Aug 05 2013
When I was a teenager I loved a poem called Daughter by Nicole Blackman. I didn’t imagine I’d have children but if I did have a daughter I would surely teach her to “say Fuck like other people say The and when people are shocked to ask them why they so fear a small quartet of letters” and “that her body is her greatest work of art.”
I loved the free spirit, take-no-shit tough woman Blackman wanted her future daughter to be.
But having an actual, live, non-theoretical daughter, and also not being 17 anymore, made me hope she isn’t much like that poem. I’d rather she didn’t say fuck too often and the time she Sharpie’d her legs I didn’t applaud her treating her body as a work of art. And no, I don’t want her to be the kind of woman who gets up and goes straight for the door after having sex nor do I want her to “talk hard” like the woman in the poem wishes for her daughter. That woman doesn’t seem happy to me. That woman seems damaged.
I want my daughter to be nice, kind, outgoing and yes I’d like for her to smile at people.
There’s a piece by Catherine Newman on the New York Times’ Motherlode blog last week, that is making the rounds among moms who have daughters, which reminds me of Blackman’s poem. Newman wants her daughter to be hard, harder than her, and she loves that her daughter scowls at strangers.
“I bite my tongue so that I won’t hiss at her to be nice,” she writes. “I tell you this confessionally. Because do I think it is a good idea for girls to engage with zealously leering men, like the creepy guy in the hardware store who is telling her how pretty she is? I do not. “Say thank you to the nice man who wolf-whistled!” “Smile at the frat boy who’s date-raping you!” I want my daughter to be tough, to say no, to waste exactly zero of her God-given energy on the sexual, emotional and psychological demands of lame men — of lame anybodies. I don’t want her to accommodate and please. I don’t want her to wear her good nature like a gemstone, her body like an ornament.”
As if the only options in the world are ignoring well-meaning strangers or being nice to your rapist! What kind of lesson is that for a girl? You’re in danger all the time, honey, so if you smile at little old ladies in the elevator that’s practically the same as encouraging sex without your consent.
“And, currently, she is not in danger. She is decisive and no-nonsense, preferring short hair and soft pants with elastic waistbands. Dresses get in her way, and don’t even get her started on jeans, the snugly revealing allure of which completely mystifies her.”
Wait, what? The way for girls to avoid danger is to have short hair and wear pants with waistbands? And this from a self-proclaimed “radical, card-carrying feminist?” I want my daughter to wear whatever she pleases–dresses, pants, shorts, whatever. I don’t want her to associate certain clothing with certain behavior. Her mama spent her teenage years wearing fishnet stockings, platform boots, short dresses, blonde wigs, long eyelashes at clubs in NYC (and then on the subway back to Brooklyn). And woe to the man who thought that meant he could touch me inappropriately. I am friendly, I am nice, I have been been accused (by my anti-social husband) of wanting to befriend the world. But I am no-nonsense when I need to be. I can stand up for myself despite my ability to make chit-chat with my pizza guy. I understand there is a wide gulf between pleasantries with my neighbor and putting up with sexual harassment.
Blackman’s poem ends “never forget what they did to you, but never let them know you remember.” But her daughter, yet unborn, hasn’t had anyone do anything to her yet that she would need to remember. Similarly, Newman projects her experiences onto her daughter. It’s not healthy for a girl to have to live with her mother’s fears and phobias. It’s one thing to give a girl guidelines for living, another to make her fight the battles you couldn’t win in your own life.
Newman also has a son, one she doesn’t worry about being too nice because he “still has the power and privilege of masculinity on his side, so, as far as I’m concerned, the nicer the better.” Treating her children differently, and teaching them such different life lessons because of their genders doesn’t sound like the equality-driven woman Newman purports to be. Strength, weakness, niceness, surliness, these aren’t traits doled out according to one’s gender. I will teach my son and my daughter both to be nice, but strong, and more importantly to read each situation for what it is. I will teach them that life isn’t a series of scary encounters against which you steel yourself. People don’t all want to harm you, even if you’re a woman and they’re a man. Closing yourself to the world won’t always protect you from pain the same way short hair, elastic waistbands or being a boy won’t. And mama will always love you just the way you are.