Beware what books you read when you’re fourteen. Wait… just about everyone reading this is long past fourteen. Too late, then.
When I was fourteen, I read Jailbird, by Kurt Vonnegut, and it remains perhaps my favorite of his novels. Vonnegut was, of course, one of the secular saints of American literature in the 20th century, and I’ll lick any man in the joint who says different. But damn, he missed the boat on gender issues a lot.
There’s a passage where the protagonist references, among the embarrassing and regrettable episodes of his past, a blatantly misogynist song he learned at college:
It was a song to be kept secret from women. It may be that no woman has ever heard it, even at this late date. The intent of the lyricist, obviously, was to so coarsen the feelings of males who sang the song that the singers could never believe again what most of us believed with all our hearts back then: that women were more spiritual, more sacred than men.
I still believe that about women. Is that, too, comical? I have loved only four women in my life – my mother, my late wife, a woman to whom I was once affianced, and one other. I will describe them all by and by. Let it be said now, though, that all four seemed more virtuous, braver about life, and closer to the secrets of the universe than I could ever be.
He goes on to describe how he and his college buddies were terrified of women and what women might expect of them as men and as lovers, a fear that found its expression in jokes and songs degrading women. As he puts it, “It might properly be compared with a song making fun of lions, sung by lion hunters on a night before a hunt.”
That was a very easy sentiment for a fourteen-year-old boy to recognize, and after the manner of boys that age, I took Vonnegut’s statement about women entirely at face value. (I am eternally grateful I didn’t read Atlas Shrugged that summer. I’d probably be an asshole to this day.)
Naturally, this led to some seriously embarrassing problems relating to girls over the next several years of my life. I’m sure many of our female readers will remember me or one of the million boys like me from their high school years: blindly chasing after a perfect female image we kept on a pedestal, and simply pasting one girl’s face after another onto this idol. I stalked, I obsessed, I wrote love letters that would give diabetes to a bowl of butterscotch pudding. I feel like I owe an apology to every girl I fixated on in high school, one in particular who probably knows who she is. I’m sorry I was an addled adolescent asshole. It seemed like a good idea at the time, what with the hormones and the Vonnegut and whatnot.
Meanwhile, my mother was a professional guru. She literally made a living just being wise and enlightened. She used to occasionally list her occupation as “cult leader” on forms because, well, fuck forms. People came from all over to study with her, and one evening over dinner she told me a story that, in the manner of the best gurus, completely shook up my worldview in one minute. To roughly quote her:
One of my students came up to me at the retreat, she was in tears, she was so upset. It seems that at last year’s retreat, she’d met this man, another student, and they had an affair. And it was a really bad idea, and it wasn’t good for her marriage or his, and he’s kind of a jerk, and it ended badly and she regrets ever doing it.
But now she’s run into the same guy at this retreat, and she says she knows she’s going to have another affair with him, even knowing in advance it’s a terrible idea. And she’s crying and beating herself up, asking “What’s wrong with me? Why am I doing this to myself?”
And I think about it for a minute and I tell her, “Well… girls are dumb.”
That was a bolt of lightning to me, and one that was long overdue. In giving that woman permission to own her own foolishness, to see it as mere foolishness rather than a deep personal failing, my mom also opened my eyes.
Girls are dumb. Girls are every bit as prone to ill-considered dipshittery as boys are. Girls are not fucking magic. They are not Tolkein elves who always move gracefully and do everything better and whose farts smell like cookies. Yeah, I know how embarrassingly obvious that sounds, but at the time, that was seriously new information to me.
My relations with women improved dramatically after that, and I became more feminist than I had been after some unfortunate early encounters with overzealous young true believers. It took me a while to actually subscribe to the radical notion that women are people, because I’d been operating on the assumption that they were elves.
I suspect a lot of guys walk a similar path. Some, burdened with the girls-are-magic theory, do what the boys in Jailbird did and try to replace reverence and fear with hate and contempt. Others walk what they imagine to be a nobler path, paying tribute to the perfect goddess that they’re projecting onto some poor human girl who didn’t ask for it. And some, like me, eventually figure out that pedestalization is bullshit, love is something that happens between flawed and fallible human beings, and girls are dumb.