When I was five, Dean B?? bullied me for my freckles. It?s my first memory of primary school. I was self-conscious about the way my skin looked for years afterwards. The comments didn?t stop as I got older, either. I remember being 13 and walking out of Middle Brighton train station in summer in a short black dress. I passed a group of boys and one of them remarked, ?Ew, white legs.? I felt ugly and alienated. I refused to wear miniskirts for a long time.
In Year 7, a group of girls in my class passed around a petition with the instruction: ?Sign this if you hate Stephanie.? One of these girls I?d known since Prep. (She actually came up to me at a party in 2005, after years of my ignoring her, and said hello. I suffered through only three sentences of small talk before she said: ?We were really mean to you at school. You were more intelligent and mature than us and we were intimidated by that. I?m sorry.? I was so shocked and touched I forgave her on the spot.) This wasn?t an isolated incident, and it?s hard when you?re a kid, when all you want is for someone to like you, not to gravitate towards those stories that make you feel safe?that make you feel normal?and glossy magazines that purport to give you advice on what you can do to fix what?s wrong.
I credit the sheer volume of novels I read as a teenager featuring girls and women who had wit, talent, determination and resilience for getting me through high school, and my admiration and respect for those women in real life. Screw the insipid Bella Swan; Ellie Linton got shit done. Elizabeth Bennet spoke as she found. Anne Shirley may have got married and had ten children but she held up her chin, cut her hair short, stood up to bullies, came first in her classes and still found time for daydreaming and poetry. And I had a lot in common with them, despite my insecurities about the way I looked. I was the kind of girl who put her hand up in class. If I knew the answer, I had to say it. When I did the work, I had to be first to finish. I had to get everything right. In the absence of other triggers, I might have to put this down to genetics. Nobody told me to be a smartypants.
I credit Kaz Cooke?s Real Gorgeous with giving me the courage (if that?s the right word) to have flesh on my thighs and not waste money on toner or Tommy Girl?and the facts to back it up. (I read it cover to cover on Christmas Eve in 1998. I never bought a copy of Dolly magazine again.) But it took me a long time to call myself a feminist. It wasn?t until a second-year uni drama class that the issue was made plain for me. A feminist believed in social, sexual, economic and political equality for men and women. A feminist saw that the world was imbalanced thus, and that power resided mainly with men. The past tense is for the sake of readability?I found (and still find) these things self-evident, but giving myself the feminist label got me into an unexpected amount of trouble. Friends harangued me. My brothers scoffed. A family argument erupted in a restaurant one night when my uncle looked at me skepically, and said ?Surely feminism isn?t needed now??
(The stigma is slightly ironic because my family is bursting at the seams with tough, independent women. I find it hard to believe they wouldn?t have come up against resistance due to their sex. My grandmother ran a costuming business by herself after my grandfather had a stroke in the 60s. My mother wanted lots of children but refused to marry any man who would play push-and-pull mind games. My father?s sisters still command large salaries on their own terms. Every single one of them has a degree. Germaine Greer was taught German by my great-aunt, Sister Michael, who had ?a face that looked like it was scrubbed hard with steel wool?. By the time I became a student at Star of the Sea, the nuns were no longer teaching and Sister Michael?s tenure as principal had been reduced to a plaque on a door in the old grey stone building, but their spirit had by no means left. Perhaps some people find it hard to see a feminist uprising in black habits?or, when I knew them, navy blue?but they obviously don?t know nuns. ?Strong Star women,? then-Principal Rosalie Jones used to say to us. No doubt.)
The problem is, while it might work in novels, real people expect strange things when sex is involved. Real people expect strange things when they want sex to be involved. And I?ve always had an appetite for fairy stories that compromised the good work of a lot of that literature. The law of romance says that logic and love are irreconcilable. On the contrary, I think love is extremely logical; it?s romance that muddies the water. And sometimes I feel like it?s the hardest thing in the world to reconcile staunch feminist politics with a desire to be loved. These stories of lust and death, betrayal and despair, obsession and infatuation, class and compromise?they?re compelling and ridiculous all at once. And I?ve never had such vitriol thrown at me as I have when I bring out the word ?feminist?. Is a woman speaking her mind and standing up for herself so unpalatable even now? Is it some kind of challenge? Is the challenge to keep up or to shut her up?
What if she doesn?t shut up? What will change? Is that where the fear lies? Or is being close to a strong woman like the desire for attention?simultaneously craved and despised, fascinating and repellent? Sex is about power and power is about control, the desire for which stems from fear?at its most primal, fear of death. But we?ve also coupled sex with love, and I?m not the first of my feminist friends to wonder seriously if her politics will result in unintentional celibacy, especially alongside heterosexuality. I?m becoming increasingly aware of the strange social consensus that people like me end up alone. As though the only kind of love I could receive as a woman with these kinds of politics is from afar?someone to look up to or admire perhaps, but not someone to get close to. Or perhaps it?s more like staring at the circus freak, and there?s that odd bookish girl again with the ugly freckles and white legs. But there?s an assumption even in that term ?ending up alone,? that implies that a woman?s journey is necessarily about a reliance on others, as though one navigating the world under her own steam is wrong somehow. The aesthetic of the romance narrative makes women afraid to be feminists because it makes feminists look unloveable. It has rose petals on the surface and maggots at the core.
So here I am, split into three, each part curled around the other, tense, taut, tangled. The artist, craving magic, mystery and the beauty of drama; the philosopher, unravelling tapestries with painful and meticulous care, each thread weighed and measured and tested for strength; and between them both, the gawky little girl with her big imagination and pile of stories who just wants people to like her.