Monday, August 11, 2008

"I Enjoy Being a Girl"

By Maria L. Boccia, PhD
Professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology
Director of Graduate Programs in Counseling Charlotte campus

To me, the song "I Enjoy Being a Girl," sung by the Linda Low character in Rogers and Hammerstein's 1958 musical Flower Drum Song, has always represented the nadir of the entertainment industry’s presentation of women’s values, motives and desires. Low enjoys being a girl when she can wear makeup and frilly clothes, and celebrates how the curves of her body attract men, using that to manipulate them and get what she wants from them. Her total focus and only goal in life is to get married, it hardly matters to whom. If one examines TV characters from that decade, this is typical of how women were presented and portrayed.

Our society has seen two major women's movements, one starting in the mid-1800s, which culminated in women winning the right to vote in 1920, and the second starting in the 1960s, which had more-difficult-to-measure goals about the quality of women’s lives. [It has always fascinated me that both of these movements followed on movements related to race (abolition in the 19th century, and the civil rights movement in the 20th century), when women involved in these movements recognized their own disenfranchisement and lack of social and political power.] Both of these movements have resulted in significant improvements in the lives of women in this country. When considering this, we may be tempted to think of sociological indicators, such as changes in legal standing or economic well-being, but I’d like to focus on a more personal, psychological impact.

I did not enjoy being a girl. When I was growing up, that is. As an adult, I have had to “work through this issue,” as we say in the trade, doing the hard emotional/psychological work of understanding why I felt this way, from where this feeling about myself came, and changing it. At one point, I asked my therapist, "I wonder how common this is among women." Her response was, “you’re the researcher; do the research!” I did not do a formal, NIH-funded, multi-million dollar research project. But I did do a little internet-based study.

I had access to two email listservs focused on evangelical women (this was not a “representative sample” but a sample of convenience, with all the limitations that implies). I sent them an email questionnaire in which I asked them about whether they enjoyed being a girl (or not), and why. I also asked some other questions like birth year, if they had brothers or sisters, and so on. I found that a significant percentage of women, like me, did not enjoy being a girl. But there was an interesting phenomenon in the data. Things like having brothers or sisters and such did not effect how likely the women were to report not liking being a girl. The year 1960, however, seemed to be an important year. Among women born before then, who would have been taught to be like Linda Low, over two-thirds of the women did not enjoy being girls. The reasons they gave tended to be about the restrictions they felt: things they could not do, games they could not play, stuff they could not have, because they were girls and not boys. Women born after 1960 were much less likely to say they did not enjoy being girls: less than half responded this way. They reported feeling no such limitations on what they could do or aspire to do or be.

I was born before 1960 and I saw myself reflected in these women’s answers. That was pretty heady, and healing, stuff. There are things to criticize about the women’s movement of the 60s, including some excesses. But I cannot criticize the empowering effect on young girls and their aspirations of being told “I am woman, hear me roar . . . I am strong . . . I can do anything,” to quote a different old song by Helen Reddy. To my mind, that was the power and success of the modern women’s movement. Women discovered that it is a good thing to be a woman. We could enjoy being a girl!

According to the gospel accounts, Jesus reached out to lift up the disenfranchised and powerless, including the women. Women flocked to him because his affirmation helped them see themselves as he saw them, as daughters of the King. Peter, quoting Joel, told the first hearers of the gospel on Pentecost that “your sons and daughters shall prophesy” as God promised. The Holy Spirit came and fell on both male and female disciples, in equal measure, with an outpouring of power and gifts for ministry. Those first disciples spread out from Jerusalem, using those power and gifts to spread the good news of Jesus’ saving work on the cross to the world.

Unfortunately, the church has too often sided with Rogers and Hammerstein, telling women they need to be satisfied with the life of Linda Low. Not only does this rob God of the gifts he places in women’s bodies, but it sends messages to little girls about who they should aspire to be and what they can and cannot aspire to do. They grow up to be women who do not like being girls. Sadly, they also grow up to be women who do not like the church or the God the church reflects to the world. As a professional scientist, I have been the sad listener of many intelligent, educated women’s explanations about how they would have nothing to do with a God who devalues women so much. The irony of this is that many of the passages of Scripture used to restrict women’s opportunities in the church were initially written with the intent of helping the church to avoid allowing anything to interfere with unbelievers hearing the gospel.

Well, I have done the hard work. I have made peace with my gender. Sometimes, I even enjoy being a woman. I know that God has made me this way and that he has declared that very good. I also know that being a woman does not mean I cannot do this or that. I am satisfied knowing that it is God who chose to make me a woman, and that he has called me and given me gifts to fulfill that calling. I am definitely with Helen Reddy on this one. I can do anything, . . . through Christ who strengthens me.

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