"Ballerina Wendy", Atlas, Burdens, Child Abuse, Chivalry, Crush #1, Damsel-in-Distress, Damsel-in-Distress Syndrome, Domestic Violence, Father-Son Relationship, Feminism, Love, Misogyny, Misty Copeland, Mother-Son Relationship, Pitt, Resentment, Sexism, Wendy, Womanism
This week marked thirty-three years since the fight that led to a crush that led to me falling in love for the first time, via a ballerina in training. The three-month period between March and June ’82 shaped how I dealt with teenage girls and women between the time I turned twelve and my mid-thirties. The crush on “Ballerina Wendy” and its mutation because of my stepfather’s knocking out of my Mom in front of me helped shaped my feminism, my womanism and my sexist damsel-in-distress syndrome.
It was the beginning of my damsel-in-distress syndrome. Though it was triggered by the Memorial Day incident, my damsel-in-distress syndrome had been latent for years. I was in fact a mama’s boy, tempered by living at 616 and in Mount Vernon. I’d always been enamored by strong, athletic women (or at least, actresses with that role), going back to Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman. Yet I’d also been surrounded by sexism and misogyny, from my father calling my Mom a “Black bit'” since I was four to my stepfather’s constant quoting of the Torah to justify his laying of violent hands and feet on my Mom.
What I did in response was to help my Mom in every way I could, and in ways I never should’ve. Calling up Con Ed and Ma Bell to pay the electric and telephone bills. Listening to years of conversations about her failed marriages, about my father’s alcoholic failings, about her bills, about the burdens we as her children had put on her. Washing clothes for the house every weekend from October ’82 through August ’87 and anytime I was home for the summer and for the holidays once I went off to college. Going to the store as many as five times in a single afternoon and evening because my Mom forgot that she needed diapers or cigarettes. Hunting my father down for money even on weekends I didn’t want to be bothered because we were out of food for my younger siblings. Taking a fist-filled beating here or there from my stepfather to take the pressure off of my Mom. Promising my Mom that after I finished my degree, I’d come back to New York to work and help her out financially.
On that last promise especially, I reneged. I changed my major from computer science to history, and decided to stay at Pitt, to go to graduate school, to earn a PhD, to start writing, both in the academic world and a bit as a freelancer, to teach for a living. It was the basis, I think, for her falling out with me in ’97, and why our relationship remains limited.
My Mom was hardly the only woman in my life in which I wanted to assist. Some of my Pitt friends can certainly attest to this fact, that sometimes I was there to help too often. To the point where once I realized I was overburdened or when that other person had become too reliant on me, it pretty much killed that friendship. Either way, I was angry, and sometimes felt used, while some of my Pitt friends were either confused or angry themselves.
I’ve had to learn over the years to say no, even to my wife, when I realized that one too many logs on the fire will actually put that fire out. It started with everything high-tech. Every computer glitch, every printer error, every Internet issue, and I was there like Clark Kent, ready to help. But by the time I hit thirty-five, I was just too tired and felt too burdened to be that on all the time. I finally stopped helping my wife with her tech issues. I stopped offering to help, and have only interjected when the issue actually affects all of our equipment.
The irony is, my wife is a stronger person than my Mom, stronger in many ways than how I perceived Wendy as a person so many years ago. It’s not as if my wife doesn’t need or appreciate the help. But, as I’ve learned over the years, too, sometimes, help is just emotional support, a hug or a joke. Or, when I’m ready to, simply listening without feeling the need to use a quadratic equation to solve the problem.
Damsel-in-distress syndrome, as chivalrous as it is, can also be extremely sexist, for both women and men and girls and boys. It means constantly attempting to help people who may or may not want your help, especially in cases where it is clear that they may need help. It means taking on emotional and psychological burdens that otherwise should only belong to the person you’re trying to support. It means, sadly, providing advice and knowing answers and solutions that may not be answers or solutions at all.
The Memorial Day ’82 incident with my mother changed what was an otherwise innocent crush and love into something contradictory even as it became more meaningful. It made me appreciate women who could and can kick some ass, whose strength would be obvious to all. And it made me think women who weren’t like that — women like my Mom — needed constant help from people like me. Wendy defended herself thirty-three years ago. My Mom tried and couldn’t. Life and strength for us, male and female and transgender, though, has never been that simple. And though I have saved quite a few damsels in distress over the years, it isn’t my eternal burden to carry.