“Just once in life, every woman should…”
How would you finish that sentence?
In the December 2011 issue of Glamour Magazine, the editors asked three women writers to finish that sentence. And Caitlin Flanagan (To Hell with All That: Loving and Loathing Our Inner Housewife) finished it this way: “Just once in life, every woman should be wildly, passionately pursued.” She went on to recount a story from her college days, when she was courted to near-obsession by a young man she had no interest in. She gushes breathlessly about how wonderful it all was and how special and desirable it made her feel, and she pities the poor sad modern girls brazenly asking guys for their phone numbers. “I know I should have been marveling at how far girls have come,” she writes. “But instead I thought, Wow, those girls will never be pursued.”
There were so many things in this article that were so very wrong, I could probably devote my entire blog for a month to picking it apart. The courtship that Flanagan describes as “wild, passionate pursuit” looks an awful lot like what I would call “stalking.” And, of course, the very idea that there’s anything at all that “every” woman should do — other than metabolize food and breathe in and out — is just flatly stupid on the face of it. But here’s the thing that really jumped out at me about this, the thing that made me facepalm so hard it made my brain spill out the back of my head:
“Being wildly, passionately pursued” is not a goal you can work towards.
This is not a goal you can make happen. This is not a goal you can apply thought and imagination and hard work to in order to bring yourself closer to it.
This is a goal you have to sit back and hope happens to you.
I mean, if I decided that just once in life, every woman should skydive, or dye her hair blonde, or sculpt a life-size statue of Charles Darwin out of ice… those are things I could probably do if I set my mind to it. Maybe not well; maybe not enjoyably… but I could do it. But if I decided that Flanagan was right, and that I really should be wildly, passionately pursued at least once before I die… what am I supposed to do about it?
I suppose I could try to make myself into the kind of woman that men wildly, passionately pursue. And I’m supposed to do that… how, exactly? Follow the advice in Glamour Magazine, I guess. Dress pretty, buy the right skin care products, toss my hair alluringly… and wait for a man to make my goal happen for me.
There are certainly worthwhile goals in life that rely on others to help you reach them. To get a law degree, you need others to let you into law school; to be a businessperson, you need others to buy whatever widgets you’re selling; to be a Senator, you need people to vote for you. But you can take positive, pro-steps to bring yourself closer to these goals. Steps other than making yourself into a more attractive commodity and then placing yourself passively in the marketplace, in hopes of being picked from the store shelf with greater enthusiasm. Yeah, turning myself into the next “Tickle Me Elmo” doll and inspiring an obsessive shopping frenzy, from guys I’m not even interested in. That’s what I want out of life. Reach for the stars, girls!
The sound you hear is my brain plopping out of my skull and onto the floor from the latest round of facepalming. (Again. And I just got it crammed back in. Dammit, I hate it when that happens!)
Maybe I’m overanalyzing. Okay, I’m almost certainly overanalyzing. I suspect that what’s mainly going on here is that Flanagan had this story she liked about this time that she was wildly, passionately pursued, and she wanted to tell it, and this “Just once in life, every woman should…” article was her excuse to do it. And besides, it’s just some silly article in Glamour magazine, filling in the gaps between ads for snake-oil skin-care “serums” and pictures of pretty shoes. Maybe I shouldn’t read so much into it.
Except this is how gender indoctrination happens. It happens in bits and pieces. It’s a thousand little jokes in sitcoms, a thousand little choruses in pop songs, a thousand little filler articles in fashion magazines. And pointing them out is how we counter them, how we raise our consciousness about them. Caitlin Flanagan can say all she wants that “I would never advocate going back to a time when women were passive.” But that is, in fact, exactly what she is advocating. When she waxes nostalgic about her days of being wildly pursued, when she advocates being wildly pursued as an experience every woman should have at least once in her life, and when she expresses pity for women who’ll never experience it because they do so much of the pursuing themselves… female passivity is exactly what she’s advocating. And for those of us who passionately oppose the old system with every breath in our body, it’s worth pointing out just how fucked-up it is.