As my husband and I drove home from our family's cabin this weekend we listened to a very interesting program on NPR called This American Life. The installment we happened upon was about Super Powers and it was really cool. It was written by John Hodgman. You can read the entire transcription here.
There was one part that really stood out to me though, so we'll talk about that.
Early in the program they talk about an informal study in which participants were asked if they would choose the ability to become invisible or fly, if given the choice. This decision, and the reasons different people pick different options, was discussed at length, and this came up:
So who chooses invisibility and who chooses flight? In my experience, though there are lots of exceptions, men lean towards flying, women to invisibility. And many brood anxiously over their choice, switching from one to the other and back again. And that's because, more than the ability, say, to burst into flame or shoot arrows with uncanny accuracy, flight and invisibility touch a nerve. Actually, they touch two different nerves, speak to very different primal desires and unconscious fears.
My friend Christine chose invisibility.
One superpower is about something that's obvious, and the other is about something that is hidden. I think it indicates your level of shame.
How do you mean?
A person who chooses to fly has nothing to hide. A person who chooses to be invisible wants clearly to hide themselves.
Do you feel that you want to hide yourself?
I want to-- I'd like to not-- I'm not going to answer that question.
I relate with Christine, as do many other women. So what does this mean? I know that when I first started trying to decide what I would pick, my gut said to go with invisibility. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I would really rather fly. But why does the idea of invisibility appeal so strongly to me and so many other women?
This idea of invisibility being linked to shame is really eye-opening to me. Women are taught to feel ashamed of themselves, their bodies, their opinions, from a really young age. We're exposed to harmful media images, inequality in schools and the workplace, and a culture of misogyny in the worst cases and ambivalent sexism in the better ones. Impossible and ridiculous standards for beauty and purity are engrained in us before we can even understand the concepts. No wonder we struggle with shame and wish to be able to disappear.
I've had experiences in groups of men where I was completely ignored throughout entire conversations. It would have been really nice to be invisible then, if only to be able to feel as if I had chosen to be ignored, to not have to confront the idea that these people felt I was unable to contribute to a discussion because I have a vagina.
The issue of shame for our culture's young women is an involved and nuanced problem. But being aware of it's existence is the first step in changing it. Now, I don't really see a huge problem with the idea of having the super power of invisibility in and of itself but when a majority of women would rather disappear than spread their wings and fly....