by Alena Amato Ruggerio (with Marylisa Wood)
If you aren’t already on Pinterest, you’ve probably at least heard of this social bookmarking website that allows users to “pin” collections of pictures, videos, and web links to a virtual set of bulletin boards and share those boards with the world. Pinterest has come under fire from some feminists for the way its online pinboards are choked with idealized images of decorator homes, gourmet recipes, complicated crafts, and lavish wedding designs that encourage its primarily-female users to prize domestic hyperconsumption above all else, and to forever fail in obtaining it.
Subversive uses for Pinterest are out there, however, and I learned about a beautiful one in my Women Transforming Language class at Southern Oregon University, where I teach in the Department of Communication. The students had just read a chapter on Native American feminist Paula Gunn Allen’s rhetorical theory. We were discussing Gunn Allen’s concept of “Death Culture,” the phrase she uses to illustrate how white America’s obsession with death is so strong that she believes our own annihilation is inevitable.
The class listed examples of this mania for Death Culture, such as politics, in which our foreign policies assume that both people in other countries and our own citizens must die for our security; our economy, built on the poverty and pain of the developing world and the destruction of the earth’s resources; and our entertainment, in which every episode of CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Law & Order, Bones, Cold Case, Homicide: Life on the Street, Castle, The Walking Dead, Snapped, Dexter, and so on ad infinitum is predicated on murder. Death isn’t even the narrative climax of most of these television shows—the murder has now become only the premise that starts the action.
I brought up the possibility, based on the work of theorist Michel Foucault, that one way for a society to keep silent on an issue that absolutely terrifies us is to talk endlessly about it. Our constant superficial babble ends up saying nothing at all; therefore, our relentless re-enactment of murder in our politics, economics, and entertainment is really our way of desperately fleeing the truth of our own mortality because we are utterly unequipped to talk about it in any healthy way.
This prompted one of my students, Marylisa Wood, to tell her own story of an alternative to Death Culture’s clanging cymbal. She explained to the class that she had been touched by the example of an older friend who, after receiving a terminal diagnosis, had created a binder he called “Exit,” which contained instructions for his loved ones upon his death. She told us that although some people thought he was morbid, she believed he’d done a really thoughtful and loving thing.
Marylisa continued speaking, warning that the class might think it strange, but she’d always had a sense that she would not live a long life. She understands that no one can really know when they might die, but if her life turns out to be short, she’ll be ok with that. Since she’s a member of the Digital Native generation, rather than creating a physical binder as her older friend had done, she turned to Pinterest.
There, she assembled a virtual board titled “Embracing My Exit” to show her family and friends what she wants them to do when she dies. It features pictures of dancing, daffodils, and clusters of candles in glass canning jars. She’s selected her music, including YouTube clips from George Harrison’s performance of “Here Comes the Sun” and Michael Jackson’s “You Will Be There.” Also pinned are words of love and comfort, such as a line of Rumi’s poetry, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” and the funny e-card quotation, “Cause of death: ‘Patient laid down the boogie and played that funky music ‘till he died.’” Marylisa even provides directions for each person to bring a picture, note, or reminder of her to the memorial service. She writes on this post to the pin board: “Extra points if it’s a funny/awkward/dirty story no one else has heard. I want stories to be shared. In my true fashion, nothing is too inappropriate.”
Marylisa observed that all her friends seem to have Pinterest sites filled with a panoply of elaborate wedding ideas. “There’s no guarantee I will ever get to have one of those weddings,” she told the class. “But some day, there is a guarantee I’m going to die. My family thought I was crazy and my friends were freaked out, but I wanted to post that Pinterest board to help them face that.” Marylisa wanted others who care about her to know she’s not afraid to express her thoughts about death in a culture that paradoxically both denies death and yet obsesses over it. It’s a way of sharing things that matter to her and would be meaningful in remembrances of her, something most people don’t think about arranging until late in life—sometimes too late.
Paula Gunn Allen’s feminist rhetorical theory does provide a healthier option that contrasts with Death Culture. She calls this alternative view “Thought Woman.” Thought Woman is a Native American conceptualization of the feminine Divine who brings life and growth to the earth through the power of her thinking. With innovation and courage, Marylisa has used Pinterest as a means to turn away from Death Culture into the embrace of Thought Woman.