Toward a Theory of Ratchets:
“Cthulhu swims slowly, but he always swims left.”
On a macro level, the above quote is undeniable. One need only look at the front page of any paper on any day to see pathology normalized (and the normal pathologized) as civilization gradually succumbs to degeneracy. We can feel Cthulhu swim by. We can see the waves he raises. We can even glimpse his tentacles from time to time, when someone defends some shockingly immoral practice by yelling “But it’s 2015! Isn’t it time!?” It is far more rare that we can actually examine one of his tendrils up close, while it is doing its dirty work, but I believe these opportunities should always be taken advantage of.
One area where we can glimpse the leftward ratcheting of discourse most often is the battle of the sexes. Women are enough like us (and pleasant enough to be close to) that we can study them in depth but alien enough to our understanding that we often miss the obvious. The other day, I found myself listening (quite unintentionally, for the record) to Katy Perry’s “Roar” as it was played over the speakers of a large department store. The song is an anthem of personal liberation, in which the speaker decides to no longer be silent and passive, but to “roar,” fight back, and finally be herself. The song begins with this stanza:
“I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agree politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything”
This is the same Katy Perry, mind you, who became famous with her lesbian experimentation song “I Kissed a Girl” in 2008. A couple disclaimers: I recognize that there is not always a one-to-one correspondence between the singer and the character speaking in a song, but it’s hard to imagine a wider gap between 2008 Perry and this passive pushover. One can listen to “Blood on the Tracks” and come away with a pretty good idea of what kind of man Bob Dylan was (or at least, thought he was) at that time. One can listen to a Lady Gaga song and have a pretty good idea of what she stands for. It’s also possible that one or both of the songs was someone else’s composition. None of this is the point. The thing that stands out is that these are both part of our society’s concept of who Katy Perry is, and that shouldn’t make sense. It is hard to imagine these two tunes coming from the same person’s inner life. Katy Perry is (and seems to sometimes see herself as) a loud boisterous person. Neither have Perry’s public or private lives been examples of blushing chastity and quiet restraint. I had to ask myself though: Could this be how Katy Perry really experiences herself on some level?
I began to remember all the examples: public, and personal, fictional and real, of women who expressed the same seeming contradiction. The horrendous “Eat, Pray, Love,” is replete with examples of this theme: every self absorbed decision the main character makes, she says something along the lines of “I need to do something for myself” before abandoning selfish narcissistic project “n” for more selfish, more narcissistic “n+1.” To see what this moment is like, one can watch degeneration-porn like “Breaking Amish” with people coming from a life of relative innocence into the big city, and note the moment when they experience themselves as previously quiet and innocent and now active and seeking experiences. There are some women who can experience that moment again and again as they move further and further into dissolution while constantly seeing themselves as having just crossed the line from innocence. Indeed, there seem to be some women who have no other kind of moments. They always remember how selfless and innocent they are. It is always their first time. They are always seeing the rule as the exception. It is always just this once. They are always the one who doesn’t do this kind of thing. It is always year zero and the revolutionary rules always apply. One can imagine Pandora or Eve thinking about”finally doing something for myself” as they reached out to unleash evil on the world.
“It’s time you started living. It’s time you let someone else do some giving.”
-Theme song “Mary Tyler Moore Show”
One can see the early adult life of a modern American woman through this lens, and it starts to make a little sense:
“My dad wants me to study something practical so I can pay off my loans and get a job when I graduate, but I’m sick of doing what they tell me. I worked hard through high-school and I’m here to learn so why shouldn’t I switch my major to Indignation Studies? Isn’t time I started living and did something for myself?”
“I know I promised Cory that I would wait for him while I was away at college, but Troy is here now, and I’m buzzed and he’s hot. Why shouldn’t I go back to his room? All I do is for everyone else. I go to classes all day, I do what everyone wants me to do. I should live a little. I deserve it. It’s about time I think about me for once.”
“I can’t believe Troy won’t call me back. I’m carrying his baby! I know I should do the right thing and tell my dad and put it up for adoption, but that’s 8 months of this! I’m so sick of living my life for everyone else. I want to have experiences and live my own life. Why shouldn’t I get an abortion? It’s my body. I need to do this for myself. I owe it to me.”
From there, we are two office affairs and one sad cooking class away from life as a cat and box-wine enthusiast who will continue to think of herself as quiet and long-suffering. She maintains this illusion as she drunkenly wonders why she isn’t happier, quickly ages, and puts on weight. As she votes, and thinks, and talks as a political being, she does so with the assumption that her experiences of sadness, alienation, and ultimate loneliness are the fate of all good, quiet, generous people like her, not the result of a decadent and self adsorbed life, and she votes accordingly. What other patterns like this are hidden in day-to-day life? What else are humans doing while they think they’re standing still?