Contain Multitudes

When I was a little girl, I was very girly.  My first favorite color was “pale pink” which came from the dresses that the main character wears in the Angelina Ballerina books.  There was an entire year of my life when I refused to wear pants, and wore exclusively dresses.

A few years later, I became enamored with collared shirts.  I had over a dozen of them, which I wore buttoned all the way up to the collar.  This was just after I’d gotten my first pair of (huge, owlish) glasses.  My dad said I looked like an architect.

I’m told I was a very earnest kid.  Sincere and ardent in everything I did.  I loved those dresses.  I also loved those collared shirts.  As a kid, it never occurred to me that there was a contradiction in that.

Over the years, I continued to love clothes, and to oscillate between girly and less so.  Freshman year of college, I went through a stage of wearing my roommate’s Carhartt pants to class, and his ties.  This was after a rather girly autumn, with long hair and lots of make-up.  Sophomore year I shaved my head.

I am obsessed with examples of professional women who seem to find the “perfect” balance between feminine and masculine.  It’s as if, if a woman can find a way to pull off that magic trick, she becomes untouchable, beyond criticism.  Joan Didion and Miranda July and Patti Smith are some women who may have figured this out.  They are all thin, more than a little androgynous, but not butch.  Their art is taken seriously.

When Jason and I watched the first season of Damages, I obsessed over Glenn Close’s haircut, and her suits.  She looked tough and distinguished.  None of those matronly suits in submissively feminine colors favored by Laura Bush and her ilk.  More recently, I’ve obsessed over House of Cards, and Claire Underwood’s haircut and wardrobe.  She’s more feminine than Glenn Close, but the great thing is that this fact has been a significant plot point in the most recent season.  Episode after episode addresses the difficulty of being a female and being taken as seriously as a man.

Poor Elizabeth Gilbert, she wrote plenty of gritty, manly things, proving herself repeatedly as a “real” and “serious” writer.  Then she wrote a book that connected with women, and all that cred went out the window.  And you know what?  It was a good book.  I liked it.

I also liked Wild, which I read last year, before the movie hit.  It never occurred to me, reading it then, that it could be seen as a “women’s” book.  There is nothing girly about it, other than the fact that it was written by a woman.  But as it gained popularity, it became clear that the book was especially popular with women.  So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I started hearing it belittled.

It’s easy to get discouraged by that kind of thing.  Sexism subtle enough that if you bring it up, you risk being told you’re making too much of something, seeing things that aren’t there.  Fortunately, the people in my life tend to be those who see this as clearly as I do.  The women I know also tackle the feminine/not feminine line.  A computer programmer who owns her own home, but also loves ballet flats and dresses from Modcloth.  A college friend, currently in rabbinical school, who reads dense religious texts and bluntly addresses sexism as it comes up in class, but also enjoys comforting and mothering those in need.  My sister, who steps with ease into leadership roles at work, but also loves decorating her home and cooking for her boyfriend.  My mother, who loves hippie dresses and make-up but also built every piece of furniture she owns in her woodshop.

There shouldn’t have to be a contradiction in this.  We shouldn’t have to choose.  We shouldn’t belittle things that are feminine.  We should be taken seriously regardless of how girly we are.  Girly is not a synonym for dumb.  It’s depressing that any of this need be said.  But it is a gift (and I am earnestly, ardently grateful) every time I meet a woman who knows this as well as I do.