I was at my in-laws having dinner and Family Feud was on in the background. The question asked of 100 women was “name a reason a stranger might mistake a woman for a hooker” and surprisingly, “because he’s an asshole” was not an answer.
What got me, though, was how whenever someone took a guess, everyone seemed to nod sagely in a “that’ll do it” kind of way. Not because yeah, they’d faced that judgment themselves, but more like “of course if you wear a short tight skirt you’re a whore.”
After I screamed into a pillow for a while, I started thinking about romance novels. In romance, there is something for everyone, from readers who prefer a chaste kiss at the end to those who prefer their HEAs via a rougher, kinkier, journey. And I love that there is choice and that characters can have as much or as little sex as they want in these books. However, the sad truth is that even as fictional characters, women face a double standard.
When I was a kid, I really wanted to be Veronica Lodge. But I was peer pressured into saying that I wanted to be Betty Cooper. It was understood even at a young age, that it was more acceptable to be the girl who would totally sacrifice herself for love, accept whatever meagre scraps she could get of a guy’s attention (Miss Cheap – well in terms of her own self-respect) than be the girl who used her sexual wiles in an aggressive way (hello, Easy.)
Even then, didn’t sit right with me. What I couldn’t articulate then was that I found the reduction of their respective behaviours to these simplistic (and incredibly judgmental) labels profoundly troubling. For a while, I thought I’d found a neat loophole. I’d profess in our games of “which Archie character would you want to be?” that I wanted to be Sabrina, the teenaged witch. But that attitude just got me sent to the tetherballs – which was the social equivalent of being exiled to Elba.
I was reminded of this the other day, because I was writing about Grease. One of my all-time favorite musicals, the song I always loved most was not “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” Not the song in which pure Sandy lays her heart bare in her overwhelming love for Danny, who let’s face it, is acting like a giant douche at this point, his own peer pressures notwithstanding. Where she’s willing to and I quote “sit around and wait for you.” Nicely managed, Zuko. *snort*
Nope. It was “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” – the song in which sexually active Rizzo announces that it would be worse to flirt and tease than to just be upfront about her actions. Refuse to hurt someone. Play it tough. I liked its saucy, “sisters are doing it for themselves” vibe, but poor Rizzo was judged and punished for her actions. Pregnancy scare? That’ll learn her.
Men, even fictional ones, aren’t held to those same standards. In the 1950’s Philip Roth wrote Portnoy’s Complaint, a book in which Alexander Portnoy, our main character obsesses over sex and it’s considered one of the literary classics of the 20th century. I really enjoyed that book, yet I’m hard pressed to find the equivalent novel with a female main character that is so celebrated.
I can’t imagine Family Feud asking “name a reason a stranger might mistake a man for a…” – yeah, I can’t even really come up with the comparable term. Nor should they. As for me, I’ll continue to enjoy both writing and reading characters who have exactly as much or as little sex as is right for them. Who, whether sexually active or not, have no shame around it. Who have fun with sex, no matter how far they want to go and whose choices are respected.
And now, let me leave you with an anecdote about the great Tallulah Bankhead.
When Tallulah met Chico Marx. Chico was a famed womanizer and when he saw Tallulah at a party, decided he had to meet her. Groucho tried to impress upon him that she wasn’t like the other girls he usually slept with. Tallulah came from a prominent Alabama family. Her uncle and grandfather were Senators and her dad was a Representative and Speaker of the House. In otherwords “She’s a lady, Chico.” “Yeah, yeah,” Chico replied “I get it.” Again Groucho insisted “Behave yourself. Be a gentleman because she’s a lady, and I stress the word lady.” “I’m a gentleman,” Chico assured him. “Don’t worry about it.”
So Groucho takes Chico over to meet her and Chico immediately says “I want to f**k you.” Without missing a beat, Tallulah replies “And so you shall, you dear, old-fashioned, boy.”
Sex: it may not be clean but that doesn’t mean it’s dirty.