Michaela Brawn: on Peer Role Models, Consent, and Hemingway's Women
On her career: I’m currently studying English Literature at Brown, focusing on American Modernism. I spent this past summer teaching with an organization called PASE (Partnership for Afterschool Education) that links college students with educational summer programs for K-12 students, mostly targeting underprivileged students with learning disabilities or IEPs. There was a study that found that underprivileged students basically lose 2 months of their education each year because they’re not academically or creatively active during their summer breaks, which makes them fall full grades behind in school, unable to keep up. I will be pursuing a master’s degree in literature at Columbia starting in the fall of 2017. After that, I hope to pursue a PhD. My ultimate goal is to become a professor and work in academia as I think education should be a lifelong pursuit.
On femininity: I was recently reading Emile by Rousseau, and realized that this is why people had these fucked up assumptions about women. He was a respected and renowned thinker, but he also put forth these ridiculous ideas about how women should exist within a patriarchal society. He thought a woman should be pretty, but not too pretty; she should be smart, but not too smart - creating these stifling double standards. I think traditional femininity is this image of a dainty little girl who does what men want her to do. I definitely don’t frown upon the idea of traditional femininity entirely, because there are times when I think it’s really fun to get all dolled up, put on makeup and wear girly clothes, but there are also days when I want to wear baggy pants and walk around not having showered. I have feminist friends who are very much in line with traditional femininity aesthetically, but I don’t think that makes them any less feminist, or less progressive.
On womanhood: Of late, it feels like there’s so much talk in terms of what it means to be a woman. I don’t think I can put it into words...womanhood...I think that it’s something that’s constantly changing for me as I sort of come into my own more and more and try to figure out what I want and how I want to be perceived and how I want to present myself. It’s still in the works for me, it’s still changing. I think I wouldn’t have been able to say this a couple of years ago because, not only did I lack the self-certainty to do so, but I also lacked the vocabulary, but being around so many intelligent women in college has taught me that the perfect woman is someone who loves and respect herself enough that it doesn’t matter what she looks like, because she is confident in herself enough that her inner beauty will always shine through. Yet it’s still so hard to truly accept and love oneself because, according to society, the perfect woman is somehow thin, but also curvy; she is traditionally “pretty”, wears nice expensive clothing, is smart but is not aggressive about it. There are so many societal pressures to look and act certain ways as a woman which is extremely debilitating. I remember a lot of people from high school were always striving to see who could be the thinnest even if that made them look sickly, and it was just horrible. Girls would be proud to say “All I’ve had to eat today is half a tomato,” and some friend would say “Ugh, jealous”. Why was that okay? I remember one day my friend and I walked to school (on the Upper West Side) all the way from Brooklyn. All we ate was an orange each, and then we still felt the need to go to the gym after school. Everyone was so jealous of each other and so competitive that eating disorders became totally desensitized and even glamorized .
On peer role models: I was very nervous to talk about sex, I didn’t want to talk to people or my parter about it, so it was nice to come across women my age who were very confident and very open about it and didn’t feel the need to censor certain subjects that are still not necessarily acceptable topics to be openly discussed in our society. Its great to have your peers like this because it's not like these people have that much more experience, or are in a different place in their lives. I used to be really secretive and nervous about sex for a very long time, I think maybe it’s because I started having sex at a young age, so it felt really taboo and against the rules. It was very freeing to learn that I didn’t need to keep it a secret. My sister was also a hugely helpful role model for me. We are extremely close and I can truly talk to her about anything and everything and know she will always be there for me.
On acceptance: I feel like I had a personal discomfort with myself for a long time but I also couldn’t really acknowledge that I had a problem, but I was finally able to realize that I wasn’t fully okay and I think realizing that is a huge step in getting better and becoming comfortable with myself. For a long time I thought that the discomfort was my own fault and that I would always feel that way - I avoided dealing with things, and thinking about things, and coming to terms with who I was for so long. By refusing to acknowledge my issues I fell into a bad cycle. But eventually my sister realized what was going on with me and constructively confronted me and I realized that I needed to change, to end the bad cycle and figure my shit out. And that was a huge turning point for me and I cannot thank my sister enough for stepping in and helping me through everything.
On eating disorders: I’ve struggled with eating disorders in the past, and I’ve attempted to change the way I look many times over the years, but that is something I eventually realized was horrible and wrong and that I needed to overcome. I think the eating disorders developed in two parts, first there was the general atmosphere of LaGuardia [High School]. The competitiveness in high school oftentimes translated itself into bullying and social pressure, peer pressure. And getting out of LaGuardia definitely helped me get out of my own head and be more accepting of myself and others. Then, there was also the guy I was seeing at the time, who was really into the kind of girl who could sit down and eat a massive cheeseburger, but was still stick-thin and fashionable, which made me feel really insecure and confused. So trying to figure out how to overeat, yet be really thin caused me to struggle with both anorexia and bulimia at different points over the course of a few years. It really just took getting out of high school to stop being in denial about what was going on and be able to get of that mindset. There were still moments when it would reappear in college, but I have been in a much better headspace and have finally found a healthy balance in my life.
On coming of age: I remember seeing the movie Thirteen when I was 12 or 13, and it definitely fucked me up. I thought, is this what girls are supposed to be like? There was something alluring about the girls in that movie and I definitely wanted to be crazy and out of control like that after seeing the film. There was this edginess about it - wild recklessness - that, as a middle-schooler I was drawn to and which shaped a lot of my behavior in high school. I don’t think it affected me in a good way, I did a lot of stupid things just because it seemed fun to be so reckless and carefree, something that I thought was attractive at the time. On the other hand, that behavior and the choices I made enabled me to explore more about who I was, to discover what I did and did not like socially and personally.
On makeup: I went through a phase in high school where I would obsessively pick at my skin, so at that point I was wearing a lot of makeup just to cover it, because I didn’t feel comfortable going out in public with all these marks on my face. But I overcame the obsessive picking of my skin so I don’t feel an obligation to wear makeup everyday anymore, whereas in high school it felt like a necessity at times. Now I’m happy I can use it as something to have fun with.
On feminism: I read a quote from Maisie Williams yesterday, and she was saying that we shouldn’t say we’re either feminist or not - if you’re not a feminist, you’re just a misogynist. To be a feminist simply means to believe that women are equal to men and should be treated as such. We should be far enough along in society to realize that not being a feminist is completely backwards.
On women in the media: I think that there’s evidence that we are moving towards better representation of women in the media. I think a couple of years ago all you got to see in terms of ads or movies was these Victoria Secret model types, but there’s finally some backlash against that type of female representation, and people are starting to realize that a woman can be beautiful in any size or shape or color. It’s almost become cliche to use the phrase “all shapes and sizes”, but it raises the question of why we have terms like “plus sized model”. Why do we need the added “plus sized” descriptor? Why can’t we just call all models “models”? Why should it matter what size she is?
On her thesis: I wrote my senior honors thesis on three of Hemingway’s novels, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and The Garden of Eden. A lot of people asked me why I wanted to write about someone who has long been considered sexist, but that’s part of why I wanted to work with Hemingway. I think a lot of the sexist sentiments in his novels are a result of the predominant cultural aspects that existed when he was writing and which say more about society as a whole than about Hemingway as an individual. And a lot of his progressive female characters get overlooked because of his iconic hyper-masculine image. I examined gender and sexuality in these novels and considered what it means to be a woman in Hemingway’s works and furthermore what it meant to be a woman during the first half of the 20th century and how reexamining perceptions of gender and sexuality at the time can help us to see the progress we have made between then and now and the work that still needs to be done.
On sexualization: In the sixth grade, I was hanging out with a group of six girls, and all of us started going through puberty around the same time, so there was a major difference between us and a lot of the other girls around us who hadn’t yet gone through puberty. We started hanging out with 8th grade boys, and I think it was largely because these boys were giving us a lot of attention and even “pursuing” us. So there was a lot of weird sexual tension and confusion. They definitely wanted something more from us than we were even thinking about or knew about. I also definitely felt like there were eyes on me in public once I got my boobs and lost my baby fat, the “male gaze” was something I definitely became aware of at that time. I also remember this one time when my friend and I were followed around by a car for a good block, and the guys inside kept calling out “hey sexy” and things like that. We were only 12 then. Even today, I saw this guy creepily watching me workout, and he followed me around the gym for a while, which made me really uncomfortable. And two days ago on the subway, I was sitting and reading a Hemingway book, trying to get ahead on work for my thesis, and this guy sat down next to me and just wouldn’t stop talking to me. I was clearly not trying to have a conversation with him, but was still acting more or less polite because I didn’t know what else to do. I ended up mentioning that I want to be a professor because he was asking me about what I was reading and why I was reading it, and he said something along the lines of, “Oh, so you’re the hot teacher I always wish I had”. I get that he probably meant it as a compliment, but it made me feel so uncomfortable, and I just sat there waiting for my stop to come not knowing how to escape the conversation. Also, as a New Yorker, catcalling is something I am unfortunately familiar with and I find it to be so stupid and annoying. What do people think they’re going to gain from yelling some shit at a girl they pass? Do they think we’re going to stop and say, “Oh, okay since you catcalled me I’ll just get into your car and come with you?
On sexual assault: Once in high school, I blacked out at a New Years party, and the next morning, I woke up in a friend’s bed and he was like, “so you should take plan B”. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no idea we had sex and was so confused and scared and sad. At the time I felt so much self-hatred and internalized blame, because I don’t think I realized and understood that consent is affected by consumption and that a person being too drunk is an acceptable reason to have sex with them. So I ended up blaming myself for getting too drunk, instead of thinking that he should have realized that I was extremely drunk. Especially after finding out from my friends the next morning that he literally had to carry me out of the party because I had passed out and couldn’t walk or speak. There’s no way he couldn’t have realized that I was super fucked up and that I was clearly not capable of making a decision and giving him my consent. It wasn’t until my freshmen or sophomore year of college that I realized it was not my fault and that I had been taken advantage of and sexually assaulted. For that reason I think getting sex education at an early age is extremely important. Being able to feel that there’s someone you can talk about these kind of things is also super important. We didn’t have sex-ed until senior year of high school and a very PG and unhelpful sex ed at that, which is absurd. It was a completely inappropriate time. We should have had sex ed first semester freshman year. I knew nothing about what consent really meant when I was in high school and was taken advantage as a result of that in conjunction with the reckless nature of my friend group. We really had blurred lines that we very problematic and made for unsafe spaces at times.
On changing: I don’t think I could have had this conversation with you a year ago. But now I can and I’m so happy that I can, that I can feel comfortable talking about things that were really hard for me in the past. If we had this conversation in high school, I would have lied about everything you’ve asked me about. I would have just evaded every question. There was so much deflection, denial, and avoidance in high school and I’m relieved to now be in a place where I no longer feel like I have to pretend to be someone I’m not and look like something I don’t naturally look like to be accepted.