The following conversation between myself and someone takes place on a more-or-less weekly basis, depending on how often I find myself conversing with random men who have been fooled by my unintentional look of naivety and all those other things that apparently make me appear susceptible to halfhearted compliments:
Man (henceforth labeled ‘smooth pick-up artist’): “So, why is a pretty girl like you still single?” (if he’s really good he even swops ‘girl’ for ‘woman’, thereby hitting my vulnerable ‘please-take-me-seriously’ chord. And also reminding me of the movie, which is less of a good thing).
Me: “Gasp! You think I’m pretty?” (pull mock horrified/flattered face) “Well, to tell the truth, I’ve just been waiting for the right man to come along and ask me that question, and, you know, really see my beauty. Why don’t I just jump on your lap and kiss the living daylights out of you?” (proceed to do just that). “Also, I should warn you, from now on I shall stalk your every movement on facebook and send you desperate drunken whatsapps begging you to come and fulfill my every sexual need at odd times of the night, causing you to eventually drop dead from exhaustion. In the meantime, though, you will have a whale of a time telling all of your friends about this chick who just can’t get enough of your body and your scintillating intellect.”
Reaction I’d really like to give:
Me: 1. “Because I don’t want to sully my gene pool or my future happiness with a condescending, unimaginative, backhanded compliment-handing chauvinistic asshole like you.”
2. “I’m celibate. And I just became a lesbian. No, drop that. I just became asexual. Also, I have a penis. And it’s bigger than yours” (grin evilly).
3. “Because being single allows me to wear dirty socks to bed, hog all the hot water in a half-an-hour shower, and allow fast food boxes under my bed to propagate at a terrifying rate.”
Reaction I really give:
Me: “Ooh…you know (mumble slightly). Life. I’m waiting for the right person to turn up and I’m not settling for anyone who’s going to bore me out of my mind in six months’ time – and, before you ask, no, I’m not going to have random sex until I find someone I actually like. Mostly because I already have and it’s boring too.” (I phrase this as nicely as I can, of course, so as to both imply that I’m not interested while in no possible way hinting that Smooth Pick-up Artist is actually causing bursts of smoldering lava to leak all over my brain. I’m nice. Blame my mom).
At this point, I should probably explain – to anyone who perhaps does not immediately find the question as offensive as I do – why such a seemingly harmless phrase leads to such mutinous thoughts:
1. The word “pretty” in that sentence (or beautiful, or lovely, or, god-forbid, sexy) implies:
– That I, being a woman, crave having my appearance validated by every male (and female), and that this simple word will unlock bountiful fountains of gratitude within me. Whereas I think, you know, that’s it’s almost like me asking a man “Why does a guy with such huge biceps still not have a girlfriend?”, hoping to thereby get him to immediately drop to one knee and propose – which would not only be insulting to him and all of the wonderful characteristics he presumably possesses, it’s insulting to my entire gender too, because I am actually saying that women are just after huge biceps. The same applies the other way around – is he saying men only want pretty girls? Isn’t he shooting his own attempts at appearing deep and sensitive in the foot?
The most horrible part of the above word is that, while seeing through the compliment, I still feel flattered. I hate it, and I ignore it, but I do. And that makes me feel manipulated. And angry at the whole wide world for propagating the myth that we need to be pretty to somehow be valid. (I have nothing against compliments. Just, you know, perhaps we could drop some more meaningful ones in, here and there. Someone asking me “why does a girl with such a pretty brain still not have a boyfriend?” would make me marginally less seething. Just marginally, though, because the rest of the question is still pretty fucked-up.
– That being pretty equals having a boyfriend, i.e. being loved. Subtext: not being pretty = not being loved.
2. The word “still” implies:
– That there is some or other race going on, and I’m late. The others are already tearing across the tracks and I’m still putting on my running shoes. All the eligible bachelors are being snatched up and I am missing out on some prime man-hunting hours which, once I have lost my youth and beauty, I will never regain. Also, my ovaries are weeping. Furthermore, this word smacks of hinting that my primary purpose in life should be to catch a man, and be quick at it.
As for the rest of the sentence, I just find the implication that being single is somehow inadequate, less worthwhile than being in a relationship, highly offensive. It says that a (pretty or not) girl obviously wants, needs, desires desperately to be in a relationship. It overlooks whole mountains of interestingness and validity and humanness locked up in one person in a grossly oversimplifying attempt at labeling. It questions my ability to maintain meaningful human interaction; in fact, to me there is a hint in there somewhere that my being in a relationship or not is a gauge of my social desirability and ability. Yes, I read all of that in one sentence. Yes, no one thinks of all of that when they say one seemingly harmless phrase. That, however, does not mean all of this subtext doesn’t colour in their thoughts. We are subject to a whole lot of presuppositions that surface in our most harmless questions to others.
Now, in what is sometimes a second attempt to get me to consider him, or at least to sound world-wise and experienced, Smooth Pick-up Artist says:
“You’re just too fussy.” (and then he launches into a story about a friend of his who was also like me, but who finally found a beer-guzzling hunk-a-meat who somehow changed her mind and is still making her, their four children and their two Chihuahuas, happy. They now live in a lovely little face-brick house with barbed wire all around and a work-in-progress car standing smoldering in the backyard; wifey scrapbooks the heck out of all her friends’ weddings and has an exercise bike she never uses (nothing wrong with this picture. Except that it scares the hell out of me)).
Note: this has been said to me by more than just men. Some of my best friends have even told me stuff in this vein, and while I love them and I think I have good taste in friends, I consider it a big favour that I have passed over these comments with only a slight grimace. They usually tell me “you know, nobody is perfect” and “just because you’ve been hurt doesn’t mean everybody is like that”. About that: I know nobody’s perfect. I like that. I think it’s fun. Also, I think the ‘one lid for each pot’ is rubbish. And I have actually navigated the dating world, so far, with surprisingly few scars. I do not go around hating all men and checking my every possible boyfriend’s phone for signs of cheating. I am not bitter. I have given as good as I got and I have loved it, even the crying bits because they felt like good research (which might be weird, I admit). Stop being condescending, world and every-bloody-body in it (which, unfortunately, would include me more than occasionally).
The thing is, I’m not fussy enough by half. I fall in love with every brain capable of stringing together two coherent sentences, with every glimpse of a good heart peeking through a roughish exterior, with every nice pair of legs walking in front of me. I am half in love with most of mankind, actually. Being aware of this and trying to keep my head more or less steadily on my shoulders is all that stands between me and twenty well-researched novels on splitting assets and on how to choose a good lawyer.
Let me put it this way: half the bloody world is getting divorced/has gotten divorced/will be getting divorced. Of those still married, let’s not pretend that in many cases this didn’t take much burying of resentment, let alone adjusting to disappointed hopes. I am going to be optimistic and say that it is a testament to human resilience and our hopeful nature that we are still getting married at all (or it could just be a crippling fear of being alone, but whatever). I’m not bashing marriage or relationships. I’m saying that ‘being too fussy’ is not, cannot be, a bad thing. I know myself. I know what I want. And I am not going to allow a fear of being alone chase me into making rash decisions.
And no, ‘not all men’ ask the wonderfully inane question which set me on this ranting track in the first place. What’s more, many who do ask it mean well. So do my friends. Too bad – good intentions are really, truly, not enough. Ask any person who has settled down with an unreliable other in hopes of turning him/her into a saint. Ask any person who has stubbornly tried to unearth hidden intelligence in someone else while wondering why life is so unsatisfying. Ask anyone who tried to turn a kiss in a bar into a meaningful interlude. Ask anyone who thought being called pretty signaled sensitivity and kindness.
P.S. As I was writing this, I ran into a friend who asked me what I was writing. I told him about it. He replied by saying: ‘sounds to me like you’re just bitter because you don’t have a boyfriend. Why don’t you just take a compliment when it’s given?’. This made me ridiculously defensive and all of a sudden I was left wondering whether I am making a fuss over a sentence which is, after all, just a harmless sentence. But it’s not. And the fact that my objections to it can be so easily played down, be seen as the rantings of a frustrated female, that is the very problem. This is what it comes down to: if I say I am single, people hear I want a boyfriend. If I say I don’t want a boyfriend right now, people hear I secretly want a boyfriend. This is why anyone showing a hint of feminism still gets labeled as a ‘sad old maid’. Somehow there is this idea that anyone pointing out flaws in the system is suffering from one thing, and one thing only: disappointment (or bitterness, from failing at life). Sort-of a variation on the “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” adage. You know, ‘coz you’re only a feminist (i.e. a thinking human being) until you meet a good man and settle down.