I posted earlier this year against the “myth of female frailty” and the lie that “one mistake will ruin your life”. The topic of that myth arose again this week when I met with one of my former All Saints youth group kids, “Holly.”
Holly, whom I’ve known since she was in eighth grade, is now headed into her senior year of high school; she’s 17. When I first met Holly, and indeed for the next several years, Holly “presented” outwardly as the pretty, outgoing, poised and popular blonde whose passage through adolescence seems almost unfairly graceful. Holly was much sought after as a friend (and more) by boys and girls alike; at our Wednesday night youth group meetings, I often saw not-very-subtle attempts by kids of both sexes to sit on “Holly’s couch” and be near her.
Of course, Holly was far more than the walking embodiment of a stock American stereotype. Not only was she exceptionally bright and a particularly talented writer, her childhood had been touched by tragedy and loss to a degree that set her well apart from most of her peers. A few — a very few — of her friends got to know the depth of that loss and its impact on Holly’s life; I was one of the small group of adults to whom she also regularly turned. I watched her struggle with the disconnect between how the rest of the world perceived her and how she felt on the inside, and we talked often about her frustration with the realization that she was the object of desire, admiration, jealousy, and envy when for the most part, she felt out of place and frequently lonely. Holly’s is not an unfamiliar story — at its most extreme, call it the “Richard Cory” phenomenon after that famous Edward Arlington Robinson poem so loved by generations of misperceived adolescents.
This summer, Holly broke up with her first serious boyfriend, got her first lead in a play, and let go of a great many of her old friends. When I met with her earlier this week, her long blonde hair was mahogany brown. Despite the heat, she wasn’t wearing the short skirts that had been her trademark since junior high school. She wore corduroy pants, a t-shirt, and a vest. Not a trace of make-up on her face, but when we met at a local coffee shop, there was a sense of real happiness behind her eyes. Holly’s making changes; the outside shift reflects an inner transformation — and the brunette tresses a greater willingness to expose to the world the darker, more complex aspects of her personality.
Holly told me that she’s been spending a lot of time along recently, a huge change for her. She takes long walks, and she’s consuming books at an extraordinary rate. She’s journaling, and brought to our meeting a bag filled with novels as well as the notebook in which she records what’s going on. (Practically her first question was “Do you have a reading list for me?”) Her old friends call, she says, but she tells them she doesn’t have time. Her ex-boyfriend and her mother tell Holly that they’re worried about her; “This isn’t like you”, they say; “What’s wrong?” Her mother has muttered about putting her on anti-depressants, a suggestion that appalls Holly. “I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time”, she says. “Yes, I’m going dark and inward, but that’s not a bad thing for me right now. I need to work on another part of myself. Why is that so scary?”
When you’re a teenager, I told Holly, folks tend to freak out when you make sudden changes. When those changes involve cutting ties with friends and retreating into contemplative solitude, the tendency of peers and parents alike is to pathologize the sudden shift. Pretty blonde girls who suddenly stop playing “the game”, who opt out of the “in” circles in high school, must be acting out of a deep and profound unhappiness. But as I said to Holly, only some of the concern about all of these changes she’s manifesting is motivated by a legitimate interest in her well-being. Much of it fits into something else: the classic way in which our culture seeks to discourage women from displaying anger.
In her fashion choices and in her increased willingness to say what’s on her mind, Holly’s making folks uncomfortable. This is because, seemingly overnight, a classically feminine young woman who outwardly embodied all of the “rules” for her sex (demure, polite, fun-loving, cute but unthreatening) suddenly decided to start telling the truth. She’s not rude or cruel; she’s not shouting from the rooftops in rage. For that matter, she’s not getting sleeved in tattoos or sporting new piercings in places that make might parents ill to contemplate. All she’s done is cover up, go brunette, and start telling the people in her life a bit more about how she really feels.
The myth of female frailty tells us that when a young woman starts exploring her dark side, she’s begun down a very dangerous road that could have life-damaging consequences. Obviously, if she starts shooting heroin, that’s true. But Holly — like so many other teen girls whose fascination with darkness is made manifest — isn’t doing anything life-threatening. She’s started reading Kerouac and Inga Muscio instead of Vogue and Seventeen, she’s getting showered and dressed and out of the house in less than half the time it took her a year before. This is healthy as can be — and yet it’s genuinely terrifying to many of the folks around her. Fed by a culture that falls all over itself with (often faux) expressions of concern about teen girls, many of her friends — and some of the adults in her life — are scared that Holly’s gonna “do something stupid now” and “ruin her life.”
Underneath that concern, however, is something simpler and uglier: we don’t like uppity women. We like pretty blonde girls in short skirts who say “Yes” more often than they say “No”, who get good grades, flatter their teachers, who hang out with popular girls, talk about hot boys, stay thin, perform umpteen hours of community service and effortlessly manage to avoid displaying desire or rage or any other emotion that might be threatening. Holly was that girl, and she doesn’t want to be that girl anymore. And her anger is real, she’s started saying “No”, and she’s trying — with real success — to figure out what the hell it is she wants.
In our culture, we expect boys to go on “hero’s journeys” when they’re young. We send them out on camping trips and vision quests and ask with reverent awe to see their scars and bruises. We smile indulgently as they get shaggy with their first beards and talk romantically about driving — or hiking — across America. We see them retreat into their rooms and into monosyllabic isolation, and we dismiss it as a phase out of which they are sure to emerge (or so we hope) ambitious and centered and ready for the great adventure of life. And when they’re rude or ill-tempered, we’re inclined to indulge that as a natural, even healthy expression of their testosterone-infused selves. But let one of our daughters — particularly one from a middle-class family steeped in all of the latest pop psychology — start displaying similar behavior, and we react with horror. And make no mistake: that horror has far more to do with the fear of hearing the truth from the lips of young women like Holly than it has to do with legitimate concern over their well-being.
Please understand, I’m not saying it’s bad to be blonde or to be outgoing or to wear short skirts. There is nothing magical about corduroys and auburn hair; they are simply, for Holly, outer and visible signs of an ongoing inner transformation. That transformation puzzles some and frightens others. But what Holly needed to hear, and what we all need to understand, is that that concern is rooted in the myth of female frailty and our very real fear of women who make manifest their anger, their wanting, and their wildness.