Helen Mirren was recently lauded for advice to her hypothetical daughters:
If I'd had children and had a girl, the first words I would have taught her would have been 'f*** off' because we weren't brought up ever to say that to anyone, were we? And it's quite valuable to have the courage and the confidence to say, 'No, f*** off, leave me alone, thank you very much.'
I adore Helen Mirren and her 67-year-old, bikini-clad, British badass-ness. I hail the "f*** off" threshold and admire those who, with seeming ease, lob an f-bomb and saunter away. My problem, however, lies in HOW to implement her advice. How do women challenge prescribed roles of politeness and meekness and learn a healthy practice of assertiveness and boundary-setting? For many of us, "Nice is something women are forced to be, not something we choose."
I grew up in the South, and nurtured habits die hard. I was once grounded for saying "damn" to my sister. I wore white gloves and bonnets to Easter mass and crossed my ankles when sitting in skirts. I didn't know what the word "horny" meant until one of my girlfriends took pity on my naïveté in eighth grade. (Sexuality is inherently tied to a woman's value and virtue, you see).
Even today, I wear slips under dresses and send hand-written thank you notes. I don't discuss bodily functions in mixed company and consider it an honor to be asked for a recipe after a dinner party. I smile even if I don't like you and am one of four people on the metro who says, "Pardon me." In sum: I was raised a good girl.
And it is damn frustrating. There's got to be middle ground between overt misandry and passive domesticity.
To date, I've found exactly one book that offers useful advice on how to successfully revel in Helen Mirren's advice: Caitlin Moran's How to Be a Woman. Moran is wicked funny and painfully, awkwardly truthful. The main takeaway is that life is too short to feel guilty about not being perfect, so let's get real. Rather than harp on the theories and definitions of modern feminism, she skips the arguments and offers: "What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are." Ding ding!
Moran manages to address the horrors of childbirth and the joys of parenting; the conundrum of what to call your (and your child's) vagina; the inevitable poor dating and job decisions; the gap between acceptable male and female behaviors; and the weirdly spot-on discomfort of women hiring domestic help -- all with a deft hand and abundant use of humor. This is the heart of the matter:
I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge whether or not some sexist bulls*** is afoot. It's asking this question: are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men's time? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating retarded, time-wasting, bulls***? Almost always the answer is no. The boys are not being told they have to be a certain way, they are just getting on with stuff.
A friend who goes against the grain gave me this book, and I continue to pass it forward. What amazingness would occur if every girl received this book on her 14th birthday? We could all save ourselves so much time, effort and angst! We could release a hearty f***off to men, to women, to many of our insecurities. We could learn the humor in making mistakes and challenging the June Cleavers. We could all breathe a bit easier.
Because really, "Why on earth have I, because I'm a woman, got to be nice to everyone?"