As exciting as this first-female-Oscar-Best-Director story was, even much more was made about the fact that this woman was up against her ex-husband, James Cameron, for the same award, with their respective movies, “The Hurt Locker” and “Avatar,” even garnering the same number of nominations.
The story was repeated over and over in the media: Bigelow and Cameron were married for two years. Cameron has since remarried. He and Bigelow remain friendly. (One photo accompanying an article about them has Cameron flanked by Bigelow and his current wife at an awards dinner).
Here was a woman who was about to make film history, but people seemed to be more interested in the domestic soap opera cliché aspect of her life.
I admit I was interested in that part myself--found it quite compelling--for very personal reasons.
Whenever I see a woman achieving great success in fields other than marriage and motherhood, it makes me wonder at the fight she had to wage to get to where she is. I wonder what she had to give up. Reading about Kathryn Bigelow and that “battle of the exes” slant in the papers naturally made me wonder about her short-lived marriage. More specifically, it made me wonder if, during those two years of matrimony with the “King of the World”, she felt nothing more than a sparkly little jewel in his scepter. Had being James Cameron’s “Queen” been too small a role for her? Did she ever feel that, despite their both being artists, his work mattered more than her own?
And finally, as I watched the first female Oscar Best Director clutch her golden statuette and shakily deliver her acceptance speech, I wondered: Would she be on that stage had she remained in her marriage?
There is a modern love story—a love triangle, to be more specific—that, I think, hasn’t been written about or talked about enough, not just in a highly Westernized society like the Philippines but in the world at large. It is the love triangle made by a man, a woman and a woman’s art.
Growing up, I don’t recall encountering any story that dealt with a woman having to choose between her love for her man and her love for her art, between her desire to be there for him and her desire to go where her creativity may take her, between her need to be deeply, intimately connected to another human being and her need to be deeply, intimately connected to herself. You certainly don’t read that in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or, I don’t know, The Three Blind Mice.
That is why nothing in my childhood clued me in to what was to come. Nothing in my childhood quite prepared me for womanhood. Because, as I later discovered, no matter her race or creed or culture or religion or socio-economic status, there is a singular story that runs deep in modern women’s psyche, seamlessly connecting one educated, otherwise progressive working woman to another like an underground river: the struggle to be a man’s lover/partner while fulfilling her own potential, her own distinct set of possibilities as an individual.
I was in my early 30’s when I discovered this underground, virtually untold story.
At that point, I had already been five years into my self-constructed, informal training to be a filmmaker. It was a messy and disorganized training, marked by a crazy-looking learning curve that I found incredibly frustrating and, oftentimes, depressing. Five years after I had quit advertising to be a filmmaker, I still didn’t feel capable enough to direct a full-length film. I had become increasingly restless, unhappy--and found myself leaving romantic relationships and entering new ones, in a feverish search for some kind of contentment, some sense of correctness in my life.
To say that my career frustration was the cause of those break-ups would be simplistic and vastly off-the-mark, but I acknowledge that it did contribute to my unhappiness and discontent in my relationships. After all, if you can’t be happy with yourself, you bring this unhappiness with you everywhere you take this self of yours.
It must have been dizzying, perhaps even troubling, to my friends and family--this rapid turnover of partners, with whom I always seemed completely smitten in the beginning. But it troubled one of my sisters for one particular reason: “Another guy with a camera…?” she asked, via Yahoo Messenger, when I started gushing about this new guy whom I had just met two weeks after my last break-up. “What do you mean?” I typed back. So he was a director, so what? And my ex was a photographer. And, OK, so there was a guy in the past who was now a director, too…“Haven’t you always wanted to be the girl with the camera?” she typed right back at me. “Don’t you think you’re becoming more like the girl of the guy with the camera?”
Instantly, all movement ceased. My fingers froze over the keys of my laptop. I stared at the words on the screen, uncomprehending. Then slowly, splatters of understanding appeared on the canvas of my consciousness…the dots connected…and then…
That should have been warning enough for me—the fact that I didn’t even realize that I had developed a pattern in my romantic relationships and that this had something to do with the one thing that I had, for a long time, been dreaming of doing: making films. But I had never really been “the girl” of my boyfriends, the nameless female who seemed more a protrusion from a man’s side than an actual human being. At least, it had never felt that way to me. I had never been the sort of girl who was defined by her romantic relationships. I had always been my own person in those relationships, had always had my own thing going, my own inviolable turf.
Being independent was one of the things I knew for sure about me. And so the possibility of being reduced to some guy’s “girl” never really appeared to me as a serious threat. I told myself I was stronger than that. What was important to me was that I had found a kindred spirit, someone I could talk to for hours and hours without seeming to get tired or to run out of things to share. There was deep, instant connection there that I fully trusted because it seemed much older than either of us. I felt seen and understood by this man. With him, I felt the sense of correctness—the sense that I was doing something right with my life—that had eluded me for so long.
How was it possible, then, that the relationship that made me feel seen eventually made me feel invisible?
It happened slowly, subtly. It began with little things. Well, at least, with things that I thought were pretty natural. I was so into the guy, I would happily tag along when he went to his numerous meetings so that we would be together. I would drop everything when he called. I couldn’t bring myself to say no every time he was free to go out, no matter how late and I had to have an early start the following day. I was rearranging my schedule, my day, just to be in his company. Before I knew it, I was rearranging my life around him. Honestly, I saw nothing wrong with that. At least, not in the beginning.
Because I was inspired and energized by our relationship—and my happiness in it—I had begun writing again, which I hadn’t been able to do for over a year. But I wasn’t prepared with how difficult it was going to be. Whenever I write, this work demanded nothing less than my full attention and long periods of solitude. This meant hours, even days, spent away from him. It was painful—I felt pulled in opposite directions, torn by equally powerful, conflicting desires--especially when he would call in the middle of that writing time and ask to see me…or only to say how miserable and lonely he was without me. However I responded, it always felt to me like I was abandoning one for the other—choosing my writing over him or him over my writing. And too often, much too often, it was my writing that I abandoned.
It’s not that he asked me to give up my work. Never. On the contrary, he was my most ardent supporter. He was the first person to always read my drafts and to gently and honestly critique my work. He encouraged me at every turn to pursue the things that I wanted.
It’s just that…he seemed to need so much, more than anyone I had ever met. He needed a lot of attention, affection, reassurance, patience and understanding. Those last two, in particular—patience and understanding--he seemed to need more and more of, especially whenever I voiced my own needs. I would repeatedly be asked, for instance, for more patience and understanding when I asked for more time and attention from him. Meaning: “Please be patient when I can’t yet find enough time for you in my crazy schedule and please understand that precisely because I’m a very busy, distracted man, I can’t give you the attention that you need.”
(I don’t know who spread the nasty rumor that women are a bottomless pit of patience and understanding. Let me correct that false, misleading and downright malicious information right now: we are NOT a bottomless pit of patience and understanding. In fact, we gather at the barangay hall and ask one another, like the proper, well-mannered, genteel ladies that we are, “PATIENCE and UNDERSTANDING na naman???!!! Sa’n ba nabibili ang mga HHHAYUP na ‘yan???!!!”)
I acknowledge that my needs were just as great as his, judging by the number of times I didn’t feel I was getting enough time and attention from him and by the deep disappointment and frustration I felt as a result of that. But I had subconsciously taken it upon myself to be the caretaker of our relationship, the one who was making sure that it was surviving by trying to provide all his needs. I fluttered about him like some kind of on-hand guru, ready to discuss and dissect a work-related or personal situation with him, ready to give my opinion and advice on any matter that consumed him at the moment, ready to forego my plans when he came to me with his plans for us. The more I made myself available to him, the less available I became to myself—and my work.
He once called me his “guardian angel” and in the beginning I liked hearing that; it felt lovely, like he couldn’t do without me. Later on, I realized there was another side to this guardian angel business that wasn’t exactly flattering or empowering. Like a “guardian angel”, I felt spectral, weightless…invisible. A being that had no self, that had no matter in her; a being whose purpose was to follow someone around, a being that existed only for someone else.
It was as if some ancient—perhaps even primordial—instinct had kicked in: the overwhelming desire to subvert oneself for a man.
I was aware that something like this existed out there. I’ve seen really smart, really capable, accomplished women forget themselves and their own dreams, forget even about self-respect and a healthy self-worth, for a man. I’ve always regarded this tendency as some kind of glitch in the make-up of most, but not all, women. Perhaps I had hoped I would be one of the select few who would be spared this tendency. In any case, I certainly never imagined that such an impulse could actually exist in me.
But there it was, alive and kicking, in my own being. It was a shocking discovery. And I fought it. I fought so hard to not let this powerful impulse keep me from focusing on the work that meant so much to me. For three years, I felt like I was in a battlefield, fighting, fighting, fighting. I fought to sustain our relationship, to keep a real and honest and evolving connection between us, as hard as I fought for my space and solitude, which were absolutely necessary for my creativity. I fought to satisfy both desires—to be the lover/nurturer of a man and to be the lover/nurturer of my own art.
However, one can only go so far trying to sustain a prolonged, intense fight, I realized, before one feels oneself go under. All that fighting took its toll on me. I lost weight. I felt old and ugly. I felt alienated, disconnected from everything—as if I could float away and no one would notice. I found myself asking way too often, “What am I still doing here?!!!”
To quote a friend of a friend, “I lost my mojo, man.”
I had to accept that I simply didn’t know how to reconcile the two things that I most loved and that one had to go. The truth was that I really didn’t know how to be there for him without feeling that I was erasing myself, one body part at a time. What’s more, my well of patience and understanding had long dried up and in my desperate need to be able to give more of those--so that I could still stay with him--I didn’t realize that I had been pounding the parched, hard ground until a spring of anger, resentment and bitterness had begun to well up. Gone was his ethereal guardian angel. In her place was an impatient, disgruntled, demanding, angry, resentful, bitter, ugly, old woman.
I couldn’t stand what I had become around him. And so, as hard and as painful as it was for me (because--get this--despite all that, I was still hoping it would work out between us) I decided he had to go.
Must it be like this, though? Must we really choose one or the other? Was I wrong in believing that I could have both—a deep intimacy with another person and a deep intimacy with my work, which I’ve come to see is really a deep intimacy with my self?
I don’t know if it was due to a glitch in my system, but I still firmly believed that I could have it all, maybe not at that time, but someday, when I had perhaps become wiser and stronger. (To this day, I still believe that.) I would figure it out. And so I tried to figure it out.
I began with admitting to myself that one of the things that made me angry and resentful in that relationship was how my partner didn’t seem to be burdened by the same issues that I was. He didn’t seem to be caught between being a good partner and a good artist, as I was. Our relationship didn’t seem like a threat to his creativity as it was to mine. On the contrary, it was doing his work a lot of good, something that he often happily pointed out. While his creative juices were flowing, mine were experiencing a devastating drought.
Why was it so easy for him to access his creativity, while I felt like I had to swim across a moat, scale the castle walls, climb the tower and break down the door—all the while trying to evade a barrage of arrows and a flying, fire-breathing dragon? Why did his creativity seem inherent in him--something that was a natural part of him--while mine felt separate from me—and something I could get to only through great personal effort and sacrifice? Why did his work seem like a necessity while mine seemed like vanity? Why, oh why, were we beginning to resemble a cliché couple—the artist and his muse—and how did I get to be assigned the role of the freakin’ muse?
That last bit was the most disturbing part for me—how our relationship had degenerated into a stereotypical one. We had begun to function less as individuals and more as the stereotypical male and the stereotypical female. It was as if each of us had slowly backed into a tiny box, him into the one labeled “Man” and me into the box that said “Woman.” Attributes were divided between us. “Care-free” and “adventurous” (read: “fun” and “exciting”) got thrown into the “Man” box. “Grounded” and “nurturing” (read: “dull” and “boring”), into the “Woman” box. I minded very much the way we unconsciously accepted these cliché gender-specific characteristics, especially when “creative” got thrown into his box.
Creativity--the soul’s yearning to express itself—is inherent in every human being, is one of the characteristics that marks us as a species. But, somehow, we’ve been taught—implicitly, through a long history of inherited cultural cues but more often through downright dogma--that this desire is present only in males or that it’s much stronger in them than it is in females. I think it is this subconscious belief—held by both men and women—that has put a strain on women wanting to make something of their own outside of marriage and motherhood. Whenever we pick up a pen or a paintbrush or, yes, a camera, something else weighs heavily on our arm: our womanhood--or the expectations that everyone, including ourselves, have of us as women. And being great at something besides taking care of other people is not one of those expectations. It is a bonus, a cherry on the cake; it is neither a requirement nor an assumption. And, thus, it is not particularly encouraged.
A famous quote by Leslie M. McIntyre goes: “Nobody objects to a woman being a good writer or sculptor or geneticist if at the same time she manages to be a good wife, good mother, good-looking, good-tempered, well-groomed, and unaggressive.” Indeed, like Cinderella having to fulfill a long list of conditions before she was allowed to attend the ball—clean the chimney, scrub the floor, take down the curtains, do the laundry, help the stepsisters into their gowns, walk Fifi etc., etc.—women have been made to feel that they had to earn the right to make art, to invent things, to create. If we wanted to be involved in what had historically been—and was still largely known as--a man’s domain, we had to first get our own gender-specific business in order—that is, make sure that the hubby is happy, the kids are healthy, the house is clean and pretty and you, the artist-wannabe, better be sweet and sexy. Not to mention, patient and understanding.
This stereotype must have taken root somewhere deep in me. In that place, beneath my supposed progressive, modern-woman consciousness, I must have believed that men really were born to build empires, invent technologies, discover new lands, paint the ceilings of chapels, lead nations, break athletic records, become heroes, land on the moon and that women were born to be, well, cheerleaders. That subconscious belief must have been strong in me or why else did I have to fight so hard to disprove it?
A book entitled “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine” by Sue Monk Kidd eventually became the shovel that would uproot that subconscious belief, allow me to have a good, long look at it and to finally toss it aside, (hopefully) never to be undermined by it again. In a passage that I will forever be grateful for, she said, “As long as we have a divine Father who is able to create without a divine Mother, women’s creative acts are viewed as superfluous or secondary. And as long as the feminine is missing in the Divine, men would continue to experience entitlement and women would be prey to self-doubt and disempowerment.”
The skies really cleared for me with that book. I began to see that, while it wasn’t me who implanted in my psyche the belief that the Great Creator was a He and only a He—that this was a belief that has been handed down through generations--I had unknowingly nurtured this by not questioning it, by thinking it a huge sacrilege to wonder how the world would be were the Divine a She, as well. I had to be mired in crippling self-doubt and disempowerment and left in a tunnel of unending blackness before I could begin to seriously consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we had got it all wrong this whole time about God (at least, for those of us who believe in one) being a masculine single parent.
Perhaps the Divine was really a fusion of masculine and feminine energy, a perfect union of yin and yang, with no one subject to the other. Perhaps the great imbalance in the world—of the continued rape and abuse of women and of everything feminine like Mother Nature, of women still feeling like the secondary gender in many ways, of us still living in a “man’s world”—is a consequence of believing that the highest power—the power to create and, indeed, to destroy--emanates from a He.
Perhaps if this Supreme Being, this Great Creator, had a feminine face, too, had breasts and a vagina, the idea of humans supposedly being made in its image and likeness wouldn’t make women secretly feel excluded from the gift of that resemblance: having the Great Creator’s creative spirit moving within us. Perhaps, then, we would not have given up so much of our own creative power, thereby leaving much of the world’s shaping—its philosophies, beliefs, ideas, not least of which are its ideas about men and women--in the hands of men.
Perhaps, then, we wouldn’t have to content ourselves with living our creative dreams vicariously through the men in our lives.
I don’t think it’s just us women that we harm by allowing our creative aspirations to fall by the wayside, believing them secondary to marriage, motherhood, men rather than as an absolutely essential part of our self, our soul. I don’t think, for instance, that my revolving around my partner like he was the sun, rendering everything in me secondary to everything in him, was very helpful to him and to our relationship. He did seem as lost as I was; there were moments when I would catch him looking around in confusion, perhaps wondering where the independent-minded, self-sufficient woman he had fallen in love with had gone. Oh, her? In the backyard, digging her own grave.
One of my favorite passages in literature is also one of the most revealing insights I’ve ever read about being a man—about how women hovering over them like butterflies is not necessarily what men want. The passage is a rant from a fictional character named Van Norden, a struggling writer and “cunt-chaser” in Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”. “I want to surrender myself to a woman,” he says. “I want her to take me out of myself. But to do that, she’s got to be better than I am. She’s got to have a mind, not just a cunt. She’s got to make me believe that I need her, that I can’t live without her. Find me a cunt like that, will you? If you could do that, I’ll give you my job. I wouldn’t care then what happened to me: I wouldn’t need a job or friends or books or anything. If she could only make me believe that there was something more important on earth than myself.”
Poor Van Norden. I wonder how long he had to wait for such a woman, a woman strong and disciplined enough to not overfeed that already bloated male ego—because, really, such a woman is very, very rare. As the writer Lorrie Moore put it: “We’re talking unicorn.” Even the most intelligent, most talented, most sophisticated ones—those with a “mind, not just a cunt”—still tend to put men front and center in their lives, without necessarily being aware that they do or why they do it. There has only been one woman, for instance, in the “Sex and the City” foursome—the universally accepted, it seems, archetypes of the progressive, empowered female--to admit to loving herself more than she loves her partner and it was Samantha, a caricature of a sex-obsessed, high-powered woman. In short, an aberration. And not the kind of woman who seems real enough to emulate.
I think it’s because of the non-Samanthas—or the “real” women who love their man more than they love themselves—that the male ego has grown to its monstrous size and its equally monstrous appetite. Men feed their egos enough themselves, but you’ve got women tossing more food into the cave. The more women feed the beast, the bigger it grows and the more it needs to devour. This probably explains that insatiable, almost pathological need in men to be loved by many women—with quantity more often trumping quality. One woman, no matter how beautiful and smart and talented and funny and rich, is simply not enough for that King Kong-sized ego. Right, Jesse James?
But as Van Norden suggests—and as I actually see in my male friends—men are as burdened by their manhood, by the expectations of them as “men”, as women are by their womanhood. Men, I believe, are as oppressed by their expected self-absorption as women are by their expected self-abnegation.
It’s too much self, for instance, that prevents men from being able to see past their hard-ons, to the irreparable damage they may cause the people dearest to them. (Right, Tiger Woods? Right, David Letterman? Right, Bill Clinton?) Surely, this kind of insistent shortsightedness and consistent harm to others can cause some kind of erosion of the soul. And what could be a faster way to lose one’s humanity--to be reduced to a one-dimensional label ("Pervert")--than to lose one’s soul?
On the other hand, not enough self prevents women from being able to see themselves, even under a microscope. If we can’t see ourselves other than as that favorite female role--"Victim"--how can we expect anyone else to do so? How can we expect our partners, our children, and everyone else for whom we easily reduce our self for (and the very same ones we bitterly accuse of not seeing and appreciating us enough) to truly see and appreciate who we are?
As with all the extremes that have come to mark this world—extreme weather conditions, extreme ideologies—the extreme dispositions of men and women, how we’ve portrayed ourselves as each other’s opposite rather than each other’s equivalent, have ultimately resulted in disaster by breeding the worst—and mind, you, enduring—gender clichés:
Women are obsessed with getting married and having children. Men are obsessed with getting it on and getting it on and getting it on. Men are crass, uncouth and thoughtless (those who aren’t must surely be gay or a sissy). Women are polished, diplomatic and sensitive (those who aren’t are uneducated, low-class bitches). Men are assholes, women are saints. Men are wild, women are domesticated (and so good women are supposed to tame men).
How are these two extreme opposites supposed to relate to each other, much less achieve intimacy? What sort of union can be expected between Mr. Assholic Wild Pervert and Ms. Saintly Domesticated Victim?
Yet we try. Everyday, men and women try to connect with each other and failing that, come away from the attempt badly hurt, bewildered and bitter. What went wrong? they ask themselves. How could they have found themselves in yet another disastrous relationship or out of one, with disastrous consequences?
The real failure, I think, is in the inability to see that when we go out there, we go out armed to the teeth and, thus, weighed down by all the stereotypes about men and women. So we, in fact, ram against each other with these heavy, damaging armors. The closer we move to each other in our effort to touch and be touched, we only end up harming each other more.
It was stereotype that harmed my partner and I. We had subconsciously subjected ourselves and our relationship to simplistic, inherited and ultimately false notions about who we are—and this was what did us in. We failed to sustain the connection we had in the beginning of the relationship because somewhere along the way, we had slipped into the roles of the typical/conventional man and the typical/conventional woman. And only one thing can come out of that supposed union: a typical/conventional relationship—a mindless, lifeless repetition of the already flawed relationship between man and woman, of people simply going through the motions of togetherness and what they believed was expected of them.
“The Dining Dead”, as these couples were referred to in the film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”—couples who sit across each other in restaurants who no longer have anything to talk about, who have nothing real to share about themselves to the other person because nothing in them is real anymore, nothing in them rings true; it had all become stereotype. And as the filmmaker Michael Rabiger says, “Nothing is more untrue than stereotype.”
It was stereotype, it was conventional thinking, that put me in that triangle with my partner and my art, and which had caused me all that unbearable strain. The truth, when I finally saw it, freed me from all this unnecessary suffering. And the truth was this:
To do one’s art—to undertake one’s most intensely personal work—is to do soul work. It is to get in touch with that undying, eternal part of us. It is to connect to the truest, the biggest, the bravest and the most generous aspect of our being--the only part of us that can fulfill the great demands of love. It is only when we are connected to this part of ourselves that we can afford to drop the armor of stereotypes and truly connect with another person.
This, I believe, is what the Sufi mystic Hafiz meant when he said that “art is the conversation between lovers.”
And so my personal work—the work that made me feel seen to me--was never meant to be a third party in my love story. It was never meant to stand in the way of intimacy. Rather, it was meant to sustain the conversation with the other person, to keep this relationship fully alive instead of letting it petrify, like forgotten statues in the back of a museum, into mindless, passionless, soulless convention. My art was the necessary requirement and the first step for any real, meaningful, vital communion with another person.
To make art, I’ve realized, is to allow our soul to shape our life. It is to take directions on how to live from the vastness within us rather than from the limitations of the outside world.
“To be an artist,” said the actor Viggo Mortensen, “you don’t have to compose music or paint or be in the movies or write books. It’s just a way of living. It has to do with paying attention, remembering, filtering what you see and answering back, participating in life.”
“We are all called to be artists in our own way,” wrote author Matthew Fox. We are all called, in other words, to pay attention to our lives and to the world around us, to break out of the mold, to create our own reality, to write our own story. We are meant to transcend the cardboard cut-outs called “Man” and “Woman” and become more nuanced, three-dimensional, living, breathing human beings.
It’s the only way to finally break out of the clumsy, disastrous attempts at union called male-female relationships and achieve what the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke called “a more human love”—which is no small feat. “For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.”
Rilke foresaw the key role women would play in the ultimate task of getting love right. About a century ago, in a letter to a young poet, Rilke wrote: “Someday (and even now, especially in the countries of northern Europe, trustworthy signs are already speaking and shining), someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.
“This advance (at first very much against the will of the outdistanced men) will transform the love experience, which is now filled with error, will change it from the ground up, and reshape it into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman.”
If more women fully realize what is at stake—what we stand to gain when we gain ourselves--I don’t think many would still find it noble to give up their biggest dreams and their loftiest aspirations—not for anyone; not for spouses or children or parents. I honestly don’t think we are doing anyone a real favor by giving up so much.
A woman’s experience in the world has largely been defined by loss and self-sacrifice. I no longer think there is a woman who is immune to the strong impulse for self-abnegation; I have lost my innocence—or, one may argue, my ignorance—about this. But I am feeling a change already. I see more and more women naming and confronting this impulse rather than being in denial about its existence and allowing it to sabotage them. I see this wisdom and strength in the women around me, in my girlfriends and sisters, and in the way that they, unlike the women before us, are now daring to have it all.
I see women finally understanding that their greatest act of love is to learn to love themselves.
I see this in accomplished women like Kathryn Bigelow--the triumphant woman with the camera.
So while I wonder at what she had to give up to get to where she is, I can see that she has already gained the most important thing: her self.
And to a woman, that means everything.