A few weeks ago, a hometown friend posted on her Facebook wall a poster about bossy young girls. In the poster, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg admonished people for characterizing young girls as bossy. Instead, she suggested that we praise them for having leadership skills.
My brother Kelly and I got into a protracted exchange with three female friends from Aneta’s class of ’72 about the poster. We argued that bossy is not a sexist term, but rather is one reserved for people, male or female, who are “given to ordering people about; overly authoritative; domineering.” Who would want a daughter (or son) to be like that? Our female friends disagreed and suggested that the term was generally used by men who wanted to keep women subservient and docile. In the end, we agreed to disagree, but one friend suggested that my thinking might be changed if I read Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher. I promised to give it a try.
Reviving Ophelia is a 1994 book subtitled “Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” The author Mary Pipher is a lifelong clinical psychologist. She is six years older than me (making her 66), and she grew up in a small town America remarkably similar to mine. Her hometown had 400 people (so did mine), and “As Garrison Keillor said, ‘Nobody gets rich in a small town because everybody’s watching.’ Money and conspicuous consumption were downplayed in my community. Some people were wealthier than others, but it was bad taste to flaunt a high income.” Her mom was a doctor and her dad sold corn and raised hogs. She seemed to have the same idyllic childhood that I did.
One of Pipher’s principal points is that growing up in the 50s is a different world than growing up in the 90s, and she spends an entire chapter contrasting that difference. But her larger point is that growing up as a female in the 90s is immeasurably more difficult for girls than for boys. Whereas boys are encouraged to be all they can be, girls are pressured to suppress who they really and naturally are, and are instead channeled to become the broadly accepted model of femininity – i.e., pretty, thin, not too smart, not too assertive. Girls do all of this for the purpose of receiving the approval of boys and men, which is paradoxical because, according to Pipher, culture in general and boys and men in particular are often misogynists.
When I read the Wikipedia entry about Reviving Ophelia, I learned that Pipher’s larger point about the girl/boy distinction has been rejected by some:
- “However, studies, such as The Gender Similarities Hypothesis, challenge the assertion that the self-esteem of girls is more significantly reduced at the beginning of adolescence than for boys.”
Even if Pipher’s point were true in 1994, I question whether it remains valid. There has been a plethora of studies and articles in recent years showing that young girls are doing better than young boys. Most of society is rooting for girls to be all they can be (notwithstanding the numerous Neanderthals amongst us), while boys are left to wonder what is left of their masculine role.
Getting back to my three female friends, I believe Reviving Ophelia provides strong support for their thesis, especially as applied to their daughters. But it also tends to suggest that these problems weren’t as severe when they were growing up in small-town America in the 60s. And the author’s views are clearly outdated in 2014 because, I believe, boys have just as much trouble dealing with societal expectations as girls do.
Incidentally, Ophelia was a girl in Hamlet who was a happy and free young girl but in adolescence lost herself while trying to please the love of her life, Hamlet, and her father. “When Hamlet spurns her because she is an obedient daughter, she goes mad with grief. Dressed in elegant clothes that weigh her down, she drowns in a stream filled with flowers.” Pipher feels that adolescent girls of the 90s were similarly afflicted, and she often makes the contrast between the strength of pre-adolescence girls and afflicted adolescent girls.
This was a very enjoyable book, with numerous common-sense, non-academic insights (and generalizations), such as the following taken from a few pages in the first chapter:
- “Most preadolescent girls are marvelous company because they are interested in everything – sports, nature, people, music and books…. They can be androgynous, having the ability to act adaptively in any situation regardless of gender role constraints…. Girls between seven and eleven rarely come to therapy. They don’t need it…. Something dramatic happens to girls in early adolescence. Just as plane and ships disappear mysteriously into the Bermuda Triangle, so do the selves of girls go down in droves…. Girls know they are losing themselves…. Simone de Beauvoir believed adolescence is when girls realize that men have the power and that their only power comes from consenting to become submissive adored objects…. Girls become female impersonators who fit their whole selves into small, crowded spaces…. This gap between girls’ true selves and cultural prescriptions for what is properly female creates enormous problems. To paraphrase a Steven Smith poem about swimming in the sea, ‘they are not waving, they are drowning.’… Margaret Mead believed that the ideal culture is one in which there is a place for every human gift…. Stendhal wrote, ‘All geniuses born women are lost to the public good.’”
I agree with Mead’s standard, but I disagree with Stendhal. Pipher quoted Stendhal not only in the introductory chapter, but also in the last paragraph in the last chapter in the book:
- “I quoted Stendhal in Chapter One: ‘All geniuses born women are lost to the public good.’ Some ground has been gained since he said that, and some lost. Let’s work toward a culture in which there is a place for every human gift, in which children are safe and protected, women are respected, and men and women can love each other as who human beings.”
What Pipher didn’t say was when Stendhal said that. By referring to Wikipedia, I learned that Stendhal, a/k/a Marie-Henri Beyle, was a French writer who died in 1842. For Pipher to suggest that the role of women in society hasn’t improved significantly since the early 1800s is damaging to her credibility, even more than her characterization of our culture as misogynistic.