Maya and My Thighs: A Tribute to #MayaAngelou

“…She had that line…that damn line that made me go from high yellow to pink every time I said it:

“Does my sexiness upset you? Does it come as a surprise? That I dance like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?”

I could barely get the word thighs out without hearing snickering. Like I really wanted to bring attention to “down there” in front of the popular eighth-grade boys whose hormones were raging out of control. Damn it Maya Angelou! Why that part? I’m already awkward as hell with big glasses. Now I have to say “diamonds at my thighs” in front of the whole school? Was she trying to kill my eighth-grade career?…”

At first I was extremely wary of entering the debates surrounding the UCSB shooting that occurred recently because there has been so much vitrol thrown around with everyone blaming everyone else. There didn’t seem to be a “right” thing to say about the situation other than to express condolences. But after I read the above article, the quoted text caught my eye and got me thinking about how it relates to the shooting.

As a quick precursor, I’d like to provide some examples of the vitrol I previously mentioned that is rocking the internet at the moment. For instance, many feminists (and others) are using the phrase #yesallmen, while the other side is calling “sexist!” on those who use it. Alternatively, the phrase #yesallwomen is also being used, which is again a bit misguided. Generally speaking, the use of absolute qualifers (i.e. “all,” “none,” “always,” “never”) is unwise due to their inherent ability to exclude outliers and exceptions. While I understand the need for a strong and easy to remember catch-phrase, it perpetuates and widely circulates the exclusive value of the absolute qualifers thus encouraging myopic viewpoints and popular opinions.

That said, I would like to use the above quote as an example of a gendered injustice that is carried out in an arguably non-intentionally-sexualized (i.e. in an “educational setting”) manner that can occur among children, adolescents, and even adults. This is a poignant example of how gendered injustices are seemingly innocent when in actuality they can have long-lasting damaging effects. This more “innocent” example is opposed to the mostly intentionally sexualized encounters (such as bar-hopping/clubbing, etc.) that people involved in the gender rights debate have been using as evidence of gendered injustices. While those are still completely valid injustices, my point is that the encounter does not necessarily need to be inherently tied to sexual expression in order to reflect gendered injustice. Many people are also focusing on “life-threatening” instances as well, when those are often in the minority on the extreme end of the spectrum of gendered injustices.

Take the above encounter, for example. First off, the poem itself assumes a female voice when in actuality the line “diamonds/At the meeting of my thighs” could aptly apply to both genders. Thereby already revealing that pre-conditioned socialized gender politics are at play here: the reader and audience assume that the voice of that line is female (contextually it may still be female, but the reader specifically focuses on that line by itself, thereby raising it outside of its own context). Secondly, the girl reading the poem assumes how the “eighth-grade boys” are going to react. By assuming what their reaction will be, she is perpetuating the socialized stereotype of the “hormonal adolescent boy.” By automatically categorizing the boys in her audience as such, she is assuming their reactions based on age and gender which is unfortunately a very common form of ageism and sexism in our society. Yet it is not necessarily her fault that she thinks that way. She, like many Americans, were socially conditioned from birth to believe, participate in, and perpetuate these unfair age- and gender-based stereotypes.

In other words, it is unfair of us to use the tag #yesallmen and place all men within this “sexist” (“hormonal boy”?) stereotype. In the same vein, it is also unfair to use the tag #yesallwomen to place all women within a gender-based generalization. But it is also unfair of us to expect ourselves and others to automatically disregard the gendered stereotypes that we have been taught since childhood. It’s similar to the chicken vs. the egg debate; which came first? Did the gendered stereotypes come first or did the gendered reactions come first? Where do stereotypes come from?

The solution, moreover, is not to “reform all men” or enact gun restrictions (while I do heavily advocate for gun control, there are other factors at work here and people will continue to use violence to solve their problems with or without guns). Those are bandaid solutions on a gaping wound in our society. We need to look into where these ideas and preconceptions are coming from and why they are perpetuated the way they are. Yes, you can treat cancer with chemo. But wouldn’t you rather look at why they’re getting cancer in the first place?

I’m looking for preventative solutions not reactive solutions. While some reactive solutions (i.e. gun control) are needed immediately, our focus needs to be on preventative measures. Enacting gun control laws (or mental health laws for that matter) is not going to solve these issues like a magic wand.

It’s going to take a lot of hard and strenuous work to fully explore these issues in order to come up with lasting solutions. And many people are not willing to put in that much effort (critical thinking and solution-creating is sadly undervalued in our society and educational systems). People would much rather complain and insult each other than work toward constructive goals.

We have been evolutionarily conditioned to fight against the “other” (i.e. opposing peoples, tribes, cultures, etc.) to affirm our right to live and to achieve our own prominence (and success) in the world. This leads to war, to racism, to sexism, to transphobia, to homophobia, and so on and so forth. In other words, we must put ourselves ahead of others in order to live successfully.

That evolutionary drive is no longer necessary and/or practical. There is virtually no more room on this earth to escape/expand to and now we are faced with the problem of either dealing and cooperating with these “others” or fighting to the death. We can either coexist or submit/prevail, there is no in between. Our fundamental right to live is just as valid as their right to live. Perhaps, now, we must consider and cooperate with others in order to live successfully.

This fundamental truth is often unrealized and/or ignored. The UCSB shooter (and many others) decided that his right to live was more valid than his victims’ rights to live. And that’s the viewpoint that we need to fully examine so that we can come up with lasting, constructive, preventative solutions. Whether this viewpoint comes in the form of sexism or racism (or even within the minimum wage and immigration debates), the underlying drive is more or less the same. Yes, we can give them the death penalty or submit them to psychological treatment but that doesn’t really change/affect the society in which they learned that it was okay to commit the act of violence. That society will keep producing similar byproducts, similar people who will assert their right to live over others’, until we turn the focus on the society itself.

It’s about learning to become comfortable with the uncertain and often indefinable inbetweeness that surrounds these debates. These issues are not black and white and simple to solve. And there actually may not be one single “right” solution. We like to believe that one solution will fix a problem forever, but it rarely works that way, especially when humans are involved. Just think, we thought we had eradicated numerous diseases with vaccines, and now they’re popping up like crazy again because some people decided that the vaccines were unnecessary. Anything can happen when humanity is involved, but our job is to recognize that and keep consciously and constructively working toward a better world.

We need to start holding accountable those who spread the blatant misinformation that often leads to the above socialized gendered stereotypes, among other things (i.e. vaccines, global warming, creationism, etc.). We need to stop shaming the human body in all its ecstatic wonder. We need to stop teaching our children stereotypical gender roles that revolve around outdated pre-conceptions about physical features in the home and at school. We need to educate our children and our society with verified facts and evidence while encouraging them to think for themselves. Furthermore, we need to continue pushing for, exploring, and critiquing the way we gather these facts and evidence. We need to accept others’ differences of opinions, viewpoints, and cultures that are as valid as our own personal opinions, viewpoints, and cultures. Only then can we advance as a society.

 

“An eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth would lead to a world of the blind and toothless.”

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by | June 4, 2014 · 10:17 pm

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