Girls Writing: A Radical Act in Donald Trump’s America
Girls write furiously around the room. Pens scratching into paper with velocity and fervor. Bodies hunch over desks and hands cramp with the rapid tenacity in which the pens they hold move. But these women writers do not care. They are angry and scared and confused. It is Wednesday, November 9th, 2016 in Jamaica, Queens and what lies ahead for this room of fourteen-year-olds, many of whom are first generation or immigrant women of color, just became very uncertain.
There has always been an war on the bodies and minds of teenage girls. Women of color are particularly brutalized on this battleground, degraded for skin tone as well as all the other standards against which women are judged. Women have been fighting magazines, adverts, television, etc. in order to change what is deemed acceptable and promote real and healthy bodies and minds. But with the advent of the Internet, for every positive body image or inspiring story of a woman winning a Senate seat, there are ten or more belittling memes, sexist stories, rape cases, demeaning tweets and an infinite number of cyber trolls waiting in the shadows, ready to pounce on the next girl to raise her voice.
I remember quite well my father calling me a slut for getting a tattoo on my wrist and my uncle referring to my Master’s degree as my “degree in finger painting”. And these are surely some of the more benign comments I’ve encountered in my short lifetime (although arguably more hurtful since they come from men I actually love). I remember being in high school, thinking my thighs (at 107lbs) were too wide and that I certainly wasn’t smart enough to do the kinds of things I’ve actually gone on to do: learn other languages, live in other countries, write novels, earn two undergraduate degrees and then go to graduate school. I still struggle with thinking I’m good enough, smart enough, worthy enough.
And I didn’t come of age in a time when everything was made public on virtual platforms for the entire world to judge.
But here are thirty young women who have. Thirty women who’ve grown up on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and all the other social media platforms that are produced almost daily. Thirty women who’ve grown up texting. Thirty women who’ve grown under the rise of Kardashians and reality television. And now, thirty women who are coming of age at the dawn of a Trump presidency.
Everything is open to the world and shared online, and therefore open for judgment. A woman can hardly formulate a thought, experiment with a hairstyle, or ask a question before a critical voice chimes in. Or before someone questions her mental state. Men have kept women as second-tier citizens by gaslighting them for centuries, and this election has been no exception. We’ve seen a presidential candidate mock his opponent’s looks, call women names, question their intellectual ability because of their menstrual cycle, joke about getting away with sexual assault, and an onslaught of other incidents that devalue women.
With that kind of cruelty at the helm of this nation, what kind of message are we sending to our young women? At what point can they feel safe to expand who they are and process what they want to be, if there is someone stopping that path, criticizing their every move before it is even made? As Ziad Ahmed put it in the article “Why do you fear me?” by David Yi, “When people are attacking us 24/7 how can you score when you’re always defending?”
I can hear the voices now: “It’s a tough world out there,” “No one should take it easy on them, this is what the world is like,” “This kind of culture is just fostering a bunch of precious snowflakes who’ll melt under pressure.”
We know quite well this response is not some kind of tough love lesson the world is enacting. We are seeing voices deliberately silenced. We’ve known this battle for a long time, but the threat has become blatant and its implementation imminent. So we must arm ourselves. These women, coming of age in the time of the Internet and rise of misogyny, racism, xenophobia and homophobia in our country, must build a solid foundation of who they are and what they stand for in order to arm themselves for the fight ahead. How can we do that? How can they endure?
On November 8th, America decided the future of the girls in my classroom without asking them. In response, they are doing something radical. They’re carving out space for themselves, a space where no bully or sexist standard or presidential troll can reach them.
They’ve each been given their own journal. A space that no one else can enter, not even me, their teacher. It is a place where these young women can discover who they are and what they want without this world’s nasty rules deciding for them. A place where they can say to the comment section lurkers reading this, “Say what you want, you can’t touch me in here.” While it may seem something small, this space is a necessary foundation, especially now, for a young woman to find her voice in a world that wants to silence her. It is from these pages that letters, songs, poetry, stories, declarations, policies and movements will come. On these pages change is made possible.
As the teacher of young women, it is my job to be the vessel through which they discover the power of their own voices, it is my job to build them up, guide them in their explorations and experimentations with words. Eventually these young women in this tiny class in this small school in Jamaica, Queens will use their writing to speak out against what they see as unjust. We’ll write letters, essays, craft poems and short stories, all with the goal in mind of strengthening their self-confidence, sharpening their minds and creating strong, empathetic women. We’ll spend time articulating our thoughts and feelings, navigating new avenues of ourselves and channeling our anger, fear and frustration into positive outcomes that can effect change.
For now, though, the change starts from within. This space of their own is the starting point and this is the foundation from which these creative strong women will grow.
Because in four years, we’re going to need these women for the fight.
M.K. Rainey teaches writing to the youth of America through Community-Word Project, Wingspan Arts and The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cider Press Review, Litro Online, Equinox, Teachers & Writers Magazine, The Grief Diaries and more. She co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series and lives in Harlem with her dog. Sometimes she writes things the dog likes. You can find her on Twitter @makeitktrainey.
February 3, 2017