Who Got It Right as a Woman: Patti Smith

It might be hard to believe at first glance, given that famous long, stringy hair, androgynous appearance, and her origins as a proto-punk poetess and singer dubbed “The Godmother of Punk.” But Patti Smith is not who she necessarily seems on the surface. She is an incredibly well-read woman, writer, photographer, and a true romantic with a tremendous aesthetic eye and love of beauty. While I cannot confess to being a great fan of her music, I have watched and read many interviews with her, saw in her speak in public, and so an exhibit of her photographs at the Detroit Institute of Arts. There is so much to admire about her!

-She is highly cultured. This is the artist who considered Balzac to be her first love! Smith has made pilgrimages to the homes of various artists and writers around the world. She admires how Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist Flea warms up with Bach runs. And one of her childhood heroes was Maria Callas. She loves going to bookstores and always talks about the book she is reading in interviews. Patti Smith has spoken of how she really considers herself to be a writer first, and that music happened to get put to her words.

-She is romantic and she loves men. People have often mistaken her youthful snarling and androgyny for militant feminism or even lesbianism, but Smith has mentioned she likes it when men hold the doors open for her, loved her husband deeply and was still devoted to her one time lover, Robert Mapplethorpe, even after he came out gay. Smith has always seemed to adore the men she has been with. How one presents oneself to the world does not always equate with one’s sexual orientation.

-She is a true artist who values great craftsmanship, whatever the mode. Despite her usual uniform of black blazers and jeans, she admires the construction of couture ball gowns! She feels deeply about the objects she photographs, and in the exhibit I saw, what was most striking was not the photographs themselves, but the canon she had put together through photography. She has a sensitive aesthetic eye and is moved by great art of any kind.

-She was a committed mother and wife. She followed her husband, the late Fred Smith, to Detroit since his band was based there. During this period, she spent little time on her music, focusing on her family life and also her writing. In interviews, Patti Smith seems to have no regrets for having left New York for going to Detroit for a time, gracefully embracing what each stage in life has held for her. She loves her children and even performs with them.

-She doesn’t follow any-isms. So often she is considered a feminist icon and asked as such; Smith seems to shrug it off and not care to identify with any big labels or movements. Instead, she chooses to be herself, the artist that she is.

-Her tastes are wide. As a child, she poured over European art books, listened to opera, read French literature. She also is a fan of Japanese writers and Roberto Bolaño, Tibetan Buddhism, traveling in Morocco, Little Women, beat poetry, and so much more. She is listed as a poet on the prestigious Poetry Foundation’s website, an honor that is not for dilettantes. Even her albums reference sometimes-obscure cultural phenomena, such as the dog Banga in The Master and Margarita. This is a woman who is clearly well read and a woman of letters who is influenced by other great artists!

-She doesn’t care to dress in a “feminine” mode. The trademark hair is long and unkempt, her face is free of makeup, and even at the Nobel ceremony (where she accepted the award for Bob Dylan) she did not choose to done a dress. Smith was always comfortable dressing as she does (which is still quite an iconic, unique style), though she does love ball gowns and there is a photo shoot one can see online where she is in Dior gowns!

-While she might seem rebellious and certainly was as a young woman, she is actually quite respectful and accepting of religions, general proprieties, etc.

Ultimately, Patti Smith is true to herself. She considers herself an artist above all the categories of gender, ethnicity, etc. She has shown us that it doesn’t matter what kind of background you come from, that even if you are from a working-class background, you can still have an aesthetic soul and live for your artistic dreams. When I saw her give a talk in Ann Arbor in 2010 or so, I had the great fortune to ask her a question: what do you do when you are feeling a lack of inspiration? Her answer was that she is never in this state, because she will constantly draw her inspiration from other great artists and writers, so she will turn to their work, and that she is also inspired by walking by the ocean. I found this to be a satisfying answer, and I am inspired by this true artist.

In Belated Honor of International Women’s Day

This is to honor all the women in the world – the nearly 4 billion of us. Simone de Beauvoir’s moniker of “the second sex” still sadly holds true today. Women suffer from poverty, gender discrimination, lack of access to appropriate healthcare, lack of resources for their children, domestic violence – the list goes on. And one must simply ask, Why? Why are women the recipients of so much negativity when they do so much? Women in developing countries especially face a heavy burden, being assigned tasks such as fetching water from miles away, being married off too young before they can finish their education, cruel stigmas such as being “impure” during menstruation, not to mention female genital mutilation and other horrors. We have seen the example of the unspeakable violence committed against the teenaged Malala Yousafzai – but also how she rose up against it, fought for her life and the lives of other girls and young women, and won a Nobel Peace Prize along the way.

In developed and moderately developed countries, we still see problems such as salary discrepancies, lack of maternity leave, a glass ceiling for women in the higher echelons of the work world, and unrealistic body images. Across the world, we see a common denominator of sexual harassment and women not being treated as equals, period.

We live in turbulent times when it comes to being a woman. The #MeToo movement, the president of the most powerful country in the world a serious misogynist and cheater, pay inequality, the ill-treatment of women in Silicon Valley, school kidnappings in Nigeria – the list goes on. But it is also exciting, because the discussion and changes that are coming out of these turbulent issues with women and gender are leading us toward progress. Serena Williams fighting back about her post-pregnancy seeding in the tennis world, women trying to gain more elected positions, Hollywood becoming more inclusive (thanks, Frances McDormand) are just some examples of how women are fighting back and trying to take their power. We have borne the consequences of the American feminist movement from the 60s and 70s, which focused too heavily on the body and the physical (which are important, but it became the main goal) rather than collective needs of women as a whole and actual policies that benefit women. I feel we are finally coming back to an inclusive feminist movement that addresses the basic needs of every woman, regardless of her age, class, or orientation.

In this process, as I have always advocated, we need male allies. Feminism cannot be feminism without men, and men cannot have any sort of movement without women; a gender studies perspective is a better way of framing the discussion rather than just feminism. Men are not all the enemy, and sometimes some women contribute to the problem as well. Equality, of course, may not take the same shape in every culture. Men and women are not the same, despite what many feminists believe, but this does not advocate putting women in a subordinate position to men. We need to ask ourselves what women’s’ needs are, financially, biologically, emotionally, and build our society and policies around that.

There seems to be a big gap or leap from how girls are raised to be strong and independent in childhood, but then suffer once they hit adulthood. Disney and all the image makers have been very conscientious as of late as to what messages they are sending to girls and young women; however, the images of women in positive role models seem to decline once they hit their 20s. We have to ask what structural factors are working against women. In earlier waves of feminism, such as that from the 60s and 70s, there seems to have been a bias against motherhood and women’s reproductive cycles, a denial of biology as Camille Paglia might say. This forced women to fit into a very male-oriented social paradigm. But we see now this does not work. We need to take into account women’s biology, and women need to take ownership of their reproductive power whether or not they have children. We need to encourage women to feel there is nothing wrong with getting married or being a mother, that a lifetime romantic relationship is indeed valuable and something that needs work.

As we are making structural changes in society, we also need to make our own efforts on an individual level. Too many women – even educated, independent women – do not empower themselves. This can be as simple as calling out bad behavior on a man’s part, or not enabling it. It can also be as simple as taking ownership of one’s femininity, something that is often taboo to say in educated circles. We are not men, so why shouldn’t we enjoy not being men?!

At the bottom of it all, it is still very hard to be an intelligent woman. A woman with a brain is alternately mocked, put down, lauded, a source of puzzlement, and more. Too many women of letters have struggled to make themselves heard and to be respected for what they know, or they have struggled with their womanhood while trying to develop a career in a man’s world. While it is not always possible for a woman to “have it all,” it is possible for a woman to “be it all”: she can embrace all aspects of herself and not see them in opposition to each other. This multi-faceted complexity we possess is the most precious thing about being a woman, and who would want it any other way?

Willa Cather: The Grande Dame of American Letters

My inaugural post is a tribute to my favorite American writer, Willa Cather.  To me, she is the Grande Dame of American letters, highly underrated and much-ignored.  We scarcely find her works read or discussed in academia, her novels have still not claimed her rightful place in the academic canon.  Why not?  She is incredibly intelligent, and, like Tolstoy, very sympathetic, warm, and caring for her characters.  There are some writers in whom the reader can immediately sense an element of misanthropy; this is not the case with Cather, who takes a tender view of the individuals who populate her books.  She knows all the great classics of the Western canon, is highly literary (just look at the numerous cultural references throughout The Song of the Lark), and very cultured.  Despite all her knowledge of European high culture, her writings reflect a uniquely American sensibility, for Cather is careful to distinguish between the Old World and the New, and is able to recognize what the latter can offer—-the strength of America’s people, who are all virtually immigrants.  Her aesthetic eye is strong; she has a keen sense of beauty, an appreciation of the finer things in life.  There is always a tension in Cather’s lead characters, because they seem to embody the Oscar Wilde quote that “All of us are lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking up at the stars”; they are aspiring to something better than what their circumstances can provide.  Cather’s writings frequently use an omniscient narrator, one who is worldly, gracious, and wise.  Like Tolstoy, she is a social critic, for she sees the follies of humanity, the petty sides of human nature, but yet tries to find something beautiful in human nature that is beyond that, something bigger in life.  There is always a touch of humor in her works.  Cather is like a wise, old, kindly aunt, who, after years of experience, is gently recounting her tales for you.  Or, perhaps, she is more like a seasoned, old professor whose vast erudition keeps the listener spellbound at her feet for hours.  Her compassion, wisdom, culture, humanity—-these are the qualities that make Cather such a joy to read.