Friday, December 21, 2007

Sexual Amnesty in the Early Nineties

a response to Sonia Shah's 'Tight Jeans and Chania Chorris'

Navigating one's cultural landscape in the midst of the sexual metamorphosis of adolescence is difficult but possible, even though it might be hard for outsiders to understand what you're exactly doing. In this somewhat brilliant essay Sonia Shah, herself past adolescence, is precisely one of those outsiders, witness via telephone calls at first to her younger sister's sexual coming of age. Sonia and her sister are first generation Indian Americans, their parents having immigrated to New York in their 20s. While her little sister is just blossoming into a sexually confident teenager, Sonia (who never quite made that metamorphosis successfully) is off at college. The girls' mother worries, her own sister, back in India when they were both just girls, was taken out of school simply for writing a love note ended up ruining her life because of such behavior. So, she calls Sonia for help. Sonia sees herself in her sister's actions, and is reminded of her own problems trying to express herself at the age, how she was mistreated by the white boys at school. Sonia's little sister wears sexy outfits, accessories and makeup – and is adored by boys at school, at the mall, anywhere. Sonia, whose trying to find her footing as a feminist, and even with encouragement from her feminist boyfriend, doesn't know what to do. She doesn't want to discourage her sister from being sexually active, but she also doesn't want her sister to objectify herself – or end up hurt and maligned along the way. She sees herself in her little sister, as I said, which is obviously misguided. Sonia's little sister eventually gets sent off to India, only to return in a backless chania chorris, surprisingly to meet with approval from mom and dad. This shock leads to Sonia to deconstruct her taken-on feminist philosophies and recontextualize them in language that not only makes more sense to her, but to her parents as well. Finally realizing that her sexuality is not bound to her Indian or American cultural identity but simply has to navigate and work within those landscapes, and bodies, including hers; she's free to be a bit more natural in her body.

Sonia's little sister isn't her – she isn't Sonia. Though one could say she's almost like an improved Sonia, able to express herself and her sexuality in ways Sonia never could, and within a family structure Sonia thought she understood. Her sister's behavior conflicts with Sonia's identity as the older girl, the authority, and with her concept within that as being a forward-thinking feminist who should be guiding her little sis' mind to the light. Seeing her sister dressing so provocatively, and confidently reminds Sonia of her own efforts at that age, and all the tragic, horrible life-defining experiences that lead to, but it doesn't click at first that maybe her sister knows what she's doing, and is happy.

Sonia's little sister is sent on a parental-enforced exile in India – they aimed to deter her from sexual activity (it's never touched on but my guess is they hoped that she'd see the out of whack child to parent ratio there) – Sonia guesses they also want her to absorb, internalize, the authority structure so she'll listen to them, but when she returns to America she only shows off her new dress. It's a chania chorris, an outfit described as “sets of midriff barring blouses and long full skirts worn under saris”. The interesting thing is, that when she turns around while modeling it to Sonia and mom and dad, it's backless. Sonia is shocked, and knows this will only be bad. But, mom and dad love it. They love it because their little girl's sexuality is now recontextualized in the framework of a culture they understand, transcribed for late 90s American puberty. This is where the essay really comes together as Sonia finally sees that the blending of ideas works – and while Sonia still sees things in boxes (Asian, American, and so on) she realizes her sister just might know what she's doing and that her own thinking does need a bit of adapting to reality.

I loved this essay, I thought it was a fascinating look into the lives and minds of Indian American girls and young women. The seemingly insurmountable problems Sonia faced when trying to express her sexuality as a teenager made me want to cry. The harassment at the hands of white boys, the pressuring for sex just because they gave her the time of day, and her crushed sense of self worth are all points worth keeping in mind when criticizing teenage girls for how they're dressed, but also simply a sad experience for Ms. Shah who obviously deserved better. When her little sister exhibits what Sonia sees as the same budding sexuality that was beaten in her, she doesn't know what to do, and everything she tries fails. But, as is obvious as a reader, her little sister is not her. This is best underscored by a scene that occurs while Sonia is home on break from college and she's standing with her sister, whose in front of the mirror, and trying to counsel her on non-self-objectification. Sonia tries to explain that the foxy clothes her sister's donning are wrong and her sister replies, “Sonia, you wear your clothes because you like them and you like how you look in them – not just because they are comfortable.” Sonia can't argue with that – and her sister knows what she's doing, and she likes it.

To close, I loved how the essay worked, how Sonia tried to speak from feminist ideas she didn't really understand (or hadn't accepted) and how that failed as her little sister had already learned from Sonia something deeper than mere intellectualized socio-political philosophies. She had learned the deeper lesson of cultural navigation that her older sister had given her through her own actions and had greatly benefited from it. All in all a great little essay that had me thinking about reinterpretation, feminism, and just how much all these Asian American girls have to put up from us white boys, their parents, and even their older sisters (if they have any).


seema said...

i'm sonia's sister, and i love the way you have discussed her essay!

fwiw, i'm a reasonably well adjusted adult now. i'm a feminist and a mother and a professional. (and, in case anyone was wondering, still a little foxy according to some.) my sister also, is reasonably well-adjusted all things considered. and i think she's finally over high school.

you-x said...

Wow! Seema, I'm thrilled that you found this place and the discussion of your sister's essay. How cool is that? And, that you posted too. Thanks a lot for your comment. So, your name is Seema, right? I was curious, because it's so absent in the essay and I really wanted to know. Still a little foxy, a feminist, a mother, a professional - all such fantastic news, normal great news.

I'm happy to read Sonia is finally over high school, that sounded incredibly rough for her. That kind of thing can be even more incredibly rough to get over.

Thanks for posting, I hope to see you around here or wherever again sometime. All my best to you and your family, especially Sonia.