About the Author

Logan Maniscalco (they/them) is a student at Amherst College and the Communications Organizer for the WGC. They started Re/defining Gender in conjunction with the Center in order to share their everyday musings on issues facing gender-marginalized individuals, especially those facing other intersections of marginalization, such as race, class, ability, and sexual orientation. This column is meant to confront both definitions of womanhood and experiences of misogyny in everyday life and reflects the opinions of the author.

May 2, 2022: Guerreras

To whom do I owe the power behind my voice, what strength I have become, yeasting up like sudden blood from under the bruised skin blister? My father leaves his psychic print upon me, silent, intense, and unforgiving. But his is a distant lightning. Images of women flaming like torches adorn and define the borders of my journey, stand like dykes between me and the chaos. It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home.” - Audre Lorde. “Zami: A New Spelling of my Name.”

 

I’m sitting on the couch, my younger cousin nestled next to me, the lamp lights glowing low and warm, watching as my mother jumps around in a circle of her sisters and mother. Her head is tilted back, her eyes wide with excitement, as she sings the most tone-deaf rendition of a melody anyone has ever heard. I don’t remember the song, but I remember screaming and laughing, the adults with a couple of drinks in their system. My mother, at the center of it all, hasn’t had fun like this in a long time. As she dances, I wish I could be up there with her, but my total lack of confidence keeps me from getting out of my seat. I think for a moment about how different we are–it’s true, she has taught me everything she knows–yet we couldn’t be more opposite. She: loud, bold, confident, carefree. Me: quiet, anxious, and hyper-aware of everyone and everything around me. I watch my mother with my aunts and grandmother; I’m content  with observing. In some ways, it’s better, getting to see them light up the room and fill the air with noise. It reminds me who I come from. 

My mother immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was fourteen, after being reunited with my grandmother who had been in the States for some time already. She came to Washington Heights with just my grandmother and a younger sister to watch over and pieced together her English with American soap operas and magazines. She pushed herself to get the highest grades possible, attended college, joined the Marines, and spent her young adult life learning how to support herself in a world that was designed not to support her. In 2001 she got married, and in 2002, she had her first child. 

She taught me as best she could how to do all that she did. In the summers, she sat with me at the kitchen table doing workbooks several grade levels above my own so I could always be ahead. With our Fisher-Price chalkboard she taught me cursive. She taught me to always be strong, independent, and responsible, caring for all those around me. She taught me to strive to be the best, something that quickly earned me a reputation at school as the smartest yet bitchiest girl in the grade (that reputation, incredibly misogynistic as it was, could be an entire entry in itself). In turn, my mother taught me not to care about what anyone else said or thought, though I could never quite achieve that confidence. 

She taught me everything she knew–everything she was thrust into as a young Dominicana in the States who could barely speak English and was forced to learn how to take care of herself. I think she wanted me to be like her. She didn’t want me to experience the hardships she did (and I didn’t, for the most part). She wanted me to build a life for myself as a powerful, capable person who could do anything I desired, regardless of the marginalization I would face. She didn’t want the world to swallow me whole, not when she would never let it do that to her.

When I think about my female ancestors, those I have a relationship with and those I have not gotten to know because they passed long before I was born, I think of their beauty, their vibrance, their love, and their infinite strength in the face of infinite hardship. I think of my mother moving us into our new home after divorcing my father, opening windows that had been painted shut, lighting candles to blow away the dust coating every surface, telling us stories about all of the things she was going to do now, now that she could do them. I think of my aunts gripping my hand tightly and leading me down Bronx streets, showing me the city on the way to pick up groceries, showing me one of the places my family is from. I think of my grandmother’s perfume floating into my nose as she hugs me tight, her prayers for my health and safety echoing in my ears long after she leaves. I think of my great aunt commanding the room, ordering her children and grandchildren to stir a pot or set the table. I think of the ways in which these women have shaped me with their stories and with their care, how they have led me to where I am now, and where I still can go.

It is the images of women, kind and cruel, that lead me home. My mother didn’t truly know her mother until she was 13. My grandmother had ambition that she couldn’t find on the island. She had to go to the States, leaving everyone behind, leaving her daughters. She had to make a choice. Years later, when my mother tells me about her separation from her mother, her memory is bittersweet. She tells me about the loss, but she also tells me about the comfort once they were reunited, the way they were drawn back together regardless of distance. Kindness and cruelty.

And of course, my mother’s lessons fell short sometimes. She had to do everything on her own, and in turn she didn’t think I needed help with anything. Though her independence gave her so much experience, there were aspects of my life and identity that she had no idea how to understand let alone support me in. Her stubbornness and refusal to be lenient make me see red and my blood hot. We’ve gotten into fights so intense I’ve had to leave the house to calm down. But when I think of my mother, those are not the first things that come to mind. I think of the way she hugs me so tight I can’t breathe and have to tap out. I think of crouching down behind one of our broken appliances, a flashlight in my hand and a Youtube how-to video playing as we fix it ourselves. I think of some of my worst periods in high school and her sitting next to me, massaging the cramps out of my legs, pushing movement and energy into my body. I think of how when I do engage with womanhood, when I do choose to let femininity guide me, I model myself after her, after the immense strength and vibrance that she’s shown me. I want her to know in the future that I do my best to carry her example with me.

And I wonder if my female ancestors, my great grandmother and great great grandmother and further, might think the same. How did they imagine their descendants, the women who would hold their legacy? Am I what they hoped I would be? Am I doing things they never even imagined for me? Am I honoring them in my daily actions, holding them in my heart and letting them guide me? If they’re watching me now, what are they saying? I know these women’s legacies hold me, protect me from the pain I have been confronted with at the hands of men, keep the fire within me burning. It is these women that let me explore further than they had imagined, and it is these women that I know, no matter what, will always welcome me home.

April 12, 2022: The Humiliation of Women in Men’s Comedy: Jada Pinkett Smith and the Loss of Agency

When I was young, about 10 or 11, one of the few ways I was able to bond with my father came in the form of several Netflix comedy specials by Jeff Dunham. Jeff Dunham, one of the most popular and successful comedians in the United States, made his brand of comedy through ventriloquism. Each show, he would bring out several puppets with distinct and crowd pleasing personalities, bringing audiences to tears with laughter. I was no different. I loved him, partly because he was the first comedian I had ever watched and partly because I saw that my father loved him, and that was a signal to me that I should do the same. My brother and I were constantly left gasping for air, clutching our sore stomachs out of amusement. Watching those specials with my brother and father were some incredibly fond memories in an otherwise panicked and tumultuous childhood. That fond feeling changed when I revisited Jeff Dunham and his comedy a few years later, when I knew much more about not only the world, but also myself. I had walked into the living room when my father and brother were watching it, just catching a particular joke Dunham and one of his puppets were making about the puppet’s wife’s period and how it turns her into an evil, monstrous, supervillain that the puppet regularly has to defeat:

Dunham: Does your wife have any powers? 

Melvin the Superhero Guy (Puppet): Yes, really, uh-huh. 

Dunham: What are they? 

Melvin the Superhero Guy: Well, once a month... she becomes "evil!" And I cannot defeat her! Our children run in terror! Our big dog cowers under the couch!

Dunham and the puppet went on after this to make more jokes about the puppet’s wife. When watching this clip again as a young teen who knew a lot more not only about the body but about the ways in which people with periods are further marginalized for the natural yet tumultuous process of menstruation, I felt humiliated. Especially when watching the audience’s reaction and seeing them consumed with laughter. 

Now that I could actually understand the meaning of his jokes, I didn’t find him funny anymore, and I haven’t watched his specials since. When I recall his humor now, I’m unsettled by the fact that I once laughed at his jokes and am even more unsettled by my family jumping to defend his humor the minute I was no longer interested. This isn’t unique to my family. Every time a comedian is criticized for their “humor,” which often consists of the most offensive “jokes” about marginalized communities, someone always interjects, “That’s what comedy is all about, taking risks!” I don’t know if that’s how I would define comedy–laughing at the expense of others’ hardship. But the question remains, why are we as a society so quick to defend comedians “punching down” in their acts? And why does it seem to be the only kind of humor that most male comedians can conceptualize? 

This brings us to Chris Rock, a comedian who I was first introduced to through the “Grownups” movies and Happy Madison franchise, though I’m sure others know him from his comedy specials or even his documentary “Good Hair.” Oh yes, the history between Chris Rock and his commentary on Black women’s hair is much longer than we think. “Good Hair” is an exploration of Black women’s relationship and history to and with their hair. It asks the question: What is “good hair” and what does it mean to strive for it? It’s a compelling question in a world that punishes Black women for their hair in nearly all forms: afros, dreads, braids, and more. But the documentary fails to have a nuanced conversation about the complicated history and cultural significance of Black hair; instead, it attacks Black women for making the choice to relax their hair. To Rock, Black women who don’t want to style their natural hair “want to be white.” The problems I have with this statement alone would take up another entry entirely; let’s leave it at the fact that Rock is in no place to judge the actions of Black women, who are some of the most targeted people in society, and whose physical expression and femininity is a constant source of scrutiny in contrast to eurocentric beauty standards.

Rock’s criticism of Black women’s physical expression, beauty, and individual choices continues still, as he chose to spend his limited time on the Oscars stage joking about the choice Jada Pinkett Smith was forced to make due to an autoimmune disease. Pinkett Smith’s reflections on this decision to cut her hair are hard-hitting: “And my hair has been a big part of me. Taking care of my hair has been a beautiful ritual, you know? And having the choice to have hair or not, and then one day to be like, ‘Oh, my God, I might not have the choice.’” (US Weekly) It’s clear Pinkett Smith did not make the choice to shave her head lightly. Rock’s “joke” in which he compared Pinkett Smith to G.I. Jane, a character who exists in an extremely masculine environment and is afforded no femininine attributes, is reflective of a broader issue: the masculinization of Black women. Society sees whiteness, and by extension, white womanhood, as the ideal, gold standard of femininity, purity, and innocence. In contrast, Black women, especially darker-skinned Black women, are either hypersexualized or masculinized; they’re stripped of their womanhood in order to justify mistreatment. By comparing Pinkett Smith to G.I. Jane, it’s clear that Rock’s “joke” was grounded in nothing but misogynoir, ableism, and texturism.

Personally, my decision to buzz all my hair off in August 2020–without an autoimmune disease prompting me to make that decision–was unbelievably difficult. Many people expressed, either through judgemental stares or harsh words, that I was uglier for it. It was hard not to feel like maybe they were right.  My hair holds great personal and cultural significance, but still with my privilege as a light-skinned individual and someone without an autoimmune disease, I would never have experienced the criticism and public spectacle Pinkett Smith was confronted with. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her to face insult after insult. I can only imagine how it must have felt to be in that room, being hyper-aware of all of the cameras televising Rock’s joke and having to watch as the world erupts into an argument of Team Will v.s. Team Chris, while she, the real victim of the attack, is overlooked. I can only imagine how it must have felt to have a man who has repeatedly shown his disrespect for Black women make a joke out of her struggle and treat her body as though he has a right to laugh at it. Rep. Ayanna Pressley said it best herself in response to Rock’s joke:

“Our bodies are not public domain. They are not a line in a joke–especially when the transformation is not of our choosing. I’m a survivor of violence. I’m a proud Alopecian. The psychological toll we carry daily is real. Team Jada always.” - Ayanna Pressley

People who experience gender marginalization, and especially those who are further marginalized by multiple systems of oppression, like white supremacy, capitalism, and ableism, are humiliated over and over again for the purpose of a joke. Our bodies, words, and passions are picked apart, simplified, sexualized, and treated with disdain and disrespect. This is especially true when we do something that goes against the expectations and standards of the patriarchy. Pinkett Smith made the difficult decision to shave her head in order to free herself from the weight her disease was placing on her shoulders. In turn, Rock–among others–punished her for it. 

What we learn here (if the rest of the world hasn’t taught it to us already) is that men will jump at the opportunity to laugh at and make fun of any woman they can, especially when they are in any state that they deem as flawed. When I think of Dunham’s amusement at the belittling of women and the delighted response of his audience, I ask myself: What’s the solution? Is there even a solution that isn’t the complete dissolution of the patriarchy, something that will only come with the dissolution of all other systems of oppression, something we will not even see in our lifetime? What is possible? The closest thing I have to a plan is to surround myself with the people I know share and will respect my identities. I will remember that in order to see beginnings of change in these communities, mutual aid, education, and communal support are vital. And one thing’s for sure: I won’t watch or go to shows by male comedians until the culture shifts.