Girls and Other Single Stories

In her essay, “Girls, Girls, Girls,” Roxane Gay, author of Bad Feminist, a book of essays I am breezing through with mostly delight right now, writes about modern day portrayals of young women in TV shows such as Girls.

We sort of loved Girls, didn’t we, for its raw, honest look at girls growing into women, at girls and their sexual encounters, at girls struggling to remain friends as they matured and changed. But Gay acknowledges the inadequacies of shows like this in their perpetuation of the “single story,” that writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of so eloquently. (This is my analogy, not Gay’s.) And if you haven’t watched the TED Talk, I highly recommend it.

At the heart of her argument, Gay reminds us that women want to see ourselves represented in the world. And we long even more for accurate representations of what it is to be female, wife, mother, etc. It’s the etc at the end of that sentence that is Gay’s focus.

Gay, an African American woman, tells us “she” was missing in the show, Girls, the most honest look at young women’s identity crises we have seen on TV. Did anyone else notice? There wasn’t a single person of color on the show, aside from Hannah’s token boyfriend who lasted maybe a couple of episodes. And weren’t we shocked too to learn he was a Republican. At least, I am pretty sure we were supposed to be shocked.

I don’t know about you, but as a white woman sitting comfortably within my place of privilege in the world (Oh yes, I did), I wasn’t focused one bit on the lack of diversity on the show. And after reading Gay’s essay, I felt utterly ashamed of this fact. After all, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had already reminded me so beautifully of the danger of the single story, and yet, I’d overlooked the lack of so many women’s voices. I was a participant in the enduring narrative that “what doesn’t concern me” doesn’t matter. Ouch. The truth hurts sometimes.

In the past two semesters, my classes have included more African American women than has been typical for classes I’ve taught thus far at my community college. And I teach a wide spectrum of courses with varying degrees of ability. My classes often include minorities, in fact, but the black woman’s perspective has been largely missing among my students, until recently.

Here are a few things I have learned from teaching these lovely women, either directly from them or from finding materials that show their perspectives:

  1. I didn’t know anything about my town’s lack of extracurricular activities for black children; classes like authentic hip-hop, for instance, don’t seem to exist. I thought I lived in a place that was rich with activities for “all” families. Why didn’t I know this?
  2. I didn’t know the level at which black women shamed each other for having skin that is “too dark.” In addition, I had no idea that some black women bleach their skin to look whiter. Why didn’t I know this?
  3. I didn’t know the extreme pressure on these women to have straight, white-looking hair, nor did I have any inkling about the health hazards from harmful chemicals or possible hair loss caused from extensions, as Chelsea Johnson tells us in her insightful post from The Well. Why didn’t I know this?
  4. I didn’t know what it meant to be an immigrant woman from Jamaica or Cameroon, about the ways the American Dream is tainted by the realization you aren’t treated equally in your new country. Why didn’t I think enough about this?

Thanks to Ms. Adichie and to the women who have opened up to me about their perspectives, I am learning of my own single stories. I am learning to make more space in my classrooms for these women’s voices – and others.

I am learning that each time I am made aware of my blind spots, I feel surprise, shame, and relief. Relief that I can let one more piece of truth into my life. Surprised and ashamed that’s it’s taken me 44 years for certain veils to be lifted.

We have so much farther to go, don’t we, Lena Dunham.

 

 

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