Symbolism, ghostly visions, and pink hats

I should be writing right now, instead of making blog posts or wigging out about the inauguration, but I had a few thoughts come together that I really wanted to express in this space and that will also help me finish a scene I’m working on. So.

I’ve been thinking about symbols, and about related things like analogies and allegories and metaphors, but mostly about how one image or emblem can be construed in different ways by different people. This is partly because we’ve been playing a fun and challenging game called Mysterium in which one player has the role of a non-speaking ghost who tries to assist other players in the cooperative solving of a murder, by means of “vision” cards like this one:

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It’s kind of like “Clue” on hallucinogens: you’re still looking for a person, place, and weapon, but the ghost only has seven totally weird cards to work with at a time, and has to hand them out with no verbal explanation, hoping that the players make the link between rats, skull headdresses, cheese, cockroaches, the color red, and whichever of the potential culprits or spooky locations or (this is the hardest) plain-and-simple homicidal objects they have to choose from. Each ghost may develop some consistent methodology, preferring clues about color or shape or material or mood or utility, so perhaps that card implies a kitchen or a cook, or something curly like a rat’s tail, or a general feeling of unpleasantness, or just a crimson background. But really you don’t often have a choice; you just have to throw out the weird and hope someone guesses right. I’ve had my turn ghosting; it’s hard. Though also an amusing puzzle.

Writers know how that ghost feels. Yes, we have words and we can be pretty specific and literal in our stories, but we’re also expected to have Symbols! in the middle of all the routine dialogue and action scenes. We’ve taken literature classes even if we didn’t major in English, so we’ve got a part of our brain still saying, “But what will they think it means?” And if you’re like me and think in metaphor frequently, you can’t help inserting some analogies or parallels either purposefully or inadvertently, and then… either readers will interpret it the same way you did, or they will find something completely different, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. You can’t tell people how to read. You are not a dead author, so you can be annoying and comment on people’s reviews and say “that’s not what I meant and you are WRONG!” but sorry, the words are out there and if someone wants to find pagan mythology in them, or a sympathy for politics you abhor, or a secret love affair you didn’t mean to suggest, or a straight-out adventure or romance with no subtleties or broader meaning or painstakingly-implied allegory, then that’s how it goes.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I want to talk about pink hats.

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Yes, that’s me, and I’m going to the Women’s March on Saturday. (The mirror is Symbolic of all the ideas about reflective imagery in this post, and also I didn’t care for the selfies I snapped. And yes, I have a William Morris phone cover; told you I liked him.) I will be wearing this lovely pink hat my friend Lily knitted for me.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about whether the pussycat hats are a foolish gesture that misses the point, at least among those who have their hands free because they’re not knitting. I really don’t want to rehash all the arguments pro and con here. I do think that those arguing, reasonably enough I suppose, that our fight is not merely against Trump and his pussy-groping and therefore the hats should be left behind in favor of Bigger Causes, are reducing the power of pink hats to a simplistic singular symbolism that, indeed, some hat-wearers may share but will never do for me. It’s like being handed that card by a ghost and saying “well, clearly it’s about making sure all your perishable food is put away out of reach of pests” and missing the glowing colors and the elegance of the Rat King of Death and the moth as the holy spirit (as long as it’s not Neopalpa donaldtrumpi).

I was not an English major; I was a drama major. So both as a writer and as a citizen, I tend to filter symbolism through a visual lens and through physical action and spectacle. I am so looking forward to the sea of pink hats. Yes, it will say “keep your tiny hands off our collective pussies.” It will also say “I like cats and knitting.” But most of all it will say that we are together on this, all shades of pink hats or black hats or no hats, that we have messages we will be sending in lots of different ways and filtered through lots of different brains and experiences and capabilities, with purposes singular and many. It will say we are here, in huge numbers, standing in your way in peaceful protest, yelling slogans that will reference symbolic genitalia, a big rosy middle finger to those we want out of power. It will say that if you want to equate pink with femininity and weakness and dismiss it, we’ll claim it for strength and gender-inclusiveness and a really awesome sense of humor. The hats are funny, people. Funny is so important right now. Funny is going to get us through this, and keep us punching while we’re laughing.

But if you still want to say they’re silly, that’s okay, as long as a) you make it clear that what you mean is you, personally, wouldn’t be caught dead in one, but you don’t intend to imply that every single pink-hatted woman out there on Independence Avenue (and everywhere else around the world) is a foolish, easily-led twit; and b) please don’t use the word “silly.” It is a strongly-gendered pejorative aimed at belittling women. If you want to say “frivolous” that’s okay with me. I think the hats are frivolous too; I just happen to respect and admire frivolity.

I probably wouldn’t have sought out a hat (though I appreciate the gift greatly!) but the more I’ve been informed over the last weeks that they are silly the more I’ve wanted to support anyone wearing one. This is just how I roll; I’m quiet but incredibly stubborn, and if you say chidingly to me “You must not do this” I will probably leap at doing it (and if you tell me there’s only one proper way to do something I will find another way, just because). But there are lots of other people who fold up and slink away when they’re chided, who might well come in handy later on. This essay – “It’s My March and I’ll Wear Pink If I Want To” – is what I’ve been linking to express exactly how I feel about all this, so I don’t need to say it again here.

I can instead talk about the other pink hat in my life, which is a Jackie Kennedy pillbox that a minor character is wearing in the scene I’m working on. She kind of dressed herself in retro pastels as I was writing the sentence she first appears in, and I thought oookkaayyy sure, and then realized what she’s doing: the obvious, which is referencing the JFK assassination (because she feels her husband is being victimized), but more besides. I wanted to say something parenthetically here about a scene in season one of “The Man in the High Castle,” but I don’t want to spoil anything and if you’ve watched it you’ll know what I mean; anyway, that’s single-purpose visual referencing and it works for TV (and, parenthetically, yes I’ve watched both seasons and it is chilling in the current atmosphere), but in a novel you can also give the pink-outfitted wife her own motivations for putting on those clothes, and my character has lots. And this is the fun part: each of the other characters in the scene gets to interpret the pink outfit in his or her own way, ferreting out the multifaceted inspirations and impulses and overlaying their own experiences and prejudices. So a simple set of pink clothes ends up representing a national tragedy involving a progressive leader, a self-centered mimicry of same, fragile femininity and aggressive racial politics, defenses and attacks, family tensions, references to history and nostalgic fashion and a stab at those who venture into the former as a profession and make fun of the latter. Not to mention a little private jab at Olivia, who feels weirdly possessive of JFK because he died on her birthday. Which, luckily, I’ve already established in a prior book, along with the inclusion of the assassination in school curricula; one of the challenges and privileges of writing about the future is you get to decide what people remember and value.

Anyway, there was quite a lot there, once I started unpacking. I can’t choose what my readers find in my books, but I can choose what the characters discover in the actions of their fellows – and be advised, a pink hat is not just a pink hat; it’s a whole performance. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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