Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The crazy mixed messages of womanhood

I came of age in the late 1960's and 1970s in a fairly conservative/traditional suburb on Long Island. Most (though not all) of the families had two parents. Most (though not all) of the mothers stayed at home to raise the children. Most (though not all) of the fathers commuted to New York City to work.

In the little neighborhood where I lived, diversity was the Italian family who lived down the block: ours was primarily a Jewish neighborhood surrounded by a larger school district where the Jews were the minority.

The first openly gay person I saw was Billy Crystal's character on Soap. I didn't know anyone who wasn't white and middle class.

Being a 'good girl' in the context of suburban Long Island in those years could be summed up in one of my mother's favorite expressions: "Why buy the cow if the milk is free?"

Right from the start, I learned that my behavior as a woman was a commodity. Sexuality was something to be bartered for commitment and security. And it was a one-time-only offer. So I learned that my body wasn't really my own to enjoy.

The sum total of my formal education in sexuality was a film strip in the 5th grade on menstruation. Fortunately, some of the girls passed around a battered copy of "Our Bodies Our Selves" that they covered in a plain book cover so our mothers wouldn't know what we were reading. It didn't matter that it was a source of reliable information. My mother never used anatomically correct words for my 'private parts' and I knew I could never ask her questions about it.  So I learned that my changing body was something to be ashamed of.

Unfortunately, the only other source of information I had on sex and sexuality was reading Sidney Sheldon books and 'bodice rippers' we filched from our mothers' reading piles. So I learned that men forcing passive women to have sex led to happily ever afters.

"Leading a guy on" was frowned upon. Yet my mother was always concerned with our weight and how we looked. The message was clear: Being thin equaled looking good so that we could measure up to some external standard of attractiveness and desirability. So I learned that how others saw me was more important than how I saw myself. 

And that's before I factor in all the messages in the media and the not-so-subtle messages we received from our mostly male guidance counselors and teachers: 
Take typing--you'll need it to be a secretary.

You have to take home ec. Shop is for boys.

You don't need advanced math--besides it takes a seat away from a boy who needs it for college.

It doesn't matter what you study in college, you're just going to get married anyway.

Girls can't be astronauts. Study to be a teacher.
Fortunately, my parents pushed both their daughters to be well educated and find professions that could support us. And so I did go to an excellent college and I did study science and math and liberal arts and went into a health care related career.

And yes, along the way, I also met my future husband in college.

And got exposed to feminist thinking and a whole world of diversity and freedom of thought that just didn't exist for me growing up. It took me years to unlearn some of those (at best) worthless and (at worst) harmful lessons of those years.

Maybe that's why it pains me to see evidence of how little things have changed. We still live in a world saturated by subtle and not-so-subtle rape culture, slut shaming, and objectification.

It's why, when I write for a Young Adult audience, I'm very conscious of making sure ALL my characters, regardless of gender, have agency and make active choices. It's why I follow blogs like the Hawkeye Initiative, which seeks to shine a spotlight on the hyper-sexualization of female superheroes and The Mary Sue, all about female geek culture. It's why I consider myself a feminist and don't see that label as excluding men.

I have two teen sons. In them, I see signs that things are changing. Their school has included age-appropriate sex education from elementary school onward. They understand healthy sexuality, respect, and consent. They talk about representation in the media and comfortably use the language of social justice.

I hope that their generation will continue to change the narrative so that the children who grow up after them won't have quite so much to unlearn and maybe, just maybe, we'll find a future where the messages for all of us will be healthy ones.


  1. As one of those who grew up in the same era, but did not go to college, the road to liberation was tough. We grew up being force-fed Donna Reed and Lucille Ball, where the only method possible for independent action was to go against a husband's demands and deal with the punishment later. The husband was depicted as the victim...

    As a young woman, the agony of becoming independent was unique to our age-group, I think, because we had so many force-fed role-models to carefully analyze and dispense with as false.

    Young girls today consider sexual harrassment as a shocking crime...I considered it inevitable and the signal to find a new job.

    I learned my lessons after a painful divorce, 2 small kids and a deadbeat dad. Hard lessons, well-learned with lots of necessity in the learning. There should have been courses on "How to no longer be dependent" given to all young kids.

    The attitude today of my daughter and other young women her age is that the concept of relying on a man for survival is completely alien. Putting up with unwanted sexual advances politely is shocking. Skinny models are pitied as suppressed and diseased. Women with the ability to flaunt their sexuality is a new thing, very different than when I grew up.

    The concept of sexually-charged super-hero women? That has always been in the realm of men...super-muscled, 10-pack abs, with capes. Can't remember ever seeing a middle-aged, pot-bellied man as a super-hero.

    1. I'm glad that, at least, some things have changed and we no longer have to contend with the legacy of Donna Reed, et al.