In the second to last episode of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, a small moment – just a single sentence spoken by Miyokichi in the middle of an already emotionally rich episode – struck me on a bone-deep level. Miyokichi wasn’t my favorite character. That wasn’t my favorite scene, or my favorite episode. It might be my favorite line. In just a few words, Miyokichi articulated something that I think most women have long known, a problem many of us grapple with our entire lives.
“Role” seems to come up a lot in relation to a woman’s life: the role of mother, the role of daughter, the role of a career woman, and the list goes on. I don’t think we talk about the “role of man” as much because at some point we just collectively agreed on what men are in a more cohesive way than women. The conversation of what roles a woman chooses to play are often phrased in terms of trade-offs or sacrifices. If a woman can’t “have it all,” she must give up something, usually family or a career. But people rarely talk about the foundation of all of this: the role of being a woman itself. No, I don’t mean the purpose of women.
Maybe this shouldn’t seem like an issue for a cis, extremely het person like myself. Why would the thing I naturally grow up to be become a burden? I guess because womanhood is often defined passively where manhood is active. In countless legends and hero’s journey narratives, boys are agents in their stories of self-realization – they become a man after undergoing some trial, whether physical or mental. Womanhood is often simply assigned at certain milestones: getting your period, losing your virginity, and less commonly, childbirth. While the first thing is usually not in a girl’s control, the others are still things that happen to a female body, even if they are choices. They’re also explicitly related to sexual functions.
Sometimes it occurs to me that pre-adulthood, despite not being able to do very much for yourself, is the most powerful we will ever be. It’s not that I wasn’t gaining awareness of the ankle-chain of womanhood even then, but for a brief few years the protective glass around my life hadn’t quite shattered. Why is the figure of the female adolescent, the rose about to bloom, such a powerful image to both women and men? We can project everything onto this girl on the brink – she is limitless potential. And why is there more cache in the girl than the boy? Why is pre-womanhood the rarest treasure, the power everyone wants to hold and control for themselves? Because in becoming a woman, more than becoming a man, we understand that there’s a closing door – an end to that potential. It’s when we step into the role of woman.
With puberty too often comes the end of a naive era for girls – a time before you notice leering gazes and invasive comments. Thinking in these terms, as I have for over a decade, the word “woman” didn’t seem aspirational. It was a pall closing in over my life. Womanhood meant things being done, expectations being had, looks, blood, bodily fluids, my very body being out of my own control. For someone who has always micro managed every aspect of myself, especially in the outside world, this was all utterly terrifying. I’m not much of a journal person, but I did try to keep one for about a year when I was 13. I still have it somewhere, and one of the entries in the middle (June 2005) expressed a crushing fear of growing up.
Did I even know, at 13, what there was to be afraid of? A few notable tastes of objectification and exposure to the sort of Christianity that places the entire onus of men’s behavior on girls and women was just the tip of the iceberg of adult female life. I only had my period for about a year before starving it out of me. Writing this now, with a few more deliberate hormone regressions under my belt, I wonder how much my preteen self understood that womanhood was something to run from.
I’ve been coerced, I’ve been degraded. It’s hard to get the r word out of my mouth, but that probably happened too. In my older teen and young adult years I would always blame myself and try to run from it, thinking that if I turned myself back into a child, I would be free of the chains of womanhood. Once, when an ex-boyfriend saw me months after our breakup, all 90-something pounds of me, he told me I had gotten ugly. That comment thrilled me more than every time he had told me I was beautiful. I felt like I had finally found a safe place, in this bubble where the only person capable of hurting me was me.
But even stopping your body doesn’t stop the march towards adulthood. Men (sometimes other women) still put me in boxes, still saw what they wanted to see, still saw something they just wanted to fuck. I hate this existence sometimes. I resent my sexual capital even as I’m afraid of losing it. I hate men even as the last 15 years of my life have been shaped by how they see me. And I guess that’s the crux of it. Being seen. A passive phrase. I long to escape it, or at least have control over when I’m seen. The less space I take up, the more I can fill the emptiness with whatever I choose. That’s what I tell myself.Find me on: