No Boys Allowed

September 2, 2011 Comments Off on No Boys Allowed

I’ve been on a big re-reading kick recently, ruthlessly ignoring all the interesting books I’m in the middle of reading for the first time. My current comfort re-read is Naked Once More, which is an exceptionally poorly titled Elizabeth Peters mystery novel that has no nudity in it whatsoever. (I think it’s a fairly strained joke on a saying alluded to in the book: that if a book has the word “naked” in the title, it will sell an additional fifty thousand copies.) The heroine is a classic Peters heroine: smart and glamorous and spiky, making her amusing way through a complicated and original plot as men periodically fall over themselves to get in good with her. I was reading it just now when I came across the following passage:

“‘All right,’ said Bill heavily. ‘I just hope to hell you know what you’re doing. I got no excuse to lock you up, so there’s no way I can keep you from doing it.’ From the set of his shoulders as he walked away, Jacqueline knew he was not feeling kindly toward her. Sooner or later, every policeman she met expressed a desire to lock her up. For all their varied charms, they were men of limited scope, poor things.”

So here’s the thing. All Peters’ heroines are completely awesome in almost every way. Clever, tactful (when they want to be, which is not often), beautiful, intelligent, spunky, and often totally badass. And they all take these little digs at men, which are deliciously amusing and fun but never malicious; indeed, Peters women usually have great appreciation for men in several respects, but it doesn’t stop them from rolling their eyes as they let the men around them blow off their manly steam.

What I mean is, Peters does a great job of making men and women different and just about equal, even when her books are set in the 1880s (see the Amelia Peabody series for a great read). Men have ways they think and behave and react, and women have different ways that they think and behave and react, and it would be egalitarian except that the narrators are women, so women come off better. I love the way she deals with gender and behavior. The trouble is, it’s totally out of fashion.

As I understand it, the current “right” way to think about gendered behavior is that there’s no such thing. Because there are of course girls who don’t pick drama with their boyfriends, and guys who are sensitive and want to talk about feelings…plus there are all kinds of sexual orientations, which just screw everything up, and then there are girls who are actually guys, and guys who are actually girls, and so on, and then it just gets too too too complicated. So, safest to take the position that nurture reigns over nature, and try not to make assumptions.

I have to say, I feel a little left out. When I was a little younger, I believed in innate behavioral differences between men and women, and I was excited to join the ladies’ club when I grew up. Sure, there was sexism, but surely it was possible to eradicate the sexism without trying to pry both genders away from their natural positions. And my mental image of the ladies’ club was a roomful of Elizabeth Peters heroines, brilliantly intelligent and just a teensy-weensy bit disparaging of men—because I like being a woman and therefore being a man seems like a bad deal to me and therefore I am allowed to be just a teensy-weensy bit disparaging of them. But in the modern climate of No Generalizations, I’m a little disappointed to find that I won’t be allowed to join the ladies’ club, at least not in good faith and in front of strangers. As I’ve been slowly realizing, via things like Chimera and The Secret Life of Bees, I want to feel like I belong to other women, that we’re all in it together, and I don’t mind saying that I resent the changing tides of PC taking that away from me. Of course, that network might still be there, albeit a little weaker, even after we’ve all admitted that there is nothing to behavioral innateness and nurture is queen. And if weakening the ladies’ club means a big step towards true equality, I guess I can’t quarrel with that. All I’m saying is, I want to be glamorous and brilliant and witty and slightly disparaging of men sometimes, just because, and I hope no one will take it the wrong way.

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