Why are men always part of the thought process for decisions whether it is protection from or appealing to?
I once heard an interview with the writer, producer, actress Greta Gerwig, where she was discussing the motivation behind her work being an exploration of women without the male gaze. I had never heard of it phrased that way. I started to evaluate on an even deeper level how the male perspective, male ideas, opinions, shape so much of our lives. I have often thought about the level of self awareness women automatically have because of how we are consumed by others. How historically, our bodies, our rights, our education have all been property, objects or controlled by that of our fathers or husbands. But in today’s modern world, even for those of us who were born into a world where we have the right to vote, to an education, to a bank account, to our independence, there is still is a remarkable sense that our bodies, our being are for the observation, judgement, entertainment, policing or consumption of men.
There’s a level consciousness of our self that I am keenly aware of every time I walk out the door, turn on the news, consume any type of media. I’ve wondered if males feel this same thing. Are they made to be conscious of their bodies from a young age because of the affect their bodies have on others? Even the messaging we receive as young as grade school: Don’t wear short skirts, spaghetti strap tank tops are not allowed, your body will distract the boys or worse, invite sexual attention. Living in a big city where every day that you walk out of your apartment, you are reminded that your body is a sexual object, enduring cat calls as you walk to the subway or to the coffee shop. Getting dressed to go on a run, do I wear what feels most comfortable to work out in or do I guide my clothing choices by what will attract the least amount of attention from men? Why are men always part of the thought process for decisions whether it is protection from or appealing to?
Beyond that, how does it translate for women’s consciousness when everywhere they look, all roles of leadership in government, business, music, the arts, sports, are predominantly men. Subconscious or not, we must internalize the feeling that men are the status quo. Men are the ones who make the decisions. Our lives and existence are determined by men.
I started to unravel how influential the male gaze has been in my life. If was truly connected to my subconscious, I could connect that how I look, what I do, what I might get in life is always somehow attached, connected to, obtained, approved or allowed by men. I wondered what it would feel like to be free of that burden. Consciously and subconsciously free of the noise and opinions that have been put upon me.
Be sexy, but don’t be too sexy because then you’re a whore or you’re intimidating. Be beautiful, but not too beautiful because then that’s all anyone will see. Be smart and strong but not too smart and strong because that’s actually very off-putting.
As I started touring as a professional musician, I obviously found myself in a position where I was in front of people. I have continually been amazed by how, almost obligated, people seem to feel to tell me how they think I should do my job. How I should play my guitar, write my songs, sing, look, dress, you name it. And I couldn’t help but notice, in my personal experience, 99% of the time, this unsolicited advice was coming from men. I have to say, I find the confidence and audacity quite remarkable, enviable even. But it doesn’t change the fact that it is uninvited. I didn’t ask anyone for their thoughts on how I was doing my job, especially from those who have never done what I do.
Those voices, those opinions, no matter how strong or independent of an individual I think I am, make their way into my psyche. I don’t want them to guide me. Not only because they are uninvited but they also are very often quite conflicting. Be sexy, but don’t be too sexy because then you’re a whore or you’re intimidating. Be beautiful, but not too beautiful because then that’s all anyone will see. Be smart and strong but not too smart and strong because that’s actually very off-putting. And then there’s the idea of one box or the other. You can’t be a woman who likes to present herself in a sensual beautiful way and also have intelligent thoughts and opinions. You can’t be “girly” and “soft” and also like sports or playing lead electric guitar.
I could fill a book with stories of the comments and conversations I alone have endured. Stories ranging from the humiliating time a man yelled from the audience, while I was tuning my guitar, “I want to lick your pussy!” to the more innocent encounters of men explaining to me how a capo works or how I should be tuning better when they noticed a string went out mid-song on stage. I’ve had a man ask me if I had children at a show that was on Mother’s Day because he wanted to know if I felt guilty leaving those hypothetical children behind to play music. I’ve had men ponder aloud to me how quickly they could take my skirt off at the merch table. These are just a few of the overt experiences.
The covert experiences of being paid less, being told, “We already have enough women on our roster,” or “I wanted to review your album but I already reviewed this other female,” leaving it there in the air, expectantly awaiting my understanding response with a look that says, “you know how it is.” Or watching fellow bandmates mock myself or another female on stage when we can’t figure out what is wrong with our gear, yet they all jump to help the guitarist if his amp is mysteriously not working. I could fill another book with the stories that I’ve heard from other women.
…we all can feel misunderstood and all desire to be who we are, away from judgement. After all, I do believe, one of our core desires as humans is to be seen for who we are.
I’ve been a music teacher for 10 years in classrooms and privately. I work with a lot of young girls. Many of whom I’ve had the privilege of watching develop and grow from elementary school on up to high school. Time and time again I see the change. I see them start out as precocious, confident, self-loving, audacious young girls but slowly, usually heading into high school, their light dims, bombarded by the opinions and judgements of others. I see them start to question themselves, to retreat more, to not want to try as hard or create for fear of “sounding or looking stupid.” I watch them over and over and I do my best to try to counter it. I share with them the importance of staying true to themselves regardless of what others say because people will always have something to say.
When I came to co-writer Mary Bragg with this idea, I wanted to write a song that felt empowering. I didn’t want to dwell on all of the negative but I wanted to write words that helped me communicate to myself and others, I’m not what you say I am, I am whoever and however I want to be. And quite honestly, I don’t want to hear what you think. Over the recent years, when someone has asked me if I was open to their feedback, I’ve honestly replied, “Politely no thank you because I’m fairly certain I’ve heard it and I’ve also heard the complete opposite.” I wanted to create a rallying cry to keep your opinions to yourself if they are critical of others. It goes back to the golden rule, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.” But everything I do and create, I also want to have an element of love, understanding and kindness. I’m not mad at any of these men who have said even some horrible things to me. I want to explain to them why it is offensive or hurtful and completely unnecessary and I want them to learn that the world doesn’t need their opinion on everything.
As I’ve toured this past year performing this song throughout the US and Europe, from Los Angeles to New York to Oslo, Norway and London, UK, I’ve been heartened, surprised and amazed by how many men I see singing along. This song originated as a gendered experience, written for little girls and women, but when I look out and see a sweet middle aged balding man, with a big smile on his face, singing full voiced along with me, “I’m not a poster on the wall, not a porcelain doll I think it’s funny how you think you run the show, don’t try to tell me how to be I’m not some puppet on a string and if I wanted your opinion you would know!”….I realize this story has transcended. That feeling of being boxed in, misunderstood, exhausted by outside pressures and people telling you how to be, it is not specific to only one kind of gender, race, religion. It is a universal feeling. It doesn’t by any means, invalidate or discount the existence and struggles of sexism, racism, and prejudice. But it does display that we all can feel misunderstood and all desire to be who we are, away from judgement.
After all, I do believe, one of our core desires as humans is to be seen for who we are. This song, for me, is an attempt to share that experience with others: men, women, trans, girls, boys and everything in between. Be for yourself. Cut out the noise.