An Ethic of Passivity: How I tried not being me.
Blog note: For the month of November, I am going to attempt to do one blog entry a day - my personal Na
NoBloWriMo. This means many entries will go up unedited and may not always make the most sense. Bear with me. The goal is to be writing and producing content. I will have a short break from November 15-22 while I travel to Ecuador for work (there's a sentence I never thought I'd write).
I’m a loud person, though you wouldn’t know it when you first meet me, at least not in this 25-year-old iteration of myself. If you met me in college or high school, though…hoo boy, you could hear me coming from miles away. My friend David once told me that if he heard his name yelled across campus, he didn’t even have to look to know it was me.
My brother and I went to the same college (in fact, being there at the same time got us some extra money for tuition in the form of a legacy grant – ka-ching!). Like any freshman girl at a private Christian college, I looked forward not only to the classes and the learning, but to the romantic possibilities – many of my family members had met their spouses in college, and I was confident I would do the same (though intellectually I know that marriage is not necessarily my endpoint, it takes a lot to be rid of that social conditioning).
I was also loud, outspoken, and refused to take crap from anybody. This, I realized, was a holdover from high school debate, where I’d learned to stand my ground and be emphatic in those stances. There was a lot to figure out about who I was and what I wanted to be, but being outspoken and smart had always been integral parts of my personality.
At one point during my freshman year, however, I was talking with my brother and his fiancée (now wife), and was told that I was too outspoken and loud. The sister-in-law even explained that she had been loud and outspoken her freshman year, too, but she quieted down eventually. And the implication was, “hey, look, I calmed down and now I’m getting married! Don’t you want that?”
At the time, I gave the same response that I'd give now: “But, this is part of who I am. I have a loud, brash personality. It’s just…me.”
Looking back on it, this thought seems even stranger: in order to be a “proper woman," I should probably reign in my tongue a little. Though I know this is not what my sister-in-law or my brother meant (and I doubt they even remember the conversation – hi guys!), it still strikes me as an unintended implication.
This concept was reinforced during my senior year. Against my better judgment (maybe as part of it), I did quiet down a bit as I grew older, getting better at picking my battles (but still willing to fight those battles). Despite refusing to take the forward role and ask a guy out (the one time I tried ended disastrously), most of the men in my life still found me intimidating. How do I know? Because, in a moment of exasperation while talking with one of my guy friends, I wondered aloud why in the world relationships never worked for me, and he replied, as though it was the most obvious thing on the planet, “Well, Dianna, you intimidate us.”
Though he had the best of intentions, the concept was still a somewhat hurtful shock. I didn’t try to be intimidating, I didn’t see myself as intimidating, and I didn’t want to be intimidating. I was just…me. A smart, ambitious, successful, well-traveled woman who could draw connections from a ton of disparate theories and sources, rarely had to actually study for tests because of how she retained information, and refused to take crap from anyone who dished it my direction.
But somehow, by being myself, I had emasculated the men in my life.
It was like my eyes were open for the first time. I saw that my problem was not that I wasn’t “good enough,” but that I simply wasn’t the right type of girl. I wasn’t quiet. I didn’t shut up when I was challenged. I could draw connections between ideas and see the symbolism behind actions and use them in arguments. Evidently, there was some sort of inherent me-ness that guys had a problem with; something about me was unattractive to them.
This is a tough thing for a girl to deal with in any situation. It’s even harder for the Christian who realizes her prayers haven’t been answered because of something inherent within her.
Growing up, Christian girls get the message that the most attractive thing about them is how much they love Jesus and how they enact that love with modesty and humility toward their Christian brothers by being “pure.” After all, we are basically the gatekeepers of sexuality, and the family that prays together stays together! The picture painted, as numerous bloggers and authors have pointed out, is one of passivity.
Jessica Valenti, feminist author and fellow firebrand, writes in her book The Purity Myth that “Staying ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ is the greatest thing [women] can do. However, equating this inaction [of not having sex] with morality not only is problematic because it continues to tie women’s ethics to our bodies, but also is downright insulting because it suggests women cannot be moral actors. Instead, we’re defined by what we don’t do – our ethics are the ethics of passivity” (emphasis mine).
To unpack a bit of what Valenti is saying: For the Christian woman, our morality, our goodness, and our attractiveness to men (those who are husband material – read: Christian) is tied much more to what we don’t do than to what we do. It’s never really outright said, but many Christian women growing up in the church get this ethic: a woman’s value is wrapped up in a “not.” She’s not having sex, so she’s a good girl. Her goodness and value comes from what she doesn’t know, rather than what she does.
And it is through painful life experience that I’ve learned that this ethic of passivity extends beyond bedroom activity. After all, if that was all I needed – to be untouched by man’s hands – then I had that covered eight ways to Sunday. Walk me down the aisle now, Daddy!
I highly doubt that an ethic of passivity was ever consciously in my friend’s minds when they told me to shut up and stop talking – and that’s how insidious this ethic is. We reinforce the “women be quiet” rule without even realizing it. And somehow, with me, the lesson never took. There was something wrong with me being an active participant in my own life and that was why I couldn’t “find a man.”
And it was hard, because I was receiving two contradictory narratives. On the one hand, I was being told by most of society that I shouldn’t have to change myself to find a man, that someone will love me for who I am, that my me-ness is beautiful and attractive on its own. And then there was the narrative from those in the church, the narrative that said “you are intimidating. Who you are is too much. You need to tone things down. You need to be quiet more.”
It took three years to recover. I’m still recovering.
When I moved to Texas, I figured this was a good place to start anew. I became quieter. I was intimidated by the smarter people around me, and while I could reasonably hold my own, I felt that I was somehow stepping out-of-bounds to be the loud, brash person I was in college. I decided to sit quietly and learn.
But my outspoken-ness didn’t go away. Though I didn’t say a whole lot in person (at first – as I became more comfortable around new people and my ideas changed, I spoke up more), what I had to say still poured out onto paper, into blog posts, into ideas and thoughts and challenges to the system I was learning about. I did the same when I moved to Japan – very quiet, very shy, very not myself. I remember telling my mother when I decided that I had to move home, “I don’t like myself here. I’m not me.”
I’d tried the ethic of passivity out. I became demure, and quiet, and polite, humble, and less intimidating – at least in person. And I gave myself an anxiety disorder. Because I was trying so hard to be something I’m not, my body rebelled and shut down. It said, “Fine. You want to be quiet and shy and not intimidate people. We’ll make it impossible for you to go out in public; we’ll make the process of figuring out who you are in this new ethic of passivity damn near impossible. Here, have a panic attack. Or two. Or three. You wanted to go out today? Nooooope.”
I’m still recovering from that, too.
Over the next month, for my invented NaBloWriMo, I’m going to examine this ethic of passivity and do some exploring of the positive ways we can redeem it. I’m going to blog through The Purity Myth for at least part of the time, and discuss topics previously untouched on the blog. I hope you can join me as I write my way through the month of November.