Wednesday, October 24, 2012
A seemingly casual question emailed to the Writing Department by one of our resident linguists set the building afire yesterday with observations and anecdotes. It is thought, the linguist said, that historically women have been valued for their appearance and men for their performance. She wondered aloud, because a class of hers just had, as to whether this was still true today. When you get compliments from your students or co-workers, are they more typically about matters of appearance or performance? Simple enough question, with a sufficiently mixed response. One male faculty member said, "Well I so rarely get complimented on anything that I don't think I can count in either category." I had to laugh at that. Two female faculty members said that their compliments run about 50/50; but, of course, one of them pointed out, if the students have any sense of decorum at all they should know not to say anything about a professor's appearance. I said that given my nonexistent fashion sense I don't typically get appearance compliments; more likely it's compliments on how this or that class goes, or about something I wrote. One guy recalled that women sometimes say they wish they had hair as full-bodied as his rather exuberant ponytail. One woman expressed relief that she is no longer told to smile by passersby in the hallway. Eventually this all lead to a series of gratuitious, and rather humorous, compliments for each other.
Going right from one of these discussions into an afternoon classroom, I decided to raise the question to my class. When you get complimented, what are you complimented for: appearance or performance? Responses were mixed. One female student told a story about a preschool class in which all the boys and girls were required to compliment each other once a day. And you couldn't repeat someone else's compliment to a person. You had to think of an original one yourself. (What a great lesson--not only in observation and intuiton but in composing!) The few male students in the room basically complained about the fact that no one compliments their looks. The female student spoke up again, complaining about the behavior of men in bars (and virtually everywhere else). "Why do guys think that just because a woman leaves her house, they can all surround her?" She's afraid to even go to the bathroom at bars, she said, given the array of men that lingering and waiting for women to come out. We worked through a few related topics: e.g., the perseverance of the phenomenon of catcalls, especially the driveby kind. Why would you do that, I asked one guy. "Well," he said, "because you know you can get away fast!" No, I explained, you don't understand. I'm not saying why are you able to do it, but why would you want to do it in the first place? Surely, you don't think a woman is flattered by that? He seemed perplexed. One male student opined that men make hit-and-run catcalls because they would like to bestow a compliment on a woman but basically are too scared to do so directly. The catcall allows them to express their enchantment at her beauty without getting caught. Well, I said, that sounds downright pathological. I don't think he saw my point. Finally, we got to a subject that I think underscored all the day's questions, from the very first email sent around by our linguist to my student's complaints about catcalls. Is it possible, I asked, for a woman to get tired of being complimented only for her appearance; that is, wouldn't an attractive woman finally get depressed at being seen as nothing but a pretty face while the rest of who she is gets ignored? Yes, one girl intoned, without hesitation. Two other girls in class disagreed. Said one, "I'd never get tired at being complimented about my appearance."
It was a fun, quick, light discussion, but it put me in mind of a complaint I read from one writer a couple of years ago. In an article in the AWP Writer's Chronicle, she pointed out that the female protagonists in short stories and novels--especially stories and novels written by men, but not only in those--are almost inevitably presented as being beautiful, as if this is a requirement for virtue and for esteem. Not just pretty, mind you. Not just "interesting looking," but obviously beautiful. The writer pointed out what a cliche this was, first of all; but worse than that, it suggests that women who are less than staggeringly attractive can't possibly ever be someone's love interest or the center of a story. Why not be a more clever, more disciplined writer and develop a more realitstic, more nuanced vision of your female characters, to say nothing of women generally? Instead of making your protagonist simply Hollywood beautiful, give her a unique and idiosyncratic feature, something that is truly her own. This all seemed like very good commonsensical advice to me, and made me wonder if at times I was guilty of this same sloppy approach, which is prevalent not just in pulp historical romances but to an extent in historical fiction generally, and not just in historical fiction but in all fiction generally. Not that my heroines have ever been cardboard cut-outs--they weren't; not ever--but it occurred to me that I could probably put more work into making them as idosyncratic as possible, as idiosyncratic in appearance as they were, for me, in personality. I brought this issue to the attention of one fiction writing class--which I should say was especially guilty that semester of this particular kind of sloppiness--and urged them to be a bit more broad-minded about their protagonists. The reaction from a couple of male students was automatic and unwavering. No way. It's my story, and I'm going to make the woman beautiful. Yes, of course, I said, it's your story; but how about making your story more artful; maybe more realistic? No, I want a beautiful woman as my protagonist. I should have fought harder on the point, but I didn't. I would now. I wish they had been in class today to hear our discussion about compliments. But then again, they might have been among those in the trucks bestowing driveby catcalls.