Anxious Feminism

First, a story.

A few years ago, a male colleague of mine was approached in a local coffee shop by another graduate student. This graduate student was a man relatively new to the program and I had only met him once or twice. When he saw that my colleague had a bible (apparently the universal indicator that you work in Hebrew Bible/NT studies) the newbie launched into the following inquiry: “Do you know Jeannie Sellick? Is she in your field? She’s really loud. Like really fucking loud.” After he finished the last statement, he started leaving and then turned back for one last “really fuckin’ loud,” you know, just in case there had been any confusion before.

I’d like to say I never thought about this incident. Or that when I did, shrugged it off and said “screw that kid.” I did not. Instead a spent an evening crying in my room, imagining all the ways that I could have “wronged” the boy to justify why someone I barely knew would slander me unprompted. What’s worse is that my mind spun over and over with the question of “am I too loud??”

In the less emotional, more self righteous light of day, I came to the conclusion that this guy must just be a flaming sexist. You wouldn’t criticize a man for being too loud, right?! He hates women. He hates me for being a woman who speaks. What a prick.

Now in reality, neither of these stories were true. But over the next few days (ok, fine, weeks) my brain kept swinging between these two poles. He criticized me either because he’s a sexist puppet or because I am a loud mouthed bitch. For me this became an all consuming anxiety over whether I was being attacked because of patriarchal norms or because I was actually an obnoxiously loud person. In sum, someone had to suck and I couldn’t figure out who.

Okay. Another story.

I was having a conversation with one of my female colleagues about the prophet Jonah. For those of you who don’t know, Jonah’s claim to fame is being kind of a whiny prick. He’s as judgmental as he is cowardly and his short book ends with him in continual disagreement with God. Well I was going through all of this with my friend when I asked her whether Jonah was still considered a prophet in Hebrew & Christian traditions. Before she could respond, another male student (not part of the original conversation, mind you) looked up at me and patronizingly said “You’re adorable.”

I am adorable. Like very, very adorable as a person. I’m silly & cute & lighthearted. My claim to fame has been making typically dull or dry material funny and relatable. Adorable, however, is not entirely what he meant. I’m relatively fluent in pretentious grad student so allow me to translate. By “you’re adorable” he actually meant something along the lines of “you’re a silly, ridiculous, moron.”

Again I found myself swinging between the poles of he’s a sexist & maybe I am ridiculous. There was no middle ground in my mind. Either he judged me because I was a woman or I was letting female graduate students everywhere down by being too adorable.

Again, the reality is that neither of these stories were true; they were merely my interpretations. I cannot know what he actually meant by calling me adorable, I can only speak to how it made me feel. But these types of situations have been haunting me since I learned the word patriarchy.

As a woman working in a male dominated field, I have been battling these thoughts ever since I started graduate school. I am constantly put in the position of having to question whether a critique of me, my ideas or work is legitimate or if it is patriarchal. For any woman who’s ever had to read course reviews, you probably know what I’m talking about. Is this constructive feedback or is this a criticism rooted in or colored by my gender? How do you reconcile the two takes when you are one, wholistic person?

These thoughts sometimes lead to a sickening split reality in which all feedback must be taken with a heavy grain of salt. I have always suffered from anxiety, but this is a whole new level. Once I entered graduate school, not only did I feel personal pressure to perform, but I also felt keenly responsible for how all women would be perceived. If I failed to speak up in class, botched a paper or embarrassed myself, I couldn’t help but feel that I was letting down not just myself, but generations who had given me the opportunity. It’s a heavy weight to carry that compounds one’s anxieties in an already difficult career. And I know I do not have to carry it, but I can’t help it.

Now I’m not saying that all women go through this (though I suspect a great many do). Neither am I saying that it’s only women who can experience this kind of split reality (I’m a privileged white lady so I have it easier than most). But this has been my experience — one of constant second guessing, anxiety, and guilt.

The aforementioned are just two examples of many; but I love them because they nicely illustrate the range of “wrongness” that often exists for women in fields like academia. On one end I’m too loud, too obnoxious, too bold, too outspoken. On the opposite end of the spectrum I’m too adorable, too silly, too shallow, too soft. And this is what makes me the most anxious of all. That no matter where I land on this spectrum, there is no way of being any of these things without some consequences (no matter if they are real or perceived).

But at the end of the day, fuck ’em. This is 2019. Be adorable. Be obnoxious. Be fucking loud. If it upsets them, they can just put on headphones.

Sabrina Spellman is the Antichrist We Need

SPOILERS, obviously. When the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premiered last October, few people expected that the titular heroine would turn out to be the Antichrist (unless you’ve read the comics, which I haven’t, so don’t try me). Yet here we are. And where I was initially annoyed with how the show-runners clumsily inserted the reveal into a teen drama. But now I’ve leaned all the way in and come to realize that in these trying times there is no better candidate for Antichrist than a teenage feminist wearing headbands and turtlenecks. In case you are wondering exactly how a teenage witch becomes the antihero of the apocalypse, here’s a brief overview of how the show treats Judeo-Christian scripture. While a show about witches may seem like a great time to sidestep or discount modern religious traditions, this one presupposes a kind of “truth” to the biblical texts. Even if the canonical version is wildly biased, God created the human beings, there’s a garden of Eden, and a Jesus. Now I should point out that the show never refers to her as the “Antichrist” specifically; instead, Sabrina is called the Herald of Hell. But with the show’s underlying acceptance of the New Testament as true, she is cast as a latter-day antichrist no matter what they call her. As the show explains, she is the “herald of Hell” not only because she is the daughter of, but performs perversions of the “Nazarene’s.” Though the figure of the “antichrist” is shockingly vague in the book of Revelation (really, look.), Spellman’s anti-miracles track with our overarching cultural conception of the figure. Rather than following the “false creator god” (Ialdabaoth, anyone?). Sabrina and her family belong to the Church of Night, an organized religion that worships the fallen angel Satan. Although the Church of Night rejects the false god and beliefs of the canonical Bible, it is merely a mirror of the Catholic Church. Even though the worship of Satan is supposed to be based on “free will,” the Church of Night is just as militantly dogmatic, hierarchical, and patriarchal as any modern Church. Sabrina fights the pillars of the Church of Night at every turn. She lays bare the sexism that lies in the power structures, rituals, and Satanic scriptures of her church. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina shows that patriarchy is damning no matter what dogma it cloaks itself in. In her turn as Antichrist, Spellman subverts the apocalyptic expectations of everyone – both Satan & Scripture – and instead becomes the savior of women: dethroning Lucifer, planting his consort Lilith as Queen of Hell, and thus destroying the Church of Satan. I’ve really come around to this idea of Sabrina as the Antichrist in recent weeks. This past month has seen state after state attempt to legislate women’s bodies and limit their reproductive freedom. The majority of the people (with some exception) making these laws in Alabama and Georgia are men; and I don’t even need to look up each state legislator to know that their public zeal for this legislation is likely couched in their own religious beliefs. But privately, many of these same advocates have also been accused of making their mistresses, wives or daughters get abortions. Like Sabrina finds in her own chilling adventures, much of the legislation made in the name of any religious tradition to “protect” tends to be a cover for “control.” In tumultuous times (or really at any time) there are always conspiracy theories about the Antichrist. Look up just about any president or monarch or religious leader on YouTube and you will find well crafted videos explaining why said man is definitely the Nero of our times, signaling the end of days. We also tend to turn towards “post-apocalyptic” literature for an escape that has suddenly become far too real. But let’s think about what a teenage witch Antichrist could bring us. While Sabina is supposed to herald in the end of days and help establish an earthly kingdom ruled by Satan, the only thing she actually heralds is the end of days for patriarchy. So, Sabrina is the Antichrist we need, but we definitely don’t deserve her…at least not yet.
Author attempting to replicate Sabrina’s own greatness.

Badass Doesn’t Translate Well

I have a dirty mouth. This is generally not an issue. In fact on many occasions, it’s a real blessing.

In my opinion there are few instances in which “fuck” does not serve as a helpful adjective, verb or noun. And as an instructor of undergrads, I can safely say that there is no more powerful pedagogical tool than a well placed “fuck,” particularly when you’re talking about Jesus. It’s interruptive, shocking, & somehow makes the material feel more accessible.

Where a sailor’s vocabulary can be a boon in the classroom, it has proven less effective in networking. And by “networking” here what I mean is talking to a very specific set of old, generally white, generally religious, men. You see while my students and colleagues have become pretty desensitized to my vocabulary, others in the “academy” are less thrilled. For example, calling Saint Thecla a “boss ass bitch” is apparently considered inappropriate in some circles (those of you who have read Thecla will surely agree with my assessment though; and if you haven’t read about her then what are you even doing with your life??).

At a conference dinner this past weekend, I had the chance to wax poetic about a real life heroine. A certain female professor came up in conversation and I (a little wine soaked, I admit) gave her the most all encompassing compliment I could think of — a badass. Now I’ve only been referred to as a badass on a few occasions, but each time still makes me swell with pride. A badass woman is a lady who takes no shit. She doesn’t apologize for her greatness. She works hard & inspires her students & other women to do the same. And when you are a woman in a predominantly male field, being a badass woman is particularly powerful. So, in my book, “badass” is the Queen of compliments. But not everyone shares my view.

The moment I uttered “the word” an amiable German professor looked initially confused and then horrified. He kindly explained that the term did not translate well into German. I don’t know exactly what it means in German, but it’s not hard to imagine. Yet my compliment was even more lost on another professor who’s native language is English. He got what I meant, but boy did he disagree with how I said it.

For this guy (and many others out there), there are some terms that don’t fit within the academic vocabulary — or at least the respectable one. On one level I understand this. But sometimes that academically respectful way of speaking fails to fully encompass the emotional nuances that are available to us in slang or common language. Sometimes you just gotta be real with students & colleagues. Sometimes “badass” is the cleanest way to describe the majesty & power of a fellow female academic. And sometimes, despite your shared native language, things just get lost in translation.

But when in doubt, just fucking go for it.

Even White Jesus knows the power of an interruptive middle finger.