Friday, August 02, 2013

Smile, Sunshine! Good Manners And Girls

I was nineteen and away at college, kind of depressed, frankly, I was walking down the street in Ruston, Louisiana, gloomy, my head down, my backpack on, and this older man, a total stranger, suddenly lurched into my path. "Smile, sunshine!" he commanded.

I stepped back, startled.

"Smile!" he ordered.

I smiled, terrified.

"There!  Was that so hard?" he demanded.  It wasn't a friendly question, either.  It was like he was my father, and he was setting me straight on the way to behave in public.  He kept staring at me fiercely for another few seconds, and then he went back across the street -- he had crossed the fucking street to correct my aberrant behavior -- and strode off into the hardware store: a man in his mid-forties, dressed in khaki pants and a white shirt, his dark hair cut short, wearing work boots and red suspenders.  I stood where I was, watching him out of sight.

Why do I tell you this story now?

This story showed up in the NYTimes recently.

It's a parenting tale, about a woman who was raised, as I was, and as many of us were, to be good girls -- to be compliant, to please everyone: to smile.

I remember, for instance, when I was sixteen, on one of my first dates, how when I didn't want to "make out," as we called it then, and he did, how the guy shoved me up against the door of my parents' house and shoved his hands into my shirt, forced his tongue into my mouth, shoved himself against me -- how this went on for what seemed like a very long time.  How when it was done, I went inside and cried.  How I told no one, not for years.  Because he was a nice guy.  Because our parents were friends.  Because I didn't want to make trouble.

I remember, for instance, out running one evening in New Orleans after dark -- I often ran after dark, because running during the day was impossible, due to the vicious heat.  I was very near to home, only five or six blocks away, when this light-colored Chevy began following me.  I watched it side-eyed, being, by this time (17 or so) no stranger at all to fuckwads in cars shouting rude shit at me while I ran (Hey, babe, nice tits being the least of it).

When I was less than a block from home, the car pulled up beside me.  "Hey," the guy in it said.  "Hey.  Hey.  Want to get in?  Come home with me.  Come on.  We'll go back to my place and fuck."

"No, thank you," I said.  Politely.

I remember, for instance, this time when I was standing at a bus stop, twenty years old, on my way to work.  It was raining, and I had an umbrella.  This guy came up to me.  Young.  Smirking.  Setting off my perv alarms.  "Hey," he said.  "I forgot my umbrella.  Okay if I share yours?"

"Oh, sure," I said: politely.

He crowded in close.  Very close.  It soon became apparent that he had a boner, and that he was rubbing it against me.

What did I do, dear readers?  Not a fucking thing.  Because it would be rude to scream and swear at him and hit him with my umbrella.  It would be making a fuss.

I remember, for instance, when one of my professors -- I was a senior -- hit on me, how I smiled, politely, politely, as I backed out of his office.  No, thank you.  No, thank you.  No, thank you.

That was me before I learned to be a feminist.  I can't believe now that I ever thought or acted that way, but I swear to you, dear readers, that all of that is true.

This is why this story in the NYTimes hits home for me.

My 10-year-old daughter, Birdy, is not nice, not exactly. She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line.


Birdy is polite in a “Can you please help me find my rain boots?” and “Thank you, I’d love another deviled egg” kind of way. But when strangers talk to her, she is like, “Whatever.” She looks away, scowling. She does not smile or encourage.

I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice. I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” 

I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.

Yes.  Yes.  That is what we want for our children -- not just girls, as Newman notes, but especially for girls, who do not have male privilege to protect them.

But -- no surprise -- those who are smugly ensconced in their fat wads of male privilege are made very sad indeed by Newman's post.

Here is Rod Dreher, being very disapproving:  "Catherine Newman is one strange mommy. She writes in the NYT that she does not want her daughter to be nice."

And while some of those in his comment stream push back, others, predictably, go after the evil feminist like rabid ferrets:

JB says:
We’re raising our daughter to be confident, to stand up for herself, and never to be intimidated or talked over by men or anyone else.

But this woman is a b*tch, pure and simple, and her daughter is becoming a strange, intolerant, easily angered little freak already. Was I clear enough?

Hector_St_Clare says:

What this witless whiner doesn’t seem to get is that cultural ideals of masculinity and femininity exist fora reason. I hope her daughter (ten years from now or whatever) has good luck finding a decent man (i.e. the kind who actually wants to take care of and provide for her needs, not use her for sex and then go back to the Playstation). Those sorts of men tend to be drawn to women who fit traditional ideals of femininity, not the feminist harridans.

Most decent men prefer to look for their future girlfriends and spouses at the evangelical coffee hour rather than at abortion rallies or feminist reading groups. When it comes to gender roles, behavioural ecology teaches similar lessons to the Bible.

The reality is, though, if your daughters are given freedom to be who they want to be, it’s more likely than not that they will choose to follow traditional gender norms. These norms exist for obvious evolutionary reasons, not because we are brainwashed by the dreaded patriarchy. It’s highly amusing that cultural liberals, who one would expect to believe in science and evolution, suddenly stop believeing in evolution when it comes to human behaviour.

And this one, which I include because it is a prime example of the very topic in question -- here we have a woman doing her best to please the Mens on the Blog (which it did: Rod gave her major Brownie points for this comment, as did at least one another fella commentor. You go girl!)

SusanKG says:
The author seems to espouse an ethic devoid of beauty or joy. I want my daughters to have freedom to explore and be who they want to be. Both are attracted to “girly” things, and they are also very athletic, especially our younger daughter. My husband has jokingly said she will be the first female linebacker in the NFL, and she will be wearing a pink skirt.

I tell my daughters every day that they are beautiful. I don’t mean to tell them they are merely physically beautiful, but they are beautiful because of their humanity. And you know what? They are not growing up conceited. I have never once heard them say, “I am beautiful, you are not.” Rather, they grow up telling everyone else they are beautiful, even our dog. “Breezy, you are so beautiful!” The feedback we have gotten back from preschool is that they show compassion to other children. They are loved, they love others, and enjoy life.

Does the author’s daughter enjoy life, or is she too obsessed with oppressive societal gender roles? Maybe the family needs more “Babette’s Feast,” less Puritanical feminism.

My point -- and I do have one -- this socialization of women to please not just the men in their lives, but everyone on their lives, is still on-going.

We're still meant to be caretakers to the world.

This is not just a problem (as long as we're doing all the unpaid, unacknowledged caretaking in the world, in our households, in the workplaces (if you're in the academy, you know what I'm talking about here), then we have so much less time and energy to get our work done); it is also a danger.

It is a danger because so long as we think we need to subsume our own needs, our own selves, in order to keep everyone else happy and safe, we are putting our selves, and teaching our daughters to put themselves, at risk.

I leave you with one last comment from Rod's blog:

Gina says:
I see your point–but even though I think Newman takes hers to an extreme, I understand it too.
Last week, I told my 4-year-old daughter that if she gets lost in the supermarket, she should sit down right where she is and scream. Her reply was “What if it disturbs other people?”

I was stunned. We do emphasize good manners in our family, but I realized she had dangerously internalized this as a be-all-and-end all–above her personal safety and the right to always protect herself by–yes–creating a loud, ugly (and CRUCIAL) disturbance when she felt threatened. I think that’s what Newman’s getting at, however clumsily.

Update: See also this post from NicoleandMaggie, over at Grumpy Rumblings of the (formerly!) Untenured, for other aspects of this issue: "The Bitch Face."

Update II:  Yeah, see this from Captain Awkward, also.  (H/T Nicole&Maggie again!)


Anonymous said...

We also liked that NYTimes article. One of the few we've seen on motherload (or the NYTimes) that hasn't been horrific.

Man do we hate the patriarchy.

delagar said...

I love that post, N&M.

Have you seen this?

Anonymous said...

That totally goes on the link love tomorrow.

Another Matt said...

Hi delagar -- this is one of Rod's readers. I totally agree with you on this one, and wanted to let you know. Good write-up!

delagar said...

Thanks, Another Matt!

Andy said...

This was fantastic to read. I really love your writing and strength. I wish my mother hadn't instilled "the need to please" in me. I enjoy being appreciative and kind to people that I interact with in public (referring mostly to people at their job). But I wish I had learned earlier in life that I should always take care of myself first, without regard to people's reactions.

As a 32 yr old, I'm still having to un-learn these tendencies. This post makes me wonder how different things would be for me if I would've been taught to be more assertive. There is a difference between being respectful and being nice.

I'm going to link to this post on my tumblr.

delagar said...

"There is a difference between being respectful and being nice."

Yes! <-- This, so much.