Praises I’ll Never Hear
Could any woman ever?
“You’re such a man!”
When used in this context, the word “man” is a versatile, all-purpose compliment encompassing all that is good about being human.
To have dignity, pride, confidence, intelligence, resilience, strength, and the many more innumerable inferences one can derive from such vague — but commonly uttered — praise.
“In most cases,” Wittgenstein famously noted, “the meaning of a word is its use.”
In this case, a “man” does not simply mean a man, but a confident, intelligent, resilient, courageous individual.
In contrast, I have been told to “sit like a lady” and praised with words like “beautiful”, “pretty”, and “charming” as a prerequisite of being female.
It doesn’t matter how close you are to the normative standard of beauty. For girls, the default praise is always pretty, pretty, pretty.
Note that there is no use whereby the word “woman” is interchangeable with confident, intelligent, resilient, or courageous.
In television and media, whenever a father introduces his daughters to the audience, he’d always say, “Look at my beautiful daughters! And my intelligent son…”
La Rochefoucauld said that when people praise others, they only want to hear the praise in return.
I used to say things like, “You’re such a man!” to boys I admire. I cringe thinking about it now.
I realize why I said it. I didn’t admire the men. On the contrary, I must admit to being a bit resentful.
“You’re a classy/charming/beautiful lady” never feels the same.
A woman is praised for being the closest caricature to a woman. In contrast, a man is praised for being closest to the ideal of humanity.
Humanity, when described, isn’t “pretty”, “elegant”, or “coquettish”. Humanity is strong, resilient, capable of overcoming any adversity.
The praises I hear targeted at women don’t feel as accomplished. And even if someone praises me for personal accomplishments, it will never feel as all-encompassing and rewarding as that simple praise I introduced in the beginning feels.
Is this me or internalized misogyny?
When I’m in a relationship with a more submissive individual and feel like the man, I feel both empowered and awful?
I feel like I’m charading a role that isn’t mine. Though I can execute it, I wouldn’t say I like it.
I sympathize with Violet in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. Violet is described in the book as a stark juxtaposition to the image of a woman Stephen (the main character) represents.
Unlike Stephen, who is rebellious, masculine, and athletic, Violet is submissive, feminine, and physically weak.
In The Well of Loneliness, Stephen’s father only tried to educate her and allow her to engage in sports after he read the works of Karl Heinrich Ulrich. Ulrich was a German writer who first theorized that there are “men trapped in women’s bodies” and “women trapped in men’s bodies”.
That led Stephen’s father to think that Stephen was had a “man’s soul” trapped in a woman’s body. In effect, he did not see her as a “real” woman.
By providing an alternative image of a woman, Radclyffe Hall inadvertently shot feminism in the foot because the “better” alternative of a woman other than the default is a masculine woman.
While I believe that women should break out of the traditional mold, the reader infers very clearly from her text that being manly is superior to being feminine.
The way she describes Violet in contrast to Stephen — in this part I strongly dislike — is of Violet as a typical woman according to Hall’s view: catty, decorous, dependent, and unintelligent.
Perhaps me wanting an image of femininity that isn’t based on a man might be internalized misogyny.
I might have overlooked the possibility that men aren’t the default, but humanity is. And as men are modelled after humanity, women should too — therefore being modelled after men.
Is femininity constraining? I firmly believe so. But why do I want to be feminine?
Not the Violet Antrim kind — the Grace Kelly kind! Is it part of my ‘inherent’ nature? Or is it sexist concepts manifesting themselves in my brain?
Even Grace Kelly — the most revered icon of femininity — also mainly utilizes her feminine charm to be a subject of desire.
Even standards of beauty and desire are different for both genders. A man must be sublime — dark, obscure, vast, magnificent, loud, and spontaneous. A woman must be beautiful — small, smooth, subtle, light, and soft.
A lady cannot have sublime qualities, but a man who has them is highly respected. Using this context of beauty, a man cannot have beautiful qualities. He is deemed weak and effeminate if he has them.
It is evident to everyone that beautiful qualities are far inferior to sublime qualities — that if a man is like a woman, he has downgraded himself.
Back then, women are not deemed worthy of harboring male attributes, such as leadership and bravery. Now, women are praised for having stereotypically male qualities.
On the other hand, men are still frowned upon for having stereotypically female attributes.
Therefore, while women being like men is an upgrade, men being like women is an insult beyond recognition.
A beautiful little fool
“A girl must be a fool, a beautiful, little fool,” says Daisy from The Great Gatsby.
When I was young, there was always this pressure to compete with my cousins. They were compared to me the most because of our similarity in age.
If I didn’t try to compete with my male cousins, I would probably not be half academically inclined. A large part of my attention to academics was due to my male cousins.
They were always the shining ones during family trips, as they helped out a lot with luggage and carrying things.
At the same time, I was frequently told not to move heavy items because it would be damaging or dangerous to my health as a woman.
As a result, I felt like a ghost, non-existence, a redundancy in their eyes.
I was also never confident in sports and primarily reluctant to participate due to it being a boys’ club.
Even in Grade 6, when I said I wanted to join the Soccer Club, my conservative English teacher said, “What? Join the Soccer Club? But you’re a girl!”
Apart from the discouraging boys club scenario with sports, there was this looming doctrine that I shouldn’t over exercise my body.
Above all else, manage your body, exercise only to achieve a desirable figure. Don’t exercise your arms, lest you gain unattractive biceps. You want to exercise your thighs, though.
But exercising your mind would never cause a compromise to beauty — you could always pretend to be a fool whenever the situation requires it.
And I always did. I was only capable to the extent that it benefits me, but in instances in which I know boys will help out, I stepped aside and did not do anything. I pretended to be a fool.
I regretted that very much. People tell me it’s “female privilege” to have some male-dominated departments so that I do not have to prove myself in them.
But the same arguments apply towards the piggyback riders in group projects.
I did not want to be one, not because I felt terrible for the others. I just knew that if I did not contribute, that was taking a loss for myself — I would not learn from the experience.
I wish I were less passive as a child — to be less of a beautiful, little fool. I argue all the girls reading this piece should stop trying to be praised for their beauty — if this is your first time breaking out of the trance.
At some point, you might have convinced yourself, “He’s not saying I’m beautiful for my looks. I have a beautiful personality!”
Stop lying to yourself. Notice your mind’s defense mechanism sublimating your initial valid assumption to something else.
Accept the harsh reality that being called a beautiful girl is never the same as the all-encompassing, versatile praise of, “You’re such a man!”
If you are going to take one lesson from this piece: Demand that you be praised based on the grounds of a human, not as a woman.