There is a lot of discussion about the “Breast Cancer Warrior.” Women who have been diagnosed are often lauded for fighting a battle and for refusing to give up. And others raise questions about this archetype or model.
There is a pink image, “Keep Calm and Fight Like a Girl”; perhaps the mid-century British provenance has something to do with the subtler shade of rose, a color I can take in without sunglasses. Thank you! That alone helps me to be calmer. There is what looks like a wine glass with the slogan “Breast Cancer Warrior.” That is interesting too. I kind of like the idea of being an oenowarrior. (When I was auditioning oncologists, one said I should drink only on the weekends; the other reminded me of the research about a glass of wine a day being beneficial. I liked them both, but it was the latter I hired.) A few years back, when I totaled my Focus, so to speak, I saw this somewhat jarring image at the Ford repair shop:
There is also an endearing-looking tee-shirt that seems to have a tree branch, antlers, or a tribal tattoo image, surrounding a burgundy heart. It is shown on a flat-chested body, identified as a men’s shirt, but I like to pretend it is a woman in the picture.
There is something intriguing, too, about tee-shirts being adopted as warrior gear—displaying, deliberately or inadvertently, the vulnerability of the body. Unlike tough battle armor designed to protect the body, this slight piece of cotton sits lightly on the chest, tenderly covering the susceptible spot. It signifies that this battle directed not outward, but inward—not protecting the skin from puncture, but breaking the skin to excise the offending intruder.
Certainly some breast cancer patients find these images useful, and others prefer to view ourselves in other roles. For my part, I am simply intrigued by the this vocabulary and its accompanying imagery. As someone who has been overly self-effacing and accommodating at times, but who has gradually learned about enlightened warriorship and practiced tai ji sword for a time, I recognize that welcoming the unwelcome can be counterproductive. But the thought of gearing myself up for war against my own insides also feels harsh, a little too close to self-harm. It is not easy to navigate this territory, when the offender lies within. And it asks us to summon superhero strength when our bodies are already weakened. Perhaps that is what is necessary.
There are other images of women warriors floating around. I’ve witnessed some interesting discussions and debates over the costuming of female characters in fantasy literature and film, though this aspect comprises my sole contact with that material. I’m more familiar with powerful and determined women (and men) who have advocated equality for women, for people of color, for trans individuals, for economic justice and for the eradication of sexualized violence, and other things I probably do not know to worry about yet. While there is significant energy around these issues these days, much of it on social media, there is also a lot of resistance, even aggression, toward these efforts. There is also denial and naiveté, which place us all in danger. When Elliot Rodger murdered several people earlier this year, there was a reflexive script that was recited and regurgitated: “This is not about misogyny; he was mentally ill.” But few pointed out that his pathology was shaped by damaging notions of gender, by a deadly cocktail of a gun, a mind, and a culture wherein men are told they are entitled to women’s attentions. The fact that men were “well represented” among the victims showed, not so much that it was men he focused on, but that the fury of a man rejected can mutate to kill men too.
Of necessity, some advocates, under siege, have adopted the role of warrior in order to persevere under such inhospitable circumstances. My own fight, undertaken reluctantly, has concerned equity in the workplace, and I have encountered not only hostility, but outright aggression and retaliation, and perhaps—though I cannot know others’ intentions—deliberate, concerted efforts to ruin my career. It is clear to me that I am expected to accept second-class status, to undermine my, um, prowess—which, I daresay, is considerable—in order to soothe others’ egos. (Sadly, they have chosen to battle my excellence, even though they themselves could benefit from my wisdom and expertise. What abundance of antipathy must one nurse to get to the point of harming another who, if unimpeded, could benefit oneself? I suspect it weighs heavily.) I have learned much and have gradually learned to accept the unfortunate reality that I too must embrace the role of warrior. I have fashioned myself as a warrior for peace, but, also sadly, I have received more aggression, exclusion, and intimidation, and I have witnessed some outlandish, circus-like antics in the process. Of course, I am not immune to going simian myself when under pressure.
So, as I did my laundry yesterday, I was dreaming: what if women were raised to be, and celebrated for, standing in our integrity, not just just in the face of life-threatening illness, but in the face of social injustice, gender discrimination, and economic inequity? What if something other than our ability to withstand suffering were used to sell bagels, tissues, and beer? What if we were acclaimed for demanding respectful treatment, which in turn would allow us to collaborate more fully in cultivating better circumstances for all? Can you imagine a world wherein we would see Ford™ trucks sprouting ribbons supporting Rehtaeh Parsons’s fight against bullying? And decrying those who violated her and even publicized their acts? Can you imagine a day when Chelsea Manning’s coming out about gender transitioning is viewed with more compassion than ridicule? Where I am praised for my wisdom and integrity, for making my workplace better for all, rather than ostracized, bullied, and perhaps forced out?
There is evidence of such support, but the boos and hisses continue to drown out the appreciation and gratitude.
Inspired by taiji, I prefer to ward off my cancer gently, and with respect. And I support those who choose to do battle instead. But when I consider how the passion for the pink soldier sits alongside the denigration of other women warriors, I grieve that women who serve in the US military cannot trust that they will remain safe from attack perpetrated by their fellow soldiers. How can it be that those they are trained to fight with choose instead to fight against them, to humiliate, intimidate, violate and degrade? How can they, in a manner akin to that of my non-military colleagues, treat women as the enemy? I cannot but wonder if the appeal of the breast-cancer warrior model—often, literally, a model—lies in part in its giving license to fight against women’s bodies rather than to honor these same women’s sovereignty over those same bodies. Cell mutation intrudes into an often-sexualized part of the body, and so do human assailants.
Are women who wear this shirt cheered on as energetically as those who wear pink warrior princess garb? I have one of these; I’ll report back. (I chose the color deliberately.)
I dream a world where we women who fight for ourselves, for others, and who demand that our value be recognized and honored, are met with more applause than recrimination and ridicule. Whatever color we choose for our warrior costumes, whatever adversary we confront, we are all fighting for our lives.
To close, bell hooks’s insights on domestic violence:
“If you go door to door in our nation and talk to citizens about domestic violence, almost everyone will insist that they do not support male violence against women, that they believe it to be morally and ethically wrong. However, if you then explain that we can only end male violence against women by challenging patriarchy, and that means no longer accepting the notion that men should have more rights and privileges than women because of biological differences or that men should have the power to rule over women, that is when the agreement stops. There is a gap between the values they claim to hold and their willingness to do the work of connecting thought and action, theory and practice to realize these values and thus create a more just society.”
—bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (via thechocolatebrigade)
—Posted by Rosie Untied