So, one night last week I was having a glass of wine with a friend–and wound up with a good belly laugh at mankind’s expense. I’ll spare you the exact details of how it came up, but at one point, said friend described to me a cartoon she’d recently seen. In one frame, a pretty woman of an average build looks into the mirror in horror; her mirror image is heavier, uglier, and facial-hairier than her real self. The next frame shows a balding, beer-bellied man smiling happily as he gazes upon his reflection, which features a chiseled physique, and a full head of hair. We got a good laugh out of that, but it was one of those laughs that wound down to an OhMyGod, it’s true! And then, a far less giggly: Is the joke on us?
Trolling around the world wide interwebs today, I found quite a slew of fodder to indicate that, yes, the joke is on us.
Item Number One: Aaron Traister’s Fatherhood feature on Salon, entitled, “And May Your First Child Be a Feminine Child: People did victory laps when my wife gave birth to a boy. Why was the reaction to our next baby, a girl, so cold?” In it, he compares the reactions–both his own, and those of others–to the news of his first baby’s sex, a boy, to that of his second, a girl. Check it out:
A kind of pitying, you-lose sentiment was common among dads without daughters. They always delivered some polite variation of, ‘Dude, that sucks.’ Or, ‘What are you gonna do with a girl?’ I remember talking to a friend whose second son was born with a heart defect that required two open-heart surgeries before the kid’s first birthday. When I mentioned how impressed I was with the way he and his wife shouldered such difficulty he said, with a sigh, ‘It’s been rough.’ He then slapped me on the back before continuing. ‘I’m just glad we didn’t have a girl. Good luck with all that!’
As for women, well, they never went that far, but even their enthusiasm seemed dialed down. During our son’s birth, the blue-haired waitresses at our favorite diner had been kind enough to act as my wife’s unofficial pregnancy support group. They doled out advice on anything from sleep deprivation to breast-feeding. And when it came to gender, the decision was unanimous from every waitress in the joint: Boys are easier than girls, and girls are difficult and demanding, and then they turn into teenage girls and they’re at their worst.
…Even my perpetually sensible Indian pediatrician ended my daughter’s first checkup by saying, ‘Little girls are very special. But then they turn into teenage girls, and you want them to just go away.’
Um, yeah. Awesome, isn’t it? So, in Traister’s world, before the Double-Xed among us are even out of the womb, daughters come saddled with a scarlet D. D for disappointment; D for dread over those inevitably horrible teenage years (for the record, I’d like to state that I encountered just as many male idiots as I did female during my own foray through the teens); D for dumbass “friends” who suggest that the heartache of having a seriously ill child is favorable to having a girl. And while it seems a little too cut and dry, a little too easy to call out Every Man Really Just Wants A Son To Play With as the root of all of our angst, the fact of the matter is, like our sister in that mirror-image cartoon, we women are quite hard on ourselves. And some of those D’s might have a little to do with it.
While we’re on the subject of women being hard on ourselves, let’s continue on to Item Number Two, from Broadsheet’s Mary Elizabeth Williams. In “Did You Mean That, Google?” Williams is in for a shock when she searches the term “bad fathering.”
Earlier today we did a search for ‘bad fathering’ and got a ‘Did you mean: bad mothering?’ You also get a similar suggestion if you Google ‘poor fathering.’ In fact, the very first thing at the top of the page when you search for ‘poor fathering’ is ‘Mommie Dearest (poor mothering ability)’. The first two true results for ‘bad fathering,’ meanwhile, are for a band called Bad Fathers and ‘First time father deserves a bash.’
Who knew Google was a sexist pig? But frankly, the fact that it’s not, that it is but a soulless algorithm, makes those results even more disturbing. While I’d venture to say, as is the case with poorly behaved teenagers, there are likely as many examples of poor fathering out there as there are of poor mothering, it’s clearly not written about (or read about or searched for…) as often. Like the cartoon couple, some of us are more inclined to seek out our flaws, while some of us are… not.
Moving on, Item Number Three: On DoubleX, Amanda Marcotte responded to Traister’s piece, in a way that feels more victimizing than empowering:
The reason women work harder and get paid less is partially sexism, and partially women’s lack of entitlement due to lower self-esteem. We put our noses to the grindstone, never try to draw attention to ourselves by asking for more, and suffer from imposter syndrome. Many of us are easily convinced that our jobs are less important than our husbands’, so if someone has to cut back for family reasons, it’s almost always a woman. And part of the reason probably goes bck to what Traister observed–when you’re told that you’re less valuable than boys from the day you’re born, you begin to believe it.
I myself have one sibling–a sister. And I never felt like being a girl made me a disappointment, to my father or anyone else. (In fact, I daresay I have that man wrapped around my finger.) But, even if we assume Traister’s Neanderthal world is an anomaly, his piece, taken with that bit about Google and Marcotte’s response, well, it makes me wonder about a chicken-and-egg kind of conundrum. Like, what comes first, the inferiority complex, or the assumption that we should have an inferiority complex? And can the latter be every bit as damaging?
If that’s the case, then I do think there’s something worth thinking about in all of this (something other than what a sexist pig that fat, bald Google is). How does all of the above–so decidedly at odds with the You-Can-Be-Anything-You-Want mantra we’ve been chanting since preschool–play into how we make our decisions? How many of us put on a brave face, while silently picking ourselves apart in front of the proverbial mirror? A picking apart that’s made worse because we know we should be thinking, “I can do anything I want!” How often, do you think, when a man and a woman give comparably botched presentations at work, their internal dialogue is the same? And how much do you think that internal dialogue affects our ability to bounce back, our performance the next time? How often do we hedge in our aspirations, because of That Voice, the one who’s manifest in the mirror? Imagine how much spare brainpower we’d have, if we could just let it all go, if our internal critic turned into the kind of ally that would make looking in the mirror an empowering experience? Maybe there’s a lesson to take from the guys here: maybe, the next time we say to ourselves, “I’m not good enough” we should say instead, “Wow! Who knew I was so fabulous?”