Photo courtesy of Bobbie Brown
At ten years old, I was obsessed with hair metal and the men who made it. Posters of bands with naughty names (Warrant, Skid Row, Faster Pussycat) collaged my walls. The Hair Metal Regime-- legions of poofy-haired white men in their twenties-- glared at me from their posters with scorn, indifference, and kissy lips. And I loved it.
I loved them. I wanted to live in their music videos, where life was a series of backstage antics filmed in grainy VHS. Though I was terrified of drugs (well played, Nancy Reagan), the narcotic energy of men like Sebastian Bach, Bret Michaels, and Tommy Lee nourished the happy discontent of my pre-teen heart, and I relished the feeling of them watching me from their posters, approving of the way I dressed (ripped jeans, Harley Davidson t-shirt), and the music I blasted from my cassette player. This girl, I imagined them saying, fuckin' rules.
But at the same time, and though at that age I couldn't have possibly described it, I felt a hazy dissonance about who I was in relation to them. I read the liner notes. I watched the videos, absorbed the album art. I lived, squarely, on the other side of their posters.
Gradually I recognized that to fit in their world, I would have to be a girl like Bobbie Brown in the video for Cherry Pie by Warrant. She wears a red bustier and daisy dukes and loves getting sprayed by a fire hose the entire band aims at her. Could I pull that off? Could I be as sexually acrobatic as Tawny Kitaen in Whitesnake's Here I Go Again? Would I blend in with the kaleidoscope of beauties who appear and disappear at Slash’s bedside in the video for Patience? I could think of scores of other sexy ladies in videos-- even girls in the crowds of concert videos-- whom I would have to be to get their attention.
Songs like Paradise City and Youth Gone Wild expressed the headbanger, screw-you-dad vibe I wanted to be down with so hard, but others like Cherry Pie, Seventeen, and Girls, Girls, Girls reminded me I couldn’t do that unless I was willing to swing it to the drums, swing it to guitar, swing it to the bass in the back of his car, wink wink. And I worshiped those songs! Because I was so devoted, I felt obligated to love all the things about them.
At the same time I was into hair metal, I was also into WWF wrestling, my television flashing with the oily-skin of characters like Hulk Hogan, Randy Macho Man Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior. My best friend Liz and I adopted these theatrical personas. In my bedroom we would re-enact matches, and film them using my parents' video camera. And so it became the Hair Metal Regime’s turn to watch from their posters as I, a shit-talking Macho Man in a one-piece, full-body leotard, pushed Liz, a cunning Farmer’s Daughter in leg warmers. We'd smother each other with pillows, the two of us gasping for air as we laughed and faux-suffocated– our audience the camera (held by my generous and patient older sister), and four walls plastered with gaping, lipsticked men.
Not long after that, men began to watch us in more than imaginary ways. Like any girl entering or submerged in puberty, we encountered them watching us in ways that were sometimes thrilling-- as in boys slowing down their cars to talk-- and other times astonishing or scary, as in men waving their penises from car windows, or masturbating on park benches while looking us in the eye, or anonymously touching our bodies in crowds, their hands like shifting shadows you didn't see, but felt.
It became more difficult, and complicated, to find ourselves in the mirror when our bodies started mutating– not just because of puberty, but because of how strange men, and sometimes even guys our age, chewed up our images and spat them back at us. Take this, they seemed to say. This is how the sight of you makes me act. At that age, for me, it became imperative to drastically compartmentalize, to re-organize myself as both a sex object and as a creator. For a long, long time, I struggled to make those aspects of myself co-exist. Mostly I bifurcated, acting one way in public, being the other in private. Which we all do to varying extents, and for different reasons.
Though I've been making art my entire life, until recently I never thought of it– my artmaking, specifically– as an act of defiance or resistance. Some art is blatant in its defiance; certain works of music, literature, or visual art clearly communicate those themes. But in a culture that demands you work, work, work in order to consume– and if you're a woman, to also be docile and motherly and gorgeous, to roll with it when boys will be boys, to just shut up and take it– creation of any sort is a radical act. And creation that doesn't result in a revenue stream, I would argue, is even more defiant.
I feel lucky to be called to create, and to recognize that even as a kid my tendency toward creation at least somewhat counteracted the darker forces that began to surround me in puberty and pre-puberty. The forces that changed my inner dialogue from that girl fuckin' rules, to how do I get to be that fuckable? I like to think Liz and I filming those wrestling videos– and some of the other peculiar rituals we concocted, like pretending our stuffed animals were Axl Rose and Duff McKagan so we could make out with them– as acts of defiance. An assertion of our creative selves. Our imaginations, winning.
In my early teenage years, I took an interest in making bruises with make-up, mom’s eye-shadow in shades of blue and purple. With care I applied a shiner to my best friend Jackie’s eye. After dozens of gentle strokes I had created the appearance of injury. Then, I did the same thing to myself. Outside, each time a car passed, we’d pretend to be in the midst of a raucous fist fight. These were not practiced: they were improvised, flailing, and dizzy with laughter. They were not very convincing, seeing as no one stopped their car to intervene, or even slowed down to watch.
Unsatisfied, we went to the park with our shiners and just walked around, looking people in the eye, hoping they’d look back and wonder, What the hell happened to those girls? Who are those special young ladies? And I can’t remember ever getting a strong reaction, a double-take or even the coveted question: Are you okay? But it didn’t really matter, because we were the creators. If a man were to look at us under those circumstances, most likely he'd look away.
As I write these words I'm interpreting what we were doing: We were attempting to gather up a narrative, in our own specific and instinctual way, that seemed to be slipping from our hands. We didn't always succeed at this, especially as we got older, more obsessed with our looks and our lovers and less inclined to bother with artistic messes... But sometimes, with our make-up and costumes and videos and ideas, we fucking manhandled that narrative.
Lately I've been thinking about faith. Faith seems like a lovely and hopeful thing to have, and I want to feel lovely and hopeful. I was raised Catholic, which fastened the concept of faith to God. Historically the concept of God, as I was taught it, has felt impersonal to me, but I do like the idea of God existing within us.
Until recently I haven't identified within myself what might be God, at least not in a conscientious way. But here's something I'm considering: if God is the ultimate creator, the ultimate artist, then what if my faith was in art? In the power of the imagination to improve the world and people, to heal our shattered selves? What if I fully embraced the idea that making art is God's work?
I'm 43 and I see my face, my body, changing again. And again. Mostly it's my skin being obvious about itself. Crows feet and laugh lines: I vow to wear them like a badge. Men don't watch me anymore, at least not like they used to. It's a relief to not have seen an errant dick, or to have felt the chill of random fingers, in years. Sometimes I miss the attention that felt flattering, as it sometimes did. Mostly I don't. With fewer eyes on me, my own vision grows stronger.