Anne Helen Petersen wrote a book about unruly women because she regrets having grown up ruly. She wants to encourage us to be brave, because she was not.
In the intro to Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud, Peterson says
Someone might look at a picture of me, or read my résumé, and wonder what interest I would have in unruliness…I grew up middle-class in a midsize town. I got straight As. I was a cheerleader for seven years…I’ve received one speeding ticket…But so much of that…lack of acting out–stemmed from a posture of fear…girls who crossed that invisible line would become pariahs.
Having grown up behaving herself, Petersen came to admire unruly women. Like Serena Williams (“Too Strong”), Melissa McCarthy (“Too Fat”), Nicki Minaj (“Too Slutty”), Madonna (“Too Old”), and Lena Dunham (“Too Naked”). The book is about women who reject traditional standards for how they should behave. It’s fascinating to see what they’ve gone through, the insults, assaults, and roadblocks. Yet they persevere. Most are determined businesswomen. Each chapter is inspiring.
I was having a fine old time until I got to Caitlyn Jenner and Madonna, because Petersen argues that they, for all their in-your-face celebrity feminism, are actually repressed.
I know what you’re thinking. “Whaaaaaat? THOSE two? Not likely!”
But in a way, they are. Caitlyn, I learned, is engaging in “transnormativity.” Here’s how I understand that: you go from being stereotypically one thing to stereotypically another. From normal male to normal female (or in Jenner’s case, from extremely masculine to extremely feminine). What’s the problem with that?
According to the culture, this prevents or slows down the acceptance of people who are somewhere in the middle. If you aren’t trans – NORMAL, you’re coloring outside the lines.
Transnormative Jenner, having adopted the characteristics of a hyper-feminized female, is reinforcing that we can only be one thing or the other, when in the 21st century we’re learning that people are more nuanced than that. (Seeing shades of gray is easier for older people, BTW, because we’ve seen it all.)
Whether or not it’s fair to hold Jenner responsible for carrying that banner, it’s interesting to understand the argument. Sheltered as I am, I didn’t know until I read this book that there was one.
And Madonna is making a similar mistake. Madonna kills herself in the struggle to look and act young. She is not evolving, at least not visibly. She works mightily to remain on one extreme of the age range, because that’s where she believes her commercial (and perhaps, intrinsic) value is. She might be transitioning to “old,” but as long as she acts like a normal young person, we let her live.
Although of course we don’t. Madonna is derided for trying to emulate youth. Man, if I had to go through what she does, I’d retire to the south of France.
When I read about them both, but particularly Jenner, I felt that mental “click” coming. I had to pull on the threads and untangle them to find out what my deeper mind was trying to tell me. It popped up almost as a picture, a concept, before words arrived to make it concrete.
I loved this experience, by the way, because typically it’s only old people who think like this. One of the gifts of the aging brain is that we become adept at linking disparate things and seeing commonalities. Younger people typically have to be super-special, or meditate like crazy, to be able to do this. But I digress.
Caitlyn Jenner is criticized for manifesting extreme femininity, because it negates the new understanding of gender fluidity. Madonna is trying to cling to the one extreme that she, her industry, and the larger culture value most: youth. Their public posture ignores our growing acceptance of the idea that there is more to the reality of human development, between the extremes of male and female, old and young.
The problem, then, is that seeking transnormativity does very little to actually address or dissipate transphobia. By making people forget that someone is trans, it also means they don’t have to confront the anxiety, fear, or anger that arises when someone (doesn’t act traditionally male or female).
The click in my mind found clarity. Here’s what I saw: there are parallels between gender-compliance and age-compliance. You could rewrite the above paragraph with respect to aging.
The problem, then, is that seeking youth-normativity does very little to actually address or dissipate age-phobia. By making people forget that someone is old (or making old people invisible), it also means they don’t have to confront the anxiety, fear, or anger that arises when someone (doesn’t act their age).
Bottom line: if gender is more multidimensional than previously thought, well, so is aging. And we should be free to explore that.
I have a 70-year-old friend who is an expert in tech. She was a little nervous about the fact that she would soon be addressing a conference in Silicon Valley, with the expected young, male, youth-centric audience. I told her to be a proud, confident teacher (even if she had to fake it). That she could show them how it is to be an interesting older person. Show them the way.
Limiting people to strict boundaries is a waste of human potential. How much more fun to feel we can safely experiment with different ways to age, and to accept and celebrate older people who act non-traditionally.
I understand this is weird new thinking. But isn’t it kind of cool that our culture is evolving so much? When people decry the “change in values” in our country, I know what they mean. I’m a little scared, too. But if a new, brave look at some of these issues can free us to be more complete, open, and happy humans, wow, what a blessing that would be.
I think the key is to try to be openminded about those who don’t fit our stereotypical constructs. We can change the culture, people, if we are openminded and brave. We can make it better for ourselves and our young ‘uns, if they feel free to be who they are, even it they’re one of a kind.