Karen Rivers

girl power.

Karen Rivers

I want to write a middle grade book set in a different time, on a different planet, but with human characters.  Human characters who have been formed out of thin air, influenced by nothing, with no pattern of history informing their power and response.  A place where society doesn't yet exist and never has.   I want to set this book on an even playing field, where the difference between boys and girls is anatomical and not societal.   In this book, I want to explore what happens to the girls.   I want to see what they could do, if things were different than they are, I mean.  

Here is a scene from real life:

My daughter is in skating camp.   Figure skating is dominated by girls.  Her class is mostly girls, the older kids who train at an overlapping time are girls.  There are, however, a handful of boys.  One little girl in her class -- a tiny blonde who just turned 7 -- announces to the room that she has a boyfriend now.  Her boyfriend is twelve.   "Don't even talk to me if he comes into the room," she instructs my daughter.  "You look like a boy and he'd be very angry if he saw me talking to a boy."  

My daughter is confused.  The math is wrong.  This boy is older than her older brother, the girl two years younger than she is.  "He's WAY too old for her," she worries, later.  "It's not right.  I don't look like a boy.  Do I?" 

The boy comes into the room and presents the little girl with a heart he made for her birthday.   So maybe it is true, this almost-teen is the boyfriend of this little child?  I don't know.  Maybe it isn't.  Maybe no one knows what the truth is, not even the players.  The girl shoots a look at the other girls.  They obey.  They are all struck mute until he leaves.   The little girl preens.  "He'd kill me if he saw me with another boy," she repeats, proudly.  "So thanks."

My daughter doesn't know what to make of it.  She doesn't know what to do with it.  She tells me the story six different ways, looking for me to say something, to tell her how to understand.

"She's playing," I tell my daughter.  "She's pretending."   This game, if it is a game, confuses me, too.  What kind of game is it, really?  

The little girl skates out onto the ice and executes her moves perfectly.  She's a good skater.  She makes sure they all understand that.  "I'm the best skater here," she tells the others.  They nod, agreeing.  "None of you are as good as me," she says, emphatically, making sure it is understood.  No one argues.  "You all look like boys."  They flinch, as a group, but accept her truth as their own.

"You don't look like a boy," I tell my daughter.  "You look like yourself. It's a ridiculous thing to say!  She's just trying to make you feel less-than for some reason!  I don't know why.  But don't let her get into your head.  Ignore her." 

"For my birthday," the child says, "My parents are taking me to Disneyland.  We leave right after this.   I'll be back tomorrow.  It's just for the night."  

Everyone believes her.  

I laugh, when my daughter tells me.  "That isn't even possible!" I say.  "She's joking.  She's teasing you."

"When we left," my daughter says, "The coach said, 'Have a great time at Disneyland!'  So it's true, or he wouldn't have said that! She's going.  It's real."

She seethes with jealousy.  Disneyland for dinner!  A boyfriend who cares so much that he'll MURDER her if she speaks to another boy!  And she can skate!   How unfair is life, anyway?

Disneyland is easily five hours away, factoring in the drive to the airport, the wait at customs, the flight, the shuttle to the hotel.   Six, maybe.   No one goes just for one night.  But my daughter believes.   She believes Disneyland.   She believes she looks like a boy.  She believes the abusive, controlling boyfriend.

"No," I tell my daughter.  "Disneyland is impossible.  And the boyfriend thing, that can't be true.  But even if it were, that's not love.  That's not what love looks like.  That's not something to envy.  I promise.  That's terrible, if it's true, that he threatens her.  It is so not OK."

"He made her a heart though,"  she says.  "He gave her a heart, so he must love her.  It's real."

"It's not real!" I insist, hoping I'm right.  "Anyway, expect something better than that for yourself.  Please don't expect that another person can make rules for you, like 'Don't talk to other people.'  That's just wrong.  Do you see that?"

My daughter shrugs.  She's too little still to put much thought into relationships with boys, real relationships, not just crushes.   She says, "Do I really look like a boy?  Why am I so ugly?"   Then she bursts into tears.

"You're beautiful," I say, but she isn't listening anymore.

Maybe in the book that I write, all the characters will be blind.  

Not only would they not be able to see what other people look like, they wouldn't know what they themselves looked like.  Only by being blind would the power of a random arrangement of facial features be rendered powerless;  the shape of a body not the first thing that we notice about other people.  

Imagine how that would be.

To get out of bed in the morning and to not spend an hour improving our appearance to make ourselves acceptable to the world!

I've been going to the grocery store sometimes in my gardening clothes, unshowered.  I'm particularly swamped lately, emotionally spent.  I just ... don't care.  Sometimes I don't shave my legs.  I am taking on the world like a man, or at least like most men who I know, who -- if they need a lawnmower part from Home Depot, just go get it.  They don't have a shower and change out of their work clothes.  They don't put on some mascara, add a layer of lipgloss, blow dry their hair.   

It's harder than you'd think to make myself do it.  I've learned my lessons well.  I know better -- I truly do -- than to go out without my face on.   

This is what happens when I go out of the house, unkempt:

Nothing different than when I spend an hour getting ready.  

Not one thing.  

Surprise!  

 

Here is another scene from real life:

I am at the mall with my daughter, who is eight.  She keeps up a steady stream of conversation and I drift in and out of it, while collecting the things on our shopping list.   

She says something and I stop walking, my hands full of batteries and vitamins, on my way to the register.

"What did you say?" I ask.

"____ hates her grandmother," she says.  "Because her grandma called the police when her stepdad spanked her and her mom really hard."

"What?" I said.  "Her stepdad hit her?  And her mom?  That's terrible, sweetheart. I would have called the police, too.   Her grandma did the right thing."

My daughter is suddenly uncertain, near tears.  Has she said too much?   Is someone in trouble?  "You don't understand!" she says, panicky breathing.  "He didn't hit them!  He just spanked them!  Spanking is OK!"

"Spanking is hitting," I say.  "Hitting is not OK."  

I put the batteries and vitamins down and my daughter and I sit down on the cold tile floor.  I hold her hand.  She's upset.   I think of all the things that I should say.  I don't know which one to put first.   I wish there were someone else here to tell me exactly how to approach this.   I do the best I can:  "I'm sorry for your friend," I say.  "I'm glad her grandma called the police.  That must have been very scary for her."

"It was just spanking!" my daughter repeats, near tears.  "It's not something bad!"

I feel dizzy.  The lights of the store spin.  I take a big breath.  "It IS something bad," I tell her.  "I'm sorry, but it is something bad.  No one gets to hit you, not when you're a kid and not when you're an adult.  Not ever.  Do you understand?" 

"Mum," she says.  "You promised you'd buy those vitamins!  I don't want to sit here!   I shouldn't have told you!"

"It's OK," I say.  "It's OK."  

I buy the vitamins. 

I the car, I try again.   "It's never OK," I say.  "It's not love.  That's not what love is.  It's not hitting."

"SPANKING," she says again, and puts her headphones on, blocking me out.

If I wrote that book, I don't think it would do well.  There would be something about it that wouldn't ring true.   

I sit down on the couch and watch a show with my kids, a show they love.  In the show, the girls are dumb and pretty and speak in breathy voices.   The boys are smart.   The boys make the decisions.   The boys treat the girls like pretty prizes.  The girls want to be won.  

I make them switch to something different.  

The other show is pretty much the same show, with a different name.  

Flip:  pretty girl, long hair, lots of makeup, dumb.

Flip:  pretty girl, long hair, lots of makeup, dumb.

Flip:  pretty girl, long hair, lots of makeup, dumb.

Flip. 

Flip.

Flip.

I turn the TV off.  

I turn the TV off.

I turn the TV off.

For now, it's all I can do.  It's all I know how to do, to make it stop.  

I wanted a better ending than this for this post.  I'm reaching for it.  I'm looking everywhere.  But I can't find it.  I can't see how to wrap this one up right.