You Play the Girl
Strategic girls manage perception; idealistic girls go up against the narrative, because it’s at the root of the problem, and they get crushed every time. ~Carina Chocano
When I was a young girl (maybe 12 or 13), I watched my mother get up early one Sunday morning and drive down to Walter’s Bakery (the local bakery known for their doughnuts, brownies, and New York-style streusel coffee cake) to buy a bag of glazed, powdered, and jelly doughnuts. She returned home, bag in hand and put the doughnuts on a plate and promptly delivered them upstairs to my five brothers who were in bed.
The problem with this extremely kind gesture is that it was Mother’s Day – that one day a year when fathers and kids are supposed to wait on mom, instead of the other way around. Even back then as a child I thought it was insane for a mother to bring her five sons fresh doughnuts in bed, especially on Mother’s Day. Where’s the justice? There wasn’t any…and that was the problem with growing up female in most homes in the 50’s, 60’s. and 70’s.
If you grew up female during those years, then chances are your mom had a subscription to Ladies Home Journal – a very popular monthly magazine that covered marriage, food, and family issues. You may have even raced to the mailbox (I did) to get the magazine so you could be the first one to read a monthly column called “Can This Marriage Be Saved” – a he said, she said version of marital strife that was almost always solved by the “impartial” therapist who more often than not, advised the wife to try harder and sacrifice. Although the column evolved (slowly) with the times, the message reinforced the importance of male patriarchy over self-preservation.
When I got older, I often wondered why I was so obsessed with “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” and guessed that it may have had something to do with my own parents marriage (a nightmare) and my determination to do things different and have a good marriage. I thought that maybe, just maybe I would find the answer to successfully forging a life with someone else in those glossy magazine pages. Yes,and no.
No matter what anyone tells you, a part of yourself will at times take a backseat to the needs of someone else you love whether it’s a spouse, partner, child, or friend. Trying to find that elusive balance is a life long journey where someone (including yourself) always feels shortchanged. So, when I saw the book You Play the Girl – a series of essays on “Playboy Bunnies, Stepford Wives, Train Wrecks, & Other Mixed Messages,” by Carina Chocano, I sensed that I found a book by an author who really understood the cultural pressure endured by women brought up in the mid-20th century. That she also had a fixation on “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” (her first chapter is named after the column) confirmed my hunch.
Before writing You Play the Girl, Chocano was the film critic at the LA Times and a television critic and staff writer at Entertainment Weekly and Salon which gave her an insider’s view of the entertainment industry and how an industry so central to our culture pressured women to conform to unrealistic gender standards.
Divided into four sections, You Play the Girl links the stages of the author’s growth: child, young adult, adult, and middle-aged adult – with magazines, articles, books, shows, and other forms of entertainment (or what the author refers to as “the looking glass of pop culture”) to show how women are kept in their place.
Chocano is the type of writer who would tell me I am not the only woman who finds the television show, Mad Men maddening, or that any statement regarding gender roles that comes out of the mouth of Jordan Peterson, the great generalizer and self-appointed prophet of the patriarchs, is absurd.
Here is an author who understood better than me the influence and pressure placed on women who couldn’t quite explain why they were so pissed off for having to put up with these not so subtle messages, but who often questioned and checked herself before speaking up because, as she so eloquently writes:
You fear looking bitter, vindictive, overly sensitive. You fear looking like you’re blaming others for your shortcomings or settling scores.
Chocano puts into words what so many of us are feeling and says (not literally) it’s ok to be pissed off because you have every right to be; some men can really suck.
After I read this book, I wanted to send a copy to my all my female friends who would understand and relate to the author’s message. I also wanted to send a copy to my daughter but I wasn’t sure she would get as much out of the book as someone who grew up in the 60’s,70’s, and 80’s. She would understand the concepts but she wouldn’t relate to the movies (Working Girl), tv shows (I Dream of Jeannie), and magazine articles (Can This Marriage Be Saved?) of the generation before her (although the author’s summary of the movies Frozen and Maleficent could make anyone laugh out loud). Back then, we thought we were living in modern times – there were certainly more career opportunities and gender breaking rules falling to the wayside – trying to break through the glass ceiling and having it all but looking back, we were in denial. The reality was more akin to window dressing but not much change. It’s the generation coming of age right now charging forward to break down more barriers (witness the #metoo movement) that will make the world a better place for their daughters.
The heroine’s journey is circular. It moves forward in spirals and burrows inward, to understanding. It can be undertaken by anyone, male or female, who is ready to move past the illusion of a perfect world and a straight shot to selfhood. The path is treacherous. The territory is hostile. But the heroine is brave. She knows what she wants. She’s determined to get it. Isn’t that how all good stories start? ~Carina Chocano