I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes

By ALEXINE CASTILLO YAP (PEAK JEA, Y3)

 

Balancing and maintaining multiple social roles, especially as a woman, can be a nigh-insurmountable challenge, as competing pressures and expectations from others threaten to destabilise one’s sense of self. Writer Alexine Castillo Yap explores the dilemmas of self-contradiction, role conflict, and gendered expectations, and shares how art, specifically literature, helps her cope with the human condition.

Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

—Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’ (Part 51)

 

Credit: Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash

 

‘Ice Queen’. ‘Dragon Lady’. ‘Too serious’. ‘Stone-hearted’. ‘Cold (+ very rude pejorative that starts with the letter B)’. These are just a few of the (admittedly resting on the more palatable end of the spectrum) names and descriptors I’ve been called behind my back, both by people who barely know me—much less heard me speak outside of a classroom or work-related environment—and people who have gotten to know me better, eventually. On the other, farther end of the spectrum are the people whom I’ve known quite well for some time now and understand me to be the opposite of whatever being an ‘Ice Queen’, ‘Dragon Lady’, or whatever other pejorative, entails. In fact, I’d probably be accused by some of them of the other extreme end of the spectrum: overly sensitive, emotional, capricious, unpredictable, what-have-you.

 

In my freshman year of university, I once accidentally overheard someone call me the aforementioned ‘cold-very-rude-pejorative-that-starts-with-the-letter-B’ around lunchtime. Not even 2 hours later, I was being accused of being ‘over-emotional and sensitive’ by another person. That evening, a friend then told me that everyone thought I came off as ‘too-serious’ and unfriendly, because I was too focused on my schoolwork.

 

In short, just another day of existing as a woman in this world, I suppose.

 

You’d think that after having attended a co-ed school, an all-girls’ school and then an international school abroad, I’d have already gone through enough name-calling (in multiple languages too, at that) to have grown thick-skinned enough not to be hurt by whatever name-calling still occurs past high school¹. I suppose anyone who’s been through some kind of schooling with a bunch of other tween-/teenaged peers have been subjected to some form of mean-spirited name-calling (and have probably taken part in some name-calling themselves). Luckily, you never really get to hear all the names, and it’s probably for the best, for your own sanity’s sake. But somehow—perhaps it’s just me—the ones you do hear always manage to be some of the most hurtful, and the ones that stick with you the most.

 

Going into university, I thought I didn’t really care anymore about petty things like name-calling, mostly because I also thought I had also already stopped caring about what other people thought of me. If I wanted to stay home all day and just do my schoolwork, why should anyone care? Conversely, if all I wanted was to go out and meet new people, I should be allowed to. All in a day’s work, right? I’m an independent woman, it’s the 21st century and I’m allowed to do whatever and be whomever I want, who even cares about societal expectations? (Cue Truth Hurts by Lizzo.)

 

It turns out, I cared about societal expectations. A lot².

 

One of the most intriguing, not to mention personally relatable, concepts in sociology that I learned in freshman year was ‘role conflict’. Dictionary.com defines it as ‘emotional conflict arising when competing demands are made on an individual in the fulfillment of his or her multiple social roles’. Certainly, nobody is a stranger to this concept; we all have multiple social roles that we feel pressured to simultaneously fulfil, sometimes all within the course of less than a single day. And as someone currently juggling academics, extra-curriculars, and part-time jobs, on top of trying to keep a social life afloat, dating, and keeping in touch with friends and family from back home or abroad, I feel like the concept is especially relevant to me. I have to perform multiple roles and duties almost daily, sometimes to the point of confusion about who or what I really am.

 

Dictionary.com defines it as ‘emotional conflict arising when competing demands are made on an individual in the fulfillment of his or her multiple social roles'.

 

Have all of that, plus the name-calling, and then slap on a huge dollop of ‘expectations of how women should act, think, and feel’, and you get a recipe for a potential meltdown.

 

Just the other day I had to really try to bite my tongue when I heard a professor say, ‘Women will save the world, because of their inherently caring nature’. Obviously a million thoughts were running through my head: Why does he think women are inherently supposed to fill a caring, motherly role? What are the implications of this for women who choose not to or can’t fill that role, or don’t show those stereotypically feminine attributes? Why can’t men adopt this role as well?

 

I contemplated either walking out of the class or debating with him on the spot, but decided against it when I realised I was, at the end of the day, the student in this situation, and should keep my mouth shut. But it also dawned on me that I was probably also just using that as an excuse not to come off as the ‘Ice Queen’/‘Dragon Lady’/whatever version of the b-word to my fellow students, as well. God knows I’ve turned off enough potential friends and partners because of that, if the name-calling from freshman year isn’t proof enough.

 

Why does he think women are inherently supposed to fill a caring, motherly role? What are the implications of this for women who choose not to or can’t fill that role, or don’t show those stereotypically feminine attributes? Why can’t men adopt this role as well?

 

What’s discomfiting is why this scares or turns off other people in the first place. Pressures on women to be both career-oriented and family-oriented at the same time are overwhelming, not to mention expose an unfair double standard since men aren’t seen or expected to be the same way. If a man is career- or goal-oriented at the expense of his personal life, people would admire him and see him as a role model, whereas if a woman did the same thing, they would revile her and, as has been done to me, call her an infinite number of hurtful pejoratives, without really knowing who she really is and what values matter to her. At the same time, were she to adopt a more ‘feminine’ mode—less career-oriented, ‘friendlier’ and more ‘sociable’, let’s say—she would then eventually be accused of not being serious enough, perhaps of being stupid, as well. It’s a lose-lose situation. It gets really confusing, tiring, and disorienting, and I don’t even know where I fall in the ‘cold-sensitive’ spectrum anymore, even though as a human being of course I would exhibit both traits.

 

Walt Whitman—and all of literature and art, I suppose—to the rescue, thank goodness. At a particularly troubling time last semester I found solace in his work after being introduced to his poetry by my American Literature professor. ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’, he writes in his famous ‘Song of Myself’. What a refreshing, liberating thought: to be able to develop multiplicities and allow them to co-exist within oneself, and be at peace with that.

 

What a refreshing, liberating thought: to be able to develop multiplicities and allow them to co-exist within oneself, and be at peace with that.

 

My being an ostensible ‘Ice Queen’ on the one hand, and purportedly also ‘overly sensitive’ on the other are, I believe, extreme, if not unfair, labels on me. I can’t exactly blame people for wanting to categorise others into neat boxes, especially when we all have so many roles ourselves to manage, and perhaps it’s just human nature to attempt to simplify free-floating, complex beings into manageable categories existing within dichotomies and binaries. But I’d also like to problematise that, especially because, at the end of the day, these labels do hurt. I need to realise that these labels are nothing but others’ not-so-accurate perceptions of who I am and, as has been proven, highly changeable since they depend on how a person knows me, and thus do not—should not—necessarily define me.

 

In the meantime, I’ll stay being your ice queen dragon lady who also happens to like fluffy things.

 

 

¹ In my senior year of high school, my friends and I formulated a theory that peak meanness occurs around 15 years old, after which point all the really bad names have already been used, and you will—or should—never get hurt ever again, because nothing could possibly ever be as bad as what your Year 9 crush called you when you were 14.

² Still do. I’m working on it.