Reflections on Trauma, Part I: Pink Pussyhats by Stephanie N. Arel


stephanie-arelI have been thinking frequently about trauma, about what perpetuates suffering and what supports the arduous journey of transforming traumatic experiences, especially in the aftermath of traumas of human design. The violation of bodies lies at the heart of such traumas. Thus, how we practice behaviors that refuse to denigrate bodies are critical and necessary to alleviating suffering and promoting the body’s dignity.

This idea of restoring the body’s dignity after trauma is magnified by the reality that trauma remains, stored in our bodies as a residual reminder of the traumatic event (s). Bessel van der Kolk reminds us, “The body keeps the score.”Reflecting on trauma, and thinking not only about the traumatized body but also about how we honor bodies, I wonder, “How do we symbolize the working through of trauma enacted on bodies? What symbols in our lives mark the processing of trauma?” This processing does not imply that we are free of the trauma itself but that we integrate the traumatic event in different ways into our lives. The memories – body or conscious – begin to loosen their grip, and triggers elicit less affect.

At the risk of asking more questions than I can explore here, I press on: when we chose symbols to represent the rejection of trauma – recollect Mary Daly’s Labrys, the sacred double-headed ax cutting through patriarchal myths to exercise women’s power – whose bodily dignity do we defend?

In probing how we might reject trauma on the bodies of the most vulnerable, along with keeping in mind the perennial inquiry about what makes trauma “trauma” in the first place, I recall a recent phenomenon that I think brings bodies and trauma to the fore: the wearing of the pink pussyhats at the Women’s March on Washington January 21, 2017.

The pussyhats, while having morphed into a symbol of solidarity related to the Women’s March, represent, at the heart, Donald Trump’s lewd comments made about women’s bodies to Billy Bush on Access Hollywood. “Grab them by the pussy,” Trump says. With money and fame, “You can do anything.” My spine tingles as I write these lines, just as deep sadness and nausea swept through me as I watched the video to make sure I quoted Trump correctly.

Did the man who was elected president actually say these words? He did. And while I’d like to respond in a way that declares his words are but an exception, in truth, this speak about women’s bodies is not rare. In fact, movies, advertising, music videos, the Internet, magazines, etc, etc, communicate that women’s bodies are accessible to the male gaze and reachable with the right combination of assets and skills. Trump’s declaration actualizes and supports sexual violence against women. And being grabbed by the pussy is a trauma. Trump’s words evidence that trauma.

Disturbingly, Trump’s comments echo the voices of many personifying what bell hooks calls “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” and its presumption of power to own bodies – in this case, women’s bodies. If Trump, with his money and fame, can do anything he wants, including grab my most sacred, sensitive, vulnerable body part, then he can claim possession of my body. His words are at once a threat and a plundering of the most intimate self – interpreted in his conversation with Bush as a mere feature, up for “grabs” or belonging.

I reject this presumption. It angers me. Actually, it enrages me. Then I see the hats. Do they represent resistance against such “locker-room” banter that supports rape culture and encourages the ravishing of women’s bodies? How do the hats manifest as a symbol that rejects the mistreatment and abuse of women’s bodies by imperialism, white-supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy?

Watch sex educator Erika Hart speak at the Philadelphia March – topless with the scars of her double mastectomy visible. In her rousing speech she queries, “Who are the hats for?” Asserting that “black women, cis, and trans women, femmes, and non-binary individuals” suffer violence and body terrorism, she challenges those on the march wearing the pink pussyhats: do they represent ALL of us? Do the hats in fact work as a symbol that proclaims all bodies have dignity?

Madonna wore one (a black one). So did Jessica Chastain. The women on the View donned the hats on TV and at the march. The D.C. police showed their support wearing the hats. As did Cate Blanchett. The designers, Krista Suh and Jayna Zweiman, articulate that they chose the “loaded word” (pussy) for their projects because they wanted to reclaim the terms as a “means of empowerment.” They intend the hats as a way of honoring the body, and truth, and standing-up for human rights. Do the hats achieve this worthy message?

Besides Erika Hart, very few people, as far as I can tell, disputed the hats. Writer Shobhaa De, questioned the hats’ ability to get us any further for women’s rights. She argues, “Women’s voices get routinely ignored. Pink caps get us nowhere. They make good photo-ops, and that’s about it.” Yes, the hats were good for the photos.

Not wearing a hat, Angela Davis offers another viewpoint useful to consider. Perhaps the hats serve as evidence of a protest which is the starting point for becoming more “militant in our defense of vulnerable populations.” She makes a good point in a later piece of reflection on the march – we have to figure how to show-up. For each of us, this “showing-up” is different. What does it mean to show-up with a hat? Or without one?

In my opinion, to honor the human dignity of the traumatized, most vulnerable bodies, the hats must represent a way of working through trauma incurred on the body by human design. In order to promote empathy towards those who have been sexually victimized, the hats as a symbol of hope must provide an outlet of the fear and shame held in the body after trauma. Do the hats achieve this? Or do they more simply remind us of Trump’s quote, from which I think they cannot be completely dissociated? If that is the case, I see in the hats a message I would like to subvert.

 

Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).

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Categories: abuse, Body, Feminism and Religion, Mary Daly, pussyhats, trauma, Violence, Women's Rights

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10 replies

  1. Hmm, I wasn’t there, but I loved seeing the sea of pink hats. To me it was women claiming the ownership of our bodies. It also was not lost on me that knitting is a traditional women’s art and craft and that knitting crosses ethnic and racial boundaries.

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    • In relationship to the given symbol, I always come back to examining how it serves to foster the processing of trauma…the knitting, as an individual and communal act, represents a different way to consider the hats. That angle makes me think of Ann Ulanov’s book, Knots and there Untying, interpreting knitting as a series of knots. Although in her imagery the knots are hard, they represent something of ourselves, and do the job of connecting us to human problems and others – across, as you say, ethnic and racial boundaries. To this connection she adds time. Thank you very much for inspiring the reflection.

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  2. I was in NYC for the march. I liked the hats. Lacking one myself, I bought pussy earmuffs which are coming in handy during this cold snap. What I liked best about the march was the inventiveness and playfulness of many of the signs and hats. (Not all were the standard design; I do take the point that pussy hats should come in many colors. How about rainbow pussy hats). Humor is powerful when dealing with predatory, entitled bullies who prefer–and intend–to inspire fear and shame. I also like the idea of reclaiming words that have been used to denigrate and shame. Men call each other pussies as an insult. Our pussies are a tender, vulnerable part of our bodies and they are powerful and beautiful. They are the gateway of life. Pussy cats have also been associated with and feared as the familiars of witches. Black cats, vets have warned me, are still at risk at Halloween. My beloved black feline familiar of many years recently died. His name was Lola. He was tender and strong, incredibly nurturing and also wild and free. Here is to the beauty and power of all pussies.

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  3. Meant to say first, thank you for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. Trauma does live in the body and I don’t know any women who have not suffered from the actions and attitudes expressed in that video. As someone who has also worked with a lot of women as a counselor, I think it’s always good when we can express what’s been held in the body, whether through movement, art, word, song, so that we can engage and begin to heal what so many of us carry silently and invisibly. Thanks again for this post.

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    • Thanks for the comments and points of reflection in both posts. I was inspired to write what I did by my resistance to the hats…I wanted to figure out what bothered me about them. I appreciate seeing the different interpretations. And to the point in your first post regarding humor, I agree that it is a valid means of counter-acting shame. More than valid – necessary. Lifting that up as a part of the march is helpful.

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  4. Thanks, Stephanie, for raising the questions. I was at the Washington D.C. march. I did not wear a pussy hat, but many more people wore hats than did not. All that pink seemed to make a powerful statement. The patriarchy (represented by DT’s quote in this essay) is about the domination of all women, albeit not JUST women. Nevertheless, I think it’s all too easy to flatten out the experience that women do have as targets of the patriarchal system. Chimamanda Adiche (Nigerian author) insists on using the word “feminism,” not “human rights,” when theorizing and/or working towards women’s empowerment. Subsuming “feminism” under “human rights” takes away from the bodily trauma that women (as women) experience. To me, it’s akin to substituting the generic “All lives matter” for “Black lives matter.” “All lives” takes away from the specific indignities and trauma that Black people continuously suffer in a racist society. Your question is a good one: “…do they [hats] represent ALL of us? Do the hats in fact work as a symbol that proclaims all bodies have dignity?” My questions: How much can one symbol hold? Can a symbol ever get too full? Does it cease to function when it gets overloaded? Or, is there room for individual people to have the symbol say what they want it to say?

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    • Great questions. Really great and worthy of reflection especially related to trauma and the fact that many see the hats as liberatory. And thank you for the author reference. I just bought Chimamanda Adiche’s book. I am working on the topic of human dignity, and I would like to see her angle. In gratitude.

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  5. “In fact, movies, advertising, music videos, the Internet, magazines, etc, etc, communicate that women’s bodies are accessible to the male gaze and reachable with the right combination of assets and skills. Trump’s declaration actualizes and supports sexual violence against women. And being grabbed by the pussy is a trauma.”

    For me, as a sexual abuse survivor, I feel deep discomfort being identified by any body part, particularly a part of my anatomy that is so vulnerable. I need and want to be seen as a whole person, not as an “object.” I think these hats unintentionally sexualize us as women in ways that are not helpful. We are more than vaginas, with or without power.

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    • I am still reflecting on my discomfort with the hats – for myself not for others. I think you might be naming an aspect of my resistance (outside of the intellectual assertions I made above). For some reason, I keep thinking of Madonna…she wore a black hat. I am a big fan, but something about her forwardness that day and the pushing the pussy bothered me. Maybe it is this sense of putting a body part on the table as an object to be claimed and reclaimed. So thanks!

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  6. I marched in the Women’s March in LA and didn’t were a pussy hat, but chose to wear a Suffragist sash instead. To me the sash symbol held more truth on that day at that march about having the strength to get back up and stand to fight again like the brave women that fought to get our right to vote.

    Then the critism of the pussy hats started rolling in and wow has that pussy hat become so much more to me.

    I now have a pussy hat in bright pink (not a color i usually celebrate). I dont wear it just in response to the trama of (not my) 45’s words about grabbing us in the pussy, but as a symbol of standing up for women being able to fight against our oppression without parsing our words to always be inclusive.

    Feminism is the fight against the oppression of women as a class and that oppression is tied to our female bodies. Once again, women we are being asked to make sure we are championing all causes at all times by forgoing the strength of our own focus.

    So precisely for the exclusivity of the female bodied experience is why I wear my pussy hat.

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