On Desire (revisited)

In honor of the last day of my daily writing challenge, I am reconnecting with the same topic I wrote about on the first day: desire. Here’s the original post. That day, I asked an important question. Can desire be trusted?

Here are a few things I’ve learned about desire this month:
1) Desire is not the same as disintegration. I can fully desire something while keeping my values, self, and identity intact. In fact, I can use desire to live life with more integrity.

2) I trust myself.

3) I can’t control most things, and desire is just one of many things I can’t control. That’s okay.

4) Desire is not an action. Desire is a guidepost. To desire something is not an automatic decision to pursue that thing. The decision stands in the way of action. Desire can be heeded, and it can be brushed aside.

5) BEING OUT OF CONTROL IS NOT DANGEROUS. BEING OUT OF CONTROL WITHOUT A SUPPORT SYSTEM IS DANGEROUS.

6) Yes. A line can be drawn between joyful attraction and dangerous obsession. And there are so many different kinds of love, that this binary doesn’t really exist anyway.

I wrote last month that “I might be running away from my own stubborn refusal to allow my desire to take up space.” That was true. I don’t want to tell some false transformation story here. I’m not much better, a month later, at letting my desire run free and do its thing. I’m still scared of it. I’m still scared to laugh a full belly laugh because someone might take advantage of my joy. I still feel cautious about showing too much interest in strangers, out of fear they will rope me into some complex plot to drain me of all my money and energy. But something has shifted. I wouldn’t have been able to write that list a month ago, and I owe that to my daily writing. Sometimes it was hard as fuck to force myself to write, but I combed through my values, behaviors, and experiences in a really unique way. I wouldn’t have been able to do this in any other format. For that, I’m grateful.

Thanks for following along this month. If you want to get to know me on other platforms, please consider following me on Instagram, joining me on Patreon, or subscribing to my YouTube channel. I’m gonna switch back to poetry now. At least for a bit.

On Shrek

We all watched Shrek and fell in love with the characters, humor, and revolutionary animation style. I saw it for the first time in the theater with my grandfather. I was entranced. It was the first time I’d seen such realistic animation, and I was completely enamored with the fart jokes, hilarious donkey, and tale of fairytale romance. Shrek even introduced me to one of my favorite songs: Hallelujah, by Leonard Cohen.

I’ve rewatched Shrek many times since then. At first, it was just a nostalgic activity. But recently, it’s turned into an anthropological study for me. What cultural values was the movie pushing? What had I unknowingly absorbed as a kid watching Shrek?

The answer? Shrek was one of the many movies I watched as a kid that normalized, and made light of, abuse.

On the surface, the movie does seem to subvert the misogyny that exists in most classic Western fairytales. Fiona is a strong, badass woman who can take care of herself. She fights for herself, saves Shrek and Donkey from thieves on the road, and finds her own dwellings at night. That’s how I saw it at first too. But, the deeper messaging of Shrek does NOT support that surface-level story. Here are a few examples, taken from throughout the film, that proves the movie doesn’t actually subvert the original misogyny/patriarchal system at all, but supports it throughout.

1) In this scene, Fiona says “who could love a hideous, ugly beast” when speaking with Donkey towards the end of the movie. She truly believes that she is unloveable as an ogre (which is to say, she believes that she is unloveable as she is). It is not until the very end, when Shrek (a male character) tells her that she is beautiful, and that he wants her in whatever form she takes, that she seems to accept herself as she is, in her ogre form.

Fiona does not even have the confidence to assert herself in the conversation with Shrek following her secret discussion with Donkey about her being an ogre. Because of her true belief that she is unloveable and ugly, she assumes he’s talking about her when he repeats her words back to her: “who could love a hideous, ugly beast.” She doesn’t dig deeper into the issue. Shrek confirmed her greatest fear – that she won’t get what she wants (love) because she is not enough. She doesn’t deserve love. She doesn’t deserve desire. She doesn’t deserve a self.

Fiona was NOT, prior to the scene where Shrek interrupts the wedding and confesses his love, confident in herself. She hid this terrible secret, that she was UGLY, from all the other characters, every single night. The fact that she was ugly was shameful to her. The movie depicts a woman who does not have a strong sense of self, and cannot validate her own existence. She only validates herself when a man tells her that she is valid.

2) Fiona DOES have to be saved at the end of the film. When she perceives that Shrek has rejected her, she leaves to go marry Lord Farquad. Because that is what a man told her she has to do. The movie gives her two choices: be with one man who despises you (as she thinks Shrek does) or be with another man who you despise (Lord Farquad). There’s no third option, and it’s very important to realize that the movie does not depict her creating a third option for herself.

At the end, Shrek has to save her from being with Lord Farquad by interrupting the wedding. She made no decisions, except to accept Shrek’s offer. This is key: before Shrek assured her that he thought she was beautiful, she was unwilling to put herself out there to be with the one she loved. She was so insecure that she was resigned to be with a mean, ugly man, rather than get what she wanted: to be with Shrek. She needed a man’s validation to feel she deserved what she desired. In this way, Shrek did actually save her at the end. Fiona did not have agency in their romantic relationship. Shrek did.

3) Who were the other female characters in the movie? There are only three. Princess Fiona, the Dragon, and the Old Woman who sells the talking Donkey. Snow White and Cinderella are not characters in movie 1, since they’re just depicted on a screen for a couple seconds. Princess Fiona is not shown in a community of other women who are equally strong and able to take care of themselves. If she was, I would accept the claim that the movie depicts a badass woman, and therefore subverts the fairytale image of femaleness. However, Princess Fiona is an outlier. She’s shocking. Based on the movie’s depiction of female characters, she could be the only woman of her kind in the history of the universe, and the only woman of her kind in the foreseeable future.

None of the other female characters do anything besides display the regular tropes of weak, untrustworthy, and helpless femaleness. The Old Woman who sells Donkey is not taken seriously by the guards. They don’t believe her that Donkey talks. She is manhandled by the guards and never gets rewarded for the Donkey because he (the male character) saves himself. We never see this woman getting what she wants – money to support herself. She has no agency. Instead, we follow the male character, the Donkey, on his subsequent adventure.

The Dragon is a promising female character, because she can breath fire and goes right for what she wants: a romantic relationship with Donkey. However, she has no agency in her own world, either. She is extremely unhappy, forced to remain chained in the castle all on her own. She is incredibly lonely, and after Shrek, Donkey and Fiona escape her clutches, we don’t see an angry, aggressive female character. Instead, we see a sad one that longs for a life outside of her chains. She is a slave until Donkey comes to rescue her.

In contrast to the lack of female characters, there are MANY male characters, with a variety of personalities and storylines. “Maleness” is very fleshed out in this movie. There’s Shrek, Donkey, Lord Farquad, The Three Blind Mice… the list goes on and on and on.

There are literally no other female characters in the movie. So maybe on the surface, Fiona seems all badass and capable because she can fight and take care of herself, but that’s not the messaging we’re really receiving. The messaging we’re receiving is that she is an unusual case – not the norm. The movie doesn’t normalize her supposedly strong female nature.

4) Take a look at this scene from the movie, in which the Magic Mirror presents three eligible bachelorettes for Lord Farquad to marry. The Mirror makes a blatant joke about abuse, describing Cinderella as a “mentally-abused shut-in from a kingdom far, far away,” as if being mentally abused is not something to be concerned about. Then, we hear that Snow White lives with seven other men, but “she’s not easy.” The Mirror’s casual judgement of Snow White’s sexuality normalizes diminishing a women’s worth to her sexual tendencies and sexuality.

Diminishing women to sexual beings makes it much easier to abuse us.

But that’s not all. The Mirror continues, inviting Lord Farquad to “kiss her dead, frozen lips and find out what a live wire she is! Come on!” Then you hear a drum set go “ba dum smash,” which officially turns this image of treating a dead woman like a sex toy into a joke. This image should be disturbing, but the movie turns it into something funny. Once again, Shrek normalizes powerless women without agency: easy targets for abuse.

Disguised in jokes, it’s easy to miss how dangerous this normalization is. Boys and girls watching this absorb the following messages:
1) abused women are funny
2) women are just sexual playthings
3) a woman who cannot consent is fair game for sexual activities

5) In another scene, Donkey and Shrek finally arrive at the castle Fiona is trapped in. Donkey asks, “So where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” Shrek responds, saying, “Inside, waiting for us to rescue her.” I know it’s been discussed a lot, but I have to talk about the problematic message this sends. Shrek’s response assumes that there is a helpless woman inside the castle waiting for a man to rescue her. It takes away agency from women in our culture, showing us that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves. This is dangerous because it gives men permission to control our lives – if women don’t have any agency, we don’t have any right to say no or argue with a man’s opinion/action in our lives. It might be “rescuing” one day, but it could be something much less desirable the next. And what if we don’t need to be saved?

Yes, “rescuing the princess” is a classic fairytale trope. I don’t care. it needs to change. Luckily, movies like Tangled and Brave have JUST STARTED to unravel this dangerous message.

Then, as if that’s not enough negative messaging, Donkey delivers the punchline. After he asks “where is this fire-breathing, pain-in-the-neck anyway?” and Shrek responds “waiting for us to rescue her,” Donkey retorts, “I was talking about the dragon, Shrek.” This joke, laughing at a woman’s needs and display of anger, is so overused and so damaging. It’s the Eve story. Eve gives in to temptation and eats the fruit she’s not supposed to eat. This woman’s desire is the downfall of man. Women are evil. Women are a “pain in the ass,” in the words of Shrek. It’s not difficult to make the leap to “we should hate women” and “we don’t need to take any woman’s needs seriously.” Again, Shrek writers manage to turn “stripping women of their power” into a joke, as if it’s suddenly okay because they’re joking about it.

Shrek paints a truly disturbing image of what a woman is in our society. She is powerless, hated, needs others to validate her experience, and doesn’t need to consent to be touched by you. She is, in other words, extremely susceptible to abuse. This is a MOVIE FOR KIDS. And it’s contributing to abuse culture by NORMALIZING WOMEN WITH NO AGENCY.

I am not, by any means, discounting Shrek as a movie. I don’t believe in cancel culture – I think things are always so much more nuanced than that. The movie really does bring me so much joy, even watching it this new perspective, even after the abuse I’ve experienced at the hands of multiple men.

But. I think it’s important to recognize this dangerous, deeper messaging. Why is it important? Because I know for a fact that it’s watching innocuous movies like this, that hide true misogyny behind a surface-level strong female character story arch, that led to me thinking it was OKAY TO BE ABUSED. Abuse culture is serious and needs to be examined from every angle. Even a movie we all know and love so much. I’ve been rewatching a lot of the movies I watched when I was a kid, and noticing similar messaging popping up in almost every movie. Abuse culture was very prevalent in the media I consumed as a kid, and there was nothing my parents or school could do to reverse that. It was just…there. I just absorbed it.

And I haven’t even started discussing the way “Blackness,” as well as the complete lack of female Blackness, is portrayed in this movie. That’s a whole other conversation and blog post.

On Plant Babies

I’ve been writing about some heavy shit recently, so tonight I want to talk about something more joyful: house plants. I’m obsessed. I feel like a lot of people got super into house plants over the past two years. We were stuck inside in quarantine for so much of 2020: forced to face our own inner worlds for months at a time, as well as our dreary apartments that we hadn’t quite gotten around to fixing up. We needed relief.

We needed something to care about, other than the global pandemic and the presidential election. We needed something that was our own, something we didn’t have to do in tandem with our housemates, who were ALWAYS AROUND (why were they always popping up in the room we wanted to be alone in?). We needed some friggen house plants.

I harbor real love for my plants. They’re like little babies, except they don’t wake up screaming in the middle of the night, or suck up all of your hard-earned cash as soon as you put it in the bank. They’re the perfect progeny: demanding just enough attention that you feel accomplished, even benevolent, for nurturing them, but not so needy that you feel overwhelmed and desperate for a break. Plus, I’ve been learning so much. Now I know that you can propagate almost any plant, as long as you have time and a lot of patience.

When I graduated from the University of Rochester in 2019, a close friend gave me his Pothos babies that he had been rooting in plastic water-bottles. I planted them in hanging baskets that were WAY too big for their tiny little roots. Not knowing that at the time, I just patiently waited for them to grow, keeping them in a sunny spot on our porch in the summer, and by a window upstairs in the winter. Now, they’re huge, healthy vines that cascade down into my home studio.

Plants are amazing for sharing love, and passing down traditions. I’ve propagated more Pothos babies from those original plants than I can count, and gifted a precious Pothos baby to a close friend. I also gave a Pilea pup to my mom to bring back to her farmhouse in Vermont. For awhile, she sent me daily updates on how the plant was doing. It was so cute. My grandmother has a 30-year old jade tree, with a thick trunk, that I absolutely love. When I was there last, I collected a jade pup from this primordial mother, a small, dark-green baby that’s now growing happily on my windowsill in Rochester.

It feels really lovely to know that the plants you’re growing can actually make other people’s lives brighter, not just your own. Sharing plants is a huge reason I love growing them.

For more propagating madness, I picked up a couple of Arrowhead cuttings from my neighbors, which I rooted in water. Most of them didn’t make it, since I was pretty inexperienced and had no idea how much to water anything, but one plant survived. I’ve had that little one for over a year now. Once, she was down to a single leaf, and I valiantly nursed her back to health. Now, she’s healthy and happy with lots of leaves, sitting on my piano in front of a south-facing window.

I find it hilarious, and touching, that word is getting out that I’m obsessed with plants. One friend moved away from Rochester for a year-long graduate program in Spain and left her house plants with me to “babysit.” I happily welcomed her Cat Palm and Zebra succulent into my growing indoor jungle. It’s a bit more pressure taking care of someone else’s plants, but I like the challenge.

My mom, seeing how excited I was about all of my house plants, brought me a Prayer plant as a gift. She said it was my grandmother’s favorite plant. It made me feel more connected to my family. Now, whenever I water my Prayer plant or trim yellowing leaves, I feel like I’m with my mother and grandmother.

I’ll tell one last plant story, and then I have to go to sleep. My dad, who is a real estate agent in Vermont, was showing a house that had been abandoned for a few years. It belonged to an old couple, both deceased now, and the family was finally selling it. Sitting on a small stool by the front door, forgotten in its terra cotta pot, was an ancient aloe plant struggling to survive. This thing was huge. It mostly consisted of dry, yellow stalks. Just the tips of the plant were green, juicy aloe leaves. He saw it, and immediately knew what he had to do. He brought it to Rochester as a gift for me.

I was ecstatic. I can’t even tell you how excited I was to have this nearly-dead aloe plant. I immediately went to work digging out individual roots, cutting off excess dried leaves, replanting the big old plants in their own individual pots, potting the healthier pups, and composting the parts that were too far gone to save. I now have an entire guest room FULL of aloe plants. Some are large, some are tiny, some have long yellow stalks, and I love them all. A lot of them have started growing pups, and I can’t wait until I have pots overflowing with green, healthy aloe. I have no idea what I’m going to do with all of it, but I don’t really care.

Now that I’m in Florida, I genuinely miss all my plant babies. They bring me so much joy. When I’m feeling really anxious, angry, or lonely, watering and pruning my plants is one of the only things that can bring me out of my funk. Or at least make me feel less alone.

Here are the house plants I’m taking care of right now:
-Laurentii Snake plant
-Whale’s Fin Snake plant
-Golden Pothos
-Jade plant
-Vittatum Spider plant
-Pilea (Chinese money plant)
-Cat Palm
-Sword Fern
-Dragon Tree
-Zebra plant
-Elephant Bush
-Alice evans succulent
-Arrowhead plant
-Peace plant
-Aloe Vera

Succulent Bush Senecio

Here are the house plants I’ve managed to kill so far:
-Mexican Snow Ball
-Ruby peperomia
-Echeveria ‘Perle von Nurnberg’
-Lavender (I’ve actually killed two different lavender plants….)

-English Ivy
-Strawberry Begonia

-probably more I’m forgetting

Skills.

Let’s be real. A global pandemic is not the best for becoming a master of a skill. The underlying anxiety caused by tiny daily decisions like “should I go to the grocery store to buy milk and eggs and risk getting ill and dying” and “I won’t be able to wash my hands until I get home but I need to run multiple errands to save on gas” exhausts my brain and body. The constant transitioning online, offline, online, offline, to stay afloat as an entrepreneur feels like trying to catch a particularly quick chicken. Running, clucking, spreading your hands out in front of you and hoping for the best.

When I can’t make plans for the future, and I truly understand that I don’t have control of anything, it’s hard to aim to master a skill like I usually do. I practice piano, but what am I practicing for? I rehearse with my band, but what shows am I rehearsing for? What tour am I prepping for? I’m saving money to move to a new city, but when will I be able to safely visit the cities I might move to? “Promoting myself” begins to feel like pushing useless art on people. I can’t reach them by performing live, right in front of them, with the sound reverberating around the room, all breathing together and feeling together. So.

I’ve developed the following skills:

Knowing which size Tupperware will work best for leftover pasta, as opposed to leftover stir fry.

Cuddling with my kitten.

Telling friends that I love them, that they are beautiful.

Training morning glory vines to climb up my porch railings.

Clearing out clutter in my house (okay, maybe not every week, but DEFINITELY more than twice a year).

Giving small gifts to neighbors, friends, family.

Giving my partner long, bear hugs.

Noticing signs that the season is changing.

Staring out the screen door at the garden, green, alive with sun, feeling the flyaways around my face moving in the breeze.

Walking at night through the neighborhood, feeling like I’m back in middle school, telling each other all our secrets.

Concocting dank dinners that take me hours to plan, prepare, and execute.

Being me.