Little girls aren’t taught to be brave, leading to fully-grown women having dreams far bigger than their sense of agency can execute.
You’ve seen Nymphomaniac, right? Art cinema is slow in arriving to the small Colombian mountain town where I live, but even I have managed to (start) watching Volume 1 of Lars von Trier’s soft-porn wave-maker.
So there’s an early scene in Nymphomaniac where a teenage version of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character Joe competes with her friend B to have sex with men on a train. B gives her a few tips, and Joe enters a car, sidles up to its male occupants, and barrels ahead with each of B’s man-conquest strategies—thus producing about 15 seconds of the most agonizing social awkwardness I’ve ever seen on film.
Later, having bonked 11 men, Joe admits that B’s advice was vague but spot-on: “Smile. Make eye contact. If you have to have speak, ask lots of Wh—? questions.” But those useful guidelines still couldn’t save Joe those first 15 seconds in which a girl sets out to discover where her sexual power will take her and has no idea at all what is happening. Pure cinema-viewing agony.
Like Joe in that train car, I’ve found myself at an agonizing loss since my recent move back to a rural area after 10 years of living in big cities. Every time I open my mouth with, for instance, the inquisitive owner of my local café or our absurdly attractive and friendly new neighbors, the mangled high-pitch Spanish that comes out mortifies me so much that I retreat again into a shell of bewildered-gringa perplexity.
This despite the fact that, in theory, I love adventuring. As a kid I obsessed over the novel The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and daydreamed about abandoning my prim, sheltered world for a life at sea like Doyle herself. Amazingly, living now in a cabin atop the Andes with my crazy-adventurer partner Migs, I’ve somehow managed to build a life kind of like that—one of taking risks, discovering the world and its people, ideas, and experiences, deconstructing dysfunctional institutions in my own life and trying to build better ones that can be believed in. Living, as the Role Reboot tagline puts it, off-script.
But, Christ. When my dream life is not unbelievably rewarding, it’s terrifying. The difference between me and Joe from Nymphomaniac or me and Charlotte Doyle is that they are both way more ballsy than I am.
Now, don’t panic: I know as a feminist I shouldn’t use terms referencing male genitalia to refer to the personal quality of bravery (and, ahem, neither should you). But it is slightly instructive to consider why so many of the idioms available in English to describe bravery fall back on coarse phallic imagery, while the gender-neutral words we have available to describe brave people (bold, gutsy, courageous, doughty) sound too dainty, like they were invented for use in a parlor, and lack the same sweary irreverent punch.
We are indoctrinated, even by our own semantics, to believe bravery is male.
The “dry your tears” masculinity training that our culture imposes on boys is the patriarchy’s attempt to train the people it designates as potential leaders to take risks, push themselves through fear and uncertainty (while conversely stigmatizing feelings of vulnerability, leading to emotional issues and psychological repression). In other words, patriarchy trains boys to develop a sense of agency, while on the other hand, fences girls in by teaching them helplessness and passivity.
Let me give a local example from Colombia (where patriarchy is still fierce): Every weekend in my town, troops of elementary-school-age Boy Scouts wind up the mountain by the vanful from Medellin (at 1,500 meters above sea level) to the nearby national park (at 2,600 meters). Then, supervised by their troop leaders, these gutsy kids strap on motorcycle helmets, unload BMXs from their vans, and zigzag at breakneck speeds down the side of the mountain back to the city, crashing into pavements, vaulting over curbs, hillsides, and sometimes each other. Behind them, I gawk in amazement at this breathtaking ritual of group masculinity training.
Those 9-year-olds have already learned how to be more daring than I am now at three times their age—let alone when I was a kid in an evangelical school being taught Christian charm and home economics. While I am completely aware that my fundamentalist upbringing is not the norm in the U.S. (and I know many women who are far braver than me), it does represent the logical extreme of parts of our culture.
Little girls are still mostly deprived of this kind of bravery training, leading to fully-grown women having dreams far bigger than their sense of agency can actually execute. And while I certainly don’t advocate reverse bravery training for girls at the expense of emotional development, I do think disentangling how our conceptions of masculinity are entangled with conceptions of agency can help empower women.
Every new step in an off-script life feels like it might end in heartbreak or social mortification or danger. Being led by your sense of agency can also involve suffering severe moral ambiguity. This is where the difference in coarseness between the words ballsy and doughty comes into the picture.
On the beaten path, society delineates each step, with right and wrong scrutinized and pronounced upon at every turn. When you live off script, you try to independently decipher black and white at every moment, and suffer guilt and criticism when you mess up. Passivity is a more comfortable moral space to occupy, because sins of omission—the ones you commit by not acting—are harder to point out.
I increasingly wonder whether the ballsy women I look up to are as worried as I am about whether they are actually good people or just deeply messed up.
A ferocious friend whose independence I hugely admire has been known on occasion (when she’s drunk, that is) to pat women she likes on the cheek and tell them approvingly: “You’re a real cunt, aren’t you?”
Maybe cunty is exactly the attitude I need to adopt if I’m to live the off-script life that’s now stretching out in front of me.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.