Several weeks ago, Nova Ren Suma wrote a blog post that’s going to stay with me for a while entitled On Chasing Ambition and Being a Girl and a Woman. She was writing in response to another powerful post, this one by The Rejectionist, on What I Did the Summer After I Graduated.
They talk about the writing life and the single-mindedness and selfishness of being an artist. Both women address ambition, art, and feminism, but what resonated with me most was Nova’s discussion about the choices she has made in her journey.
I mentioned in an earlier post that part of what I love about current YA fantasy is that characters have many more choices in who they are and who they can become, which reflects contemporary culture. Of course both literature and life have defaults, which is why it’s crucial to acknowledge and portray the myriad possibilities of life in text.
The default expectation (for middle class women, at least) is to get married, buy a house, have 2.58 kids (wasn’t the .58 child in The Phantom Tollbooth wonderful?), have a career, etc. That’s considered to be “normal” (although not the norm anymore), and anything that strays — freelancing, being single, pursuing a career in the arts — requires some sort of explanation or justification.
While it may be true that women face a stricter set of expectations and receive more grief when they stray from them, problems arise for anyone who deviates (even the words “deviate” and “deviant” have negative connotations, although they literally mean to turn away from a path). My husband and I are married, but we’re pretty unconventional. I sent him Nova’s post when I first read it because I knew it would resonate with him, as well. He said he had been talking to one of our slightly older and just as unconventional friends about how hard it is to constantly have to explain and then justify his decisions. “Why leave your steady, well-paying IBM job to return to grad school for a student stipend? You’re studying art & tech? What can you possibly do with a PhD in THAT?” This was like my leaving MIT to study poetry. Why would anyone do such a thing? Our friend said the only possible response to this type of questioning is, “Because I can.”
This irritated him at first because it sounds completely entitled. And it is.
Choice is a luxury. It’s a result of freedom, of knowing your basic needs will be met, of having a fall back plan.
But her statement is also true. Choice means having the ability to follow more than one path and then selecting.
Because I can. Because I want to. Because it’s right for me.
We don’t usually say this when we stray from the norm, choosing our paths rather than defaulting into them. We backpedal and justify and apologize — as though opting for an alternative is an offense or criticism. It isn’t. Choice is simply an action, an exercise in possibility.