Friday, October 30, 2015

Little House on the Prairie and Topless Protests: two sides of the same flawed coin

I think I need to preface my remarks by saying: I don't have a problem with 'little girl fiction.' I have no unresolved issues with Louisa May Alcott, and I think that some unfortunate part of my subconscious still looks up to Anne (of Green Gables) as a role model. I suppose that I should also apologize in advance to anyone who likes Nancy Drew, Fifty Shades of Gray, Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Little House on the Prairie, Christy, American Girls, The Princess Diaries or anything by That Woman, who shall go nameless, but whose initials are: Stephanie Nymphomaniac Meyer.

...but it's not as if I'm going to have a Nancy Drew book burning. After all, what are you going to give a little girl to read? The Scarlet Letter? Really? Try to explain that book to a ten year old. Just try. (Although I do recommend The Literary Sense by Nesbit. Every thirteen year old girl should read it. It will make their adolescence a lot less painful. For everyone else that is.)

I still find something very disturbing in the background of these stories. Look, for instance, at Christy, Little House on the Prairie, even Little Women. These books are popular, at least in part, because they present a romantic view of the past. Yes, yes, we all knew that. Why am I wasting your time? But then think about the fact that these women were in pretty atypical positions of power and independence, completely at odds with the prevailing trends in the societies of the time.

Take Christy: the quintessential good girl. Sweet, and kind, 'always clean and pretty' and just generally impossible to hang out with. In addition to which, she has her own goals, her own purpose. She has control of her own future in a way that few women did at the time. And the men in her life are cool with that. She's eventually rewarded for her insufferable perfection by having a tall, dark, handsome preacher pursue her, as well as a doctor, who, while not tall-dark-and-handsome, has an adorable Scots accent which more than makes up for his other deficits.

Laura Ingalls manages to make trudging miles to school every day -- and having your entire future hang on droughts, freak hailstorms and swarms of locusts -- sound romantic. While she's not exactly a bastion of feminism, she is at least a teacher before she gets hitched, and, because she's the main character, you never get the sense that she has absolutely no control of her life and is pretty much at the mercy of random weather events and the whims of petty little rednecks. (Please note that this is not a "thing about women." This is a thing about people. Most people, in most places, most of the time, have no control over their lives, don't know what they want and are scared to death to try anything new. If you can't relate... congratulations.)

In Little Women the only reason anything interesting happens to "the March girls" is because their father's off fighting. Realistically, life would have been pretty boring with him there, no matter how awesome he was as a father. And Dr. Quinn. Don't get me started on Dr. Quinn. Nothing along the lines of that TV show would ever have been allowed in my house when I was little. But really, a female doctor who heads out into the Wild West? Can we get any more unlikely? Oh wait, we can. Because there are wise old Indians who respect her as a source of beneficent wisdom. And a rugged cowboy/whatever who crushes on her and is perfectly alright with her being a proto-feminist.

Why don't we look at some real women and see how likely this is? Look at Harriet Tubman. Mrs. Pankhurst. Maude Gonne. Nellie Bly. Abigail Adams. Florence Nightengale (she didn't believe in germs, but she was still pretty cool.) Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf... (are you starting to get the idea that pretty much the only thing that women could do was write?)

The fact that I can pull out a random list of women who were either famous at the time, or who have been recently popularized Ada-Lovelace-style, should at least imply that women didn't suddenly start being awesome in the middle of the twentieth century. They've been awesome all along, but these women faced significant sacrifices for their independence. They weren't Dr. Quinn. They didn't have everything. In fact most of them had pretty hard lives, comparatively speaking. It wasn't just because they were women either; going against the flow is always difficult, for everyone, and it probably always will be. If it wasn't, then everyone would be awesome. That is clearly not the case.

The problem is that our standards for awesomeness are totally dysfunctional. Western standards for success have grown continually more narrow. Your status depends on being in control of people, or your salary, or the number of papers you've coauthored etc. Just being good at your job is no longer good enough. This isn't just bad for women, this is bad for everyone.

I'm not saying that being competitive is always bad and I'm not interested in debating whether women are less combative because they're born that way or raised that way. We are, no matter how we came to be so. ...and because women, on average, are less likely to hit somebody over the head (physically or metaphorically) it makes women like me -- who are perfectly alright with grabbing somebody by their shirt collar, getting in their face and/or punching them in the nose --  aberrations. Now I could get all bothered by this and yank my shirt off and go yell at some people to make myself feel better, or I could recognize that maybe not everyone needs to be like me. Possibly more women should be like me. If they were, their salaries might be the same as men's, we might have fewer abusive relationships, women's suicide rates might be lower... but I'm not going to simply assume any of that.

Here's the thing: our view of equality has more to do with a few weird 19th century post-Britannic cultural quirks than any oppressive Patriarchy (I swear, some feminists sound like they're ranting about the Illuminati sometimes.) I agree, the post-Victorian model of women staying at home and managing the housekeeper and wearing white gloves and fainting at the sight of blood is flat-out creepy. Yes, the fact that from the time of Hammurabi women have been valued less and had fewer rights than men is pretty bloody offensive. Throughout history though, your average woman has worked. They had to. And realistically, it wasn't safe for women to be out alone. (When the best thing that you can say about a king is that he chopped off the offending body parts of rapists, you know something is wrong with the world.*) The reason that women have been oppressed is not because they're women per se. It's because it's human nature to control and use whoever is less powerful than you. A lot of the time that means taking your anger out on the closest thing with boobs.

However, at present, here in "the West," the situation for women is pretty good. Of course, women across the world are still horrifically mistreated and dehumanized, and when Western feminists 'get their mad on' about the perceived or actual injustices we suffer, I feel it minimizes and detracts from the incontrovertible human rights abuses that women face globally. I don't mean to say that we should ignore any genuine problem just because it's small, but many of the issues that bother many feminists are, at the very least, up for debate. Global human rights abuses aren't.

I don't think that makes me a bad feminist. I think I'm allowed to disagree on what positive rights are essential and inalienable. Negative rights are not negotiable: I have a problem with jerks who disfigure kids with acid just because they want to go to school. I think it's absolutely unequivocally wrong to prevent a woman from doing anything just because she's a woman. And I have major rage issues with people who circumcise little girls because of their weird hangups.

But all that is very different from the sense of entitlement that I see in most of the feminists I know and come into contact with. There is a big difference between feeling you ought to have something, and saying you don't have it because of discrimination (thereby getting yourself all furious so you can feel better...) and being explicitly categorized as a subhuman.

The 'Angry Feminist' picture of what women are (or should be) is just as unrealistic as the notion of good, sweet little Nancy Drew making her souffles and solving crimes and vomiting up the encyclopaedia at every conceivable opportunity. Whether this propaganda is intentional or not doesn't really matter (in my opinion). It's still there, it's still part of our psychological backdrop, and the stories we hear (real or fictional) are the building blocks with which we construct our personalities. Perhaps it might be better if, instead of modelling ourselves after characters in books or, worse, magazines, we looked at the women (and men) in our lives, and decided to act like the ones we admire most.

Also -- which is what started this whole thing -- what does taking your shirt off prove? Can someone explain this to me?

*This is in William the Conquerer's obit in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (I think. If I'm wrong, feel free to lord it over me.)

...and actually, while I'm on the subject, I don't apologize to the people who like Fifty Shades of Gray. Or Twilight. But it's become kind of de rigeur to trash both series, and I'm even more of a contrarian than I am a snob.