Saturday, August 12, 2006

Confessions of a Pom Squad Wannabe

Audio file / podcast / downloadable mp3 file

I don't know if I ever told you this, but when I was in junior high, I joined the pep club. We existed to support the cheerleaders, who in turn, provided "pep" and motivation to the football team. We were a uniformed girl choir, the secular channelers of divine energy. In my orange sweater, black box-pleated skirt, white knee-highs, and saddle oxfords, I adhered to the ideal of absolute solidarity and absolute uniformity. I took gymnastics, and besides engaging in anorexic behavior, bleaching my hair, and baking under a sun lamp, I had fantasies of becoming a cheerleader or a member of the pom squad. I was not unattractive, and my family did not lack for resources. I, however, had absolutely no self confidence. That clearly doomed me, although yes, I was a true purveyor of pep.

I ended up quitting the pep club. I hated having to go to football and basketball games, and I did not like having to feign cheerfully blithe joie-de-vivre in the face that no one wanted to talk to me.

High school was even more alienating than junior high. I did not even think of joining the pep club, even though their uniforms were cuter than the junior high issue. Back in junior high, what we wore was a bold, citrus-colored variant of a private girls' school uniform. Cheerleaders were needle-thin, tan, and whose moms took them shopping at The Webb, where they would buy designer shoes and bags. Spring Break meant Cancun or skiing in Colorado.

For me, Spring Break meant going with the Spanish Club to Mexico, summer meant camp in Texas, swim team, piano, and August in Vermont. I shopped with my mother who was extremely generous and always bought me whatever I wanted, or shopped alone with money from the allowance I received from my father. In theory, I could have fit in with the pep club crowd, but I lacked the self confidence. I looked the part, my family lived in the "right" neighborhood, but I felt freakish and weird.

Thinking of oneself as the "outsider within" means that a person starts to feel himself or herself to be "different." There are a number of implications. One is that it engenders narcissism. The other is that is could push narcissism to messianism. Is perceiving oneself as an "outsider within" the first step to becoming a mad messiah? I don't know. It's worth investigating.
In feminist thought, being the "outsider within" is assumed to be more objective than those who describe a situation from being completely outside it, or from the vantage point of a person who is completely inside.

In theory, I could have written a juicy expose, a view from the inner sanctum of the pep club / cheerleaders workout rooms. Or, I could have made a movie with me as the Lindsey Lohan character in Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004), or one of the Heathers in Heathers (dir. Michael Lehmann, 1989).

However, if I look at the underlying assumption that marginalization springs from definable "difference," I'm aware that there may be a problem. It may be flawed. In other words, a person typified by difference and thus marginalized may not have access to "truth" or "insight." They may simply distort and it may or may not reflect anything about the group or the artifact (literature, film, painting, etc.)

Ethics and politics always mediate the relationship between perceptor and perception. What I was perceiving was mediated by the times. Watergate was still fresh in everyone's minds, and cynicism toward the government was at an all-time high. Disenchantment, futurelessness, and stagflation counterposed the aggressive optimism of cheerleaders. My father, who was writing a book on the coming collapse of the dollar, runaway inflation, and imminent chaos in the cities, had decided to build a summer home in Vermont that did not rely on electricity or public supplies of water or gas. He hired me to type up the manuscript. In the meantime, he prospered as a petroleum and mining geologist at a time of embargoes and high commodities prices.
Was I really a good candidate for a narrator? Could I have been a good "outsider within?" "Standpoint theory" hinges on a few assumptions. The primary assumption is that the narcissism of the "outsider within" is not so overwhelming as to create complete solipsism. In order to survive both the apocalyptic economic prophecies of my dad and my completely extinguished self-esteem? I took refuge in my fantasy world, which was, by definition, highly idiosyncratic, highly narcissistic.

Actually, if one thinks about it, true identification is not possible without at least a basic level of narcissism. Narcissism suggests that one is able to conceive of an individuated self.

Of course, the deeply-held hope is that there is some sort of value in the vision of the "outsider within."

The "outsider within:"

a) exists within a definable group.
The Norman West Jr. High school pep club. We were wildcats. (I think.)

b) is truly marginalized (in fact, or in one's imagination).
I did not fully participate in the activities of the pep club because I had no real friends. In fact, the other girls would not really talk to me. I never quite figured out why. I assumed it was because I was fat, ugly, and a complete loser. In fact, I was pretty ordinary.

c) can articulate opinions or interpretations that are not the same as those generally expressed.
I tried to keep those to myself. I failed. No wonder I was ostracized.

d) believes that the opinions and articulations have value because they are different, precisely due to the fact of being different.
I may not have thought so, but society certainly might have thought so. What were my fantasies at age 14 or 15? I wanted to be a concert harpsichordist. I listened to the sonatas of Antonio Scarlatti at every possible moment. I fantasized about winning medals and making "A" times at swim meets. I wanted to build my own harpsichord. I imagined myself in the Spanish court as Scarlatti composed passionate sonatas for the Spanish princess who employed him. At the same time, I imagined myself painting, sketching, and traveling to exotic locations where I would learn languages, then return to New York City, where I had an office in a glass building and I wore elegant outfits. Alternatively, I would go to a small village in South America where I would be a missionary (for a week or so).

e) accepts that there is value in one's difference (this necessitates that a baseline of human dignity).
What was the difference? I refused to experiment with drugs. I never smoked pot, drank alcohol, or smoked cigarettes. In this way, I was different than the majority of my peers. At the same time, I tried to diet. I wanted to be desirable. I wanted to be desired. I spent most of my life in daydreams instead of learning social skills. Did that matter? Did it make me truly different? Who knows. It certainly made me different within the pep club. I did not spend much time learning cheers or socializing with other girls. I was afraid to have them come to my house, where my mother was a wild card presence. I could never predict how she would be, or what condition the house would be in. She suffered from thyroid disease, but no one knew it at that time. All I knew was that I was embarrassed, even though she always bought me the most expensive clothes of anyone I knew, and I always had the nicest musical equipment, sports equipment, school supplies.

The other members of the group have to recognize the vision as containing points that are common to the shared experience of all.

There is where we may or may not have a point of convergence. Perhaps it does not really matter. Perhaps what is most important is the action of perceiving oneself as "different" and then going through the mental exercise of the "standpoint" and positioning oneself outside one's self-identified group, and then, attempting to view the behaviors, values, and attitudes from a "bestranged" perspective.

Make it new. Make it real. Do the two go hand in hand?

In my mind, being a part of the pom squad never moved much beyond a fleeting impulse. I never gave it enough serious thought to actually take tangible steps in the world of real phenomena. It was nothing like my foray into the pep club. In that case, I really did join the group, and there were measurable points of difference. I never quite had a sense of the narrative the successful members -- the cheerleaders and the pep club members -- constructed for themselves for their lives, which included their families. All I had were my fragmentary narratives, my fantasies, and my desires to escape.

Perhaps that is the first requirement of the "outsider within" -- that is, the desire to escape a dominant group consciousness that threatens to overwhelm one's sense of having an individuated self. Hence, the narcissistic response…

I was the pom squad wannabe fantasizing about building my own harpsichord and playing Scarlatti in such a way that anyone listening would be instantly propelled into a state of enchantment.

Perhaps that sense of magic never goes away. When we need refuge, we retreat. We become the "outsider within" -- safe from engulfment, safe from the threat of harm by members of the dominant group.

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