I really hate to confess it, but I still fall prey to the “helpless woman” complex. When I was in elementary school, our teacher had a grave conversation with us about women in the workforce. At that time women were almost exclusively relegated to jobs as secretaries, librarians, schoolteachers, waitresses, and maids. My teacher, with wide eyes, informed us that there were women out there in the world who were doctors! We shook our heads with disbelief. It’s amazing to think that in my lifetime the possibilities and expectations of what women can accomplish have expanded so much. But, having watched most of the women who raised my generation live their life with so fewer choices, I still find myself underestimating my abilities.
This painting came up as an idea when I found myself writing a note to my husband asking him to change the message on our business voice mail. I stopped mid-note and realized that, of course, I could figure it out myself and do it in a few minutes. It was an absolutely elementary task. I recognized a habit that comes up more often that I’d like it to. I have a subtle and insidious notion that I can’t do as much as HE can.
In my younger days the ultimate image of a helpless woman was Little Nell, tied to the railroad tracks by Snidely Whiplash, waiting for Dudley DooRight to come rescue her. There was no way out of her predicament without her male savior, and a dirty lowdown scoundrel had put her there. It showed men having the power to do anything he wanted to a woman, and she had no power at all. She looked pretty, though. That’s why Dudley wanted to rescue her. The scenario doesn’t demonstrate healthy role models, to put it mildly.
I chose a deer for the piece because it is pretty, and it’s prey. I dressed her in a frilly, complicated Victorian dress that binds her as much as the ropes that she’s tied with. She’s not laying across the tracks in the proper position that Little Nell always did, mostly because it wasn’t optimal for the composition of the painting. But with her lying right up the center, the vertical axis shows off the rigidity and repetition of the tracks, a metaphor for the monotony of something that goes on and on.
This piece is about playing the role of the victim. Sometimes it’s not easy to see how I’m play the victim, and it can be even harder to take action to rectify the situation. It may seem like I’m being persecuted by someone else, but invariably I’m a victim of my own perceptions and expectations. It takes nothing short of a paradigm shift to examine and understand how my role is just a manifestation of my own self-concept. I’ve heard the hard-core saying, “There are no victims, only volunteers,” and there is a jarring truth to it. The question I have to ask is, “What am I getting out of this?”
When I take a closer look I admit that there are advantages to being tied to the railroad tracks (or just letting someone else change the voice mail.) It can be proved how much someone else “loves” me when they come to my rescue. I don’t have to face the challenge of tackling something with my mind or body; the theory is I can “relax” and someone else will take care of it. I don’t have to be as responsible. I also don’t have to test the theory that I really am that stupid.
I lose something very valuable when I allow myself to be rescued (more than I actually need it.) I lose confidence in my abilities. I don’t even take a glance at my abilities. I don’t even imagine them! I also grind in that old viewpoint of someone else being more powerful than me. I lose the chance to try and fail so I can grow and become stronger, smarter, or just more familiar with voice mail. I do an injustice to myself by saying (through my actions) the sad and untrue words, “I can’t.”
Without the continuous and frequent challenge of trying various new stuff, working my way out of problems, and acting on my own behalf I plant and water the seeds of fear. Fear of failure and fear of success. I become familiar with avoidance and having low expectations of myself. It’s not spectacularly miserable most of the time. It’s a low-grade form of violence against myself, barely perceptible, but as powerful as the ropes that tie Nell to the tracks.
My way out of the victim role starts with admitting I’m there. My painting does that clearly. From there I get to choose the way that leads to more self-sufficiency, and sometimes clarifying that choice can be very difficult. Lack of practice at taking action for myself leaves me out-of-touch with my dreams, desires, creative ideas, playfulness. Whether through kind and gentle lists of fun things I’d like to do, or through cold-turkey attempts to just do one damn thing just for me alone, I find a way to determine where I want to go and what I want to do. I figure out how to change the voice mail. I learn to use a chain saw, and publish my own book, and barbeque, and grow perennials. I try something I’ve been thinking about for ages. The actions, big or small, give me instances that fill my experience-bank with assurances that I, indeed, can.