Mars, Venus and Uranus

Unintentionally constructed as such, this past weekend proved to be a juxtaposition of the sexes. There wasn’t necessarily a battle, but certainly an abundance of colorful language.

It began a month ago when I accepted an invitation to Friday’s night show from Bonnie-Mom, who bought an extra ticket in support of her friend, Shahana Dattagupta. An architect and artist, Shahana helmed a pro-feminist production, with which I was utterly unfamiliar: Yoni Ki Baat. However, if Bon was attending, it was bound to be interesting.

Aside from knowing that Bonnie travels in good company, I figured it was worth going if only to be able to repeat the woman’s name, a lively amalgamation of sounds (sha-hah-nah-dah-tah-goop-tah.) In my hasty RSVP, I didn’t investigate the content; it seemed exotic, worldly—some sort of power-female convention. I figured it would be a fun opportunity to meet amazing women, and that was enough.

In a twist of fate, March 25th also happened to be my last day at Mithun. Spurred on after declining several “goodbye” happy hour requests for that afternoon, I realized that I needed to research what I had said yes to.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Yoni Ki Baat is the Southeast Asian version of “The Vagina Monologues.” (Yoni is the Sanskrit word for female genitalia, which translates as “the divine passage” or “sacred temple.”) I had a good laugh when I flipped to the website; suddenly, the logo image made from petite twists of multi-colored clay made more sense!

To begin our adventure, Bon and I dined at Poppy with her friend Kathleen, who works for a local Italian food supplier. Within the first ten minutes I decided that this larger-than-life character deserved a show of her own.

From stories about “Penciltucky,” as Kathleen called it, and being raised by a mammy and “Sweet Daddy,” to tales of international travel and life as a mother to a teenage son, I was already basking in the glow of powerful femininity. She even bent down to let me smell the intoxicating Daphne odora woven into her long gray hair as we stood to leave the restaurant.

It didn’t surprise me that Kathleen dared to nab seats in the third row at the Asian Art Museum—seats that bore a “Reserved” sign. They were virtually the only ones still free when we arrived, save for a few in the back row. “We know Shahana!” she asserted. “If we get bounced, we’ll roll with it.” Somehow, if we needed her to, I knew that Kathleen would lead us out with as much self-assurance as she had led us in.

The chaos quickly quieted as we listened to 14 stunning Southeast Asian women tell stories for the next two hours, accompanied by a pianist who sealed and began each act with her music and voice.

Each performer was dressed in a combination of fuchsia and black—saris, off-the-shoulder tops, dresses, skirts—framed by dark tresses and smooth brown skin, they were a flock of exotic birds that had descended into our midst. Something in my mind believed that, if we were close enough, we would find that these women smelled as sweet as Kathleen’s flowers. Their beauty was at once distracting, empowering, and heartbreaking.

They wove together stories of motherhood and marriage, rape and incest, sex and violence, and what it means to be a woman: a woman in love, a woman as property, a woman as a victim, a woman as a working professional, a woman conflicted, and ultimately, a woman in search of herself. A divorced woman, a married woman, a single woman, a daughter, a mother; a woman who did not wish to have children, much to the public dismay of friends, family, and nosy fussbudgets.

We have all been those women: women who have been held back in the workplace; women who have wondered what’s so wrong about “crying like a girl;” women who have been physically, sexually, or mentally abused by a family member and intimidated into silence; women who didn’t want to turn out like their mothers; women who have suffered the persecution of other women–for success and for failure; women who have loved and lost; and women who are just beginning to understand, reclaim and celebrate their own physical bodies.

Their stories pointed out a very poignant but elusive fact: we’re made to think that, in 2011, men and women are equals in certain countries—hell, even I would have supported that notion—but we’re not. Women still get paid less than men do and face a glass ceiling in the workplace. There are still many venues–the presidency, for one–in which women have trouble gaining entrance. A man’s merits are often assumed by other men while women have to prove themselves and even then may not be “rewarded” the way male colleagues are.

When it comes to sex, the notion of equal pleasure goes right out the window, beginning with female circumcision and rape, and ending with the fact that many men have no idea what pleasure means for a woman.

On Friday night, we were reminded that sex–whether heterosexual or homosexual–is defined by penetration; the very concept is named for an act that brings about male pleasure (and babies) rather than female pleasure. Not a shocking perspective, but one I hadn’t considered before. And the list goes on.

Yonis aside, the next night was all about men: “Of Mice and Men,” at the Seattle Rep, to be exact.

Fueled by the previous night’s observations, I smirked at Steinbeck’s use of the only female character in the play—Mrs. Curley—a flirtatious tramp whose glistening hair and wanton ways become the vehicle for Lenny’s demise. Instead of Eve, Adam, and the apple, there’s Lenny, Curley’s wife, and her soft, shiny hair.

Though a brute, Steinbeck reminds us that Lenny is childlike, good-natured, and mentally retarded—he can hardly be blamed for not resisting Mrs. Curley’s forward behavior, the poor dolt. And so, we are reminded [by a man] that the true nature of The Fall, of evil, of temptation is—you guessed it—women.

The play was well done, though, and funnier than I remember from reading the story. There was a warm “Cannery Row” spirit to the portrayal—a carefree sense of Mack and the Boys, and the notion that a dream can carry a man forward when he has nothing else. That’s what Steinbeck does best: contrasts the basest natures of a man with the good-hearted possibilities of which he’s capable—even if they are only a product of his noble ambitions and not at all related to his actual deeds.

On Sunday morning, as I wondered if we’d ever solve it–Man v. Woman, Mars v. Venus–I stumbled upon an article in The New York Times about the battle of the sexes—and modern times—in India. The next day, I tittered at another article on Salon.com about the growing acceptance of a once-taboo sexual practice amongst heterosexual men that involves females in a curiously powerful role.

From one reading to the next, it’s impossible to tell whether much has changed in thousands of years–or if it ever will.

I’m not sure that we ever will come close to “solving” the dilemma, if it is indeed a dilemma to solve. The perpetual mystery that we are to each other is both the source of attraction, respect, and wisdom, as it is pain, fear, and a power struggle. This battle–which is not one-sided, but shared–belies our very nature as human beings, whether male or female.

The sexes are NOT equal. Our differences are too complex–and fascinating–for us to ever hope for a solution as banal as “equality.” In fact, we should realize that this particular dilemma has nothing to do with equality per se, but is really about dominance: some want to break free of it and others want to hold onto it. There is not an equal sign in that equation.

If there is an answer, perhaps it’s about considering more closely how to treat one another as human beings, rather than playing he-said-she-said. (Of course, we’d have to be a lot more grown-up to do that.) And, if men and women ever truly became “equal,” what would differentiate us?

As is true of the topic in general, there’s no pretty ribbon to tie up this essay, just more teeter-tottering: after all, how does a woman balance the heartwarming thrill from having one man walk her safely home at night, the nagging threat of another man lurking to jump her in the shadows — and the steel-toed riding boots that she donned for both them…and herself?

 

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