NOTE TO ... The New Yorker
I've been traveling quite a bit lately. A few months ago I achieved US Airways Silver status and began receiving automatic upgrades. Yahoo! During my recent domestic flights, I’ve noticed that I’m often the only woman in first class. Although lacking scientific considerations, surely this says something about our culture and the equality of women in 2009. Interestingly, as I sat representing my kind on a flight last week from San Juan to Philadelphia, I read your article on Helen Gurley Brown (11 May 09 issue). This is a woman who (no doubt) has spent plenty of time in first class.
Ahead of her time, Ms. Brown challenged the rock hard notion that woman and men inherently differ. Growing up in Louisiana (just beneath Mrs. Brown’s self professed hillbilly Arkansas hometown), those crater-sized differences were brainwashed into my psyche with all the cultural fuel power of Southern-style Bible-thumping and debutant ball hopping the state could muster. Those insidiously distorted beliefs became a key factor in separating me from the men in my life in ways that were detrimental to both my self esteem and my ability to form healthy relationships.
Ms. Brown was busy celebrating female libido, intelligence, and earning power at just about the same time my hometown culture was needling me to stuff it all up into one gigantic closet and run in the opposite direction. If I failed to squelch what was on their list, heaven forbid that in a fit of rage, or simply to teach me a valuable lesson or two, God might strike me down with all kinds of punishments. Cosmo was certainly not welcome in my childhood home; no evil materials allowed. The messages I grew up with caused me to view my body as an object men would exploit, tarnish, use, and devalue if I allowed it to happen. Men were my enemy and I was to assume the worst in them as this would be the best way to protect myself. Seeing a beautiful, busty woman in a sexy red cocktail dress on the cover of Cosmo at the local Piggly Wiggly (a grocery store) didn't have a "thang" to do with it.
So, as Ms. Brown was climbing her way hand over fist to the top, I was struggling to understand how I could possibly be cherished by the very monsters I longed to know, touch, and love. My instinctive feeling that they were actually beautiful creatures full of mind-bending mystery seemed to reflect upon my own bad nature. "God forgive me for doing that, or loving this one, etc," I used to pray, assuming that any kind or loving words, gestures, or interest from men was part of the plot to bring me down. I was failing miserably! And being the sensitive, creative young "thang" I was, the sincerity I saw in the best of them confused the hell out of me. Was I to believe or not believe I was worthy of any kind of genuine love and caring? Now I realize that this distorted view of men subtlety shaped all my interactions. Even the greatest men look bad when you peer at them through a scum-covered lens. Men may behave like they're from Mars, but when all the masks, thick skin, and cultural influences are stripped away, they're only human after all.
In a culture promising salvation, I was damned to become an adolescence filled with shame, guilt, sadness, powerlessness, and grief. The issue at play was not only the objectification of women, but its sly underbelly of pigeonholing men, and the inherent danger of viewing all human interactions through a sexual eye. We all have bodies (duh!) that serve crucial multidimensional purpose, but to focus on the flesh as the overarching specification of who we are is a dire mistake. The human body and its machinations are one aspect of who I am regardless of my gender. Of course, it all works together but putting gender at the top of the attribute list has become one of the most devastating cultural messages of all time.
I finally realized that men and women actually share the same internal emotions when, as an adult, I watched my six nephews grow up. As these cute little guys cried, giggled, and grew angry over some of the same things I did at three, seven, eleven, and thirteen, I finally saw the shared emotions of humanity. The youngest will be thirteen this summer, and the oldest now plays college football. The football player is 6’3’--strong and bright--the kind of guy I could have dated as a young woman. The same kind of young man I mistakenly viewed as inhuman and out to get me. Now I know that men cry, feel, and are capable of loving long and deep. The only craters between us and them are those carved out by our own insecurities, our lack of understanding, and the cultural messages we allow ourselves to accept. Jerks come in all shapes, sizes, and sexes. The key is seeking out those who aren't based on the stuff inside.
I applaud Ms. Brown for stepping to the front of the cultural stage and screaming, "This is who and what I am!" at the top of her lungs. The message she has consistently provided addresses the flip side of the unjust stereotyping of men. If men can cry, feel and love, then women can seek power, crave sex, and control a destiny that is both positive and filled with fascinating adventures, including great men. Her strong will and accomplishments are all the more impressive knowing she was a child of Arkansas. She’s practically from my neighborhood! Whether or not you or I agree with every point she's made over the years, her lifetime achievement supports induction into the Aberration Nation. She has celebrated her womanhood while also viewing herself inherently the same as her male counterparts, deserving of every accomplishment she could heap upon herself whether it was a top notch career, a fascinating man, or a seat in first class.
All hail to the quintessential guilt-free woman!
To read more about the life of Helen Gurley Brown, pick up Jennifer Scanlon's book, Bad Girls Go Everywhere. To read The New York Times review, go here.