Hemingway, Plath, and Fear

6 Jun

Today, the Sociological Cinema published a quote from Sylvia Plath.

 “Being born a woman is an awful tragedy… Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars – to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording – all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”

Although I’ve never read anything by Plath aside from the odd assortment of poems (The Bell Jar is on my to-read shelf, okay?), her sentiment struck a chord for me, a burgeoning writer who once longed for the safety of masculinity.

In high school and part of college, Hemingway was my favorite novelist (I would be ashamed, but I’m pretty sure 1 in 3 English majors can say this). His concentrated masculinity, his stark refusal to acknowledge any kind of emotion, his cool drinks consumed in warm climates in the face of elephants, lions, and bulls…. all of this, to me, spoke of life. I wanted to live life like Hemingway, not Ernesta Hemingway.

I believed, even at 15, that if Hemingway were a girl her adventures would not be the same. Would she travel as much, and go so often alone? Would she leave bars for hotel rooms without informing her friends? Would she fail to have the quintessentially lackluster sexual experience? Would the audience permit Ernesta the luxury of such an unladylike endeavor, even if it helped illustrate how burnt out her character was, how ex-pat she had become?

Growing up, I thought not.

Ernesta, I was sure, would never go to Spain and live alone, away from her family and without any reliable friends, because suburban America creates a cloud of fear around femininity. Women are raised with the constant fear of attack and are taught that they can minimize attacks by behaving in a certain way, by avoiding certain things.

Perhaps because sexuality is commoditized, women are told that their very bodies are subject to theft (by men), as in Taken, and in many cases they are told their only hope of rescue is by– surprise– men (this is often documented as the “damsel in distress” trope).

In some senses, the fear that society instills in women may be justified. It is true that violence against women is unfathomably high. It’s estimated that in 2002, 150 million girls under 18 suffered sexual violence and globally, women make up 80% of human trafficking victims. In the US, up to 70% of murdered women were killed by their partners.

What is not justified, however, is the measures we take to keep our women safe, mostly by confining women to certain standards of dress, behavior, and movement.

Consider rape. Women are told to not go out alone, especially at night and in unlit areas. They are told to cover their drinks, purchase their own drinks, or not drink at all. They are told to go places with male friends.

People, remmeber the statistics? How many women are murdered by their intimate partners? How many victims know their rapists? Despite these figures, women are pushed by their parents, by the media, and by social norms to seek safety with men. They are told that if they simply must go out at night, if they simply must travel, they must go with men. Men are safe. Women are not.

That is an example of controlling female movement through fear. And Plath’s quote verbalizes that fear, the fear of the statistic, the fear of being Woman and the fear of being Woman in Public (hereafter known as WIP).

via the National Network to End Domestic Violence

via the National Network to End Domestic Violence

But I want to go beyond what Plath says. She accepts that being a woman means that fear is inevitable, accepts that this fear prevents females from experiencing the world in an (masculine?) authentic, unlimited way, thus limiting the perspectives of female artists and perhaps damaging their dialogue.

I disagree. I believe that fear of being a WIP is overemphasized by just about everyone– feminist groups, mass media, non-profits, and conservatives. I think it’s overemphasized for different reasons for all these groups, but collectively it has the effect of paralyzing women like Plath, like me, and convincing us that we need to restrict our movements, our dress, in order to preserve our safety.

I’ve lived with the fear of being female for so long that sometimes it’s hard to convince myself it’s irrational. I’m a pretty strong lady; I have my brown belt, carry pepper spray, and have outrun two different would-be attackers. (Both of them in Cleveland, by the way.) I’m actually reasonably sure that I would survive an attack by someone without a long-range weapon.

Plus, I know the “fear” I feel is often manufactured by society, like the fear of urbanites, rural people, and people from other countries.

Think about it. Those are always the bad guys in horror movies– and I’m not excusing my fear– but you can only show so many murdering inbred mountain people on TV before everyone else starts getting scared to drive through Pennsylvania.

And this movie is a brilliant breakdown of those stereotypes, PS.

About a year ago, I asked a friend who was much older than me what he wished he knew in his 20s. He said:

“I wish I knew to be afraid less. Once I got over my fear, I did so many things I wanted to do, and I learned so much.”

And that’s what it comes down to. Being a WIP means being afraid, and because of this fear women are cheated out of many life experiences that would facilitate learning. They do not have the Hemingway experience, thus do not write the Hemingway experience, thus do not show readers what a WIP can do, is capable of.

This is a sad circle.

Since I’ve moved to NYC, I’ve been working on my fear. And I think that, despite being a lady, I’ll still go into fields and lie down in the dark by myself. I’ll ball up that fear of being raped, that fear of being attacked, and try to master it so I can learn from the world and use it in my writing.

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