Friday, July 09, 2004

Learning How to Be a Girl

A Transplanted Californian Re-programing for the Chivalry of the Midwest

I came of age in California in the 1980’s. I was painfully aware, even from the inside of them, that they were totally lame compared to the cool 70’s and the political 60’s. I’m still surprised by the cultural/nostalgic mining of the decade that began a few years ago. Not only did I not love the ‘80’s while they were happening, but having been a part of ‘80’s teen culture will be a source of lifelong shame. But I can’t change that my formative years fell in that decade: I turned 13 in the summer of 1980 and was 23 at the end of ‘89. I was undeniably an ‘80’s chick, and while I knew the music was stupid (Aha, Johnny Hates Jazz, Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam??), I still participated in the big hairstyles, the ankle-tapered fashions and the bizarre meld of aesthetics and attitudes that permeated the time and place in which I began interacting with boys.

My first date happened when I was 15. It was 1982. Being the daughter of a feminist and living in northern California, my approach to dating was untraditional. I insisted on paying my own way and always tried to get to the door first, opening it for myself. I had learned (from my parents? from movies? from tv?) that “gentlemanly” behavior was a threat to my very personhood and any attempt by a guy to treat me well was to be fought with venom.

I wonder now why this approach felt so right to me and where I got it. I was 15 years old, for chrissake. No man had “done me wrong.” I hadn’t suffered sexual discrimination. I was no diminutive Andrea Dworkin. Where had I gotten the idea that men were the enemy and the more they tried to cherish me the more I must fight them?

Well, you know we were all just so hip in the ‘80’s, especially in California. Gender bending was the way to go: David Bowie, Boy George, Annie Lennox, Barbra Streisand as Yentl. Sigourney Weaver was brandishing small arms and the hardest heavy metal bands were using hairspray and full makeup. Left over from the furious women’s lib battle of the 1970’s was the idea that since being June Cleaver left women vulnerable and powerless, the safest way to go must be to shoehorn ourselves into men’s masculine roles. Women accepted men’s traditional definition of power and demanded it for ourselves.

So we got Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl proving herself in the boardroom, Geraldine Ferraro nominated to be vice president, and Madonna wielding sexuality like a doomsday weapon with which to take over the world. Female sexuality became hard and glossy, straight lines and pointy angles. We armored ourselves with shoulder pads, V-shaped dresses and oversized blazers.

And yet at the record store I cashiered from 1986 to 1988 there were buttons that said, “The 80’s are the 50’s in color.” Nancy Reagan embodied the attitude that now that all that women’s lib silliness was over, it was time to get back behind our man. Actually two equally strong forces were at work: the androgynous, hard-bodied images (Grace Jones, Brigitte Nielsen) and the buttons-and-bows, fluffy-soft approach (Molly Ringwald, Winona Ryder). No wonder I was confused.

I absorbed all of this from my environment, alternately wearing the dresses with bows and lace, and the cropped hair and blazer. I wanted nothing to do with Nancy Reagan and accepted that as women tried to occupy the same roles and spaces as men, women and men became competitors in the same arenas. Somehow I understood that this translated from boardroom to bedroom. I saw men not as romantic partners to be attracted and romanced by, but as sexist adversaries to be battled. Hence, my wrestling over the check. From my environment I learned that when it came to men, safety lay in thick walls of cynicism, a sharp sword of wit and atom bombs of devastating intelligence.

Oh yeah, that was me growing up in California in the 1980’s. I didn’t leave this environment until I headed out to the east coast for graduate school at the age of 22. There I spent five years in a sort of stunted social phase of dating men only for fun, never for anything serious. While other women used their 20’s to find a husband, I used them only to see who I could attract and what I could make him do for me. I was not operating from a base of much self-esteem. Once I realized that the dream of becoming an English professor was someone else’s, I left the PhD program and moved to Chicago to become a musician. And it was here in the heartland that I finally began to re-learn my role as a dating woman. It’s a re-programming that still continues.

In the Midwest, men open doors, offer seats, pay for dinners, do the driving, and it’s not because I’m unable to do these things for myself or as a barter for sex. It’s because women are valuable enough to be cherished in this way. Why did it take me so long to realize this? I’ve lived in Chicago for 11 years and I’m still learning. Me valuable? Me cherished? It’s a crime that I ever learned that I wasn’t. But so it was. I’m finally learning to stop fighting men as if I were the last warrior at the drawbridge. I’m finally learning that men and women are not the same, we never were and were never supposed to be. What I learned growing up, that in order for women to be considered the equal of men we had to take on their characteristics, was never true. Feminine power is different from masculine power and that’s okay.

So at the age of almost 38, I am finally relaxing into the role of girl: brilliant, radiant and lithe. I will never gird myself with oversized blazers or shoulder pads again. No longer coveting men’s physical build and masculine ego, these days I relax into the curves I used to hide. I’ll gleam instead of shine, and sway instead of swagger. I think I can cherish myself enough to let a man cherish me. Just watch – any decade now I’m sure I’ll get it right.

No comments: