Last night I went to see Ani Difranco perform. It was an amazing show, full of energy and power and heart. Her opening act, Jesca Hoop (who was also amazing), said that the first time she saw Ani perform was transformative. “I never saw a woman hold space like that.”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what it means to perform “woman.” We are told not to take up space, taught the exact opposite: to be quiet and small and supportive and pleasing to look at. We are taught to be a thing, an object rather that an actual person. Our personhood, our truth, our power is too messy, too wild, untrustworthy and unreliable, and we need to control it, hide it, smash it to bits if necessary.
I recently watched a documentary about Taylor Swift, another singer/songwriter/performer. To be honest, I don’t really listen to her music (although “Shake it Off” was super catchy). She seems pretty representative of what it means to be a white woman, a celebrity, so she’s not someone I typically look to for wisdom or even entertainment. However, I was very interested in what she had to say about “being good.” She talks in the documentary about how that was always her central purpose, her main focus and goal in life: to be seen as “good” and to be liked.
This is a particular neurosis of white women living under the Stockholm Syndrome that is white supremacy. The “goodness” of a white woman supports and enables white supremacy (and in turn the patriarchy), allows it to continue. White women are conditioned to accept all the ways we aren’t enough, aren’t to be trusted, need to be controlled, and it keeps us frozen in shame and unworthiness and silence, limits our action, our creativity, our innate wisdom. We perform and please and fawn and smash ourselves to bits to be “good.”
What’s weird is even when we start to wake up, become more aware, that performance of goodness stays with us. That pattern we learned is so deep that we continue to react and behave that way. Our response to our new awareness of things like white supremacy, patriarchy, diet culture, etc. is exactly the same: to be frozen by shame and unworthiness, to perform and fawn while inside smashing ourselves to bits. In this way, we still serve the status quo because we remain trapped, unable to act according to our deepest truths, our fundamental wisdom, our real power.
I realized recently, with the help of therapy, that the two core beliefs I was taught were: I cannot be trusted AND I’m responsible. Let me tell you, this is a real mindfuck. If I can’t be trusted, how can I possibly be responsible? If I am supposed to figure things out, fix them, make things right, how can I do that if I can’t trust myself? This confusion is further fed by the need to be “good,” the need to be liked. It’s a mess, keeps me frozen in inaction, anxiety and despair.
The remedy, the antidote is to drop the shame and honor our inherent wisdom, our truth, our power. Just know, there is not much in this culture that will truly support such a pursuit. There will be resistance that at times even turns to aggression. We will make mistakes and get it wrong. Standing in our truth and our power, taking up space goes against tradition, puts the current system at risk, and make us vulnerable. But ultimately, “good” is useless, violent even. Nothing will ever change if we keep trying so hard to be good.
Women like Ani Difranco show us the way. She writes her own songs, tells her own story, holds space, even though there will so many who don’t like her for it. Every performance by such an artist reminds me of the power of story, of art, of telling the truth. Art embodies our story, personal and yet universal in the way it represents what it means to be human. This art, these stories, these humans are essential, have always been the thing that keeps me from giving up, gives me some sense that maybe things are in fact workable, that joy and ease and love are possible. Yes things change and die but they also come alive and are solid, tangible, real. There is suffering but there is also something else, both empty and illuminated.