As a girl, I always fought the image of the “ideal” woman. The ideal woman was thin, pretty, and tricked into thinking that life was all about meeting a man, getting married and raising kids in the suburbs. She liked shopping and holding men’s hands. I absolutely refused to be her. I carried heavy suitcases up flights of stairs, because I would accept the help of no man. I refused to let men hold my hand as I got in and out of cars; I wouldn’t ask for help as I struggled to get heavy boxes through the post office door. In my old zine, “Don’t Even”, I raged against Barbie, beauty magazines, marriage, shaving, and everything and anything that stood for the bloody patriarchy I was intent on destroying. Yet, as I deconstructed that ideal woman smiling in her apron, I created my own. To me, a real woman worthy of the name was single, self-sufficient, self-confident, intelligent, and strong. Lesbians got bonus points. In my mind, the two images were mutually exclusive—a woman could not be both Carol Brady and Xena, warrior princess.
I went through different stages of feminism, all pretty radical. In the beginning, I followed the school of thought that basically says all women are born victims, like some form of oppression or violation is always around the corner. I had recurring dreams of men trying to rape me or beat me up. I’d punch them in the face, but my fist would roll off like a balloon. Then something began to change; I woke up to the fact that I was not weak or a natural-born victim. Before I knew what rape was, I was the girl who was picked first for sports teams, could beat all the boys at arm wrestling, and got better grades. In high school, I took self defense, started a woman’s group, read some new books, and went on the offensive. My dreams changed and I became invincible. I dug out my old She-ra, Princess of Power, doll and kept it by my bed. I led protests and tongue lashed anyone that said anything I could possibly take the wrong way. There were a lot of guys on campus who thought I was a total bitch, which gave me a certain pleasure. I was becoming a “real” woman who didn’t take shit from anyone
But there were fissures within this solid, icy image I created of myself. Really, I was a pretty nice person, who got crushes on boys and wrote about it endlessly in my journals. Posters of unicorns and hello kitty were taped next to punk posters and bumper stickers like, “Dead men don’t rape.” I almost resented those “girly” parts of myself and the parts of me that wanted male attention and affection. I felt guilty about expressing parts of me that didn’t fit within my narrow ideology. At age 16, I tried to give up thinking about boys instead focusing on getting really good at math. Obviously that didn’t last long. I tried to be a lesbian, but my first girlfriend left me for a boy with a bad haircut and I sort of gave up.
There were shameful things I tried to repress, memories that made me want to fucking kill. I would occasionally get in those awkward and potentially dangerous situations with boys and I often swallowed the “No’s” and “Get the fuck off me’s” that I always said women should use. Instead, I sometimes chose (if you can call it that) to just go along with things because it seemed easier than having to fight, scream, or be the subject of rumors and gossip. If I went along with it, then it wouldn’t be rape, then I wouldn’t truly be a victim or a survivor. I’d still be Carolyn—no fucking victim. I’d still sort of be living up to the image of myself that I held true and others believed. It was very rarely sex, but enough to make me feel bad and cheated. Bikini Kill and Spitboy rang in my ears, surged in my throat, but many times it was just too hard to scream out.
I wanted to be a tough girl. Xena was a symbol of my longing for myself. The theme to Xena made me breathless and teary-eyed. “A land in turmoil cried out for a hero. She was Xena—a mighty princess forged in the heat of battle!” I couldn’t get enough. Her courage and power stirred something inside me (yeah, yeah, I know it is fiction). I’d lift weights and kick around while I watched her slit throats and offer nuggets of wisdom. I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “What would Xena do?” and really thought that might be a good way to think about things. I have a big tattoo of the goddess Artemis with my own battle-hound, Calista, on my leg. Artemis, too, embodies a lot of what I value, what I like to see in myself. She roams the woods at night with her dogs, is a wicked good shot with her bow and arrow, and had the man who dared watch her bathe turned into a deer and torn to pieces by his own dogs.
However, a lot of the time in the beginning, being tough meant being angry or overreacting. I ran with a pretty tough crowd while I was traveling and was constantly surrounded by fighting. Even after I stopped traveling, my head was filled with violent daydreams and I occasionally got in fights. As a remnant of my earlier convictions, I never fought women. I eventually came to believe that people who were so concerned with being tough were really overcompensating for some kind of weakness, whether it be insecurity, the inability to be rational, or something else. Chances are, if you have to prove your toughness to other people, you are living in some image that isn’t really you deep down.
As I’ve grown up, I’m confronted now and again with the cracked and shattered image of my ideal self, the image of who I always wanted to be. The ideal image of myself, the projection, walks in the wild woods at night and sleeps alone. I’ve tried this a few times and in real life, I am pretty fucking scared—clutching a knife all night, awake at the drop of a leaf. The ideal image of myself is always calm and calculating. When the forest fire approached my house, I was running around frantic chugging wine, yelling at David and packing records. The ideal image of myself is afraid of nothing. As me, there are things I am afraid of.
And because of this, I realized that I pick role models and even boyfriends that embody those characteristics of strength and capability that I can sometimes have trouble actualizing. What I admire or am attracted to in them is what I have difficulty integrating into my own persona. I think it is why I’ve ended up with a couple of guys that are the strong, manly, dominant type. Even when I was 15 I wrote in my journal, “I’m attracted to the guys who look like they can kick someone’s ass.” After spending most of my life rebelling against any expression of my own vulnerability, I realized that I looked for partners that would allow me to be a little vulnerable, allow me to be a little bit of the women I used to chastise. I don’t want to be in control all of the time. I want someone to take the lead, pay for dinner, and give me a rest. God, that was a hard thing to admit to myself. I, Carolyn, sometimes just want to be taken care of. And so I dream of him, Tony Soprano, Donald Trump, and other images of power and strength, however cheesy. Though sometimes still, it is me against an army and I slay all my foes with my sword. At least in my dreams I have no fear.
During the moments when discourse unravels and ideology fails, I come closer to my real self. I am brave, strong, and self-sufficient, but I don’t have to be a warrior princess all of the time. I am not weak when I crawl into my husband’s arms at night and let him hold me tight. I don’t need to feel guilty about wanting certain things—a partner, a decent home, and no eye wrinkles. I still enjoy my time alone. I still get outside and run in the woods with Calista. I just come home before nightfall.