(Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2014)
Over the last several months, it seems, the internet has been exploding with issues about women’s health and well-being, issues of inequality, issues of gendered violence. There was a month in the summer when it seemed celebrities were lining up to either declare themselves Feminists, or Not Feminists, and where the media responded with articles about The Dreaded F Word. Advertisers suddenly began trying to sell positive body image as a commodity, toy companies started making engineering toys for girls (pink! to build a doll house!), and viral videos depicted what it was like for women on the street being constantly catcalled. And then there was the beautiful, if not too quickly fizzled, #YesAllWomen campaign on Twitter. It seemed the time was ripe for national dialogue—a recognition in the mainstream that the women’s movement had not achieved all it had set out to. As someone who dedicates so much of my time to women’s health and safety, coordinating my town’s self-defense programs and volunteering as an advocate for a domestic violence helpline, I think one of the most important aspects to these conversations is that there is no way to separate the objectification of women, and lack of equal pay for women, and restricted access to healthcare for women, from physical violence against women. They emerge from the same societal attitudes. And therefore, the crimes perpetrated against women are—for the most part—perpetrated against them precisely because they are women.
This is the world in which I began reading Darcy Steinke’s new novel, Sister Golden Hair. Although the world of the novel—1970s Roanoke, Virginia—sucked me in quickly, and despite the thorough job Steinke does of weaving in historical markers like the Apollo 15, and 45s, and the The Mod Squad and Nixon resigning, despite the haircuts and the clothes and the cars, it was impossible not to notice how very similar the world of this novel is to the world of today—at least in terms of the landscape, for women. This is a coming of age novel, but also, more specifically, and more interestingly, a coming of womanhood novel. Through Jesse’s journey, Steinke flawlessly captures the twisty and merciless meshing of sex, violence, and magical thinking that tosses adolescents back and forth between childhood and dawning comprehension of the adult world. Early on, Jesse and her brother are outside at night alone, watching the fireflies and “Phillip got his Wiffle bat and swung at the bugs until he had a patch of glowing tails struck to the plastic. He smeared the tails over his forehead so his skin glowed.” It is the perfect entwining of Jesse’s liminal worlds, at once iridescent and beautiful, otherworldly even, and yet fragile against the whims of destructive male violence.
Jesse is twelve when her father is asked to leave his post as minister for a Methodist church in Philadelphia and decides to move the family to Roanoke. Their new home is in a development which is half-unfinished, abandoned by the builders, and the “tree line was scattered with stuff people dumped: a television with a smashed screen, a plastic bag of clothes, a broken down playpen.” Not just everyday incidental trash, but lives. And the blatant disregard for what is being dumped— and presumably escaped—and for who has to look upon the detritus of these failed experiments in life, leaves Jesse adrift in both a physical and mental world. Her parents meanwhile are struggling to define themselves: her father, because there are “not many jobs for a defrocked minister” and her mother because she is “unhinged,” constantly roiling with regret for having not achieved the life she felt she deserved. She tells her children “how sad it was the Jackie Kennedy had lost two babies” as if she should have been part of that inner circle.
When her father pulled back from the church, Jesse’s entire lens for understanding her world was removed. She says, “We were in the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning. But out in the world away from the church we floated free.” The lack of parental guidance or emotional connection, and the lack of spiritual grounding, collides with her preteen mentality.
Although there is a part of Jesse that is uncomfortable with gender differentiation and although as a child she believed she “could go back and forth between girl and boy,” Jesse is “drawn to the objects of womanhood” which for her mother were “secret symbols,” each translatable and decipherable. “A turquoise ring meant one thing worn on the index finger, something completely different on the pinkie.” And Jesse looks to them, in a way, to fill the spiritual void created when her family left the church. She craves rituals and holy objects. She craves both guiding principles and indisputable answers. Partially because of this void and partially because she is just leaving the clutches of childhood, where magic and imagination reign, Jesse imbues puberty with magic and worries sometimes that she will develop werewolf hair and wonders why if her chest can “puff out why couldn’t my forehead develop a horn?” Lacking any real guidance, she turns to the only texts she can find which will save her from the dangers of these shifts. She pours through fashion magazines— Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue— and studies them “until my legs were numb . . . . From scrutinizing the pages, I narrowed down the types of women I was interested in emulating.”
In the 1980s (a decade after Jesse pores over those glossy magazines), her magazine devotion would come to represent—for feminists—all that is wrong in society. That kind of attitude continued on through the 90s when I was going to college. I was reading Mary Daly and Camille Paglia and the definition of feminism seemed to be rooted squarely in a rejection of men—even though there was a lot of big talk about equality. In Outercourse Daly writes of patriarchs:
This pillaging of [women’s] energy was a necessary condition of their production of monstrous distortions, and the distortions themselves were designed to sap women’s energy—by depleting our Self-esteem and killing our memories, our hopes, our confidence, our courage. I realized that by distorting and erasing women’s Past they had ravaged and purloined our Present and Future.
I spent a few weeks seriously considering how to be heterosexual and feminist, and noting all the ways in which I was persecuting myself. My senior thesis—and anthropological ethnography of Christian Science—focused on how the feminist doctrine of a Mother-Father God in a church started by a woman stood side by side with the everyday misogyny practiced by the believers. Suffice to say that in this world of academic feminism there was no room for beauty or frivolities like home decorating. Now, fifteen years later, magazines are still pretty consistently outed constantly for manipulative airbrushing and rail-thin models, but fashion is okay from a feminist perspective. Not to say the relationship isn’t complicated. When Alyssa Mastromonaco transitioned from serving as Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Operations to contributing editor for Marie Claire magazine, she reports that men (her peers) were outraged at the decision. She wrote in her Washington Post Op-Ed, “dated arguments assume that women are incapable of being both informed and fashionable, that to be a woman of substance and gravitas, to be the taken seriously by her peers, she must subordinate her appearance and interests outside the office.”
In this new world, feminism is still hotly contested and the definitions debated, but now there is a recognition that to be feminist does not mean the rejection of all things “girly” but rather a rejection of the idea that these are the only things that appeal to and matter to women. Furthermore, “girly” things don’t have to appeal, nor do they indicate a weakness if they do appeal. The online magazine Jezebel writes a version of this same sentiment at least once a week. Amazing how often it needs restating.
In the 1970s, though, Jesse is in the beginning of this feminist awakening— nowhere near considering whether or not she should be looking at fashion magazines if she wants to be a strong woman. Over the next four years though, she senses as she looks at the types of women in the complex around her, that there are scores of divergent possibilities of womanhood and that not all are equal. There is Mrs. Smith in a housedress and curlers, standing on the front step—clearly a direction Jesse does not intend to follow as it too closely reflects her mother on her worst days. There is Sandy, a sexy, unsophisticated woman, who lies on a “lawn chair in the front yard in a leopard print bikini.” She listens to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the transistor radio, drinks a can of beer, and tells Jesse—inappropriately—that since her boyfriend is never going to marry her she doesn’t “know why [she] keep[s] fucking him.” Jill lives in a “hippie crash pad” with a mostly AWOL mother and has “the spark and intensity of a downed electricity wire.” She has a dark imagination and believes in past lives. Julie is a former Miss North Carolina who owned a dance studio. She furnished her house with “chrome lamps, a crystal champagne bucket, a sheepskin rug” all of which were over the top, but intriguingly expensive. She is a woman of taste. Finally there is Sheila, who is popular and moves “among a flock of shiny-haired girls in colored corduroys, cheesecloth shirts and Earth shoes. They were like jewels dropped in the middle hallway waters, with their bright fingernails, glittering eye shadow, and peacock-feather earrings.”
In less skilled hands, the girls and women who fill these pages could seem one-dimensional, present only as representations. But Steinke is sensitive and thorough, and Jesse does not just have the job of desperately categorizing each of these complicated women around her, but also reconciling them with the opinions of men who tell her that “the ladies in Bent Tree are sometimes a little crazy.” Women still struggle to define themselves within our present, enlightened world.
This is because no matter how strong women are, they still have men to contend with. In the best part of the recent conversations about solving the problem of campus sexual assaults people have begun to realize it is not enough to educate the women, or even to also educate the men: a belief is growing that men must be taught to actively resist the culture of sexual aggression against their female classmates. Being a bystander is not ok. Being an ‘accidental’ misogynist is not okay. And just in case they needed to hear it one more time: You don’t have to be wearing a ski mask to be a rapist, and being a rapist is not okay. This kind of education is just barely breaking into the discourse now, and the men in Sister Golden Hair barely recognize sexual assault and coercion. They are: Jesse’s eventual boyfriend, Dwayne, who she doesn’t much care for, but he is “trying to do better” despite being “clueless and pathetic.” He seems to genuinely like her, except when he’s ignoring her in order to continue talking about his own interests; there is Dwayne’s father who gets drunk and swears in front of kids and then shows them a porn flick; there’s Glen McCabe who comes pretending to be a casting agent so he can see women naked; and finally there is Mr. Ramin the high school teacher having sex with students in the AV room.
And then there is Walt, who brings with him the most stomach-churning scene in the entire novel. Walt is a guy’s guy, and as he becomes more of a fixture in Sheila’s mother’s life, he begins to expose Sheila to the world of Playboy and Hefner’s bunnies. After Sheila and Jesse become friends, Jesse discovers that Walt encourages Sheila to dress like a bunny-in-training with black leotards, white cuffs they’d “cut out of poster board,” “a pair of satin ears” and a homemade yarn tail. The mix of adolescent arts and crafts with “sexy” is disgusting enough, but after weeks of practice Sheila and Jesse finally present themselves to Walt for critique. Sheila flops herself into Walt’s lap and he “moved his arm around her in a way that was not at all fatherly. ‘You, doll,’ he said, pressing his lips to her forehead, ‘are perfect.’” She’s told she’s doing a good job, and it is heart-wrenching, because we know that this is just the beginning of the times when she—as a female—is going to be treated this way by men. She’s being indoctrinated in this very moment to be proud of how pleasing she is to him—how successfully she’s removed her identity and become a fantasy—and she is bolstered by this inappropriate contact from a man who is both too old for her and involved with another woman (her mother).
When this happens it is impossible to ignore that fact that, in the world of this novel, inhabiting a female role comes with real danger. Even Jesse in her naiveté sees that “once my body flooded with hormones I’d become vulnerable to the whims of men.” In fact, the parts of society that are trying to teach girls how to be female are also putting her in danger—they are not teaching how to be a woman as an individual but rather a woman there in the service of men. There is the man in 3B who “might offer to take [girls] pictures.” There are dead girls who “lived at the bottom [of Tilden Lake] in a cave made of amethyst” and other girls found in ditches. There are depressed girls and girls “held captive by men” and girls sold into “sex slavery.” Jesse thinks, “I figured the sooner I became a woman, the sooner an ex-husband would be threatening me with a knife.”
And when Sheila’s father abandons her and her mother to come out as gay and all her friends at school turn on her, she gets back her control in two ways: on the one hand by aggressively pursuing the posture of a sexualized older woman by pretending to be a Playboy bunny, and on the other by befriending Jesse, basically just to control and degrade her by forcing her to say and do things which make her uncomfortable. Jesse accepts it because “Ever since Sheila had started to lock me in the closet, she’d begun acknowledging me at school.” And the tradeoff is worth it to Jesse. In other words, Sheila oppresses herself and another female. Jesse lets her. Which is how females have been kept in check for centuries.
The terrifying state of the novel is that everywhere girls are in danger—put there by both men and other women—and no one comments on it. Not as a notable trend. Instead Jesse says of her boyfriend, “I had decided to let Dwayne do whatever he wanted to me. He could even kidnap or rape me if he wanted. He could handcuff me and tickle me with a feather or give me an indian handshake.” Which snuggles us in nice and close to today. We notice particular girls being violated, but society defines them, and circumscribes them, and explains them, so that when we—especially as women—try to talk about violence against females, it is seen as a melodramatization of imperfection in the world. The media reports on a man killing his ex-wife when he’s supposed be picking up the last of his belongings, and it is called murder–suicide. It is never called Domestic Violence. People say he went crazy. The media doesn’t say how he’d been abusing her for years. And certainly no one notes how this is predictable because the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she leaves, because in a relationship about control, the man will do anything to gain the upper hand. Why didn’t she leave? Someone might wonder. Or, I wonder what she said to provoke him?
Throughout the four years of the novel, as Jesse grapples with what spirituality and ritual should look like for her now that her family has parted from the church, she develops an obsession with a text on funeral rites, where she reads about “the laying of coins on the dead’s closed eyes, the filling of their mouths with instant rice.” It grounds her spiritually, to be sure, and it also fills the dark and morbid fascination that adolescents so often flirt with. But for Jesse the funeral rituals are about the intimate moments when families take care of their loved ones—something she is desperately in search of for herself. She says, “I wanted people to love me and I wanted to love them back.”
In my work with victims of domestic violence, I hear horrific stories about how women and girls are treated at the hands of those they love. I run self-defense classes too and teach women and girls to be safer—sometimes from strangers, but also from those they love. It’s not hard to draw a line between this violence and male entitlement and the general culture of misogyny. Even though Mary Daly, et al. could be extreme, they did have a point in the idea that your sexuality—if you’re a heterosexual woman—does equal danger. This is true in our world, and true in Jesse’s world. You hope for Jesse that she can find intimacy, but after squiggling around between the real world present day and the novel’s world, it’s hard not to feel cautious about even wanting that for her.
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This review of Sister Golden Hair originally appeared in Women’s Studies (TLR, Winter 2015).