is to her develop the skills and self-possession she’ll need to navigate the world on her own.

That means being open to things that are, quite frankly, frightening and complicated from a parental perspective. The irrational part of me would love to keep her sheltered and unquestioning, but that would do her a massive disservice. I grew up in a family that never talked about sex (or mental health or anything unpleasant or difficult). I know how damaging that can be, even in the most loving household.

So now, while she’s little, I’m making a list of things I want to talk to her about as she grows up. It’s not comprehensive, nor do I think it ever could be. If nothing else, it’s a blueprint, one that I know will get altered by improvisation depending on what’s relevant to her at any given time. In my head, I think of it as a sort of guide to growing up, but one that will grow with her.

Right now, the list is full of things I wish I could have talked through with my mom; things to do with sex, identity, body image and shame; things that I figured out on my own, sometimes at great cost. If I do it right though, the list will stop reflecting my own experiences and become entirely defined by hers. In the end, it is not about me. It’s about her and what she needs at any given time. That said, the list as it exists is massive. It has bullet points covering everything to sex to science – way too much to reproduce here. So instead of trying to get it all in, I’ll leave you with…

A Very Partial List of Things I Want to Tell My Daughter in Completely Random Order

  1.  Masturbation is good, healthy and wonderful. It is nothing to be ashamed of. If and when you want your first vibrator, I’ll be thrilled to take you to buy one. But one word of advice – vibrators are awesome, but it’s easy to get dependent on them. Try to learn your body without one first.
  2. Learn to how to please yourself. Even more importantly, communicate what you like to your partners so they can please you too. Try not to fake your orgasms. Try to voice your needs instead.
  3. Virginity is important, but not in the traditional way. As a symbol of goodness, it’s useless – goodness is better measured by what you do and how you treat people, not by the state of your hymen. That said, your first time (whether it’s oral, penetrative or anything else) is important. It sets a tone. Inexperience isn’t a hindrance to be thrown away.
  4. Sex can be complicated. It can be so complicated that even adults struggle and get tangled up. You don’t need to fear sex. In fact, you shouldn’t. Just choose when to have it and respect the complications it could bring.
  5. Sex isn’t love. It’s sex. While sex is a great way to communicate love, never conflate the two. You can’t barter one for the other.
  6. Porn is not a how-to manual. Neither is erotica or tumblr. They are entertainment and, as entertainment, they’re a great way to explore your fantasies. But if you want to know how to do something, nonfiction is more reliable than fiction.
  7. Take the opinions / advice of your peers with a grain of salt. They’re still figuring it out too.
  8. Sexuality is neither simple nor static. Same with gender identity. Labels are useful but, ultimately, you are you – not a straight person, a bi person, a gay person, a trans person, a slut, a good girl, a feminist or anything else. Labels can define you in ways that miss the whole person. Be the whole of you.
  9. Know your boundaries. They may change over time but always know them. Advocate for yourself. Never, ever be afraid to say no.
  10. I know you’re going to have sex. You’re going to love, hate, be heart-broken and break hearts. Do these things. Live your life. Live it on terms that you choose and do so without shame.
  11. I love you. I love you. I love you. I will always love you. Not matter what happens, no matter who or what you do, I will always, always, always be madly in love with you.
  12. If you get pregnant or get an STI, please tell us. We’ll figure it out. See #11.

NB: This post is far from comprehensive. It’s really more of a meditation than anything else. I am writing several articles that address this subject in a far more directed and detailed way, but for now, this post communicates my general state of mind.

On Depression, Need & Difficult Things

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

Lotus by Bahman Farzad

There are things that I haven’t written about because they’re too personal. Depression is one of them. For me, writing about depression is harder than writing about sex because, regardless of how much I love it, sex is something separate from myself. It’s something I do and enjoy. It doesn’t form my foundation. Depression does.

Depression made me who I am. It put me on different paths than I might otherwise have taken. It made me grow in crooked, creative ways. I don’t know who I’d be if depression hadn’t forced me to struggle with myself but, in the end, I like who I’ve become…most of the time.

I’ve avoided writing about depression for a lot of reasons, all of them hazy and complicated. Then, last week, I received an email from someone in response to a few of my posts. It was a good email – a lot of time and thought had clearly gone into it, but one part, in particular, stayed with me. Towards the end of the final paragraph, the person wrote:

“You have so much perspective. You must come from a very emotionally privileged place. I wish I did.” (Quoted with permission)

Reading that saddened me because the emailer seemed to be saying that they lacked a quality they could not have. It also made me call into question how I’ve presented myself in my writing. I know that depression (and the skills I use to manage it) inform everything I write. It even effects my style – I’ve learned to distill my emotions and I try to do the same with my thoughts when I write – but that doesn’t mean any of this is apparent to anyone else.

In a bit of comic timing, that email came just as I was tipping into a depressive episode that I am still enjoying (and by “enjoying” I mean dealing with) now, even as I write this. The timing made the subject inescapable, so I decided to write about it because that’s what I do.

In one way, the emailer was right – I do have a lot of perspective, but it’s not because I come from a place of emotional privilege. It’s because I don’t. I had my first anxiety attack when I was six and continued to have them into my twenties for reasons I won’t get into here. My parents didn’t know what anxiety attacks were, let alone that a child could have them, so once it was established that I didn’t have asthma, they encouraged me to stop worrying and left me to my own devices. Though well-intentioned, I internalized this as a rejection. Get enough of that as a kid and you get fantastically depressed. Which I was.

Fast forward to university. I started my first semester strong, but by the time the holidays came around, I was deep into my first depressive episode. When I came home for winter break I was way too thin and I slept ALL the time. My parents were worried (because they really did care), but when the doctor said I was anemic, they got me iron pills and ended the conversation.

I flew back to New York and the depression got worse. Eventually, I saw a counselor who diagnosed me in one session, which was a relief because I finally had a name for what I was trying to deal with. I was so relieved that I called my parents to tell them, but they glossed over it. They didn’t know what to do with “my problems”, so they acted like I had the flu and hoped I’d “feel better soon”. I didn’t – not for a really long time.

What surprises me even now is that I didn’t feel ashamed, despite my parents’ reaction. I felt anger, hurt and frustration, but never shame. What developed instead was the conviction that this was my problem to deal with. The worst thing I could do is need someone’s support. Needing became a dangerous thing.

As a result, I built an emotional scaffold that allowed me to function superficially while limiting access to my real (depressed and messed up) self. I dismantled that scaffolding a few years ago, but the impulse to withdraw is still something I struggle with because needing is uncomfortable for me. It is an awful thing to need something desperately and have that need denied. As a result, I made myself into the kind of person that other people need, rather than allowing my own needs to have a voice. Even now, needing someone or something does not fit my self-image.

The other reason I learned to withdraw was that, for a long time, I felt out of control. There are different kinds of depression. Mine is chronic, which means that sometimes my neuro-chemistry get wonky and I get depressed, even when everything is situationally great. The fact that depression is at least 60% physiological for me was difficult. I would get irrational, unreasonable and short-tempered, even on medication. I suffered, so I made everyone around me suffer too. Finally, I got tired of being bad for people, so I hid through episodes until I could put on my public face.

Now, at 37, I have an easier time of it. There are a handful of people I talk to when I’m heading into the depths but, for the most part, my depression is under control, even when it’s bad. I run 5-6 days a week and have done for years, and I have a mindfulness practice that keeps me balanced even when I’m in rough emotional shape. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard, but I’ve spent so much time cultivating rationality, reason and calm, that those things are reflexive to me now. Which brings me back to the emailer….

The perspective I have is hard won, which is really good news. Because it’s the result of work and not luck or privilege, it’s attainable, even if you’re a hot mess (and baby, I was a hot fucking mess). That said, maintaining my equilibrium is active, daily work – work that I’ll have to do for the rest of my life. No matter how much I achieve, my greatest accomplishment will be getting and keeping my shit together. It is, hand’s down, the hardest thing I have ever done, and the most valuable thing I will ever manage.

So please, please understand that when I write about difficult things, it’s not from a pedestal. It’s from down in the muck. My roots are in mud and depression and self-loathing and disgust, and it took an act of will and a concrete reason for me to grow up out of that. Buddhists use the lotus flower to symbolize that process of digging your roots into the blackest parts of yourself, and allowing something beautiful and resilient to grow out of it. That is what I’m trying to do. If I’m successful, that will be the metaphor for my life.

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Notes to My Younger Self

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Good Time Girls by Jack Vettriano

Last week, I wrote a post about a relationship that, even now, I struggle to admit was abusive (I usually just call it “toxic”). A few days later, someone asked me if I would go back in time and avoid the whole thing. Surprisingly, I said no. While there are things I wish I’d known or understood, that experience was a pivotal one. It’s quite possible that, if I did change something, I wouldn’t end up being the person I am today, and I like that person a lot.

That said, I do like the idea of going back in time to have a little chat with myself. In fact, I keep a list of things I’d probably tell myself over drinks, and not just regarding that relationship. Maybe it’s just that I loved The Time Traveler’s Wife but even if younger me ended up doing everything exactly as I already had, it would still be nice to have my future self’s perspective on certain things. Plus, I’d kind of like to hang out with me (pretty narcissistic, but true).

So, here’s my list of 15 Things I Would Tell My Younger Self:

1. Try not to drink quite so much (she says, sipping a G&T). You don’t have to stop, but you’re using alcohol to numb things you need to pay attention to.

2. Don’t smoke. Like ever. Yeah, I know, this one’s a drag. But here’s the thing – we quit ten years ago and I still miss it. And it’s so bad for you. So don’t start. Don’t bum that first cigarette from Theresa Flynn sophomore year, okay? Just don’t do it, because you’re going to love it and it’s going to suck when you have to stop.

3. Write more. Right now. Write more. Worry about getting good later. Right now, you just need to write. Get it all out of your head. Writing will help you think, and honey, you’ve got so many big, messy feelings, you need to make some space to think. Plus, it’ll give us something bittersweet / poignant to read down the line.

4. Sex. You’re going to love it. LOVE IT. You’re going to gobble it up. But, it’s also going to make you vulnerable, and that’s ok. In fact, that’s good. Just try not to confuse sex with love. Sex and love go together like chocolate and peanut butter, but they don’t have to. You’re not a bad person if you just want to fuck. And you’re not unworthy of love if that’s all he (or she, because you’re totally bi) wants too.

5. Don’t cut your hair short. I know it’s shallow but seriously, that Audrey Hepburn pixie thing you want so much? Don’t do it. And if you ignore me (because you probably will) and you hate it (because you’re totally going to), don’t spend two years growing it out just to cut it again because “maybe you’ll like it better this time.” You won’t, okay? I promise.

6. It’s fine that you have small breasts. I know you hate them. I know you’re hung up, but no one, and I mean NO ONE, cares. Meanwhile, you have no idea how good they can feel, and that’s a freaking crime.

7. You will love him but he will never love you. He’ll want you. In fact, he’ll want you so much it makes him sick, but he’ll never love you. (See #4). There is no way to make that not hurt and it’s going to fuck you up. But it’s also going to be ok. You will get yourself out. You always do…just, maybe, try to do it a little sooner this time around.

8. Don’t move to Texas. (No offense, Texas. We’re just not a good match).

9. Eating a jar of almond butter with a spoon* is not a solution. You know that. That said, stop beating yourself up about it. If it bothers you so much, put the fucking spoon down. C’mon, girl. Either own what you’re doing or change it. <3

*Also applies to wine, bourbon and gin. And cigarettes. And casual sex. Fuck, you’re vice ridden…

10.  There is a difference between testing your limits and disregarding them. You can take a fantastic amount of damage. That doesn’t mean you should inflict it on yourself.

11. Museum studies. It’s a thing. Look into it while you’re at NYU. Also, acting will never make you happy the way writing and academia do. I know your ego wants it and I even know you’re good, but try to channel that energy into your real passions and not a glamorous fantasy.

12. Your self-image and your reality very often don’t match. When that happens, one of them has to change. Either adjust the way you see yourself, or work to become what you wish you were.

13. You’re going to do what you do. It’ll be easier and you’ll suffer less if you follow your instincts, worry less about what other people expect and own your choices.

14. When you first start to write, you’re going to obsess about details. You’re going to strive for perfection in tiny, precious works. You need to. I get it. Here’s the thing: you’re going to suck. It takes years not to suck. Just lay off the impulse to grind every story down and keep cranking out the words. They’ll get better and so will you…And maybe try erotica sooner.

15. Stop faking orgasms. I now you’re nervous, but it’s keeping you from feeling real pleasure. Spend some time with a vibe and your hand because you can come, honey. Oh my god, can you come. Your body can do things you can’t even image. Just take your time and learn yourself.

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In Praise of Feminine Things (A Rant)

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Photograph by JeanLoup Sieff

Things have been a bit serious around here lately, so I wanted to do something light and simple. Sadly, bunnies have been well and truly covered (thank you, Easter) and the killer risotto I made last week won’t fill a whole post. So. Setting aside the adorable and delicious, how about we talk about lipstick and lingerie and that dress that makes you look like you belong in a Hollywood film. You know – feminine, pretty, girly things, and our somewhat conflicted relationship with them.

Warning – this may turn into a bit of a rant. I just had a maddening conversation with a woman who claims that “girly-girls are weak, lame tools of the patriarchy”. I’m a femme in every sense of the word, but I am anything but weak. Loving the fact that my panties (I actually hate that word – alternatives anyone?) are shell-pink lace, doesn’t make me any less of an intelligent, autonomous, ass-kicker of a woman.

Here’s the thing. Despite what many would say, the relationship between women and beauty is not simple, nor is vacuous, silly or something to be dismissed. It’s a cultural reality, one that is complicated and intensely specific to every woman who engages it. Given that I’ve already written about my passion for corsets, let’s take, for example, red lipstick.

I love red lipstick. I always have. I love the ritualistic process of putting it on and the subtleties in the shades. I love the unapologetic artifice of it and the fact that, when I wear it, my partner is very likely going to end up wearing it too. Same goes for anything that touches my lips – every glass I take a sip from will have my mark on it, like a pretty, blooming kiss.

Do I do it to attract men? Nope, though I don’t mind if I do. Ironically, I’ve been with more than one man who wished I wouldn’t wear it. Apparently, it’s hard to get out of collars. I also don’t wear it to impress or intimidate other women. I don’t want to intimidate anyone, though I also won’t stop wearing something I love because it might.

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

My go-to red, Black Tie by Lipstick Queen

So, why do I have six different shades of red lipstick even though most days I wear peppermint chapstick (it’s delicious, okay?). Because it makes me feel sexy and feeling sexy pleases me, just like wearing garters under a plain black skirt pleases me, or slipping on a ridiculously expensive silk something under jeans or wearing my favorite perfume. These things, as frivolous as they seem, are an expression of my femininity, and I find great power in that.

Dismissing or marginalizing a woman’s attraction to feminine things is not only judgmental, it’s counterproductive. It suggests that a woman can’t be more than one thing at once – smart or pretty, kind or sexy, feminine or powerful – and it’s indicative of a trap we’ve fallen into as a culture. Yes, women need to aspire to more than just beauty – that goes without saying and, as the mother of a daughter, you can bet I put way more emphasis on how well she prints her name than on the hair clips she wants to wear. I want her to kick the ball and build the tower and make the puzzle, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have pretty hair clips too.

Our standards of beauty are maddeningly exclusive and women shouldn’t be made to feel that there is one objective ideal to which we must all aspire. My emphasis here is on FEELING beautiful and the fact that it’s okay to want that. It doesn’t make you weak or vacuous. It just makes you someone who loves a gorgeous bit of lace or the perfect pair of heels.

Wanting to feel beautiful doesn’t make you a tool either. It doesn’t mean you’ve drunk the patriarchal Kool-Aid and chosen girliness over ambition, influence or power. That’s like saying a woman can’t have a PhD. and rock her FMP’s. The desire to enjoy feminine things does not negate intelligence, ambition or strength. In fact, I would say that there is a very real power to be had for women in the things that are often dismissed as “girly”.

There is power in femininity, just like there is power in masculinity. The interesting, and often overlooked thing, is that they are complementary powers. Women don’t need to give up certain signifiers to hold their own with men. In other words, you can skip the pantsuit and still be a bad-ass. Yes, that means you might be sexualized, but a pantsuit isn’t necessarily going to protect you from that. If the sleek, black skirt makes you feel powerful, wear it and use your intelligence, wit, skill and ambition to assert your presence in that room.

It’s all about the effect these feminine things have on you. If you wear the sexy lingerie to impress someone else, you may or may not be satisfied with the results. Wear it to please yourself and baby, you’re gold. You’re a goddess and nothing can get in your way.

Some women don’t want or need “the trappings of femininity” (as my absolutely fabulous grandmother called them) and that’s fine. It doesn’t make them any less of a woman, nor does it nullify their physical or sexual beauty. But it also does not make them superior, more confident or more powerful than women who enjoy some or all of the trappings.

There is power and confidence to be had everywhere, from the perfect white tee-shirt to the prettiest, most expensive silk stockings. Do what makes you feel like a gorgeous, fucking Amazon of a person. Do it and do it a lot. Walk into a room so happy with your perfectly straight seams or your glossy hair that your confidence make you 10 times your physical size. Do it regardless of your weight, height or ethnicity. Do it whether you’re flat-chested or apple-thighed. If it pleases you, do it. Rock those feminine things.

Femme Fatales & Dames

My daughter was sick for most of last week, so I spent a lot of time on the couch, jotting notes on a legal pad. One of the things I scribbled was something I’ve been mulling for awhile – different portrayals of women in media, and how archetypical images of femininity and sexuality can affect a person’s development. On a whim, I made a list (because I freaking love lists) of women that I’m drawn to in film and history. It’s short so I’ll include it here:

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)

Boudica (the Celtic queen who led an uprising and killed a lot of Romans after they raped her daughters)

Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer’s. Of course)

The female vampires in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Lauren Bacall

Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

With the exception of Boudica, who is in a class all her own, every woman I listed falls into one of two categories – dames or femme fatales. There are a lot of superficial similarities between the two – dames and femme fatales have a certain energy about them, a sexual assertiveness for lack of a better word, but beneath the superficial gloss they are actually fairly different, as was my attachment to them at different stages in my life.

Femme fatales are the image I was most attracted to as a girl, so their influence wove itself into my sexuality at a pretty young age. Moreover, femme fatales have been around for centuries, while dames are a 20th century phenomenon.  The femme fatale first manifested as a supernatural evil – Lilith, lamias, succubi and vampires. Later they took the form of dangerously sexual and often villainized women, like Mata Hari.

The femme fatale, as  a figure, is problematic. She was, quite literally, created to embody the perceived evils of an assertive (i.e.: predatory) female sexuality, a sexuality that is almost always punished. While I’m aware of that now, I didn’t know that as a girl, so my attraction to this type of woman was fairly simple. Because of that, I’m going to skim the deeper cultural issues attached to the femme fatale (for now – I’ll eventually write a post on it), to focus on her relevance to a younger me.

The Brides, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

The Brides, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)

When I a kid, I was, like a disturbing number of people, made aware of how vulnerable I am. My response to this realization was multilayered. On the surface, I became mousy, quiet and reflexively apologetic. I shrank and made myself as small as I could, driven by anxiety and the desperate need to avoid confrontation. Beneath the surface, however, my real, private self was angry – massively angry, all the more so because I wouldn’t allow that anger to show. By the time I was thirteen, I was a seething ball of sweetness. As my sexuality kicked into gear, I bifurcated all the more, becoming the ideal good girl on the surface, while having violent sexual fantasies in the privacy of my head. That was the year I saw two movies that influenced my sexuality to a great degree – Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula and Batman Returns. These movies introduced me to the femme fatale.

I remember watching the scene in Dracula where the three brides ravish Jonathon Harker. It’s a sexualized assault wherein they seduce and then literally consume him while he writhes in horrified ecstasy.  As I watched that scene, something in me clicked. I wanted to be one of those brides. I wanted to wield my sexuality like a weapon, just as those women did. Of course, they were punished (stake through the heart, beheaded, etc) and, of course, they were subject to the control of the man who had made them, but I didn’t care about that then. What I cared about was that they were predatory women, claiming what they wanted without remorse or apology. It was a revelation to me.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992)

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, Batman Returns (1992)

Then I saw Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, a different sort of femme fatale, one that I identified with all the more because I felt like her mousy alter ego, Selena Kyle, who was pushed out a window for being too clever. Rather than die as she should, she resurrects herself and becomes something else, something hard and sexual and overtly predatory (once again, the predatory). She goes from being a victim to owning and asserting herself in a way I could only dream of.

For me, the femme fatale represented overt, rapacious sexual freedom. More to the point, the archetype was a picture of the violent reclamation of sexual agency that I desperately needed. As a result, my early relationships were fraught. I was angry and deeply hurt, and I wanted to make other people, especially men, hurt too. I was a toxic mixture of hollow weakness, rage and simmering sexuality and, as a result, I did a lot of damage, both to others and to myself.

Enter the dame. The definition of the word “dame” varies greatly, so here’s what I mean when I use the word. A dame is a woman in full possession of herself. For me, Lauren Bacall is the ultimate dame – smart and sexy, cool under pressure, holding her own in every situation. Whereas femme fatales seduce on instinct, dames watch. They play power dynamics like hands of poker. They make moves, but only when they’re ready. Femme fatales are about carnal impulse. Dames are about control.

By the time I entered the The Reconstruction (the period in my early twenties that directly followed my inevitable breakdown), the archetype of the femme fatale had welded itself to my sexuality so, rather than uproot it, I tried to explore it in a healthier, less aggressive way. I needed agency, a sense of autonomy and power. I enjoyed the slightly wicked, predatory streaks in in my sexuality and I didn’t want them to go away, I just wanted to be in control, wielding them, rather than letting them wield me.

Bogie and Bacall (1944)

Bogie and Bacall (1944)

Around that time, I went on a Lauren Bacall binge. Even at eighteen, Bacall was something. Paired with a man over twice her age, she held her own so well that when she cocks her head and teaches Bogie how to whistle, you know he’s the one in trouble, not her. Even when he holds her jaw as he kisses her, you get the sense that she is allowing it because it pleases her. She is a fully present partner, owning her half of that kiss. That’s why their chemistry is so insane – she’s right there with him every step of the way. Now, that’s a dame.

So is Myrna Loy, though in a very different way. As Nora Charles, Loy was unfailingly charming. She had such a light, funny social grace that it’s only when you really pay attention that you see her gently maintaining the upper hand in nearly all of her interactions. She’s at the top of the social curve, not for any overt reason but because she’s open and confident, so confident that she literally has nothing to prove.

Myrna Loy (1926)

Myrna Loy (1926)

The difference between the femme fatale and the dame is the difference between what I aspired to at two very different stages in my life. I needed the agency and self-possession represented by both, but beyond that I wanted control after I had so thoroughly lost it. I wanted calm where there had been chaos, perspective where I’d had none. I wanted measured looks and unflinching gazes and dry observations and crooked smiles. I wanted to relax and finally be myself, without apology or aggression. So I embraced the dame and subconsciously rebuilt myself in a different mold.

It would be easy to think of the these figures as constructs – personas that were / are separate or laid over my actual personality, but that would discount the fact that for many people, personalities are fluid. We all have baseline characteristics – compassion, cruelty, extroversion, introversion – but different people bring out different qualities in all of us, just as different events change and shape who we are. The femme fatale and the dame are that for me – responses to events that shaped the woman I became.

Iconic figures are complicated and how we related to them is even more so, but for me, they were a mirror, not only into what I was, but into what I wanted to be. They were something to pattern on while I explored and found myself. I didn’t (and don’t) try to be predatory or sexual or wry or watchful. At various times, in various circumstances, I just am, all while maintaining the priority of trying to be an essentially good person. I will never be fully rid of the anger, but because these two different versions of feminine sexuality resonated so deeply at pivotal times, they allowed me to stop being the apologetic mouse with the target on her back. The femme fatale took me too far to one side, whereas the dame helped me find my natural self.

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