created to please

Posted by on March 9, 2011 in body image, feminism, Gender roles, Relationships | 11 comments

I read two fascinating novels this past month, both of them very different (The Fox Woman set in an ancient magical Japan and The Windup Girl set in a future dystopian Thailand) but they had a similar refrain in one aspect: they both contained female characters that had been constructed to please men.

In “The Fox Woman” Kitsune is a young fox who falls in love with a man, so she creates magic that will turn her into the woman she thinks he wants. (Which, apparently, is a girl barely into puberty.) In “The Windup girl” Emiko is a manufactured new person, created by geneticists to be a pleasing companion to men. (Later in the book, a scientist muses if Labrador genes were spliced into her DNA, imbuing her with an extraordinary urge to obey.)

It has me mining my own map of social gender relations. For a long time, I wasn’t sure who I was, because all my effort went into being what others wanted me to be. And by “others” I mean mostly men. A long string of male authority figures, church leaders, bosses, family members, and peers who I was desperately trying to please. (I find myself wondering about how few female role models I had.)

It’s embarrassing to write this. But admitting it is the first step, right?

I understood Kitsune’s need for love, the hope that the illusion of beauty would win that love.

I understood Emiko’s internal schisms when her training and genetic engineering cause her to be ‘pleasing’ in the face of insult, to accept humiliation and abuse.

It got me thinking.
And remembering creation stories that have woman being created out of a piece of man’s bone so that he’d have a nice pleasing companion.

BTW, both Kitsune and Emiko had to go through excruciating, brutal (and bloody) transitions as part of their journey from ‘created object’ to self-hood. (Why must these things hurt so much?)

*****

[An interesting aside; a friend of mine read this and made the observation that both of these books are examples of Westerners portraying Asian women as subservient. Different topic, but something to think about.]
***** 

On the flip side, I just started My Horizontal Life; a collection of one-night stands (a birthday gift from my sister). And wow: Author Chelsea Handler is a woman who knows what she wants, how to get it, and has no qualms about immediately jettisoning the offending party if it becomes apparent that he is NOT what she wants. (I am enjoying this book with a mix of admiration and horror.)

Furthermore; I may pull out my old copies of Chicks in Chainmail, Parable of the Sower, Dealing with Dragons, etc, for more stories of women who know what they want, how to get it, with no striving to please or pining for approval.

But meanwhile,

~any thoughts on the problems/solutions/complications of seeking for approval?
~read any good books lately?

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11 Comments

  1. I would LOVE to hear the responses on this topic. I feel that I am STILL struggling with these things. Recently, I’ve had two friends very close to me tell me that I might not be having success in my relationships because I have too strong a personality. Or I come off too smart and standoff-ish. It’s led me to some deep reflections on whether or not I need to start presenting a “softer” side to people I meet (ahem, men!) so that they aren’t put off right at first. I find myself conflicted. But I also wonder if I developed this “harsher” more abrasive side BECAUSE of the way I was brought up. Like my most accessible defense mechanism.

  2. I am reading The Evolution of God right now and find myself surprised by how the current male-centric view in most theology even seems to affect the way we can write about the history of religion. I haven’t heard much about female deities, female prophets, or women in general in this book. The author is a man, and the stories are almost completely male-driven. I don’t know what to think about it, or whether or not to trust it.

    I think your two books sound fascinating.

  3. Do you recommend those books (The Fox Woman and The Windup Girl), G? They sound fascinating.

  4. @Stella
    My thought is that if someone is put off by your “strong” personality (i.e. that you have a brain and opinions and actually express them unapologetically, like only men are supposed to) at first, they’re even less likely to be able to deal with your “strong” personality for a longer period of time.

    I don’t think you’re abrasive or harsh. You are intelligent, articulate, and creative. The only way to say you’re abrasive is to say you’re abrasive for a female – and of course that’s bullshit. I know that I, and likely many others who are attracted to men and male-presenting people, would find a man with your qualities to be very attractive, interesting, and a fabulous potential partner. So I don’t think you need to change a thing.

    Like a lot of (ex-?)Mormon women, I spent a great portion of my life living for the approval of others – usually patriarchal figures whose approval meant I was “good” or “worthy”. As I’ve struggled to move beyond that mindset, I’ve found that it’s probably nearly impossible to live without seeking the approval of some group or person – seeking approval is too intricately twined with our need for love and acceptance. However, I have found that it is possible to find people and groups who will approve of you just the way you are, and who feel no need to alter or constrain you. Those are the people whose approval I seek (or rather know I don’t actually have to) because they’re not put off by my radical social views, my personality, my sexuality, my gender expression or my intelligence – often because they’ve strong personalities, variant sexualities, gender expressions, and/or social views of their own.

    It can get a tad lonely at times, but I find I feel icky every time I try to smoosh myself back into the box in order to be more palatable to others, and so I find myself unwilling to put up with people who would constrain me, or who are uncomfortable or put off by my “strong” personality.

    Of course, as a male, I far more privileged in this area, and am far less likely to be seen as abrasive or overly-opinionated for the same kind of non-approval seeking behaviour that gets a woman labelled that way.

  5. Oh wow. Those books sound fascinating. I’d like to know if they’re worth the time as well.

    As for approval, I’ve never really felt that I cared to win the attention of men. I mean, I definitely wanted to be considered attractive and desirable, but I spent most of my college years trying to figure out the difference between the two. I was also a chronic first dater who didn’t accept offers for seconds unless they met multiple criteria, so I can’t say I cared too much about what men thought. If anything, I spent more time trying to win the admiration of the women I looked up to and wished to emulate, which looking back I guess I was lucky to have a good number of. Even today, I look more to women for assessment than any male, especially authority figures. Quite honestly, I could give a hoot what a church leader thought of me, and would probably reject any criticism from them. But maybe that’s more of a defense mechanism. I also find myself increasingly wondering whether HM approves of my actions and choices, which is an interesting shift.

    I do still value my husband’s opinion though, and have joked that if I ever no longer do, we’re in trouble ;)

    (And Dealing with Dragons was one of my all time favorites as a girl. I just bought the set for my oldest, but maybe I’ll have to give it a re-read first for fun)

  6. @Craig. I know. It’s the conclusion I’ve come to again and again, and it is lonely. That’s the problem with living an authentic life. Once you start, you can’t stop.

    P.S.–you made my day.

  7. thanks guys!

    a part of me wonders how much of this is conditioning and how much of it is a personality ‘wiring’ thing: I have a sister who is SO much better at standing up for herself, has much less compunction to “please” others than me (That might also be a birth-order thing: I”m the oldest.) /Shrugging.

  8. Chelsea Handler is half mormon, at least her Mom was mormon. Some of her work is pretty darn hysterical, IMO. I haven’t read that book, but I should…
    Some people might find her offensive, so your mileage may vary.
    Pleasing can be what happens when a person takes another person’s view or opinion too seriously, to their own detriment. A great example of this is when my dad lost his job when I was in college, one of my grandmothers wanted me to drop out and support the family. I’m not sure anyone took this seriously, my dad told me unequivocally to stay in school. So there is this balance between self interest and fulfillment, and insane self focus to the detriment of others. My default state is to put my needs and feelings second, if not twelfth.

    It’s no way to live, and can make me feel frustrated, tired and unreasonable.

    I think that following one’s own path and heart is important. My hope is that as my kids and others watch me navigate this difficult path, that they’ll feel inspired to find their own way.

    In the end, I have to live with the consequences of my own decisions, no one else. And I am not responsible for anyone’s happiness or fulfillment but my own.

  9. Oh, for and stella and kate (and anyone else who is wondering)…

    I DO recommend these books, they were thought provoking and well written,

    I’ll give you the heads-up that they can both contain explicit sexual content, especially The Windup Girl, which has some *very* disturbing sexual violence elements that can be difficult to get around.

  10. I think the key to overcoming a need to please any flawed human being is to shift all priority to figuring out Who God is, and then pleasing Him (Her, Them, etc., whatever truth you discover about God). As I’ve struggled with this over the years, 2 Nephi 8 has been very helpful to me.

  11. Stopping the quest for (male) approval is kind of the latest stage of my personal growth. I realized at a certain point how silly and contradictory it was for me to care that strongly about my husband’s/my church leaders’ approval of my feminist feelings. Interestingly, I’ve started to look to my mother-in-law for an example of someone who is content and convinced of her own rightness, who doesn’t much care whether other people approve of her (and I say “interestingly” because she and I have such vastly different views on many things, so it’s surprising that her example is helping me become more boldly myself, but it’s definitely the case).

    G, I think you articulated why the “Eve made from Adam’s rib” thing has always bothered me so much, so thank you for that. I’ve just struggled with it, no matter how much people re-iterate that “helpmeet” means “partner” or “equal,” no matter how much people venerate Eve for her role in the Fall (which, don’t get me wrong, I really, sincerely honor as well) — it just comes back to my frustration over the idea that SHE was created for HIM, not the other way around and not in a setup where they were both created as independent agents who could bond and serve one another. Even though I imagine that most present-day Mormons view the rib part as a metaphor, it’s probably still the case that they believe Eve was created for Adam. And maybe they’re right; I wasn’t there. But with the understanding I’ve got and the cultural position I’m in, it’s a very discouraging aspect of the creation story.

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