Make no mystique Commentary: Nonconformist women hurl gender by the wayside to thrive in their individuality.

March 04, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Flamboyant female rebels have always surfaced; some triumphantly, some tragically, usually alone. Isadora Duncan, Georgia O'Keeffe, Billie Holiday: Their singular genius is what set them apart -- in forging art and legend, they rarely represented the aspirations of other women.

That is where flamboyant female rebel Ani DiFranco parts from such august company. DiFranco, an ultra-kinetic singer/songwriter who plays the Meyerhoff tonight, doesn't stand apart from other women, but stands for them. And more and more, they for her.

Scan the streets, schools, workplace, and you'll see other women who share her ethos of originality, women who speak, think and dress for themselves, not for some man or the rest of the world.

DiFranco's not the first musical artist to rattle our assumptions. She's not the only -- look at the popular jazz/rap mistress Me'Shell NdegeOcello. But she is the latest and most visible example of a growing breed of woman, defying society's stifling expectations for people of particular races, genders, classes, identities, ages, professions.

"The Rules," that notorious best seller admonishing women to play hard-to-get, doesn't know from DiFranco.

Rather than fight her way out of the confining norm, DiFranco, 26, who started Righteous Babe records as a teen-ager, operates outside it altogether. Her take on life and love is as unconventional and liberating as her quirky open tuning and punky-folk music.

For women who sadly see themselves in Carol Gilligan's "In a Different Voice" and Mary Pipher's "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," DiFranco and her tribe's rejection of

spirit-killing conformity is refreshing and reassuring. It suggests that the systematic shuttering of young women's minds and spirits hasn't been as successful as one might fear, that something right happened.

Maybe the DiFrancos of the world were fed more politically correct fairy tales. Perhaps their mothers' tentative forays into liberation left an impression.

Perhaps they were encouraged by progressive public discourse to be themselves, even if "being yourself" was not a sure-fire way to catch a man, land a job or get invited to a hot party. Or maybe they just got wise to the scam: The old model just doesn't work.

In any case, a bit of DiFranco philosophy, pulled from an Internet site, could easily be a battle cry for anyone embracing difference, however ungainly:

"I speak without reservation from what I know and who I am. I do so with the understanding that all people should have the right to offer their voice to the chorus whether the result is harmony or dissonance. The worldsong is a colorless dirge without the difference that distinguishes us, and it is that difference which should be celebrated, not condemned."

DiFranco's guidelines for accepting difference are paradoxical, somewhat squishy, a tad idealistic. But they strike a nerve with anyone who has ever suffered a sense of not belonging.

In their minds' eyes, gawky baby boomer babes who stood on a tightrope between the 1950s and the sexual revolution saw DiFranco coming: Defiantly dreadlocked and tattooed, body hard and pierced, her artificial nails flailing at an acoustic guitar, she would have told them to not even attempt to meet unattainable norms of female comportment.

These norms screen out more people than they let in. And they condemned those insecure girls documented by Gilligan and Pipher to futilely trying to fit in by becoming submissive, giggly automatons rendered speechless by self-doubt and self-hatred.

DiFranco is the kind of person those wavering boomers would have liked to be at her age. She has somehow forged a persona that answers to her own soul rather than sexist suppositions.

Her music's themes are familiar: Love, deceptions and defections are still valid, still worth singing about. But they are grounded in a field unpolarized by gender. Is she singing about a man, or a woman? Who knows? It may flip from song to song. Gender fluctuates, she -- and many more esteemed theorists -- say. Vagueness deliberately skews the standard equation, the one books like Phyllis Burke's "Gender Shock" lambaste. Conventional notions of gender differences, they argue, can cripple character and personality.

The gender-bending dialogue DiFranco embodies is everywhere: Studies indicate more than two genders. Celebrities like Ru Paul, and movies like "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," make sexual ambiguity safe and fun, if not to be tried at home. Ann Landers fields questions about cross-dressing hubbies; Dennis Rodman dons a wedding gown. On the tube, advertisers use gangs of funky, individualistic babes to push a variety of products.

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