This blog post will journey from modernist swan poems to #adulting, which seem like unrelated topics because they totally are. Watch me magically tie these things together using the theme of identity formation. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll walk away wanting to buy some fancy second-hand grown-up pants.
This term, which was my first term in the English MA program at Portland State University, I wrote a paper about William Butler Yeats’s sonnet “Leda and the Swan.” In the process of writing the paper, I pulled the same shenanigans as always. I was totally drowning in research the whole time. The stuff I was reading addressed so many real, important issues, like imperialism, sexism, rape, colonization, and identity formation. As usual, the experience sent me into a spiral of maddening revelations about the world, bringing on one existential crisis after another. In the end, I pulled it all together and produced something that I’m really proud of.
But beyond academia, this paper has been on my mind in daily life. It’s really quite strange. I have found its concepts to be applicable and meaningful in a variety of contexts.
Identity formation was one of the main themes in the paper. I sought to answer questions like “How does power affect identity?” and “In hierarchical social formations, in which the dominating force gets to identify the marginalized subjects, is there a way for the oppressed to regain some sort of agency and to take charge of their own identities?”. You know, the fun questions.
I have been wrestling with my identity lately. I can’t quite figure out what or who I am. Am I an adult? Am I a young person (like a “millennial” or whatever)? I must be an adult because, as a Graduate Assistant, I have been entrusted with an intro-level composition classroom at PSU (like a real professor!!?!). Indeed, they expect me to stand up there and conduct a classroom and teach college students how to write. I know that I must be qualified because they picked me to do it. But sometimes I just don’t feel like a real adult.
The other day, I went shopping for teacher clothes (second-hand of course because I’m not about to drop unnecessary cash). I really struggle to figure out how to look the part. I always end up with cute clothes, but they are made of cheap-looking fabrics or are too tight or too low-cut or too see-through. I always chalked this up to my inexperience in dressing like an adult. But what if the issue goes deeper? What if I so deeply identify as a non-adult that I am afraid to look like one? I realized as I was shopping, when I put on some fancy grown-up pants, that I felt deeply uncomfortable, even though they looked good on me. What bothered me is that they didn’t show off my curves enough. But why is that necessary? Visible curves are not a requirement for teaching…or are they? I realize now that I am often so insecure in my identity as a teacher, a student, a human, that I feel the need to win people’s attention and approval by being physically attractive. (Note: I recently began reading a book called The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, which argues that, in capitalist/consumerist backlash to the breakthrough of women into the workplace during the 20th century, Western culture has invented unattainable beauty standards and has made all women feel obligated to achieve them. I may write about this is another blog because it’s so juicy and infuriating.)
I bought those fancy not-too-tight adult pants. Why? Because it’s time for me to feel like a legitimate human being instead of a non-serious creature who exists to be looked at. I have a lot to offer as a student, a teacher, and a person. I am not going to let any sexist/agist power dynamic get in the way of me embracing life and offering up all that I have to the world.
Irritatingly, it’s in fashion among people in my age group to poke fun at the idea that we’re expected to be adults in certain contexts. We’ve created the verb “adulting” and used it as a hashtag for social media posts that either show us wearing professional clothes or describe something we did that seems adult-like. I used to identify with this feeling of being an imposter whenever I act like an adult, and I still do identify with it a lot of times. However, I think we would all benefit from a little less self-deprecating humor and a lot more confidence.
(Just to clarify, when I say “we” or “our/my generation,” I’m talking about the kinds of people my age who would use #adulting on social media. This probably limits the scope to a specific demographic in many ways, some of which I’m sure I don’t even understand, so please know that I’m aware that I’m being exclusive in my blanket-statements. I’m white, American, and affluent: excluding is what we do best.)
People say that our generation is used to getting participation trophies or whatever. I don’t know what I think of all that crap, but it sounds like something that Fox News would endorse, so I generally regard it as total bullshit and chalk it up to some kind of insidious conservative agenda. So I don’t think our generation really needs to just “suck it up” and start realizing that we’re not each a “special snowflake.” On the contrary, I think we need to really learn to love ourselves and believe in ourselves. I’m not talking about being obnoxious, selfish, or inattentive to the well-being of others. I’m talking about identity.
We need to stop looking outwards to find our identities and start looking inwards. The problem with looking outwards is that we’re often looking at social media, TV, movies, advertisements, etc., and ALL of these things are trying to sell us something. Even if they aren’t directly asking for our money, they are selling us a story, a narrative about how our lives should look or how reality is. We live in a capitalist, consumerist society that operates so intricately in our everyday lives that it’s almost impossible for us to see it. Basically, it’s like The Matrix.
Young people, stop #adulting and own your identity as a young adult. If someone has invited you to operate within a context that categorizes you as an adult, that means you are an adult, even if just for that period of time and in that specific context. You are an adult. Adulthood is not a sweater you wear to hide what’s underneath so that you can trick people into believing a lie about you. It’s something that you have the power to embody if you choose to do so. It means that you are being taken seriously. It means that you take yourself seriously. Please, take yourself seriously. There are so many things young people could do if we would just stop being so distracted by our consumer goods and simply take our lives and selves seriously!
Honestly, the people who came before us have fucked everything up, and now we have to fix it. I’m not just talking about the US economy. I’m saying they’ve been laying waste to everything for thousands of years. For example, so many things exist that should not exist – patriarchy, imperialism, slavery, impending environmental doom. We have to fix these things, but how are we going to do that if we don’t take ourselves seriously?
Don’t get me wrong; there are some solid people who are older than our generation. Many good people exist. But people with the most power for the last several thousand years clearly have not acted in the interest of humanity. Perhaps power is intrinsically corruptive. In any case, don’t listen to what they say about you. Don’t fall into that trap. Form your own identity. That is freedom. And with freedom, we can set these old, oppressive structures on fire and build new realities.