A Van of One’s Own

Still dreaming of a place without boys.

4th Grade. From the collection of the author.

I was a runt among girls. I wasn’t physically that small, but I was awkward and half blind, my shortcomings were so painfully obvious to even me that often, at sleepovers, I ended up hanging out in the kitchen with my friends’ parents rather than with the group of girls in their sleeping bags in the dens of the upper middle-class homes I haunted. I was sensitive and quiet, more comfortable with adults than kids. I brought books to sleepover parties, I always fell asleep first, and I required assistance wrangling my rat’s-nested hair into ponytails. I cringed at the overwhelming loudness of a room full of girls screaming. I valued quiet and order and I didn’t like making noise.

But that didn’t stop me from showing up to the sleepover parties. From trying to best myself for my friends, from wiping off my knees when I fell down, from trying to keep up with the girls who all ran faster than me. I learned that sometimes, I had to yell to be heard. I learned a lot in my all-girl spaces, years before my sexuality stopped me up and forced me into constant struggle with everyone around me. In the space between first and maybe eighth grade, there was a lot of pain, sure, but there was also, dare I say, a kind of female utopia. A place where I breathed easier, where the signs on our doors said “No Boys Allowed” and we meant it.

In some ways, I’m still searching for a place, even a little space, where there aren’t any men, where they’re not even considered. Where they don’t exist and where I can breathe easier.

As a teenager in the 1990s, the world seemed poised for women to take over. I was sure that a woman would be president any year now, and I thought, really, that the dreams my mother’s generation had had about “women’s lib” as she called it, were so close to being realized they were already done, basically. Don’t worry, really, I thought, nodding my head to L7 and Bikini Kill or The Breeders. Women have got this. I read my feminist theory. I listened to my Riot Grrrls.

Five seconds into a new music video for a song called “Tummy Ache,” released the other day, by the two-person band known as Diet Cig, I started to tear up. I realized all at once the gag of the video: there aren’t really any boys in it. The video, like the song, is about learning to be yourself, and how hard that is to do that when you’re a girl among men. What’s it like to learn to play rock music when you’re surrounded by dudes? Well, it sucks badly enough that every girl I’ve ever known who picked up a guitar wrote at least one song about it within her first year of songwriting, the girl in Diet Cig included. I wrote two of them myself. I learned to play guitar surrounded by brothers and boyfriends, unsure of myself, nervous, afraid, and always fucking behind the curve. Only when I hid alone in my bedroom did I feel alright being loud, and only when I played my music for another girl and heard her say the words, “this is good,” did I feel like maybe I would keep going.

In college, I read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It is — to be really brief — about a woman who goes crazy because she is a woman. After my assigned reading ended, I walked straight to the library to see what else Charlotte Perkins Gilman had to offer me. What was on the shelf was Herland, a novel about a society of women only, where there are no men, and where women can reproduce without men, too. There’s no war. No conflict. No domination. I didn’t read the work either literally or even very critically. I had read Utopia, but this was different. This was revolutionary, because I had never even conceived of a world without men, not since they had come sharply into view for me around the beginning of high school.

Image from first publication of “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” 1892.

I’ve been on the internet for like 20 years, and though it’s not 100% bad, it’s been mostly bad for most of the time. I think a lot about Herland while browsing the internet, because I consider that maybe, given the opportunity, a place with only women or even just mostly women, maybe we would do better. Maybe instead of PewDiePie and Trump and 4chan and Reddit and Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer and Alex Jones, we would come up with something even moderately more appealing. Less annoying and basic. Less disgusting and tiresome. Not all men are bad, no, but it’s fair to suggest that the worst ones are so often the loudest that they drown everyone else out. And not all women are good but, can’t we just get one shot at the majority, just once? Let us try, see if we do better just once. We’ll give it back if we don’t, I swear. I get choked up sometimes, thinking about what that space might look or feel like, because I’m so sure we probably will never get a shot at trying.

I got a stomach ache and was filled with anxiety watching the video for the song “Tummy Ache” mostly because it’s so obvious to me that the message of this song and video, in 2017, is the same one I thought we had all figured out back in 1993 when I was first going to shows and thinking about starting bands. All ages, all-girl shows! All-girl bands, and songs about stuff girls care about! All of it seemed so hopeful and achievable then, and now that I’m older I feel proud and happy to see that, in spite of the fact that we’re still not there yet, young women are still going for it. The fact that she doesn’t sound that hopeful is, of course, terrifying.

My three-year-old daughter screams show tunes at the top of her lungs every night before bed. Sometimes, she does it for upwards of 5 or 6 hours a day. It’s so loud your ears hurt if you’re in the same room as her. We fight the urge to tell her to quiet down.