Friday, September 2

Cute and Sassy or Dumb and Demeaning?

"I'm too pretty to do math."

"Future Trophy Wife."

And now, the newest in the line of 'cute and sassy' shirts the fashion industry has cooked up for girls ages 7 to 16: "I'm too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me." from the lovely J.C.Penny's. Link to article here.

Being just over the cusp of the age group that shirt was marketed to (seventeen) I understand exactly how influential even one such 'cute and sassy' shirt can be. Everywhere girls my age and younger turn, we are told to be pretty figures, not intelligent, hard-working women. We're told that guys are the smart, working ones and girls are the cooking, cleaning, pretty ones. Really, the stereotype since the 1950s hasn't changed enough. Girls are told to be pretty above all else (get the make-up, do the surgery even if it might cost your life, wear the shoes that leave you with crippled feet but makes you three inches taller and sexy at fourteen), and that diminishing our intelligence only increases our appeal because intelligence can intimidate the guys. And, of course, girls are all told that they need a guy to be happy. You would think that romance novels would tell me the same thing, right? Well, I'll get to that in a minute. First, some background.

I feel so blessed to have been raised in a family where my mother was an incredibly independent and intelligent woman, owner of two businesses, and for a time the primary and only breadwinner. Reading was encouraged and my parents actually made me math problems when I was in first and second grade when I asked for them. They delighted in my zeal to learn and encouraged my academic growth. I also got to be part of a special program when I was young for 'gifted' students, and the teacher of that program was Mrs. Monas - another incredibly intelligent woman. From there I went on to all-girls middle and high school, learning to be independent and work with other intelligent girls in the classroom. I grew up in a school where women were encouraged to be the best, learn the most, etc all away from the influence of guys. To me, women have and always will (and should) be smart. I know that my intelligence is scary to boys my age because I can see it on their faces. But I also know, in later years, I will find a husband who enjoys my smarticles and has some smarticles himself and I will be thankful that I worked so hard to be smart - not pretty - when I was young. While prettiness and intelligence both fade over time, prettiness fades at a much, much faster rate.

Romance novel heroines have further reinforced what my mother and Mrs. Monas have taught me. While the insipid heroines who are frail and delicate bobble-heads do still persist, most often we see a celebration of a woman's purpose and intelligence. In paranormals, we have kick-ass, physically awesome, cunning, witty heroines that save the world from demons and the apocalypse. In contemporaries we see women facing both the everyday struggles of a harried world being mom, businesswoman, and family caretaker (sometimes all at once) and extraordinary struggles (Lori Foster's novels, for instance, feature contemporary heroines dealing with kidnapping and other conspiracies). In historicals we see heroines struggling to overcome the limitations and boundaries imposed on them because of their gender. Throughout the eras, whether natural or supernatural, romance heroines are smart, rebellious, ambitious, and hard-working. Usually, they're unconcerned with their own physical features. Usually, they're also unconcerned with nabbing the guy. He's kind of a bonus in their life story - an awesome extra that the heroine didn't realize was lurking around waiting to pop up and say 'surprise' and turn her life from awesome to super-extra awesome.

And the wonderful thing is that these 'extras' that pop up love the woman for who she has become. They love her intelligence and independence, her spunk, her personality. Usually they love her looks, too. But they appreciate her inner features far more than her outward ones. The external inspires lust, the internal inspires the love that makes a romance novel different from porn. The hero loves the heroine because she is not one of those vapid airheads who made her brother do her math homework or wants to be a trophy wife. She gets her happy ending because she's not afraid to be the wonderful, intelligent, ambitious woman she is. And to me, that was the most important lesson of all. I can be loved for my intelligence, rather than my looks. I will get my happy ever after even if I'm smart. What my mother, Mrs. Monas, and my education instilled in my, my reading reinforced.

After all, one can't help but have their doubts. Sure, your mom and dad, your teachers, they all encourage you to be smart. But then you hit 14 and suddenly the guys are lookin' good (or not!) and you don't know how to make them like you - but you do know the dumb girls who act even dumber are getting all the guys, especially the ones who grind to the music, wear mini-skirts, go to tanning salons, get mani-pedis and were enough mascara to make an elephant's tail look think. You say to yourself, can there really be a guy out there who likes a girl like me? Who is smart and driven and motivated and doesn't want to wear tons of make-up all the time or worry about how she looks or what she wears? Well, the entirety of the romance genre answered my question with a resounding 'yes' and solidified my desire to be in a relationship with a guy who knew the full expanses of my intelligence, be they broader than his or not. And if I wanted a guy like the romance heroes, and my adolescent brain tells me I do, then I discovered I needed to emulate their good qualities - intelligence, honesty, bravery, caring, stubbornness, kindness, sensitivity, sarcastic wit, good-naturedness (is that even a word?), leadership, etc. I shaped myself after both the women in my fictional life and the women in my real life and both groups were, thankfully, very strong.

So, what's the point? I guess I'm just giving you another reason to read romance novels - personal character building. Maybe if we forced girls to read romance novels instead of *shudders* Robinson Crusoe for summer reading, we'd find the next generation of young women a bit more intelligent - or maybe not.

I guess I just wanted to make note of a problem that is very real to me in my everyday life. Girls, and women, still make 82 cents per every dollar that men make, doing the same work for the same hours. Women, however, have just recently surpassed men in graduation rates from college. But are we building stronger women, or simply letting the men fall apart? Why do we still encourage this stereotype that men were born to be smart and women were born to be pretty by buying millions of dollars of make-up and fashion magazines edited to make people look alien - thin and unrealistic? I don't know the answers, or the solutions, to any of these questions. I'm just a kid. But I do think it's time to stop joking around about the importance of education and making idiotic t-shirts putting people down for being driven and intelligent, and wanting the world to know it. How would the t-shirt designer like it if he inspired a girl to not go to college by sneaking into her subconscious when she's six and turning her into another mindless 'trophy wife', when she could've been the one to discover the cure to the cancer he dies from twenty years later? All of our actions have unintended consequences, and I wish people would think of them before doing dumb shit like this. Why on earth would you encourage anyone to be dumb? And why is that cute, or sassy? Why is it funny to see a girl wearing one of these shirts?

In short, I'm angry. I feel demeaned. I want better for my gender, and I hope you do, too. Don't buy shirts like this for your kid. To be honest, I'm 17, and I know how wrong these shirt slogans are, so if you have a 6-year-old and can't figure that out you must be dumb as a doornail. Encourage her, instead, to be smart and hard-working and to make something of herself with no ring on her finger or guy in her future. She can be independent because she's smart. And our fore-mothers worked too hard to get us that independence for us to abuse it now.

Thank you, Susan B. I appreciate your effort.

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