Back at the beginning of March, six of the beau’s college friends flew out from California for a surprise visit (they rented their own house and I was in on it in advance, so thumbs up emoji there) and it was fucking fantastic. The beau doesn’t have many local friends here and as such he was long overdue for a brogasm or two.
But it was also a little bit weird, for me anyway, because the experience bolded and underscored just how not used I am to being around guys en masse anymore. Back in our 20s, when our dilapidated rental was a revolving door of pals, it was regular life. Dudes would suddenly materialize in our living room and drape themselves across the furniture like unwashed throw blankets. There was always a Die Hard or Lethal Weapon movie on TV, and everyone would settle in for a long afternoon of beer bottles, blunts, and jokes and jokes and jokes. Fun fact, Das Racist was actually rapping about my house.
Then, you know, Stereotypical Age-Related Changes occurred, and today my life is such that I very rarely have to spot clean my couch due to bong water spills. My IRL and internet friends tend to be single or married women, and we all pass around smart feminist essays about work/life balance, and everyone in my feeds has come to an agreement to revere Beyoncé. So my current world is very much a quiet, placid lady lake, into which six dudes suddenly belly-flopped four weeks ago and set a bunch of waves rolling.
The first thing I noticed was that they were so confident! They would just say stuff and if they disagreed with something someone else said they were like: I do not agree with that. They didn’t hedge, or overexplain, or generously couch their reasons in qualifiers. They just said what they wanted to say unapologetically. Yet during our one-on-one conversations I kept finding myself changing like a chameleon to match their individual vibes: talking hippie with one friend, highbrow with another, wry with the next, etc. Why was I doing that? That wasn’t cool, right? The next thing I noticed about these guys was that they all had these epic stories about wild times and grand adventures, so many of them that I started to feel bad about the lack of my own stories. Where were my honorable scraps? Funny brushes with the law? Legendary tales of belligerence? Had I ever truly lived, before? Did I know what life even was?
Our friends were fun and great, but I inadvertently came out of that weekend feeling bummed about myself. First, I should know enough by now, at age 35, not to change myself for anyone else. I should know by now to always speak exactly who I am clearly and deliberately. Right? Second, I should be on track to live like The Most Interesting Man in the World. I want to slide into my 70s with a rugged face and surrounded by mutely attentive young women at a bar, and I want the narrator to say about me that “her only regret is not knowing what regret feels like.”
Well. It’s all well good and valid to want natural confidence and personal acclaim accompanied by zero regrets. This is very much a humanity-wide desire. Unfortunately it’s harder for some humans to reach it than others. Personality is a factor, sure, but at some point personality ends and cultural conditioning begins, and we’ve all been conditioned to a culture that values men’s creativity, men’s stories, and men’s experiences over women’s. We’re conditioned in this so hard and so early that we internalize it as just plain facts. Joanne Rowling became J.K. after her publisher told her boys wouldn’t want to read a book written by a woman. Girls (and women, for that matter) aren’t expected to be quite so picky.
As I mulled that weekend over I realized that I’ve spent my life trying to be more like straight dudes, because straight dudes are what I’m used to reading, watching, and hearing. How many long, slow camera pans over a female body have I endured? How much time and emotional investment have I thrown into shows or movies that don’t even bother to include one interesting, important, nuanced female character? Meanwhile Kanye West continues to rap misogynistic lyrics and we’re all still okay with it because it’s art; he’s brilliant and he’s troubled and he’s a genius and it’s part of his persona. Try to imagine the roles reversed; try to imagine a music critic acknowledging a massively popular female rapper’s misandry as embarrassing while still stressing her overall brilliant, troubled genius (the full review is remarkable for all the ways it manages to describe West as an asshat while still declaring his music as a “complex, conflicted masterpiece”). You can’t, because it would never happen in a million years. The very idea is ludicrous. No real dude wants to listen to raps written by a woman, I mean at least that’s what we’re told!
Girls are raised differently from boys, and then we’re reminded constantly that we have to be more like them if we want to get anywhere; to be respected; to have half of a chance at being taken seriously. It’s the longest con of all our lives. Because you know the second you stride confidently into the office and start straightforwardly, unapologetically speaking your truth like your male colleagues, you’re going to get slapped with the “cold bitch” label. It’s the same with going out in the world — the rules of engagement are wildly dissimilar for women and men. For my college senior project I wanted to source materials and interviews from truck stops around lower Michigan and upper Ohio and my painting professor was like, “It’s really not a good idea for a young woman to hang out alone around truck stops.” And you know what, it sucks that he said that but I also didn’t totally disagree with him. Many of my plans or big adventures have gotten reigned in or scrapped entirely due to the possibility of rapey outcomes. It’s a lot harder to become The Most Interesting Man in the World when the world is out to get you.
I knew all this, intellectually (thanks, internet feminist essays!); about how the game is rigged from the start, and yet! I continued feeling bad about the ways in which I’m not more like guys are. They’re so confident and they do so much stuff! Why couldn’t I be more confident and do more stuff?
I finally had to gently take myself by the shoulders and say, look, if it’s impossible to be like a dude, it so follows that it’s impossible for me to compare myself to them based on their standards. Success in our culture is largely defined by men. What does woman-defined success look like? I guess that’s what everything from Lean In to Christian homemaking blogs tries to answer but can’t, because the question itself is a just million reflections back at us from inside our own cultural House of Mirrors.
All this time I’ve been taking myself to task over shit I’ve been conditioned to devalue even as I do it. That conversational mirroring thing I was doing earlier in this post? Guys don’t tend to do that, so I wrote it off as flaky and weak. Being pleasantly accommodating isn’t something strong people do. Strong people don’t change themselves or bend to anyone else’s will. These are the personality traits we value. It’s not just a coincidence that these values align with how we typically raise our boys up to be — it’s also a tragedy. For all of us.
I’m never going to be The Most Interesting Man in the World. Much like a lady version of Kanye West, the very idea seems ludicrous.
But unlike The Most Interesting Man in the World, I know what regret feels like.
I’m starting to believe that’s valuable.