There’s this little voice that pipes up when I see certain things, one that tells me some asshole is going to do their best to destroy this lovely thing I’m seeing.
Many years ago I went to an afternoon movie by myself. I even remember the movie: The Ruling Class, a dark comedy starring Peter O’Toole.
But although that movie made a deep impression on me itself, it was the short that preceded it that is important to this story. In it, a woman danced the tango.
The moment the woman appeared on the screen, I knew the men (well, probably boys, given this was next to the University of Texas campus and an afternoon show) were going to laugh.
And laugh they did.
The woman who danced was not skinny. She wasn’t fat, either, but she was buxom and curvy and in no way met the ideal of womanhood in the early 1970s or, in fact, in any part of my lifetime.
I suspect she met the ideal of womanhood in the place where the short was filmed, but since I do not remember anything about the film except a fleeting image of the woman herself, I can’t look that up.
She was a very talented and skilled dancer, but that didn’t matter. She wasn’t beautiful enough for the pleasure of the young men in our society.
I’d been around long enough by then to know what they would and wouldn’t find acceptable. It’s one of those things you learn early on if you’re raised female: how to predict what men will find attractive and what they’ll laugh at.
I felt the same thing when I saw the online clips of Lizzo playing the crystal flute from the Library of Congress collection.
I saw the picture and actually clicked on the video – something I rarely do – because I was curious about how the flute sounded and what she would play on it.
The flute had a lovely sound and it was very clear from the clip that Lizzo knew how to play flute very well. It turns out that she studied flute in college, meaning she was a serious flautist before she became a pop star.
I was wowed. I’m not up on current stars – I’d heard of Lizzo but wasn’t familiar with her music – but listening to her play made me want to find out more.
At the same time, that little voice was saying to me “some racist misogynist slug is going to say something nasty about this.” Because Lizzo is Black and the flute was a gift to one of our enslaving presidents, who apparently didn’t even bother to thank the person who made it for him and probably never even played it. And also because she is not skinny and makes no effort to dress to hide her size and therefore doesn’t meet some definitions of beauty, though she is gorgeous.
I didn’t want to be right, but I was. It amazes me how many things the bigots and misogynists can find to be outraged about, but it saddens me that I almost always know when they’re going to do it.
It is a general rule that those who have an “inferior” social status always know much more about their “betters” than the high status people know about them. It provides protection.
As I mentioned earlier, I had absorbed as a girl what men found attractive. And though I am not Black, I grew up in a world of blatant racism while being taught that it was wrong, which gave me some skill at not just recognizing racism when I saw it, but also knowing when it was coming.
I don’t suppose it would be useful to be innocent of this knowledge of either misogyny or racism, since that would imply a level of naïveté that would not serve me well in the larger world.
But it would still be nice if I could come to a beautiful person or performance or work of art without that strong awareness of the bigoted misogynist gaze.
It always ruins it, at least a little.
In case you missed it, here is a PBS clip of Lizzo playing the flute.