PENELOPE TRUNK CAUSED A tremendous controversy when she Tweeted about her miscarriage (and the fact that she was glad she didn’t have to wait for an abortion, which is difficult to get in her part of the USA). I found the controversy ridiculous on many levels – after all, many people share personal information online as a way of life and this was no different, and the criticism of pro-choice women as lacking compassion is simply unconvincing – and I am glad that Trunk has written this brilliant rebuttal in The Guardian.
One phrase from her rebuttal is particularly striking: I believe that the history of women can be seen, in some ways, as a history of language. Language, of course, is more than just words – it’s phrasing, intonation and intent as well as vocabulary. The uproar over Trunk’s tweet went well beyond shock that she had reacted with relief to the miscarriage – it was really more about the fact that she had trespassed some code of conduct by which women are expected to speak, or keep silent about, certain things. And even the way we’re expected to feel those things.
What the controversy throws light on is how in spite of many taboos about speaking about personal experience becoming obsolete, how they are discussed can still scandalize and shame the speaker/writer. If Trunk had tweeted, for instance, that she was devastated, or returned after a few tweetless days and sadly and diffidently “confessed” that the miscarriage had put her out of action, it’s almost impossible that such a storm would have brewed. The problem was honesty about an experience, outside the fray of acceptable understandings and acceptable retellings of such experiences.
Nobody is above bias, and we both judge and are judged. I considered what this means in my own life. On the one hand, what this means is that (with big thanks to Eve Ensler) I can say “vagina”, and not have anyone bat an eyelid, but if I say “cunt”, my own preferred word in both conversation and writing, I get nothing but disgusted looks – instantly, my upbringing, intelligence and feminism are questionable. It means that if I ask that someone dismiss my cattiness as PMS, it’s okay, but if I write a poem about how I love the experience of menstruation (as I did some years ago, to horrified reactions), something’s wrong. On the other hand, however, if someone uses the phrase, “that female” to refer to a woman or girl, my hackles get raised, indifferent to the fact that in India, the usage is not derogatory. Similarly, I am sanctimonious about people who define sex in heteronormative or phallocentric terms, in spite of knowing that they may have never been exposed to alternate paradigms of thought.
What about you? How are you limited – whether by your own expectations or by others’ – by the notion of singular ways to experience or express certain things? How does it affect your experiences as, or viewpoints towards, women?
Of relevance is Chimamanda Adichie’s speech about “the dangers of the single story”, which you can watch here.