Can Women Afford To Be Degenerate?

I’m sitting at gate 50 in Indira Gandhi International Airport waiting to board a flight. It’s been a long and eventful semester, and I’m excited to get back home. I have packed far too many clothes and have a duffel bag filled with an unreasonable number of books.

My boarding pass, covered with doughnut-dust from my Krispy Kreme expedition over by gate 35, is tucked into my copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Reality is slightly off, but that’s what reading books filled with tales of #wanderlust will do to you.

Several men have recommended On the Road with some variation of “it’s such a fun book!” or “I loved it, it changed my life,” or “man, I wish I lived in the 50s”. I’m often tempted to agree with them. I, too, have wished to be part of a group of mad artists, tripping on whatever drug cocktail was popular back then, traipsing around the city as the sun rose over the Brooklyn bridge.

Unfortunately, my point of reference is slightly skewed.

There were no women in the Beat Generation, and as centuries of literature and lived experience have shown, the lives of men and women differ vastly – even within the same cultural context. Although it would be unfair to say that there were no women in the Beat Generation, none were a part of it in the way Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti were.

The women who were, were seated at the periphery; they were reduced to muses, or wife/girlfriend/one-night-stand of [insert name of iconic Beat writer]. Think of Carolyn Cassady, widely known as Neal Cassady’s second wife. All she was in the narratives was an accessory; even her perspectives of the Beat Generation are from the sidelines.

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No one would dispute that the mainstream view of the Beat Generation is that of a boy’s club – a sort-of seat of poetic masculinity. Ginsberg’s Howl is famously (and controversially) homoerotic, if not intensively homosocial. Women are absent from its narrative. I sometimes think of how women would fit into contexts like these. While they often band together, some of the motives of sisterhood differ from those of brotherhood.

Safety in numbers is a principle often upheld by groups of women.

When I imagine a strong, iconic group of women, it looks something like Artemis and her troupe of huntresses – with arrows at their backs, gazing at the moon. Filled with grace and power, nothing like the junkie choir of artistic men described in the first section of Howl. It looks like a group of protesters, fighting for universal suffrage, or affirmative action, or abortion rights. Politically charged and aspirational, but far from the dreamlike, nomadic, LSD-infested reality that Beat writers built their careers on.

Or, closer to my own reality, it looks like my best friends and I, returning home at a respectable hour, because our parents don’t trust the world. And perhaps, they’re right in not doing so; women have had a fraught relationship with occupying public spaces. Specifically, they haven’t always been allowed to, and even if they have, it’s been unsafe.

Movements like those created by Beat writers are largely dependent on public spaces. There have been movements around the world wherein women band together and loiter, in an effort to reclaim streets and spaces they’ve been kept away from. But these too have political and social motivations. It sometimes seems like everything women do is under the scanner and has a social bearing. So naturally when they come together in groups, that scrutiny intensifies.

This is not to say the Beat Generation was apolitical; they were largely left-wing. It just seems as if their actual adventures and exploits were in pursuit of pleasure, while those of women’s groups always had a specific purpose.

A couple of years ago, there was Twitter furore over Gurmehar Kaur’s comments about war. A video soon circulated, where a girl, misidentified as Kaur, was dancing in the backseat of a car. Kaur’s mother responded saying it wasn’t her.

But even if it was, so what? Things like alcohol, dancing and general merriment are seen as an integral part of growing up for men, but they seem to dilute and tarnish the reputation of women.

Ginsberg’s descriptions of degeneracy earned him the infamous obscenity trial in 1957, owing to his graphic tirades about illicit drug abuse and homosexuality.

One can only imagine: had these been published by a woman, how would they’ve been received? Historically, women have been persecuted for being vocal in areas that aren’t considered appropriate. Women have been deemed witches for being more perceptive than their femininity was supposed to allow. They’ve been burned at the stake for opening their mouths; they’ve been forced into cultures of silence that have persisted through time.

Women who do rebel against these norms, have been punished in popular culture and mainstream media – and certainly in real life – for their deviation from the standard of behaviour set for them. This punishment takes many forms, including compromises to their safety and agency, damages to their reputations and ramifications on their personal and professional lives that men simply don’t experience the same way.

Also read: What Young Feminists Around the World Are Fighting for

The image of the ‘bad girl’ is one that receives little respect. It’s the antithesis of what women are ‘supposed’ to be. Carelessness, needless risk and degeneracy are almost hallmarks of youthful masculinity, but seem to be alien to traditional femininity.

Is it possible for women to practice the same reckless abandon and wild adventure that Kerouac and his peers did? What would the Beat Generation look like had it been composed of women? Can women be afforded the luxury to be degenerate? And if they can, do they have the luxury to write about it in excruciating, delicious detail? If they do, would we still laud them for their actions in the way we glorify the image of the drug-addled, dreamy writer?

I do not have concrete answers; I have my suspicions as to what they might be, of course, but these aren’t situations in which women have ever taken centre-stage. It is difficult to tell what these alternate realities might’ve been.

Despite this uncertainty, it is important to consider situations from which women have been barred, and how they could have turned out. If women had been welcomed into the ranks of Brooklyn artists in the 1950s, it could’ve had immense ramifications on their place in public spaces and the perception of their art. But all I can do is ‘imagine’ what could’ve been.

I’m still at the airport. My flight has been delayed, and I have nothing better to do than look at old pictures from nights out – the ones we didn’t post for fear of reprimand and slander, ones cropped strategically to hide our mischief, the ones in dark rooms and our hidden folders.

I cannot count the number of nights tainted by Uber tracking and phones clutched too tightly, minutes after we’ve been dancing to female power-pop. I can’t help thinking that Cyndi Lauper’s lyrics are incomplete. Girls just wanna have fun, but who in the world will let them?

Yamini is an 18-year-old studying at Ashoka University. She sometimes writes poetry, which you can check out at @yaminikrishnan_ on Instagram. 

Featured image credit: Twitter