Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Junior Great Books and Feminism: Part One

When I was in the fifth grade, I entered into something called the Extended Learning Program in school. It really was an important part of my life, but nothing made a greater impact than the few months I spent being bussed over to the public school for Junior Great Books meetings. In these meetings, we would read short stories and discuss. I was in a group with kids a year older than I was and I was the only one in a uniform: definitely the odd ball out even in a gifted program, but I loved discussing those stories. It was here that I was first introduced to Kurt Vonnegut, and his short story Harrison Bergeron.

I will not be a poser and pretend that I have read all of Vonnegut because of this story (although it is definitely something I look forward to doing someday) but I have read a few of his short stories because of Harrison Bergeron. It is such a reference point in my life that I find it incredible that more people do not know this story! In fact, the only person I have come across that knows the reference is my husband. The link above has the full text of the story, and I seriously recommend you read it.

There is much in this short story that is relevant to life as we know it in 2013: a need for equality and the struggle for balance and loss of incredible talent in tragic circumstances to name a few. In this post, I would like to discuss the correlation of this story and feminism today, but first I will give you an excerpt from the story in case you did not scurry over to the link (Link, link, link!) to read it as I suggested!

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

The first four sentences definitively set the tone for the piece. It may seem at first as though everything is finally perfect. After all, are we not currently striving for equality? Where things get tricky, is taking the uniqueness and individuality out of humanity. We are not looking for separate but equal as feminists: we are striving for unique and equal. Different but equal. Woman and man YET EQUAL. Just as we have different strengths and weaknesses as individuals, men and women together create a wholeness that would be lacking without one or the other. A woman’s contribution to this beautiful world is no less important than a man’s, and vice versa. Vonnegut may “over-simplify” the equality issue in the story, but does he? It does not seem as removed from reality to me as an adult as it did when I first read it at ten.

“The television program was suddenly interrupted for a news bulletin. It wasn’t clear at first as to what the bulletin was about, since the announcer, like all announcers, had a serious speech impediment. For about half a minute, and in a state of high excitement, the announcer tried to say, “Ladies and gentlemen——”He finally gave up, handed the bulletin to a ballerina to read.

“That’s all right——” Hazel said of the announcer, “he tried. That’s the big thing. He tried to do the best he could with what God gave him. He should get a nice raise for trying so hard.”“Ladies and gentlemen——” said the ballerina, reading the bulletin. She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous. And it was easy to see that she was the strongest and most graceful of all the dancers, for her handicap bags were as big as those worn by two-hundred-pound men.And she had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use. Her voice was a warm, luminous, timeless melody. “Excuse me——” she said, and she began again, making her voice absolutely uncompetitive.”

In the story, any personal talent, beauty or achievement is met with only the warped view of equality, or what is “fair.” A ballerina can only dance as well as anyone else. An intelligent person can only offer the world as much intelligence as what is described as average: “which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts.” Every single aspect of a human being’s intelligent design is whittled down to the lowest common denominator. As a ten year old in an advanced learning program, this thought terrorized me, and to think about it today evokes the same feelings. It may seem oversimplified or exaggerated, but the “Mommy Wars” are a fine example of how we pick apart women, and rearrange the ideal to meet only certain aspects of womanhood. My last post talked about an article that worked hard to dispel the thought of children as an achievement. It was an example of how modern, mainstream feminism tells women they can only be one kind of woman: successful, childless or with no more than two children. She must be career oriented and powerful: children will not slow her down, or affect her weight and appearance. There is an ideal concept for what womanhood is with mainstream feminism. If you do not agree, you are being held captive by a patriarchal society.

Even at the age of ten, the few moments Harrison and the ballerina had of freedom were beautiful and worth it in my eyes. Here is where the comparison ends for me. I believe that women do not have to suffer Harrison’s fate: conform or die. Rather, we have a third option: change the story. We must work to change our thoughts, words and actions so that they can transform the thoughts, words and actions of others. We must seek the truest form of change: a change of the heart/mind/perspective. The battle of new feminism and mainstream feminism is not just about abortion rights: rather, it is about refusing to see the common good that could be accomplished by focusing not on temporary solutions or handicaps such as abortion, but creating a society that is truly supportive of women and men alike. We seek society that nurtures its youth and cares for its elders. We seek change that demands equality for all while still embracing our different abilities and nature, and an equality that demands a basic respect for humanity in the process. Equality does not destroy in the name of equality.

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