The Complex Strength Of The Feminine


I was asked to write this essay for a project that I’m pretty sure isn’t going to happen, so I’ll share it with you for International Women’s Day.

Sarah &
Carleigh &
Beth &

It’s 1995. I’m laying on the bed in my closet-sized dorm room, lava lamp globbing away and casting a blue light on a poster of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The pasty, hollow-eyed screamer feels like a sibling. My Sony six disc changer holds only one CD, Portishead’s Dummy, and right now, Numb is on repeat. Beth yodels my agony.

‘And this loneliness,

It just won’t leave me alone, ohh no

A lady of war (x2)’

I’m not upset about anything in particular— this is just general malaise. It’s what I do. Sony’s doing a shit job of handling the deep bass, but I’ll take what I can get.

Down the hall, Sarah is blowdrying her hair. She’s got a cucumber and green tea purifying mask smeared over her t-zone, St. Ives apricot facial scrub caked on her cheeks. Makeup at the ready, more makeup than I have ever seen in a personal collection, for after she’s been scrubbed of her sins. Acne, she says. Just looks like zits to me.

Sarah has her jelly heels on, even though she’s in sweats, because she hates being short. She hates most things about herself. You Oughta Know is blasting, and she’s probably singing into her hairbrush. She has beautiful hair.

It’s Friday, bitches. We are first year fine arts majors—theatre nerds—not old enough to hit the bars yet. We have nobody to boot for us, so we do what we did on quiet high school weekends, only now we do it while in each other’s orbit. Me, in an incense cloud, navel gazing. Sarah, exfoliating and re-spackling, working on an outer shell she likes the look of. In an hour, we’ll meet in the hallway and order donairs with extra tzatziki. Watch Friends in the dorm lounge. Until then, it’s Beth vs. Alanis, in the musical cat fight of the decade.

Sarah and I argue about Jagged Little Pill all the time. She’s happy to swallow the narrative this new incarnation of Alanis is pushing— the birth of a strong, self-actualized woman. Sarah hasn’t dated much, but she relishes You Oughta Know’s vengeful tone— the idea of letting a guy who has done her wrong really have it. As soon as some guy does dick Sarah around, she’s totally gonna bug him in the middle of dinner. But it’s not only Jagged Little Pill’s anger that Sarah relates to. She draws great comfort from Hand in My Pocket’s assertion that everything’s going to be fine fine fine. And, she admits to me one night, the “I’m sick but I’m pretty” lyric hints at just enough self-loathing to allow her to feel truly pretty when she sings it. Alanis’s willingness to acknowledge the bad helps Sarah acknowledge the good. At eighteen, feeling pretty without reservation just isn’t done.

As for me, I don’t just hate Jagged Little Pill, I loathe it. Ironic, the biggest single on the album, has to be the stupidest song I’ve ever heard. I’m not alone in this opinion, I remind her often, perhaps more defensively than necessary. You can’t bring that song up in conversation without people jumping all over each other to point out what shitty examples of irony girlfriend has offered up. And it’s not just the lyrics I’m hating on. All the groaning and trilling and growly  attempts to get down into a lower key reminds me of Yoko Ono. In Alanis, I see a privileged pop princess whose gimmick is now authenticity. Stylized anger. I don’t believe that the talk about the men who inspired all this pop-vitriol is anything more than spin. And even if it’s true, didn’t Uncle Joey from Full House claim that You Oughta Know was about him? Yeah. Not badass.

Regardless of how old you were in 1995, travel with me back to the time in your development when a sharp opening in life perspective first blew your mind. When you stopped being the centre of the universe. This is where young feminists start their journey. At eighteen, Sarah and I are both considering our adult identity. Where to draw personal strength from. What personal strength is. Unlike Sarah and her Maybelline forcefield, I can only conceive of strength as a masculine quality. So I cut my gorgeous, Alanis-like hair and start rocking a pretty butch wardrobe: hikers and cargo shorts and oversized t-shirts. I let my longshoreman’s mouth go unchecked, and learn to swagger a little. I feel like looking and acting more masculine in a traditional sense will convince people not to fuck with me. I don’t yet recognize what strong femininity looks like. I don’t really believe it exists, so Alanis must be faking it. Women either express themselves in a way that resonates with me, or I stop listening.

And familiar.
Kind of a stereotypically masculine approach to female self-expression.

Speaking of the stereotypically masculine, many young women, like me, choose to turn the complexity of their emotions inward. We can take it. We will handle it ourselves. We got this. Self control. We can control ourselves. Self control above all else, even as all that internalization starts to make cracks at the surface. Sarah is filling her cracks with Cover Grrrl. I’m filling mine with swagger and sweet sorrow. Alanis, only a few years our senior, isn’t filling the cracks at all. She’s shedding that outer layer like a Cicada, fuck it. She’s making music videos where she stands around naked and lets the world move around her. That is fairly awesome. I mean really, her message was clear, even if I was too busy being cynical to see it. I don’t blame myself for not getting it. It’s all part of the process. I was probably a little jealous of Alanis for having all that freedom to fling her hair around and go down on dudes in theatres and stuff.

This may be why I can’t be too hard on young girls who declare themselves “not feminist.” They just don’t get it yet. They want to be strong, but they don’t yet see the strength in femininity, and certainly not in feminine solidarity. They misread self-actualization as anger, and they don’t yet believe that they have the right to express un-pretty emotions. Self-actualization can be an angry process, to be sure. But even back in the day, Alanis was preaching the word of mindfulness (before it became a brand) and acceptance and the importance of being in the moment no matter how messy that moment is.

It’s up to us, the older and wiser, to educate the feminists of tomorrow. Not attack them. To afford them the empathy we ourselves were looking for. What I really see when I look back at young Sara and Carleigh is a couple of women at the beginning of what has been (at least for me) a twenty year search. And still going strong. When I figure out how to keep people from fucking with me, I will let you know. 

Don’t be fooled, all this magnanimous soul searching does not mean that I now think Jagged Little Pill was actually a magnum opus, and I just missed the boat. But like, say, Nirvana’s Bleach, musicality and adept lyricism are not what was important about the album. It was raw emotion. But while Kurt Cobain still had enough hard-ass Seattle glamour to make a nervous breakdown seem kind of cool, Alanis was stomping into uncharted territory. A woman who is mad as hell, and not going to take it any more. Embracing her imperfections. Celebrating them even. It may not have been an authentic journey for Alanis, but eighteen year-old fangirls are resourceful. They’ll find comfort where they can get it.

‘I recommend biting off more then you can chew to anyone

I certainly do

I recommend sticking your foot in your mouth at any time

Feel free’

What a comfort it is to me now to understand the strength Sarah borrowed from these hackneyed, pedestrian lyrics. And Sarah wasn’t alone, Jagged Little Pill sold over 20 million copies, surpassing the record for a female solo artist previously set by her label boss, Madonna. Now that I’m older and wiser, I just want every young woman to have a hero, or several heroes, in her own image. To be able to see herself represented somewhere in popular culture, classic literature, or the murky realm of the middle-brow, and feel like she’s on to something. To understand that this self-loathing stage of the development of self mustn’t be ignored. But it will be overcome.

‘So breathe on, little sister, breathe on.’

(You’re damn right I’m ending this essay with a Portishead lyric. BETH 4-EVS. )

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