‘gender roles’

Manic Pixie Dream Girls, Erasure, Entitlement, and Me

Laurie Penny’s article for the New Statesman, “I Was a Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” and the ensuring conversations I had with friends about it, spoke to a specific type of erasure women all too commonly encounter: many of my female friends recall experiences similar to Penny’s, where former boyfriends expected them to expend emotional labor “fixing” them, while these men wouldn’t lift a finger trying to find out about the smart, dedicated, and driven women I knew they were underneath the surface.


You may be wondering why I even care about the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, which, as black feminist writers have noted in the past, is almost exclusively a white archetype. What resonated with me was the critique’s concern with projection, and how that projection has real-life consequences for women.

Central to Penny’s argument is the assertion that the stories we tell matter, and inform the social roles we end up playing. Because girls only see themselves playing supporting roles, especially in film, they, in turn, conform to those roles in real life. By contrast, men’s autonomy and self-actualization has endless cultural representation, and is too often built on the backs of archetypes like the manic pixie dream girl (as well as people of color, I might add). Even though women constitute 52% of movie theatre audiences, lack of representation both behind and in front of the camera, as well as conservative ideas about what audiences want to see continue to translate to limited narratives for female characters.

For Penny, finding her identity as a political writer may have had the consequence of driving away men who were looking for her to fill the role of fictitious girl-muse, but Penny feels casting her own spells is worth the compromise. She writes: “What concerns me now is the creation of new narratives, the opening of space in the collective imagination for women who have not been permitted such space before, for women who don’t exist to please, to delight, to attract men, for women who have more on our minds.”

Finding positive models to articulate my identity has been a challenge I’ve faced my entire life. As a quiet, awkward black teenager, I didn’t see people like me on television or in movies. I had to build an oppositional narrative for myself on suburban Long Island, even as the story I crafted at the time was deeply self-hating. That story was built on accommodating white people’s comfort, making myself smaller in the process. Feminism provided a way out of the partially self-imposed cage of internalized racism, and gave me the means to reaffirm myself. From Rebecca Solnit’s definitive essay on mansplaining to the phenomenon of gaslighting, I learned how to center my experiences and articulate truths about interpersonal power dynamics that made me uncomfortable.

Structurally, culturally, and interpersonally, men take up a lot of space. For years, I never questioned their entitlement. Instead, I chose to defer to men, to accept their opinions as correct and legitimate in comparison to my own. (But afterward, I’d review the conversation in my head and find myself thinking, “Hey, wait a minute…”) Living in a world where my experiences weren’t seen as reliable for a matrix of reasons – my race, my gender, or my age – I eventually internalized the lesson that I was wrong, I was unreliable.

This combination of entitlement, projection (of who I am, and whose experiences get to be legitimate) and erasure gets to the heart of why I no longer find it safe to pursue interpersonal relationships with men. It’s too easy to fall back into the automatic habits of doubting my own experiences just so a man doesn’t feel uncomfortable, a courtesy that is never extended back to me (or any other woman, I’m sure.) These behavioral patterns are incredibly self-hating, and emotionally draining. Like Penny, I’m no longer interested in dumbing myself down or doubting myself to assure men of their superiority.

Are Women Passive? Yes, Because We’re Socially Encouraged to Be

One of the first things I learned as a feminist was to question any generality about gendered behavior (for example: men only like sports and sex). These attitudes usually serve as pretty good indicators that the behaviors in question are socially constructed. Enter the XX Factor’s currently running series on how women are inherently passive in their sexual relationships. Originally posted to the blog by Slate columnist Daniel Bergner, Bergner recently solicited entries from readers of XX Factor to reflect on whether or not they “experience their sexuality as relatively passive.” Appallingly enough, all the published respondents replied in the affirmative.  Neither Bergner nor the XX Factor editors thought to diversify the types of responses they published. Perhaps, as I suspect, they didn’t believe women can experience their sexuality as anything other than passive. If any respondents answered in the negative, there’s no way for us to know. It’s almost as if they set out with a predetermined conclusion, and only selected evidence that confirmed their biases.

If Bergner had bothered to read Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s 2010 takedown of evolutionary biology, Sex at Dawn while doing research for his book, What Do Women Want?, he might have reconsidered a lot of things – not only the responses he selected for publication, but he might have also been compelled to ask more provocative questions about how we frame women’s sexuality. (Indeed, this blog and the critique it offers against mainstream society’s treatment of women shows, women’s sexuality is always political, always public, and always under question.) Ryan and Jethá’s research illustrates a disturbing tendency within evolutionary biology that Bergner and the XX Factor perpetuate throughout this column: evolutionary biology has a tendency to view our current social behaviors as conclusive and inevitable, and use trends in the animal kingdom to substantiate their confirmation biases. Because the social meanings of terms like “marriage,” “adultery,” and “monogamy” are always in flux, Ryan and Jethá argue they are not useful matrixes for drawing comparisons between animal and human behavior. Over the course of their text, Ryan and Jethá prove that the entire study of evolutionary biology is an exercise in intellectual laziness.

While the XX Factor would have us glibly shrug off culture as a force that informs our response to performing sexuality, the prescriptions and proscriptions of our society have never not been a point of mediation for me.  Growing up in a predominantly white suburb, I felt the burden of representation as one of the few black girls in my grade, and as the only black girl in many of in my classes in high school and college. On television, I saw black actors limited to the same controlling images of hypersexuality and loudness that were coded as disreputable. The anger and sadness I felt about my humanity being limited (and that I didn’t even feel safe expressing, lest I be dubbed an Angry Black Woman) had no outlet. Instead, I internalized a deeply self-hating attitude. I assumed it was my sole responsibility to prove that black people could be smart, quiet, and disinterested in sexuality.

Passivity and withdrawal served as coping mechanisms for me in a world that was hostile to my existence. To be a good girl meant to be silent, to acquiesce to the demands of adults while my anger and insecurity brewed under the surface, to have my voice retreat from the powerful roar of my childhood to the slow, halting speech of my early adolescence, where I would be asked to repeat myself so frequently that even now, I still perceive it as a microaggression, to have the stress of performing passivity accumulate in my raised shoulders, to never put my own needs and boundaries first. My silence was often pre-emptive: I tried to anticipate others’ needs in advance in my tiring quest not to ruffle feathers, not to exist as a black woman, in a black woman’s body, and cause discomfort to my white peers.

Feminism brought to me the radical idea that I could forge new ways of authentically living and defining my sexuality as a black woman without being self-essentializing. This thought-seed germinating inside of me is only a few years old, a tiny speck in comparison to the two-plus decades of my life I’ve been pushed to obey conventional rules that leave me wanting.  In my feminist vacuum on the Internet, it can be easy to assume that everyone knows about enthusiastic consent (after all, this terminology was introduced to the most recent edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves!). But feminism’s visions of what is possible for women exist in tension with the disquieting reality that recognizing women as nuanced sexual beings remains a fringe position. In a recent article for New York Magazine, feminist journalist Ann Friedman concludes after her research into female masturbation, “The notion that women enjoy sex has not yet achieved scientific or cultural acceptance. To social conservatives, it seems downright dangerous. What’s left to hold our society and nuclear family structure together if even women like sex more than they like babies?” Indeed, our current social battles are predicated on the assumption that women’s sexuality should be punished, and always framed by men as threat.

In this cultural climate, challenging the scripts of passivity is difficult work both personally and politically. I fall back into them so easily it can seem almost invisible. A positive experience I had last summer has been instructive to me in working to disrupt these scripts. This person (who I’ll call the Summer Boy) challenged my performance of passivity in our interactions together. My comfort with him was predicated on the fact that he lived his feminism with a consciousness of his privileges relative to mine. His feminism extended to our interpersonal interactions, too. In sharp contrast to most men I’ve interacted with, who are too eager to have someone to talk at for hours on end, the Summer Boy was genuinely interested in getting to know me. In sharing our histories in suburban towns, and reclaiming the histories we disavowed ourselves from, I came to like him.

During one of our dates, we were walking together, and I started to lean on him. This went on for a while before he asked me, “Why are you doing that?” This question jarred me out of my passivity and forced me to examine my behavior. I was relying too much on silence, on body language, to confer my own desires for me. Being honest about my feelings for him was frightening. It required me to acknowledge my sexuality in a very direct way and be active in a way that’s never been socially encouraged for me. It’s very likely I would have just kept making eyes at him, paralyzed by my own fear, if the Summer Boy didn’t give me a push in the right direction. In those moments, making the first move to hold his hand, to ask if it was okay to do that, to embrace him, felt brave, radical.

Women can be passive. But there’s much more to the story than that.

From Playground Teasing to Domestic Violence: How we are Taught to Ignore Violence

I recently read a great post titled You Didn’t Thank Me for Punching You in the Face on the blog Views from the Couch. It centered around the societal notion that elementary school age boys pick on and sometimes violently assault girls because they secretly have a crush on them and cannot find any better way to express that than through violence.

Why do we tell girls that it is okay for boys to hit, tease, pinch, and generally torment them because “oh, that just means he likes you”? Why do we allow such behavior from boys, which no doubt fosters some sort of ingrained notion that it is okay to treat women poorly? It is no wonder that our society has such a problem with domestic violence when from such an early age with our own children; we are teaching boys that it is okay to hit girls if they “like” them and we are teaching girls that they should put up with the disrespect and abuse because it is actually a compliment.

We need to start changing the way we as a society respond to playground violence. If we are going to make the transition from a society ruled by misogyny and machismo to a society where violence of all sorts is not tolerated, especially violence within relationships. We need to stop ingraining systemic violence within our own young children.

Of course, this isn’t the only place in society where we reward (or at least, do not criticize) men’s violence against women. Just look at last Sunday’s Grammy awards, where Chris Brown, who hasn’t appeared at the Grammys since he assaulted his then-girlfriend Rihanna three years ago, not only performed, but was also awarded  best R&B album for this past year. While there was a significant backlash against his appearance on Twitter, his response at the Staples Center where the Grammys physically took place was warm. The executive director of the Grammys, in response to criticism, was quoted in the Washington Post: “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years, and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.” Personally, I think there is a very big difference between getting a second chance and only being sentenced to five years probation and being recognized and awarded as a musician. The Grammys, just like all of us, need to think about the messages we are sending to young people in our society over what is and what is not acceptable when it comes to domestic violence.

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