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.


Anonymous said...

Men are much more competitive. It's biology. Study mammal behavior. The males are most often solo, have their territory, etc. Woman stick together. Hunters vs. the gatherers. Operationally, being a woman is a group activity i.e.caring for children and the sick and taking care of the emotional lives of others.

As for the poor-me stance: historically, as an oppressed class, woman ARE poorer and have to work harder. Also, in many cultures (I won't name them), being the one who sacrifices and then does the "guilt trip" is one of the few covert ways of gaining the power they SHOULD get in a fair society.
Of course things are changing. With birth control women have more economic i.e. political power.

thailandchani said...

Interesting. I wrote a post tangentially related to this today...

I think bonding through adversity is a habit. After all, we're taught that "sharing our secrets" is a form of intimacy.

Selfishness, I think, is largely dependent on culture rather than gender.



jen said...

Chani makes a good point about culture.

And i can't generalize that women or men are any one thing. but I know I can be a selfish bastard sometimes, and J can be one too. and about different things. I do feel like men get a bad rap for this (and other things) and it's not fair. I also know women's (generalizing) contributions often go under noticed.

it's a funnybugger, this one.

anne said...

I never thought of who was good or bad in either sex, usually it is just a case of like or dislike. Or that we may have desirable or undesirable traits but neither conclude that one is good or bad.

Cecilieaux said...

Some interim responses ...

To Anonymous: I disagree the men are "much more competitive." They are more overtly competitive about getting the quarry hunted to their home, to use your anthropological image, but women are just as fiercely competitive about other things -- in particular, "their" men. As to "Poor me," I don't see it as having anything to do with poverty or power; it's just a sentiment.

I'm also going to disagree with Chani. Culture may determine what is deemed selfish, but the incidence selfishness itself? I don't think so. That women bond need not indicate adversity; women have carried on lives together for thousands of years, even to the point that women in close physical proximity often develop identical menstrual timing. I do think your post struck at a similar theme, I'm just not clear what it is.

Jen, there are many generalities involved in anything that says "men" or "women" followed by a verb. Guilty as charged. However, I think that within the very broad spectrum of sexual identity, there are ranges that biologically and culturally fit the name "male" and "female." To say, for example, that men urinate standing up and women do so sitting down may be a generalization, but it is true enough that there is a urinal industry whose market consists exclusively of facilities intended to be used by men.

Anne, of course, one goes from making general distinctions to prejudice and bias if one decides to like or dislike on the basis of an innate trait as one's sex. I hope I didn't give the impression I hate women (or love men). My intention was only to raise my own little and perhaps belated discovery.

Thanks to all, hope this encourages hundreds more comments ...