"What do Women Want?"
I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their cafe, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.
by Kim Addonizio
Disclaimer 1: So, what do women want? It escapes me. I’m totally clueless with regards to women, partly because I’ve never had a girlfriend before, so please, please, ladies out there, don’t denounce me, crucify me or give me all manner of male chauvinistic names imaginable in whatever language that you can think of, if I do, misread this poem, and indirectly, women in general.
On the surface, this poem appears to be about women’s relationship to clothes, to have that one little sexy dress they see at a shop. The first three lines of the poem, with the phrase “I want” repeated four times, three of which begins those lines of the poem, emphasizes primacy to the speaker of the poem “I” and what she “want[s]”. The strong, confident and insistent voice of ths speaker declares her own desire in a celebratory and empowering language.
She wants the dress to be “strapless” and “backless” in a way that flatters her. She is proud of her body and wants to flaunt it, as she saunters sexily down the street. There is a combination of both feminist and feminine sensuality here. Indeed, the dress should be “too tight”, molding the curves of her body, leaving nothing to the imagination – a dress to kill, one that reduces men to slobbering fools.
She wants to celebrate her power over men, as if she were the last woman on earth, choosing whomever she so desires. The “you” in the poem here may thus be taken to be men in general. She wants to show the men that she cares little for them, and their worst fears of her (fearless, independently desiring etc) are true. The enjambment between the lines “…anything except what/ I want” and the resulting pause emphasizes again that her desires are solely for her self only.
At the same time, because the emancipation of her desire seems to be tied to that red dress, and what it signifies not just to her, but her in relation to men who presumably desire her in it (which makes her sexy), there almost appears to be a turning back to the whole issue of women not being free to desire on their own, but are re-circumscribed within men’s desires. The confidence that she exude inhere through that red dress. So, is she being reduced down to that sexy red dress, and as such, her female power defined only through her body?
I think that there is a kind of dialectical relationship with the dress. That this is also the dress she wants to be buried in marks perhaps a change and shift in what the dress means. It suggests that the dress is now not so much the dress per se, but the dress as both her body and her self together. Above all else, she wants to be herself in whichever ways she chooses, in her own skin, as it were; and also, possibly, to be wanted as her very own self, and not as her body alone. She wants to want for her own self, her own desire and pleasure on her own terms.
There are also other possibilities of reading this poem. Note that the dress is not “cheap” as she wishes it were, as well as the street where she wishes to walk down with the dress. There’s economics here. Another consideration for another reading is who one reads the “you” to be. And yet another reading comes from the lines “…I’ll pull that garment /from its hanger like I’m choosing a body/ to carry me into this world, through/the birth-cries and the love-cries too”. Think body and beauty. The complexity of this poem, other than the reading I’ve discussed, is what makes this poem very powerful.
Disclaimer 2: I do think that women also enjoy beautiful and sexy dresses irrespective and independent of the desires of men.