Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Man in Our Heads and the Professor Behind It All

When I was in Nicaragua over spring break with Global Outreach, I had the honor of meeting Marìa Teresa Blandòn. Marìa is prominent feminist and one of the leaders of La Corriente, a women's activist group in Managua. Without a doubt, the hour and a half our team spent in her presence was a highlight of the project for me. Marìa's humor, intelligence, and blunt honesty made her completely unforgettable. Honestly, I fell a little bit in love with her that day.

One of my favorite points Marìa made in her informal talk was concerning the definition of feminism. She cited another feminist, Victoria Sau, who says that feminism means getting rid of the "big man" we all have in our heads. This is the voice that tells us we need to look a certain way, act a certain way, treat other women a certain way. Once we are able to get rid of that man-- a process, Marìa admitted to us, that in many ways never ends-- we become able to like women, including ourselves.

(Incidentally, maybe my favorite one-liner of hers followed this point when she jokingly told us, "People used to say 'You're a lesbian because you're a feminist.' But I say, I am a feminist because I'm a lesbian." She went on to explain that she felt one had to love women in order to be a feminist. Not necessarily in an erotic way, she explained, but there has to be a genuine love for womankind embedded in feminism. Needless to say, this woman was truly incredible. )

After Marìa's talk, this idea of the man in women's heads really stayed with me. I felt that it was the most effective metaphor I had ever heard for internalized oppression. Kill the man in your head and allow your voice to grow stronger; rid yourself of normative ideas about beauty, femininity, and womanhood, and find yourself free to become the person you want to be. For the past couple weeks, I've been trying to imagine what this man looks like. Is he a drill sergeant? A one-percenter? An ad-man? A Hollywood executive? How can I free myself from this man in my head if I don't even know who to look for?

Virginia Woolf gave me my answer in Professor X. Reading chapter two of A Room of One's Own, Marìa Teresa immediately came to my mind. Woolf writes, "The most transient visitor to this planet, I thought, who picked up [a newspaper] could not fail to be aware. . . that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor. His was the power and the money and the influence." The man in our heads that Victoria Sau talked about is only a footman of the professor, that force in our culture that encodes nearly everything we see, read, or hear. Woolf helped me understand him even better: "Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority." When I listen to that voice of internalized oppression, I am becoming the mirror that reflects men at twice their natural size; I am reenforcing that superiority.

This might sound a little wacky. Maybe you had to be there to hear Marìa's wry, ironic way of talking about these big, amazing ideas. But this image, suggested by Woolf to a lecture hall in London in 1929 and presented to me by a Nicaraguan feminist in a little room in Managua in 2013, has helped me understand ideas that I've often struggled to articulate. I think about that man in my head, that professor living in our collective consciousness, nearly every day. I see him on television, read him on blogs, and hear him in my thoughts. In some way, I think I've always been trying to get rid of him, I just didn't know it. I know he's there now, which helps to shut him up. But I fear we may be far from removing the professor's influence over our culture entirely. I trust, and hope, that we might get there one day.

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