Where do our ideas of how the world works come from?
I recently re-read The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie and realized that the reason it was one of my very favorites growing up is that I could have stood in for the main character, Megan Hunter, at that age.
She’s a rather unfortunate girl caught between childhood and womanhood, and in a way both being refused the right to advance into womanhood (her family seems to think she’s about 10) and refusing to advance to womanhood (she refuses to admit that people might evaluate her AT ALL by the way she looks. So she dresses as badly as possible, slouching about in old not very well kept clothes. I suspect like me at 16 or 17 Megan believed that her “prince” would see through all that. Of course in the book he does, though he doesn’t realize he does until the revealing incident.)
Now, at 53, I look back at that book, and smile a little and agree with Miss Marple that “Girls with brains are at such risk of becoming complete idiots.”
Part of it is the awareness that we don’t quite fit in. Not quite. It’s not that girls with brains fit in worse than boys with brains, but there is a …. ah, acceptable path for boys with brains, traditionally. They are supposed to go on and make great discoveries, invent great things, forge ahead for humanity.
Oh, now girls are too, but they’re supposed to do it while being “beautiful” and sort of brainy sex pots. At least if the TV has anything to say to that. And because TV makes it look effortless, it’s all too easy for girls to think beauty just “comes.”
In the last few years I’ve neglected my “beauty.” Mostly since the boys were born. I feel a little guilty about it. My husband sort of had the right to expect me to keep some of the “beauty” stuff up, but we were doing child raising on extreme difficulty awrrif, without even a nearby grandparent we could offload the kids to for a couple of hours a week. The closest we came was our friend Charles who would sometimes — innocently — drop by and get the kids offloaded onto him for an hour while we ran off and watched the first cheap movie, or sat in a pub drinking iced tea and talking. But it wasn’t enough, and I lived for 20 years in a state of dropping-down exhaustion, particularly when you added the writing thing. I still haven’t decided where this is going: whether I resume the beauty stuff or just concentrate on writing and let the rest slide.
Sure, beauty has a genetic component, but it’s not all genetic. Or even mostly genetic. Beauty is buying flattering clothes, it’s a “beauty routine” every morning, it’s watching your diet. It’s perfectly all right to say you can’t be arsed (I haven’t been arsed for the last 20 years) but then you shouldn’t expect the rewards of doing the work. And you shouldn’t yell at women who do do the work. If — like me the last 20 years or so — you find you CAN’T lose weight and decide to let it all slide (until you find the medical cause, which unfortunately is not as easy as it seems in a world where overweight amounts to sinful) it’s still a choice. Guys can forgive a ton of weight if it looks like you’re at least TRYING.
If this makes it sound like a woman’s role is more complex than a man’s — waggles hand — you’re half right. It’s not exactly true, it’s more that a woman’s physical appearance stuff is different from a man’s. A man is supposed to look strong, which is as difficult for those predestined to be 90 lbs soaking wet as for a woman who is born with a face only a mother could love to look “gorgeous.”
It’s just different work.
People like us tend to forget we have a body. Which is why girls with brains are at risk for being complete idiots. And boys with brains are at risk of becoming pajamas boy.
But that’s not exactly where I wanted to go with this.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of romances. Regency romances, to be exact. Why? Because I can read them like popcorn, and even if I confuse the couples it sort of works. And since I’m reading in twenty minute intervals between writing jags, that is fine. I don’t want a book that will grab me and not let go, because Darkship Revenge is late enough.
I have picked these books by authors I read in the past and who are decent. Some are excellent.
So it’s weird to find myself getting more and more peeved as I read.
It’s the main characters, you see. One is an artist, the other is an art dealer, the other is a journalist, the other is a famous gambler. All of them are society ladies in the regency.
I shouldn’t be annoyed by this. I understand, better than most, what it takes to sell the past to the present. I also remember talking to a fledgling who was writing a romance and who made her female character an extraordinary musician. It seemed tacked on and it threw other parts of the story out of kilter, so I asked why. “Well, I didn’t want her to just be a wife and mother, you know” (the character is widowed.) “I mean, what would she do all day?”
She was a wife and mother in the regency. Even in the upper classes, where all the physical work went to someone else, there were duties. One was the “beauty stuff” though in those days it was more “class signaling stuff.” She was supposed to dress a certain way to signal how well-born and (secondarily) wealthy her family was. This took a lot of time. Then there was managing employees. Those servants weren’t just set pieces or robots. They had to be managed, supervised, watched, taken care of. Since a household might have anywhere from 5 to 50 employees working in it (or more for a few families) this was very much like running a small business. It included, like a small business, making sure there were purchases made and supplies on hand. Then there was the social networking. In a society that depended on connections, both family and friendship, for advancement, being able to keep up those connections meant a lot for your future and that of your children. The society I grew up in wasn’t so different. If you kept up your friendship with your childhood friend who married a military man, you might hear first about that relatively cheaper commission for your youngest who is army mad. If you continued corresponding with Marianne, who married the earl, they might have a living vacant and think of your second son who wants to take orders.
But to make this plausible for a modern audience, women have to have a “job” in the modern sense, or they’re thought of as these fifties housewives that never existed, sitting around eating bonbons.
I want to emphasize even in the modern era, running a household and raising children is a full time job. It is a job we devalue to our own detriment. All societies who outsourced child rearing to low-status paid employees collapsed shortly thereafter. And none did it on the universal scale we do.
Part of it is a confusion of roles. In my sitting around, writing, while Dan is watching TV, last week, I overheard a male character say “Women don’t understand how much men are defined by their profession” and I thought “poppycock. We do.”
This is because female “liberation” got confused somewhere along the line and decided there was one universal female role and that was being a man.
Purely female roles, like being a beautiful young woman, or wishing to run a household and have children, were devalued and considered low status. (I think honestly because they’re not really easy to teach in a formal environment, so intellectual people think they denote stupidity.) If you want to be a woman of high status, you work and define yourself by your profession.
This encourages women with brains to be true dolts, who wake up sometime in late middle age and think “I would have like to have a child” when it’s much too late. Or who end up alone, not really out of choice, but because they never got the “beauty” thing. And it encourages women with brains who try to “have it all” to be complete messes who blame themselves for not being able to achieve three different full time jobs at once.
All of which gets turned into hostility against men, whose roles look easy, since women have never had those roles. (No, even if you are in a job, alongside a man, your role is not the same as his. He’s inserted into a hierarchy of dominance and aggression which is none the less real for not being overt and which you won’t even understand.)
It should get turned into hostility against the current model of society which sold women (and men, to a less extent) a mess of pottage in return for their birthright and which, in the name of the state and the taxes it collects, is now trying to convince us there is no difference between the sexes and we all want the exact same thing (which is to be some sort of super-worker.)
I’m not saying it’s not possible to be a full time worker, and a mother. I grew up expecting I’d have a job. I suspect because my family was always composed of “girls with brains” accommodations were made over the centuries so the mother/wife wasn’t utterly miserable. But accommodations were made for the children too, and they were made unapologeticly because “you can’t have everything.”
Most of the women in my family ran their business from home. The only ones with professions outside the home were those who could call on a grandmother or aunt to look after the kids during the day. I couldn’t call on anyone, and so I ran my business from home, and made it relatively small and unobtrusive while the kids were little. Because the time I had the kids at home was relatively short. And so, I must concentrate on it till they leave. And then I could pursue the career better. To try to do the two to the same intensity at the same time would probably have killed me. Ramping up happened when they first went to school, and now, that they are almost independent, I’m struggling with internalizing that the house and family is no longer a priority, but writing is. Struggling with giving myself permission.
This morning I remembered something my grandmother said, which shocked me. She was quoting one of her influences, a Victorian feminist, who wrote a lot of books. I no longer remember the exact wording, but it went something like this “I was a maiden, I was married, I’m a widow. Of the three I like the third state the best.”
This shocked me because grandma REALLY loved her husband. They had the sort of relationship where each wrote to the other while away. They wrote to each other EVERY DAY. Sometimes for years.
But it wasn’t grandad’s death she was referencing, but the ability to focus on HER. On what interested her. She went on to explain she could “Come and go” and “work on whatever I want” without hindrance as a widow. In the village, and at that time, yeah. IF your husband was still alive, he was supposed to be the center of your day, even if you were just the two of you. My parents aren’t quite like that 30 years later. They spend a lot of time sharing chores, go out to eat a lot, and generally are — both — more independent than couples were in the village back then.
What grandmother was saying was something like this, translated for modern ears “When I was young, I lived for my parents. My actions and the way I presented myself affected them, so they were my priority. When I was a wife-and-mother I lived for my husband and children. My actions affected them most strongly, so I must consider them in all things. Now I am a woman past the age of reproduction, I can pursue my own interests and live for myself. What I do affects mostly me, so I can become who I want to be.”
I think the greatest difference between men and women is that. Women are more cyclical. We’re more ruled by our bodies. Which means if we are women “with brains” who tend to ignore their bodies, we stand to try to jump roles or to flatten our entire role into “pursuit of personal excellence” and that leaves us feeling curiously flat and lopsided, and sometimes angry at men and the world in general.
It isn’t fair, of course, that women have these life cycles, or that we have to adapt to being at least three people in a lifetime. But “fair” is a kindergarten thing. Life isn’t fair, no one is like anyone else, and men and women have different challenges, but they both have challenges. It took a sort of crazy naivete to view office life as easy and devoid of challenges or “freeing.” It takes the same sort of naivete to view running a house and raising children as the hallmark of stupidity or backwardness.
A role is just that: a role. A stereotype in people’s heads, that has certain characteristics attached. You can play to the role or against the role. Or you can take the role, as assigned, and play it as YOU. Personalize it, improve on it, make the role yours.
You don’t need to steal someone’s role to be extraordinary. Extraordinary is in the performance, not the role.
Understand what is required, what is optional, and what you really need or want to do.
Then stop fighting the role, or embracing the stereotype. Instead, get out there, on stage, and steal the scene.
Break a leg.