Featured Illustration: Aslin Lin
Shame is often an emotion we are never able to fully understand or come to terms with because we have been told time and time again to accept and even submit to it. We are often told that certain things are labeled “shameful” if we are unable to live up to societal norms and expectations.
I was confronted with this emotion myself for the first time a few years ago while watching Game of Thrones. When Cersei Lannister was made to do the Walk of Atonement in Season 5, she was stripped bare, shaved, and made to endure the mockery of the citizens of King’s Landing for her sins and sexual history. A knot of unease at the pit of my stomach began to tighten. She was made to walk around the streets as people catcalled and groped her and yelled, “Shame, Shame, Shame.”
Of course, Cersei had made her fair share of mistakes, especially to protect her children; yet, would her fate have been so if she were a man? There are no shortages of male characters in the show who do the same thing and are never looked down upon. We see them oppress and treat women viciously throughout the show and witness the inhumane treatment of sex workers in the brothels.
Why was Cersei Lannister held to a different standard?
How Shame Persists
As women, shame is something we continue to feel in most areas of our life; be it work, discussions around mental health issues, our sex lives, our bodies, as well as relationships. Even though shame is highly individualized and personal, conversations about shame seem to be oriented specifically around gender, where women, unfortunately, come out worse on the receiving end. We do not ever speak about how and why internalized shame and toxic misogyny remain so ingrained even among women today.
We are conditioned to believe and internalize many of society’s toxic and misogynistic gender norms simply because we are held to supposedly ‘’higher’’ standards where we need to do more and have more roles and responsibilities thrust on us.
These manifest and often times lead to a toxic self-depreciation and belittling that make us even more vulnerable to societal expectations and standards.
Contemplating Shame and Guilt
Shame is what often hides and masks the complex struggles and personal issues that so many women continue to face today. Even when we focus on our careers, we bear the brunt of also being good mothers and taking care of our families to the best of our abilities. Somehow, “doing” and “having it all” is a social contract that women are pressured to commit to even when we never signed our names. Unfortunately, anything “less than perfect” is deemed a misstep and something to feel guilty about somehow, when women are already doing so much at home as well as in their work environments.
I have also noticed that it often takes high-profile individuals and celebrities to open up about some of their own vulnerabilities to get audiences to destigmatize and normalize some of these struggles that often result in this ambiguous “shame”. We are never able to come to terms with our issues unless our fears and struggles seem to be somehow “validated” or “normalized” by external individuals.
The omnipresence of slut-shaming
Despite being a proud feminist myself, I can unequivocally say that I myself continue to grapple with internalized gender norms simply due to the way I was brought up and socialized. Our own households and social circles can often contribute to this. Societal expectations and norms are built around making young women feel this overwhelming sense of shame and powerlessness even in the face of freedom and independence.
Even today, in spite of a more accepting and growing sex-positive society, we still continue to have warped and distorted representations and notions about women, especially when we think women have “loose morals”, are “easy”, and are “those types of girls”. The entrenched and vicious cycle of today’s toxic victim-blaming culture remains an impediment to our conversations about sex and consent. Women are still hypersexualized and fall prey to labels like “slut” and “whore” and are shamed for engaging in casual relationships with no strings attached.
Hookup culture continues to be a good example of this toxic and patriarchal double standard today, and best represents how so many young women, like myself, feel the intersectional polarization. Sex continues to be used as a lethal weapon to shame as well as gaslight women, especially given the way we continue to frame narratives about sexual assault, abuse, and rape.
Overall, I believe that shame is a delicate and fragile disposition that will often warp and shift as we evolve and grow more into ourselves and recognize the everyday double standards and societal expectations that continue to define us. It is necessary that we continue to set ourselves apart from them.
Hopefully, honest and open conversations about the beauty as well as the difficulty and discomfort about these complex emotions may even help us understand the crippling and festering issues surrounding abuse and mental health, among others. We need to understand why we continue to internalize shame and re-assess why we situate ourselves with this emotion.