Friday, 13 February 2015

When I Grow Up...

I've been doing a lot of thinking today about role models.

I think the thing that really struck me today is that, for the most part, the role models that girls grow up with are ingénues. And they come in all sort sorts of categories, created by various groups of people or individuals, etc. So you've got your Disney crowd (Ariel, Snow White, Cinderella, Elsa, Aurora, blah blah). Then you've got the crowd I hung out with -- Jane Eyre, LIzzie Bennett, Dorothea Brooke -- that type of heroine. And they're all presented with their problem that they have to overcome: I'm poor. My stepmother hates me. I'm a fish. I turn things into ice. I'm an orphan. I've fallen in love with my husband's hot young cousin -- the typical stuff, right?

But if you think about it (caveat: Elsa's not really included here - see ***), all their stories pretty much end when they've hooked up with a guy. Generally speaking, their stories end at the altar: 'Reader, I married him'. And while you get a teeny tiny glimpse of good ole Jane as mother, it stops pretty much after her adored Rochester sees the bairn with his own two (unblind) eyes. YAY! The underdog triumphs again.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum - the haggy, croney part. Generally speaking, these women are the exact opposite of the fresh, young things from above. These are the women that are solitary, slightly weird, a bit scary, and either live in the woods in a hut that runs around on chicken legs, bake children into pies, or get burned/drowned as witches. Neat. I can't wait. (Another caveat: Miss Marple comes out all right in the end, but she's a maverick here).

But what I started thinking about is that we all grow up with these kinds of role models. About how it's all about being young, beautiful, feisty, adventurous enough, and we're geared up to find our way, and hope we bag Prince Charming/Mr Darcy along the way. And sometimes the crone shows up, too, but usually it's as the Fairy Godmother, or the Evil Witch, one of which gets us to the ball on time, and the other tries to prevent us from getting PC or Mr D (Lady Catherine loses out here, but she still fits the role).

So there we go - out in the world, armed with these perceptions. And we let ourselves be cast, as willing or not-so-willing participants, wearing whatever costume we're provided with, and the curtain goes up.

And biology kicks in. We get our plumage dusted off and shined up. We parade around, and strut, and beckon. Because somewhere, underneath of all the crazy, fun madness that you get up to when you're young (and beautiful, and slender, and single) are your genes, telling you that it's time to find someone so that you can make sure your genes get passed on before your ovaries shrivel up and turn into dried fava beans. 

So that's what you do. You follow Lizzie Bennett's lead - you dance at the Netherfield Ball, you say 'no thanks' to Mr Collins (let's not even think about passing on genes with him), you finally get rid of the schmuck, and you bag Mr Darcy (TEN THOUSAND A YEAR!!!). 

And you marry him. And as the carriage rolls away to Derbyshire to your palatial estate where you're going to live happily ever after...the instruction manual stops.

Where are the role models for those years in between the ingénue and the crone? Where are the books that talk about what it is to be a matron? A mother? After you've passed on your genes, and you have put aside all the plumage and the frippery and the mating dance -- what then?

[LITERARY ASIDE: Don't forget here that matron doesn't mean fat, red-cheeked, and dowdy. It means a 'married woman or a widow, especially a mother, of dignity, mature age, and established social position.' So being called matronly doesn't suck, really, if the person knows what they're talking about.]

Because all that leads up to the altar, and to child bearing, which results in the fulfilment of your biological destiny, right? (*Please note here that I'm WELL aware that there are plenty of women who have chosen not to have children. But I think there's something behind the baked-in sexual urges of youth that are driven by a primordial urge to make sure your genes make it to the next generation. IMHO, of course).

I know what you're thinking. Scarlett O'Hara. She did it. She married Charles, had Wade. Then she married Frank Kennedy, and had Ella. Then Rhett, and had Bonnie. But if you look at Scarlett, she never makes that transition, does she? She's still always trying to be her 16-year-old self, with the tiny waist, surrounded by all the single gentlemen attending the Twelve Oaks barbecue. She never really transitions out of the ingénue phase until the very end of the book, when tragedy strikes so close to home that she finally has to grow up. But again, we're left hanging - this time, not at the altar, but watching her as she makes her plans for tomorrow, to get Rhett back (i.e. put the plumage on, shake her tail feather, do the mating dance to bring him back).

But I want to know what you think. Where are our matronly trailblazers and mavericks?

We can't rely on characters like Mrs Bennett, with her ribbons, nerves, and discussions of lace. Or Mrs van Hopper - with her bossy, brutish behaviour.

I always have wanted to grow up to be Mrs Fezziwig. Remember her? She's the wife of Ebenezer Scrooge's boss -- the one who throws the terrific Christmas parties for all the employees. We only see her as a glimpse of Scrooge's past, but from what I've seen, I think I like her. She's 'worthy to be [her husband's] partner in every sense of the term'. And Fezziwig himself is a bit old-fashioned, a bit foppish, but about as happy of a man as you'll ever know.

And if that's all I have to go on right now, I'll use it. But I'm going to keep looking.

***Elsa doesn't end up with anyone. She's the Ice Queen, revisited. Clever girl. She gets to be who she really is, without all the hindrance of propriety, society, and family breathing down her neck. If that's a spinster, it comes highly recommended.

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