Friday, August 03, 2007

Good Girl, Bad Girl

Would it surprise you that I once believed, even as recently as five years ago, that women were congenitally unselfish? The scales have come off: women are no more selfish than men, but no less. Yet even after the women's movement the "good girl" myth (with its underside, the lore about the "bad girl") seems to shape accepted perceptions.

This came home to me in discussing recent posts, in particular one in which the blogger, a young married woman, wrote eloquently and with humor about the hazards of multitasking as a wife and mother on a day she had a motorist court date. In the asides about her husband, she made me wonder just how inconsiderate we men are.

It took the comment of a woman to open my eyes: she said that women, in general, take on the role of complaining about motherhood and housework as a kind of badge of honor. If I understood her right, it's a bit like New Yorkers who proudly boast that "da city's got da worst subways in da world!"

Now I'm not saying that all this fits Julie or her blog post. The blog just triggered a set of thoughts and e-mails that led to the notion that women sometimes push the "poor me" envelope.

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks," says Queen Gertrude to Hamlet (Hamlet, III, ii, 239), much as my female correspondent commenting about the blog post. In the play, Gertrude's remark is offered as pride before the fall, as Hamlet has set a trap in describing a woman whose behavior he will unveil to have been just like the queen's.

I set no such similar trap for my correspondent, a woman as susceptible to poorme-ism as any other, but I wondered at yet another discovery: women are as competitive with one another as men, perhaps even more fiercely so.

Perhaps I am extremely naive, or lucky, or too self-critical, or something else, or all of the preceding, but it hasn't been my experience, or at least my observation, of women until very recently. I suppose this led me to believe in the Good Girl.

You know her. She does all her homework, her room is as neat as a pin, she feeds stray cats, she looks forward to make everyone happy. (Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless.")

When she grows up she joins the Junior League, has a dignified but not cutthroat career advancing good values and community welfare, and her three dark blond, green eyed children win genuine prizes at school for academics and athletics.

Then there's the Bad Girl. You don't know her, but you may have had sex with her.

She's raunchy from the moment she becomes an adolescent, maybe at 10. She loves chocolate and moderates her consumption only to keep her figure (and appeal for the guys). She's ditzy and unaccomplished, sometimes cruel and cliquish, occasionally becomes the queen bee among other Bad Girls.

When she grows up, she either hitches her fortune to a man who regales her with wealth or she trolls for one until she is too old to find one. That's if she has not gotten married with the high school football star when she got pregnant and spent the remainder of her days in low-rent suburbs bringing him beer when he comes home from selling used cars.

OK, I got a little carried away. But you guessed: neither quite exist. And, yes, I've long been aware of the Eve-Mary archetypes and that what I have written is merely a (cheap) Americanization.

Yet I thought I knew mostly Good Girls. Or women who aspired to and often enough succeeded at being a Good Girl. Or people who could not help but worry about others more than themselves and give their all unstintingly to whatever and whomever they trusted.

Then I learned, through bitter experience that, as Rex Harrison sang in My Fair Lady,
Let a woman in your life and your serenity is through,
she'll redecorate your home, from the cellar to the dome,
and then go on to the enthralling fun of overhauling you...
Or rather, less comically and much less in the Victorian mode, I experienced the rude awakening that even Good Girls were not as selfless as I thought.

In long-term relationships women often enough take on the role of victim, having arranged things as to preserve for themselves the privilege of being experts in their domains, to the exclusion of men, while reserving the right to go poach in the men's traditional preserves. Then watch out: to a degree you never expected, out come the competitive, self-preserving, bulldozing characteristics you never knew lay there, dormant.

In casual or shorter-term relationships, when a man tells a woman that he doesn't want to commit, it's normal for her to "forget" he said it. Then she'll complain that all she has given is unrequited.

In sum, women are selfish, at least as selfish as men.
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