Bookstores & Subsequent Musings on Femininity


One of my favorite things to do in life is to read, so consequently it follows that bookstores are some of my favorite places in the world.  As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I have a particular affectation for used books, not only because they cost less but also because there is just something magical about knowing someone else owned (& presumably read) a book before me, particularly if it’s an older book.  In any case, today I stopped by a B&N (Barnes & Noble, not a used book store of course) to stroll through the sale/clearance section, just to see what I might find.  And naturally I wound up purchasing two books which have now been added to my ever increasing “to read” list.

How I feel when perusing most fiction aimed at people of my gender (aka women)

How I feel when perusing most fiction aimed at people of my gender (aka women)

As much as I love trawling bookstores, I’ve noticed a certain phenomenon happens every time I go look for new (to me) books: I end up having a slight “crisis of femininity.”  If you’re wondering what the hell that means, it simply means that I find myself cringing at most of the books that are clearly aimed at women.  For example the ever popular Nicholas Sparks makes me want to puke.  I can’t stand that sentimental, romantic BS.  Maybe I shouldn’t call out what I haven’t actually read, but even the synopses of his books (& the theatrical versions of such) make me sick.  I’ve actually tried reading books by other popular “chick lit” authors such as Lauren Weisberger, Sophie Kinsella, & Jennifer Weiner.  I’ve made it through a few of them (I’ll even admit The Devil Wears Prada was pretty good), but others made me roll my eyes so many times that I haven’t made it past the first few pages.

If the cover looks something like this, I probably ain't interested.  And, yes, I am judging a book by its cover but only because I've found that books with these kinds of covers really do suck (for me, that is).

If the cover looks something like this, I probably ain’t interested. And yes, I am judging a book by its cover but only because I’ve found through experience that books with these kinds of covers really don’t interest me.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that a large portion of popular fiction aimed at people of my gender just makes me want to gag.  I find myself wanting to punch most of the characters in the face for their irrationality & general idiocy.  For example, as much as I try to be an empathetic person, I’m fundamentally incapable of feeling sorry for a character who’s upset about losing $500 Jimmy Choo heels.  I just can’t relate to that at all.  (Even if I had that kind of money I’d never spend it on something so ludicrous.  If that’s judgmental, I’m sorry I’m not sorry.)  Or when a female character is devastated that a man who was clearly an ass turned out in fact to be an ass, I just don’t have much sympathy for her.  Instead I find myself wanting to yell at her, “How did you not see this coming, you idiot?!harlequin romance

To be clear I don’t find myself reading a lot of books clearly aimed at men either.  But I have noticed that at least half (actually, probably a good deal more than half) of the books I read are by male authors &/or have a man as the central figure of the story.  Hell, the book I’m currently reading, & enjoying immensely I must add, is Post Office, the first novel by the iconic Charles Bukowski.  If you know anything about Bukowski you know that his books could truthfully be described as ribald & irreverent, all the while being immensely profound & astoundingly hilarious.  But a far, far cry from mainstream chick lit in almost every possible way.  Yet I am devouring this book like it was my first meal after a long famine.

This really is one of the funniest books ever written, I swear.

This really is one of the funniest books ever written, I swear.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind romance in my fiction.  A little bit tossed in here & there is just fine.  But if romance alone is the central theme of the book, I’m sorry but it just doesn’t hold my interest.  Romance novels, whether of the Harlequin romance variety or the prim & proper Christian romance variety, are of no interest to me whatsoever.  And Fifty Shades of Grey might as well be in Greek for all I care.

(To be clear, I don’t think romance novels in & of themselves are bad or wrong.  Different strokes for different folks.  They just are of no interest to me.)

I’m not really sure what the point of this post is (that seems to be happening a lot lately), other than to say I know I can’t be the only woman who is a little disgusted by the majority of books peddled to our gender.  To be clear, I’m a far cry from a “tom boy,” but I also have a pretty strong disdain for most things pink, so much so that if I have a daughter I’ll almost certainly dress her in little boy’s clothes (or at least more gender neutral stuff) when she’s a baby, just to avoid the boatload of pink stuff.  (Baby pink really is the worst shade of pink, I swear.)  Yet as much as I sometimes hate to admit it, I fulfill a fair amount of traditional feminine roles within my marriage.  But I also listen to hard rock music, swear too much, devour murder mysteries the way most (or at least many) women read romance novels, abhor treadmills but love lifting weights, & speak way too loud for my own damn good.  (I don’t have an indoor voice, I’ve been told, & it’s just the plain truth, like it or not.)  I’ve had one manicure in my life, which was for my wedding, & have no interest in ever getting one again.  I don’t own high heels & don’t care to . . . I guess what I’m trying to say is I like to think I’m a good mix of both stereotypical feminine & masculine traits.breaking stereotypes

As I’ve written before, I think the most interesting people in the world are those who defy stereotypes, those who are difficult to place in “boxes,” the convenient categories of people society constructs in an effort to make sense of this confusing world which we inhabit.  I like people who are unpredictable in the sense that I can’t always predict what their opinion is going to be on any given topic.  Furthermore, I like people who prove me wrong when I find myself being small minded or petty.  And consequently I like books that make me think, that make me question myself & the norms of society.  And frankly most chick lit simply doesn’t do that for me.  All it makes me do is cringe & wonder if there’s something wrong with me for not relating to the characters who presumably represent “normal” women.  If any of this makes me unfeminine or weird, I truly couldn’t care less.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, I suppose I DO care a bit or I wouldn’t be writing this post . . . But just once I’d like to go to a bookstore & not be reviled by most of the books clearly marketed at people of my gender . . . Oh well.  Maybe I’d better start writing that novel I’ve always wanted to write if I want to make that happen.  Ha!pageant material

I’ll end this post the way I so often do these days, with a link to one of my new favorite songs, Pageant Material by Kacey Musgraves off of her recently released album of the same name.  The song contains the signature sassy but sincere, simple but profound lyrics that have become Kacey’s trademark.   (Skip to 2:50 in the linked video for a live performance of the song.)

See the full lyrics below (bold added by me to emphasize my favorite lines):

There’s certain things you’re supposed to know
When you’re a girl who grows up in the South
I try to use my common sense
But my foot always ends up in my mouth
And if I had to walk a runway in high heels in front of the whole town
I’d fall down
And my mama cried
When she realized

I ain’t pageant material
I’m always higher than my hair
And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace
But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage
I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

She might not be pageant material, but she is beautiful.

She might not be pageant material, but she is beautiful.

God bless the girls who smile and hug
When they’re called out as a runner up on TV
I wish I could, but I just can’t
Wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’
And who’s to say I’m a 9.5
Or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me
Life ain’t always roses and pantyhose
And…

I ain’t pageant material
I’m always higher than my hair
And it ain’t that I don’t care about world peace
But I don’t see how I can fix it in a swimsuit on a stage
I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

Maybe if there were beauty pageants for little boys too I wouldn't be so disgusted by them.

Maybe if there were beauty pageants for little boys too I wouldn’t be so disgusted by them.

I ain’t pageant material

The only crown is in my glass
They won’t be handin’ me a sash
And that’s okay, cause there’s no way
You’ll ever see me in a swimsuit on a stage
I ain’t exactly Ms. Congenial
Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can’t
I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t
Yeah, I’d rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain’t

The Curse of Masculinity


*In case the title has put you off, this isn’t a rant against men.  If anything it’s a plea on their behalf.*

I’ve written quite a few posts lately about the struggles women face in modern society & how feminism still has quite a bit of work to do in this world.  However, today I’ve been thinking about how, in the Western world anyway, women actually have a lot of advantages that make me quite grateful to be a woman, despite some of the other problems faced by my gender.  I started thinking about this when my husband was playing a video game this past weekend & getting really frustrated with it.  I asked him, as I have many times before, why he plays games that just seem to make him angry & annoyed.  His response was “Well, this is how men relax.  For thousands of years we went around killing our enemies, or at least our food, with axes & other such weapons.  Those aren’t accepted civilized activities anymore, so we play violent video games.”  This led me to think about the different ways in which women & men choose to spend their free time, the hobbies we tend to pursue, & the seemingly greater freedom women have in such areas of life.

For most of recorded history women were very restricted in all manner of things, but in the modern  world women can do basically anything we want.  I don’t just mean legally; I mean it is societally more or less acceptable for women to pursue almost any career or hobby they desire.  While it is true that women in traditionally male-dominated fields such as police work, finance, or law often face greater obstacles than do their male counterparts in those roles, in general women who choose a career that is traditionally outside the “feminine scope” receive far more praise & encouragement than men who choose more traditionally feminine careers such as nursing, teaching, or working with young children in any capacity.  Stay-at-home moms certainly face a fair amount of prejudice in our society (perhaps most from other women), but consider how much greater prejudice stay-at-home dads must face.  While one could certainly argue that most men would never even contemplate such a choice, consider how much harder that makes it for a man who truly desires that role?

For further discussion, contemplate the following scenarios:

tony porter quote boy girl

A little girl wants to take piano lessons.  Assuming her parents can afford it, almost all parents would agree that this is a lovely activity for their daughter to pursue.  Plenty of parents would encourage their son to do the same, but as he gets older, consider the societal pressure a boy will face to choose a more “masculine” activity such as football or basketball over band, drama, or anything at all “artsy.”  Girls may face this pressure too, as athletics are always “cooler” than the arts, but I think most of us will agree that the pressure is greater on boys in this arena.  Furthermore, a girl can choose to play most any instrument without fear of embarrassment, but a boy who chooses to play something more “feminine” like the flute is basically asking to be ridiculed.  While women who seek to be rock stars may have a harder time in some ways than their male counterparts, consider that plenty of guys will find them ridiculously hot for choosing such an activity, & more importantly the novelty of a female rock star can actually work in a woman’s favor.

I think it’s safe to say that almost all straight-A students & other “nerdy” kids have a hard time being socially accepted in school, but in general I think smart girls are considered far more acceptable than smart boys.  I know that the girls in my advanced placement classes from elementary all the way through high school fared much better socially than the few boys in those classes.  Many of us girls were still nerdy for sure, but I’m quite certain we all had boyfriends at some point & were generally much less likely to be true pariahs than the boys.  Overall it appears that boys who make good grades & think ahead to college are far more likely to be made fun of than girls who do the same.  Neither gender is going to win any popularity points for being a bookworm, but the fact that college admission & graduation rates are now considerably higher for women than men tells us something is wrong here.  I’m not advocating for the reverse of course.  I’m just saying that a successful society needs leaders & scholars of both genders, & there’s something fundamentally wrong with a society that degrades anyone for a love of learning, regardless of gender.

On a lighter note, say a woman decides to play video games.  While plenty of other women may find this odd, the average man is probably going to think it’s hot.  But say a man decides to get regular manicures (with actual painted nails); the average woman is NOT going to find this hot.

On a similar note, say a woman chooses to dress in a more masculine fashion, maybe even wear men’s clothes from time to time.   This may not be their preferred look, but most guys probably won’t be truly offended by it.  However, if  a man chooses to wear women’s clothes even occasionally, most people, of both genders, will find this quite offensive & weird.  I’m not arguing that men should wear women’s clothes, though if they want to, that’s certainly their prerogative.  I’m just trying to show how women really do have greater freedom in some areas.

quote_men

If a woman does something that makes her look silly or weak, for better or worse she probably won’t be viewed much differently because of it, provided it doesn’t become a habit.  For example, say a woman can’t remember where she parked her car.  While men & women alike may laugh at her forgetfulness, they’re unlikely to really think less of her as a human being unless this is something she does on a regular basis.  A woman who is klutzy like me may never be able to wear stilettos but it’s unlikely to make men actually consider her unattractive.  If a woman is struggling to pick up a weight at the gym or a heavy box while moving into a dorm room or new apartment, you can be reasonably sure that someone of the male persuasion will be happy to help her out without thinking any less of her for needing his assistance.  On the other hand, if a man is struggling to carry something heavy, not only does he have to worry about hurting himself physically but furthermore he has to worry that both men & women may view him as weak & therefore less “manly.”  On a similar token, if a woman cries at a movie, so what?  More than likely no one will think twice about it, but not so for a man.

While everyone has their preferences, women in the modern world can choose to be as traditionally feminine as we desire- or not.  No matter what we choose we are quite likely to be generally accepted by society as more or less normal or at least “ok.”  And for better or worse we will probably attract a fair amount of the male species regardless of what choices we make.

While I’ll be the first to admit that I’m naturally attracted to a fairly traditional type of masculinity (broad shoulders, capable of working on basic machinery/cars, disinterest in clothes & fashion), I’m smart enough to realize that the qualities that define a good man are essentially identical to the qualities that define a good woman: honesty, respect, a strong work ethic, intelligence, a thirst for knowledge, & an open mind.  Furthermore I am comfortable enough with myself & my relationship to understand that not all men will fit my “ideal,” nor should they, just as I will certainly not fit every man’s “ideal,” nor should I.  Just because I prefer a certain type of man doesn’t make that the only type of man worth celebrating in this world.  I think far too many people in this world are threatened by “gender-benders” or by those who don’t fit their own stereotypes about how men or women should behave because they aren’t secure in their own humanity.

gender bird

In my sociology class freshman year of college, we watched a documentary that discussed the ways in which boys are societally trained to suppress their emotions & generally be “manly,” & how in many ways this is ultimately damaging to both men & women in our society.  I for one know that if my husband & I have sons & daughters some day, we’ll be raising both genders to be well-rounded & self-sufficient individuals who know how to take care of themselves (everything from doing their own laundry & basic cooking to mowing the yard & changing the oil in the car) as well as how to express themselves emotionally in healthy, mature ways.  We’ll encourage both genders to play sports as well as to play music or be involved with other artistic endeavors.  If our son wants to play with dolls, we’re not going to stop him (yes, this is something we’ve actually discussed).  If our daughter wants to play in the dirt & hunt for worms, we won’t stop that either.  In case anyone thinks I’m saying traditionally masculine play, such as little boys wrestling or playing with toy guns, is bad, I’m not.  I think those are perfectly normal activities for both genders, though I certainly acknowledge that more boys will participate in them than girls, & I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that.  The point is that we will try not to impress upon our children that they need to fit a certain mold just because of their anatomy.

To be clear, I’m not saying that all gender roles are bad.  My husband certainly takes on a fair amount of the traditionally masculine roles in our relationship (mowing the yard & filing taxes for example) while I take on a fair amount of the traditionally feminine roles (sending Christmas cards, buying birthday gifts for our families, doing laundry, etc), & I have no problem with that.  The wonderful thing about our relationship is that we are very comfortable taking turns with the roles we play.  For example, while I do more of the laundry, dishes, & other housework than he does, he is more than willing to help out, especially when I’m working several nights in a row.  When the dishes start to pile up in the sink, he’ll take care of them without me even asking.  Additionally, we split the bills & take turns paying for groceries, meals, & other expenses.  The point is that our roles are not rigid & unchangeable like those of many relationships of previous generations.  I for one firmly believe that this engenders a higher level of respect, friendship, & camaraderie between us than if we stuck to rigid gender roles.  Furthermore, we understand & respect that not all couples will approach their relationships like ours; many will have different variations on gender roles, & as long as both parties are happy, that is totally ok.  

self comfort

Overall, when I think about how society views gender roles nowadays, I can’t help but feel that women are now afforded greater freedom than men in many ways, as I’ve listed above.  I’m not saying this to lessen the argument that feminism still has its place in modern society.  If anything perhaps this lends greater credence to the notion that feminism is still relevant today.  In my view, feminism promotes the acceptance of both genders as intellectual equals & the equality of opportunity for all people irrespective of gender.  While men may still experience greater success/freedom in the career world, at least in certain fields, I for one wish men experienced more freedom to express themselves emotionally & artistically.  I’m not saying I wish the average man spent his leisure time getting manicures or shopping for new suede boots.  (Frankly I think those are pretty inane activities for either gender.)  What I am saying is perhaps we women should celebrate the freedom we have nowadays to be just about anything without the fear of “losing our woman card” because no such thing really exists.  I just know I am grateful that I don’t constantly have to evaluate whether my life decisions are “manly enough.”  Yes, I realize that “real men” don’t cave to societal pressure & will choose to do whatever makes them happy even if it isn’t societally accepted, but even so I wish the pressure wasn’t so great for men to always protect their “man card.”

 I think in the end this kind of thinking is ultimately limiting & hurtful for both genders because it denies the underlying humanity & sameness that connects us all.  One of the greatest things I’ve learned in life is that people are people regardless of gender.  For example, the friendships I’ve had with guys haven’t been that different than the friendships I’ve had with girls.  Because at heart we are all really the same.  We all have strengths & weaknesses, likes & dislikes, dreams & goals.  And someday I hope we’ll all experience even greater freedom to express & pursue all of our hopes & dreams without worrying about how we’ll be perceived because of the chromosomes we happen to carry in our DNA.