Genny Ramos is an office slave somewhere in Los Angeles. She is hoping one day she will get paid to do improv. Even for people on cruise ships.
Everyone at my high school was trained military-style to read critically starting in English lit of freshman year. Picking up a pen and writing in the margins of our books until the words continued on to Post-It notes became second nature, just like predicting whether or not we were going to have a pop reading quiz the next day. By my senior year, I thought I had become quite good at giving my English teachers the answers they were looking for. What’s the theme of the novel? I got that with supporting quotes. An example of juxtaposition? Page 73. Need me to explain the symbolism of the color red? PASSION.
When I decided to read Anna Karenina for one of my senior AP English assignments – a reaction diary in which students analyzed the text and shared their thoughts of their chosen book, chapter by chapter – I was confident I’d offer arguments and noteworthy points that would make my previous English teachers proud. I starred and underlined important quotes and literary devices. I made sure to also include more personal reactions, evidenced by the “what a traitor,” “!!!!,” “LYING” and several sad faces I saw in my book margins while preparing to write this post, to make my diary more well-rounded. Academic and emotional – I’d stand out.
I handed in my reaction diary anxious to get it back with comments from my teacher, Mrs. Roth. I imagined her at her desk, looking over my paper: “Oooo, good theme” or “This girl knows her stuff.” But Mrs. Roth didn’t write much. A smattering of “Nice!’s” A couple of broad-stroked lines under certain sentences. Some circled words. Not as much feedback as I had hoped. Except at the very end of my diary, she wrote:
“Leo Tolstoy is one of the few male writers who could write female characters. Have you read War and Peace?” More sentences followed but they all disappeared to the background.
It never really occurred to me while reading the book that Leo Tolstoy was a guy. I mean, of course I knew he was a guy, but it didn’t register in my head that here was a man. Writing a book about a woman. At the time, it didn’t seem like anything worth discussing. So what?
I went to a small, all-girls Catholic high school in Los Angeles, and, in the same-sex environment, gender was a non-issue. We were treated as people and not as women or men defined by societal expectations and traditional gender roles. As far as I knew, no one waited around for a guy to ask her out to the big dance or to be his girlfriend. And honestly, sometimes I’d forget I was a girl. Like, it would slip my mind until my period came for the month or the dean of discipline would come into our classrooms occasionally to tell us that we needed to be more mindful about closing our legs in class because it was making the male teachers uncomfortable. (No lie. High school felt like one big slumber party.)
At the same time, it wasn’t like I was unaware of being a woman. The teachers, and the nuns who lived in the convent across the parking lot from us, told us constantly that being a woman was an asset, not a setback. That we should feel empowered by our education. And that it was their mission to prepare us to be professionals as opposed to housewives (they did away with home ec around the 60s or 70s). At the library after school, my friend Shounan and I would take mini study breaks and talk about our grand plans to infiltrate our male-dominated world of choice: She, the corporate international business something-or-other world. Me, the hard-hitting journalism world with the Brokaw’s and Jennings’s. “We’ll show them!” we’d say.
But I can’t explain why I didn’t bring up that Tolstoy was a guy writing a female character. It was something that I simply accepted. Yet after reading Mrs. Roth’s comment I felt like I had been slapped in the face. Duh. Of course. So obvious! How could I have missed this? A flood of questions filled my brain: Why didn’t I think this was worth mentioning? How would the book have been different if a woman wrote it? Are there other male authors out there who can write female characters? Why is this a big deal anyway? Why should I care? It was the first time I had really stopped to ask myself those kinds of questions while reading books. Questions that took into account the author and narrator’s perspective, yes, but also highlighted what I had overlooked as insignificant.
As senior year progressed, Mrs. Roth introduced the class to characters like Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Jane Eyre’s Bertha Mason, Miss Amelia from “Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” The Awakening’s Edna Pontillier, and Their Eyes Were Watching God’s Janie. Through these characters, we learned there was a world out there that was quick to dismiss women as “crazy” and “foolish” if they spoke up. “Irrational” and “petty” if they showed tears or expressed an opinion. “Ugly” if they didn’t look delicate. There wasn’t any room for complicated women. Complex women. The women I knew in real life.
What blew my mind was that these characters, and the men and women who created them, were considered controversial because they challenged the societal norms of their time: how women should act and be portrayed, their “role” in marriage, and their “role” in the family. (Although now that I think about it…these norms still exist.) I remember thinking, “Well isn’t that some BS?”
Is it so hard to believe that a woman can have a personality? I don’t like the phrase “reality check” but just about everything I learned from Mrs. Roth in that class was. I realized not everyone lived in the same safe, fun, empowered, feminist-y world as me. It soon became clear why it was important that a guy like Leo Tolstoy took the time to write such a three-dimensional female character as Anna Karenina. And on a deeper level, why the teachers and nuns treated us they way they did. This was beyond “We’ll show them!” This was, “It’s called the patriarchy and that’s why you need to show them.”