On heroism, gender, and Patti Smith

Long ago, during college, I considered myself a feminist, and a good one too. But my academically-minded roommate challenged me to list my female heroes.

“Why should heroes be chosen on the basis of sex?” I said defiantly. “Ignoring gender is being neutral, which is better than keeping score.”

“No it isn’t, because the playing field is tipped against women,” she said in a superior tone. “Go ahead and count your heroes. I bet they’re all male. I bet you don’t have a single woman hero that you look up to.”

I thought about my heroes, and by golly she was right. All the authors, artists and rock stars I loved most were men; so too were all the great explorers and inventors.

My annoying roommate suggested to me that the lack of female role models was a void in my life, and that I should look to women’s accomplishments to complete myself as a woman. Grudgingly, I considered the challenge she set me.

The first task of course was to define heroism. To me, a hero is someone whose actions and accomplishments blaze a trail for others, or alternatively, someone who describes the world in an entirely new way. A hero could be someone with immense courage and moral dignity; or a person whose example inspires others.

There were certainly female writers and artists to choose from, but their accomplishments didn’t necessarily speak to me as a person searching for role models. Many second-wave feminists at that time (late ‘70s) worshipped Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, but neither of their writing styles particularly lit me up, and I didn’t view their suicides as a plus. It seemed to me that women too often had to suffer or die in order to earn respect, instead of being honored because of what they achieved or created.

I ultimately identified several contenders for heroic females. Mary Wollstonecraft championed women’s rights and condemned the institution of traditional marriage at the end of the 1700s despite horrifying her peers with her “shocking” views. I also liked her daughter Mary Shelley because she freely chose the life of a shunned bohemian. And I admired Isadora Duncan, who dedicated her life to the pursuit of love, beauty and creativity. But they all had lived generations before me, and like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, they exemplified the grieving/suffering female principle which I viewed as a tired old trope.

In search of an inspiring modern creatrix, I soon found Patti Smith. She became the subject of a shrine on my apartment wall made from a cluster of photos cut from magazines. Possessed of an unusual appearance, unafraid, brazen, a free-wheeling poet with tangled hair and no makeup, Patti growled and yelped her music and was unafraid of blasphemy. (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins….but not mine.”) Head held high, Patti followed her own unique and idiosyncratic path.  (“Outside of society, that’s where I want to be.”) It was rumored that she had jerked off to her own photo on the cover of her Easter album, which depicted her in rumpled negligee, one arm raised to reveal an unshaven armpit. I was delighted with Patti, as were many of my friends. If anyone knew how to épater les bourgeois, Patti certainly did. The High Priestess of Punk seemed a worthy rebel hero to me.

EasterAfter graduation my life truly began. I married; started my own profitable business; earned a law degree; had my son Miles; traveled to Europe on a shoestring several times; wrote a popular newspaper column and authored a book. I was no longer worried about heroes or gender. Instead, I did things that I deemed necessary, desirable, or important.

Patti faded from my radar, retiring to private life after marrying. After her husband’s death she reappeared and began making music again, touring the world and writing. I began to pay attention to her once more.

I read her first memoir “Just Kids” with great pleasure. Because I enjoyed it so much, I bought her second memoir, “M Train.” It struck me differently than the first book had done. Throughout “M Train” she cites scores of creative people who mattered to her: William Burroughs, Sam Shepherd, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, Jean Genet, Paul Verlaine, Roberto Bolaño, Mikhail Bulgakov, Haruki Murakami, Bertolt Brecht and many others. But women barely register in her narrative.

What an irony: discovering that my former female hero had virtually no female heroes of her own! My heart sank when she invoked Frida Kahlo, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, because this triad represented to me the same suffering-female trope that I had resisted in my youth.  But Patti was no longer the defiant young rock-n-roll poet I had idolized long ago. Over time she had evolved from a musical iconoclast to a figure haunted by loss.

I thought about Patti’s lack of female heroes for several days, bemused. Were there no outspoken bold women she admired, none at all? I was disappointed, but eventually realized I was doing the same thing to Patti that my annoying college roommate had done to me: focusing on gender instead of simply respecting the fact that Patti found these fellow human beings to be admirable in some way. And as for the grieving-female stereotype, many of Patti’s male heroes had also suffered and grieved. Suffering is by no means a female monopoly. Any human who lives long enough is bound to suffer – including myself. Although I’m dying of cancer, I don’t want others to think of me as a sorrowful figure, or to lump me into some category purely because of my gender.

Here’s my own manifesto and resolution. Over the years I’ve evolved from feminism to humanism (respect for all, and belief in human capacity for self-worth and betterment). I think of myself each day primarily not as a woman but as a human being. I feel this is a necessary step in our human evolution as a species. After I’m gone, I don’t want to be remembered simply as a female, or as someone whose life ended tragically before its time. Instead, I was a human being who was possessed of exuberance, bawdy humor, imagination, courage and ethics.

Abandon all categories, a friend spray-painted long ago on a downtown wall. I agree. Attempting to balance the playing field between men and women is probably not the best use of finite resources. Trying to improve ourselves as human beings is a far worthier goal. In times like ours, heroes of any gender are desperately needed. Long live Patti!

aging patti

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10 thoughts on “On heroism, gender, and Patti Smith”

  1. I very much appreciated reading this and wholeheartedly agree with your conclusions and especially to “abandon all categories. ”

    Your writings brought me back to my years at a catholic boarding high school where I was surrounded by women role models in the form of nuns. They were sweet and talented teachers and their memories follow my life as do my female classmates. Mary (of the mother of God) was probably the main hero to me back then and there were female saints . Not all were martyrs but for the most part suffering seemed a requirement sainthood. It’s rather interesting to me now that female saints were allowed by the Catholic Church and feel an appreciation now that I had just taken for granted.

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    1. You’re right, Diane, the theme of women suffering is probably Christian in origin. Even though men suffer as well, women’s suffering got exalted to some kind of high spiritual level.
      Thank you for reading, and commenting!
      hugs,
      Carrol

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  2. ah Carrol, you as usual hit the ole nail squarely and subiimely. I never was a Patti head, but I admired her spirit. Plus she did hang with the cool guys….all of em, I think. Love your humanist plea and again as usual, I’m a few steps behind you in my progress, but I would label her one of the boys’ girls. You know the type….
    xxo

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  3. Interestingly, a friend (Rachel Weaver) who owns a book store in Oak Park, IL is a big Patti Smith fan. They recently had Patti at the store to speak and sign copies of M Train. I just sent her a link to your blog.

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  4. Here, here! Beautifully expressed! Patti Smith speaks (and sings) truth to power in epic-spiritual style!
    I liked her book “Just Kids” very much.

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