Monday, December 11, 2017

"You're only saying that because it's what you want!"

The quote in the header was something a woman I know said to her then boyfriend. She said it with vehement anger in her voice. What had inspired the remark was a model in a leather jacket taking part in a televised fashion show.
I don't think she was completely wrong. If she'd showed up wearing that jacket, her boyfriend would have been pleased to see it. On the other hand, I doubt the guy consciously chose to say what he did in order to encourage his girlfriend to buy a leather jacket. He wasn't putting any pressure on her. He most likely didn't think about it at all. He said it with no conscious motive; he said it because he believed she would look good in the jacket and for no other reason. And she knew that. That's why she was so angry about it. The jacket reflected an image he had of her and she didn't want to have to live up to that image. For him that is. She had no trouble living up to it for the rest of the world. There was nothing random about his associating that style with her nor was it some personal fantasy he was imposing on her. It was a style of dress she was fond of. It was exactly the sort of clothing she bought for herself when she wanted to feel good about herself. One of the reasons they had become a couple in the first place was because he took her self-image as a glamorous woman who could wear a leather jacket seriously and she liked that about him.

The event in question happened a long time ago in a house that I and five other students rented. It stands out in my memory not because there was anything unusual about the intensity of the woman's anger but because it was the first time I'd seen a woman of my generation do that. I'd seen similar responses hundreds of times growing up. My mother did it to my father all the time. That's what made it weird. I had thought that sort of thing was supposed to be over. The women of generation were going to be different; they weren't going to be full of hypocrisy and mixed messages like my mother's' generation had been.

At a committee meeting a few years ago we were sitting around chatting waiting for everyone to show up. A woman remarked that she had seen my wife looking very glamorous a few days before. I joked that she was on her way to work in a female-dominated office and that it was the lot of a husband that our wives put more effort into dressing up for work than they did for us. I said this in a joking tone meant to imply irony. I needn't have bothered, the women on the committee went off on a long riff about how they do that to their husbands. It's not surprising that they said it. It's true. They all said they should do something about it but they said it in the same tone they'd use to say they should exercise more.

My experience is that women don't just put on nicer outer-clothes, they will even put on nicer underwear for occasions the man in their life won't be a part of. And it's not hard to figure out why. It makes them feel more confident. The need becomes intense when they're out to meet their girlfriends from college or, as mentioned above, going to a female-dominated office. These are intensely competitive situations and it's important for a girl to feel good about herself in a situation like that. Any man who would begrudge her dressing up in these situations is a boor who deserves to be alone.

The point worth noting is that she dresses up on these occasions because it is what she wants. If she wants a boost to her self-confidence when meeting with the girls or because she wants a little attention from men she's willing to make the effort. But why is it some sort of injustice that her man should want her to do it for him?

The answer to that is because she has been trained to think that way. She is taught from an early age that men's desires are illegitimate. Both hard-core traditionalists and feminists line up on this.

It's important to acknowledge that this is a logically consistent position. Women aren't being irrational when they stop making an effort a man who has committed himself to her. If it is true that men's desires are illegitimate, then it is perfectly reasonable for women to use those desires to achieve what they want and to get angry or passive-aggressive if he hints he'd like some just because he likes it. There is no purely logical reason for her to ever change.
"The unconscious spirit of devilry which urges is to offer a thing only to those who do not want it." Proust
I quote Proust because this is the sort of issue he loved to comment on. A man falls in love with a woman in a large part because of her own image of herself. She shows him that she likes to look and feel glamorous. She isn't a liar about it and he isn't stupid about it—they both she isn't like this all the time and she doesn't want to to be like this all the time. Just sometimes.  But there is a promise being made in these transactions. We spend a lot of time denying this. We say that men ask for too much and sometimes we do. They say that men have unrealistic expectations about what happens to women as they age and sometimes we do. But we aren't always wrong. A lot of the time we are right.

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