The Invisible Woman

burka

by Michael Maciel

There was a cartoon floating around on the Internet a while back depicting two women passing each other on the sidewalk. One was wearing a burka, the other a bikini and a pair of sunglasses. The woman in the bikini and sunglasses thinks to herself, “Everything is covered except her eyes.” The woman in the burka thinks to herself, “Nothing is covered except her eyes.”

The contrast between the two women pales in comparison to the contrast between women and men, the way men see themselves and the way women see themselves. Men, regardless of what they are wearing, see themselves as individuals. Rich or poor, it doesn’t matter. A man might be judged by his outer appearances, but those are generally a statement of who he is, whether he’s wearing a Wall Street suit or Hell’s Angels’ leathers. Two such men passing each other on the sidewalk will also have thoughts about each other, but the inner dialog will have a very different context than that of the two women. The context within which the men are thinking goes something like this: “I know I’m richer than you are, but you can kick my ass,” juxtaposed with “I can kick your ass, but you can throw me in jail, even if I don’t.” And in a broad, general sense, the rest of society sees them the same way.

bikiniBut how does the rest of society see women? Where the men’s outer appearance is incidental to WHO they are, the women’s appearance speaks to WHAT they are. With men, the appearance is secondary. It’s one aspect in a set of aspects. But with women, it’s the only aspect.

Is this always true? Of course not. There are always exceptions to every rule. But when ninety-nine out of a hundred think this way, it might as well be the only game in town.

In the world of men, a crumpled up man in a wheelchair speaking through a voice synthesizer can be a giant of history, if his name is Stephen Hawking. But a woman running for president of the United States is judged first by what she’s wearing and second by whether she has a pleasing personality. Her diplomas and political savvy are barely acknowledged. She can stand for the country, but only if her feet are together. Her appearance and her behavior, if deemed correct, get her in the door, but they also render her invisible. That’s the kind of door that first slaps you in the face and then in the butt. There is no way to win that game.

The woman in the burka is invisible–a black smudge in a world of color. But the woman in the bikini and sunglasses is invisible, too. Her costume hides her just as effectively, but in an inverse way. One outfit reveals only the eyes and thus emphasizes seeing; the other outfit reveals everything but the eyes and thus emphasizes being seen. Both outfits are proscribed by men and by the system that men have created. Both are assigned from the outside–they do not arise as authentic expressions of self.

No one likes to be invisible. In the movie “Avatar,” the people connected themselves to their world and to each other. They greeted each other with “I see you.” But we have cut ourselves off. We have found ways NOT to see each other. We have replaced connection with commodification. We see each other as things, not as persons. And when we objectify other people, we objectify ourselves. Andy Warhol described our condition by repeating the image of a glammed-up Marilyn Monroe, a parody of the objectification of women. And Lady Gaga shows us what it’s like to be a woman in 21st Century Western society by wearing nothing but strips of raw meat.

As people, we want to feel like we belong. Unfortunately, we have used this very human primal need against each other by stipulating absurd rules for membership. It’s a hole we have dug ourselves into, one which we must now escape before the hole gets filled in.

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