Monday, March 22, 2010

The Bottomless Theme: Damage Women Do Themselves

by Sophie


I'll just say up front that this theme was my idea. I know it's a little denser than some of the subjects we talk about here, but it's a pervasive theme in my stories, a frequent flyer in the idea department, and I was hoping we could have an all-in discussion about it among my favorite fellow writers.

"Mortification" is the title of one of my favorite short stories that I've written. It is not a perfect story by a long shot - in addition to trying to do too much in too little space, I was a bit heavy handed with the theme.

{Quick sidebar: Thanks to Beat To A Pulp and all the other terrific 'zines keeping short fiction alive on the internet.}

I was trying to juxtapose two kinds of mortification. One was the religious practice of corporal mortification (in this case self-flagellation practiced by some Shi'a muslims) and the other was shame (in this story, a girl who suffers deep humiliation because gives herself away too often and for far too little).

It is my belief that much of the physical mortification that girls and women practice on themselves grow directly from shame - and in our society, shame is in ample supply for girls of every class. I circle this idea in everything I write, whether it's my 50-year-old semi-comic heroine in my mystery series, or the 16-year-old adventurer in my young adult series, or the young female addict in my not-yet-sold dystopic fiction.

Women punish themselves relentlessly. Popular fiction addresses this all the time, and appropriately so, I believe. WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson is a young adult novel that has taken a lot of heat from parents, but is beloved by teen readers; it is an unflinching look at eating disorders. SHARP OBJECTS by Gillian Flynn examines cutting in a young woman who is at the center of a twisted and grievous cast of characters: it is an unforgettable story. I could name many more examples, and so could you.

But mortification does not have to be dramatic to be profound. I have a habit of watching people from the sidelines, being at heart a bit of a tongue-tied observer. I see self-damage done a thousand little ways. I see the sweet teenage girl on the softball team, pushing her stomach in her team pants when no one is looking, willing it to betray her less, hating the unforgiving and unflattering synthetic fabric almost as much as she hates her soft body. I see the women my age at stoplights in the town I live in, squinting into their rear-view mirrors, planning their next botox appointment. I see it starting early: the little girls on BART, trying to be small enough and quiet enough in the shadow of their despondent and overworked mothers, chewing at the flesh of their fingers, chewing it raw.

As I said, I dance around mortification in nearly every book I write. Some day, though, I am going to write a book in which I face it head on, a big book, a brave book. I'm not ready to do it yet, but I'm thinking, thinking, thinking, let it creep up on me. When it does, I'll get to work.


Jen Forbus said...

Hey Sophie, this is a great post. It's sad that our society allows this kind of behavior to proliferate, that we idolize size 0 models and unrealistic goals. Even homes that carefully nurture their young daughters ultimately have to send them out into the world where others aren't as kind and compassionate.

Dancing around or facing head on, every little effort to counteract this epidemic is a step in the right direction!

Camille Minichino said...

Wow, thanks for putting this out there, Sophie.

I'm always aware of the intellectual mortification girls and women put themselves through also ... holding back on expressing themselves or revealing that they might be more intelligent than is cool, afraid of disapproval, sacrificing school and career for something they're "supposed" to do.

It's brave of you to tackle the physical aspects and I know that book will come out!

Sophie Littlefield said...

Thanks Jen...that's why i'm always glad to see it addressed in young adult fiction. i find it really perplexing that some parents want their kids' books to shy away from any substantive issues.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Camille: thanks for bringing up the idea of intellectual mortification. it absolutely belongs in the discussion, and i'm throwing it in the hopper with the rest, letting it all marinate together. i'm so glad you got me thinking about it that way.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Your big, brave book will blow us all away, I predict...

I think there are lots of reasons for this behavior in addition to the unrealistic roles society tries to stuff us into (men too, more and more). Survivor guilt (do we all have it now since 9/11?), stepping out of the social class of your family into a new one, all kinds of things. We're terribly sensitive creatures, yet we treat ourselves like the broad side of barns so often. We have tools like axe and broadsword (psychiatry and behavioral modification) but we're trying to fix delicate clockworks with them.

When I was a brand new adult, I used to think wearing make up and fancy clothes was a form of self-denigration (same as mortification?), saying "I am not fit to be consumed without serious alterations, and all I am fit for is to be consumed." As an older adult, I'm just too damn lazy to pick up the habit, and too out of shape to fit in the clothes. At least I now understand it's a game, a dance, and there are many roles a person can play.

Some people think I'm pretty brave, for a girl. My husband has come to believe it's a genetic foolhardiness present in my whole clan. Some people at work roll their eyes when I speak up at meetings, but others keep telling me to "ask the questions nobody wants to have to answer." Pretty sure that's the definition of a writer :)

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

I think this is what I'm trying to ask -- when does self-transformation become mortification? When does that car go off the rails? Or are they not even related?

Marcy Campbell said...

This might be tangential, but after reading this post, following an article about the nuns who stood up to the bishops to express their support for health care reform, I can't help seeing the connection with intellectual mortification. Talk about a group of women who are taught to serve men... As a former Catholic, I feel the need to give them a shout-out.

Jamie Freveletti said...

Reminds me a little bit about that awful new show "What I hate about Me" I froth at the mouth when I see it and tell my 12 year old not to watch, because it's mostly women talking about their bodies. I tell her to love herself, and if she wants to learn about fashion then watch "What not to Wear" where they emphasize dressing to make everyone look great no matter what their particular body type is.

Juliet Blackwell said...

Heya Soph,
Beautiful post, as always. i can't wait for your big mortification book -- there is so much to say on this topic, and I know we're only scratching the surface (no pun intended)!

jyauzer said...

Hey Sophie - incredible post. Couldn't agree with you more. And I also agree that when you one day write the book that addresses this issue head-on, it will blow us all away. Thanks for the post!

Sophie Littlefield said...

mysti, that is a *very* brave subject to broach and one that i shy away from sometimes out of fear. i've always wondered - why was gloria steinem so attractive and did that detract from her message? what about that women a few years back who had the new feminist manifesto - can't remember her name or the title - but/and she was super hot. what does attractiveness mean, does it have an inherent value or ethic, etc. and the reverse of the coin as well.

it's going to be a long time before i know enough to try that one, but as we all know, rolling it around in the back of the brain *is* the first step.

and ps - you are dead on right: asking the hard questions IS writerly, indeed.

Rachael Herron said...

Deep, deep, deep.

Tomorrow, I'm going to stay on the shallow end, bobbing for apples where my toes can touch. You, lovey, can catch me when I drift, okay? xo

Sophie Littlefield said...

marcy: that is a *huge* trough of material for me that i haven't even begun to plumb. I am a practicing catholic in the sense that i attend mass about 50% of Sundays...but every time i go, i get wildly enraged. nuns fascinate me. again, i don't know if i'll every have the confidence or knowledge to address them in kids - one is atheist, one is probably humanist - though they are so young who knows - challenge me all the time on why we deliberately attend a church where so much of the ideology goes against our beliefs. i don't have an answer for them (except for the truly lame "it seems to be stuck"). though occasionally the nuns do something so purely good that i'm astonished in a good way.

a subject that will seize me forever, no doubt. This week, though, the vatican can go f itself

Sophie Littlefield said...

thansk everyone for the kind thoughts and for the confidence that i really could write such a book. :) we'll see, indeed. and rachael're quite silly if you think of yourself as paddling in the shallow're a length-of-the-pool gal if there ever was one

Anonymous said...

I agree Gillian Flynn's SHARP OBJECTS is an unforgettable story. But I just finished reading "Mortification" and that too will linger for some time.

You did an excellent job showing Brianna's pain and very artfully tied together the detective's cultural disorientation with the case he was investigating. The ending was powerful.

I recently read "Decision Day" in Thug Lit and am now stacking up the rest of your stories on my reading pile. (At the risk of being far too gushy, I already read and enjoyed A BAD DAY FOR SORRY.)