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By Maria Behan

By their very nature, symbols are simplified, a cartoonish shorthand. That simplicity is the essence of their power, but it also brings problems. Context, personal interpretation, and misunderstanding can change or undermine a symbol’s intended meaning. For instance, the swastika means one thing (generally, good luck) in many Eastern religious traditions—and after the Nazis appropriated it, something else entirely to the rest of the world.

As we prepare for the second round of Women’s Marches taking place on January 20 and 21, a lot of us have been thinking about symbols in general, and pussyhats in particular. I now own two pink pussyhats–a fleece one for winter, and a subtle straw one for summer—but initially I felt ambivalent about them. For starters, the color pink seems to represent the cloying vision of femininity that I rejected in girlhood. And does a pussyhat reinforce the reductive view that a vagina is the most important thing about a woman?

These issues have been getting battered around on social media forums (just like Aziz Ansari…more on him later) at the moment. I’ve seen some smart, thoughtful, and soul-searching commentary (and sure, a fair amount of silliness and snark—we’re talking about social media, after all). And if you don’t mind, I’d like to share some of it with you.

When I raised my antipathy to the color pink earlier today, one Facebook friend delivered a well-informed and passionate account of the history of the color, both as a tool of belittlement and an assertion of rebellion. She gently implied that my rejection of pink as a little girl might be a rejection of my own femininity, of a Stockholm-syndrome identification with the male oppressor. Thinking it over, she may be right…though I’d prefer to think of it as a rejection of the limited roles ascribed to girls and women under patriarchy.

Rhiannon Woo, a representative of the civic-engagement group Together We Will USA, made her case against the pussyhat this way: “I know that many millions of people around the world came together under the pink floppy-eared hat, making it a de facto uniform for those resisting the particular badness of a then 1-day-old Trump presidency. But, even then voices were rising—‘I’m a woman, but I don’t have a vagina.’ ‘I have a vagina, but I’m not a woman.’ ‘My vagina is not pink.’”

Woo goes on to ask, “Why would anyone wear something that causes others to feel disenfranchised? It is completely avoidable and why would anyone be so wedded to a pink pussyhat over the feelings of others?”

Good point.

But so is this: in response to that piece, a male friend posted, “I happen not to have a vagina of any color, and was nevertheless thrilled beyond reason to wear a pink pussyhat at the march in D.C. last year, where I was even more thrilled to see a vast ocean of pinkness adorning an enormous diversity of heads.”

There is no single way to interpret a symbol. Or to interpret the resentment or rejection of that symbol. So I see both sides of the pussyhat brouhaha.

Which is why I’ll be waving a blue flag—a symbol of the electoral tide we’re hoping will sweep the country in this year’s upcoming U.S. elections—when I attend the Power to the Polls rally in Las Vegas on January 21. Yes, there are messaging pitfalls with that blue-wave approach as well: The same friend who advised me to embrace pink if I wanted to be a true badass warned me about the possible negative connotations of blue, which could be seen as marginalizing Republican women.

Not to be ratty about it, but it seems to me they’ve pretty much marginalized themselves. I mean, I’ll proudly march with any of the six or seven anti-Trump women who still identify as Republicans…but let’s face it, there aren’t many more than that. (For more on how the mainstream Republican Party has destroyed itself by aligning with Trump, check out my Spotlight column this month.) So I’m sticking with blue this year, because it’s pretty clear that the resistance to Trump is coming from that sector of the political color wheel.

I am still learning lessons from intersectional feminism, which I first encountered as I prepared for last year’s march in D.C. It’s both humbling and educational to hear and empathize with other people’s perspectives, especially when they come from groups that have been the most oppressed and marginalized. And then, informed and enriched by that knowledge, we should turn our attention back to the massive challenges we face as we try to resist and topple Donald Trump, the would-be totalitarian who doesn’t care what pink thing we have on our heads or what blue thing we’re waving at the end of our rally-approved wrapping-paper tubes. That’s why this Women’s March weekend, and for the rest of 2018, my focus is not going to be on taking back pink, it’s going to be on taking back Congress.

Who’s Ansari Now?

In closing, I’d like to quickly wade into the Aziz Ansari battle royale. (If you somehow managed to miss the original piece describing what some see as sexual predation and others view as bad sex, you can head here—pun intended, since the earnestness surrounding this matter is riling up my inner imp.) I’m sorry to be quoting another Facebook friend, but here goes: “If I hear one more person say that girl should have shut it down and gone home, my head will explode. HE SHOULD NOT HAVE PRESSURED HER. THE END.”

Uh no, it’s not the end. (And don’t you just love it when people throw out what they know are controversial positions in inflammatory terms and then say things like “the end?”—as if invoking a magic spell that will make it so?)

Maybe not with Aziz Ansari, but most women in the dating pool have been in situations like the one described by his accuser, the anonymous “Grace.” Mostly, it seems to me, when the evening stays consensual but gets sexual in ways we don’t like, we go home. But sometimes, for various reasons, we don’t. I think we need to spend more time thinking about the dynamics going on in those scenarios…for both women and men. (For a brave and chilling exploration of this subject from a fictional point of view, check out “Cat Person,” The New Yorker story that justly went viral in late 2017.)

Rather than attack each other as slut-shamers, snowflakes, victim-blamers, predators, or apologists, I think a more productive discussion would be to talk about how patriarchy warps the way we all think and act…and to try to figure out how to begin the process of prying its claws out of our brains. And since we’re all suffering from different levels of the same pathology, let’s remind ourselves that we didn’t bring it on ourselves: it’s an inherited condition. So let’s try to have compassion for each other as we strive to overcome it. In general, I’d say that men have more work to do than women when it comes to straightening out the skewed thinking about sexuality and gender roles that deforms us all—but undoubtedly victimizes women the most. But I think all of us have painful truths to confront—about ourselves, our partners, and our society.

Not this weekend, though. This weekend, we march! I look forward to seeing you out there, whatever color you’re wearing or waving, and whatever is or isn’t in your underwear (if you chose to wear underwear, that is; I don’t mean to be prescriptive). To the barricades!

Maria Behan writes fiction and non-fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times, and Northern California Best Places.


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