By: Lorraine Sovern
We live in a culture that almost constantly promotes offensive and dangerous dynamics within our interpersonal relationships. These dynamics include stereotypes and damaging assumptions that are threatening our well-being as well as our ability to connect to each other on a widespread level.
More specifically, these societal expectations are perpetuating self-hatred, hyper-consciousness, and intense self-criticism among young women. It’s no surprise that most girls are already unhappy with their bodies before they’re even fully developed. A reaction to this epidemic is that relationships become a performance, as young women feel pressured to fulfil very specific and generally unachievable ideals. Way too much effort revolves around behaviors that are learned from a broken society.
In my opinion and experience, one of the most threatening stereotypes about relationships is the idea that, in a heterosexual couple, the woman must work tirelessly to keep her man’s interest. Value is placed on holding onto him in general, whereas the man is described as seeing his partner as a “ball and chain” or some sort of trap which restricts him from his natural urges to roam.
There is a huge flaw with the message this sends. We are telling young women that they are inherently not enough: that they must constantly work to seem new and visually pleasing in a way that completely revolves around their worth as sexual objects. As a result, we have transformed their idea of self-worth into a measurement of how males view them as sexual objects. Then, the other side of it teaches men that women are “ball busting, needy, and high-maintenance.” It really makes me wonder why a man who believes all these things would enter into a long term commitment with a woman at all.
These beliefs paint a woman’s concern, love, and involvement as a flaw, while simultaneously telling her that all that effort would be more appreciated if it went into accentuating her appearance and overall submissiveness. With this in mind, of course young women are becoming consumed with the idea of achieving some sort of perfection. It’s even less of a surprise that they are falling into dangerous habits and negative views of themselves as a result.
Young women are entering into relationships as a performance. We are encouraging them to play a part, and that part completely revolves around male pleasure. There are three roles or personas, in particular, which I have noticed a prevalence of: the dream girl, the cool girl, and the real girl. These roles dictate expression and stifle the true identity of women who have much more to offer than they are being given credit for.
The dream girl takes on many shapes. In a way, she is a mosaic representation of men’s objectification, which is defined by the preferences of each individual male; though, there is often a universal characteristic. This characteristic is the idea that there is a type of mind-blowing beauty that a female can possess, which, once the man witnesses, he will be changed forever.
This plays into the idea of love at first sight. The main differentiation is how one sided it is. In this situation, a man has some imaginary visual ideal that may be a combination of different unrealistic representations of women. Sadly, these “ideal” representations are usually formed from what young boys see in the media. This includes a dangerously early introduction to pornography and the idea of women as sexual objects whom lack a voice and belief system that is unique or at all complex and insightful.
The concept of the dream girl usually becomes a combination of outrageous beauty standards and wild sexual desires, all paired with the expectation that she should somehow still demonstrate a wholesome appearance of innocence and virginity.
I believe some of that appeal comes from the assumption that she has been preserving herself for the man in question. He gets to fulfil his hero fantasy: be the one to awaken her and enlighten her, while ultimately teaching her how to shed her identity and replace it with a mish mosh of “desirable” traits. There was a specific song from my youth, which I believe demonstrates this horrific idea very clearly. That song is “Liquid Dreams” by O-Town.
A quick Google search of the lyrics will immediately reveal the dangerous sentiment, and just how playfully our culture admits this fetish. Just take a look at the chorus: “I dream about a girl who’s a mix of Destiny’s Child / Just a little touch Madonna’s wild style / With Janet Jackson’s smile / Throw in a body like Jennifer’s / You’ve got the star of my liquid dream.” The message this sends to young women is that they, as an individual, are lacking. And this is not a new idea. This message has been being sent for as long as the culture has been creating content.
Once you start looking for these messages, you’ll see them more and more. Not only do they simply exist, they are often celebrated. For example, the local independent movie theater in my town recently showed a screening of the film Weird Science, 1985. For anyone who doesn’t know, this movie tells the story of two teenage boys who invent their version of the perfect woman via their computer. Film critics went as far as to describe it as a “classic.” That reverence provides a good idea of just how normal these messages are in our culture.
Another prevalently desired persona is the cool girl. I know this concept has been discussed before. Maybe you remember it from the recently popular film Gone Girl, adapted from the novel of the same name. In Gone Girl, the cool girl is mostly characterized by her willingness to share her man’s interests, especially at the expense of her own identity. There is another aspect of the cool girl that they touch on briefly, but I’d like to go into it just a little deeper.
This is the cool girl who doesn’t get mad. More than just being generally adaptable, the cool girl is always agreeable. There is absolutely no behavior that can make her lose her cool. She is inherently “chill.” She is utterly non-reactive. This lack of reaction fulfils the man’s desire to live in peace. It falls into the bigger issue that a woman should be available to fulfil the needs a man can’t on his own. But her own responses, desires, and reactions are not valid in return. If anything, they are like an occupational hazard.
The idea is that any concern or disapproval on the woman’s side is purely a nuisance for the man and almost always described as an overreaction. The deeper issue in this scenario is that the man never had an intention of reciprocating, and that is somehow acceptable. A woman’s complaint is viewed simply as a noise he doesn’t want to hear, and that’s the end of it. There is no responsibility on the man’s part to take into account that his actions have consequences or that a committed relationship demands equality. The woman is deemed irrational for having an issue at all.
Therefore, the cool girl is the perfect solution. She will let anything and everything go down without protest. Her silence is not characterized as a sacrifice either; it is considered a duty and obligation to her man. It is important to remember, the key idea behind all of this is that she is lucky to have a committed man at all. She should do everything in her power to keep him satisfied, so he doesn’t leave her.
On a clarifying note, this idea that it is easier for a man to find a woman than it is for a woman to find a man is absolutely backwards and not at all true: yet another lie that our culture perpetuates to keep woman powerless and afraid. It may be true in cases that involve ageism as the defining factor; but, in general, a young woman is often subjected to far more male attention than she could ever desire.
The third persona is the trickiest one to fully define because it has the illusion of authenticity and transparency. This persona is the real girl. The issue is that it is difficult to characterize any behavior as “real” in a scenario where all actions are aimed to fulfil the desire of someone else. A girl may think a guy wants her to be real, but the simple act of trying to appear real makes it inauthentic.
A true version of the real girl would be defined by her full acceptance of herself as she is, without any conformity needed or the desire to change herself to seem more appealing. The simple act of augmenting appearance and behavior to seem more authentic is inherently not. Think of the product of natural looking makeup. This is obviously an oxymoron and I find it outrageously misleading that the no-makeup look for women still does require makeup. If the desire was truly to look natural, your bare face would be all you need, perceived imperfections and all.
The implication becomes that a woman should look flawless, not natural. Our culture is trying to swap the meaning there, which is immensely destructive as it sends the message that young women should look effortlessly perfect at all times. This is a direct example of the lie behind the concept of being “real.” This demand for false authenticity falls into almost every category of a woman’s expected behavior and physical being. If a man really wants a “real” woman, he should have absolutely no say in what she does with her body or how she acts. He should accept her as she is, period.
Directly opposing this acceptance, our society starts implanting detrimental values so early on. There are actually clothes for infant girls that contain references to the thickness of their thighs. Even if it’s considered playful, a woman’s body is under scrutiny from the moment she is born. Subtle messages direct girls to conform to male desires before they can even identify their own. Therefore, a woman can think she is being true to herself without even realizing that the desire to please others was implanted into her mind in its formative stages.
This is where deep introspection is required to dissect the true origin of beliefs and behaviors. Instead of encouraging women to be whatever they want to be, we are insinuating that there is a right and a wrong way to look and act. These divisive labels are beyond flawed and outdated. In order to prevent the lasting damage of policing girl’s behavior, we need to open a dialogue. It is our responsibility as adults to right these wrongs.
Imagine a world where girls are as valued and empowered as boys are from an early age. The threat resulting from these societal pressures would be considerably reduced. But if conventions continue down the road they’re currently on, girls will continue to be at risk of long lasting oppression. We need to be encouraging girls to see themselves through a different set of eyes and clarify that the desires of others should not dictate how they define their own worth. An important start is to stop romanticizing destructive and abusive male behavior, as well as to demystify the idea that all you need to be happy is to be in a relationship, no matter how toxic and controlling that relationship may be.