Thursday, April 19, 2012

Recovering the "Mistress of Herself"

Girls (Photo from here)

HBO's new show Girls and its creator/writer/star Lena Dunham have been attracting a lot of buzz recently. The show centers around four friends living life in New York City, but it's more grungy Williamsburg than Sex and the City Upper West Side. The main character, Hannah, is also a writer, but instead of an advice column regarding shoes and sordid nonsense, she is (briefly, in the show) an unpaid intern at a publishing company who, at age 24, has written 4 out of a projected 9 essays of her "memoirs," which she has not yet completed because she has to live them first. 

I watched it (it was free on YouTube) and enjoyed it. It's funny, but in an extraordinarily sad trombone type of way that earns its comparisons to Louie. The main thrust of the pilot is watching the characters suffer consequences of bad decisions. For me, more than the career mishaps or the silly things Hannah says ("I think I may be the voice of my generation...or at least a voice of a generation."), the bleakest part was the women's relationships. Hannah hooks up with a deadbeat "actor" who pursues woodworking because it's "more honest" while living off his grandmother's $800/mo checks. Jessa gallivants across Europe having seemingly free-spirited flings with an endless menagerie of foreign men only to find herself facing some unintended consequences back in America. Marnie stays with her boyfriend even though she recoils every time she touches him. New York Times columnist Frank Bruni's March 31 column entitled "The Bleaker Sex" hits the nail on the head with his question: "Gloria Steinem went to the barricades for this?"

Ariel Levy's book Female Chauvinist Pigs asks a similar question. Tracing the rise of what she dubs "female raunch culture," Levy explores how, in the name of feminism, becoming an object of the male gaze is du jour. Rather than rejecting it as terrible for women and destructive for men, a segment of women have embraced the pornography culture claiming it is "liberating" and fun to be "just like a man," which really means being just like the worst of men. While Girls does not portray this specific tendency, the sad state of affairs for Hannah and her friends shows a similarly destructive lack of expectation of respect. Like Levy's chapter on the women who choose to appear in Girls Gone Wild, the scene in Girls in which Dunham's character texts Adam to little response until she shows up at his door shows how women can willingly be used by men in an attempt to win their unenthusiastic affections.

The hookup culture is built on this sordid foundation. Donna Freitas visited seven different college campuses for her book Sex and the Soul to interview students about the hookup culture (or, on evangelical campuses, the "purity culture") and their spiritual lives. Consistently, Freitas found that women thought a hookup would "turn into something more." One interviewee noted that even if a woman on the floor of her dorm would go into a hookup intentionally not desiring anything to come of her one-night stand, she would still feel some disappointment the next day when her partner does not call. Worse still, this expectation was almost entirely one-sided. Few of the men Freitas interviewed desired anything more than one night from a hookup. This is a sad state of affairs for women and Gloria Steinem certainly did not go to the barricades for women to find their worth and value from engaging men in a way in which only (the worst of) men seem to take pleasure.

I write this post not to wag a finger at my fellow women, but to lament what the general expectations between the sexes seem to be. I can't help but wonder where the spirit Tocqueville observed in young American women is today:
I have been frequently surprised and almost frightened at the singular address and happy boldness with which young women in America contrive to manage their thoughts and their language amid all the difficulties of free conversation; a philosopher would have stumbled at every step along the narrow path which they trod without accident and without effort. It is easy, indeed, to perceive that even amid the independence of early youth an American woman is always mistress of herself; she indulges in all permitted pleasures without yielding herself up to any of them, and her reason never allows the reins of self-guidance to drop, though it often seems to hold them loosely. (Democracy in America, Book II, Chapter 9)
The "Pioneer Woman"
We don't need a bland return to the aristocratic "virginal softness" with which Tocqueville contrasts the American feminine spirit, but perhaps recovery of these "reins of self-guidance." And, I would argue, this means a robust sense of self-respect that includes chastity and constancy in a way that is not explicit in the prescriptives of Levy's and Freitas' books, but can also be trivialized by the explosion of pink that is always present in the "Women" aisle of Christian bookstores. Dear Boyfriend (citing it as a personal favorite; he's a keeper) sent me this quotation amidst other, pithier Fulton Sheen sayings that captures what I envision for my fellow women: 

“When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.” (Life is Worth Living)

If we think this is true (and we should), why must women bow to men in the way the hookup culture demands? Why do we think that we have to try to "strip ourselves of gender roles" as Dunham comments in the Bruni's column to pretend to be like, quite frankly, the worst of men who use sex for gain or power or pure selfish pleasure? We can set the tone for civilization by opting out of the male gaze and encouraging men who respect women by respecting ourselves.

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