Once upon a time, people told young women that if they were good girls, they would get to grow up and find the One, get married, have babies, and live happily ever after. During that time, there was not much better advice for girls. Eventually, society started to evolve, women could vote, get higher educations and careers and yet this motto didn’t change; women continued to be bombarded with “be good,” “get married,” and “have babies.” It seems that despite each wave of new feminism in the 20th century and even as women’s rights continue to progress, the message remains the same.
In Western society, this mantra has prevailed. Being “good” has certainly taken on new meanings in myriad ways: social interaction, sexual mores, gender presentations and so on. We tell our daughters and sisters they can do and be whatever they want regarding their educations, careers, and pastimes but the expectation that a woman needs to find the right man and marry in her twenties remains a prevalent message.
Consider all of Disney’s princesses and the wedding-themed TV shows such as Say Yes to the Dress. We still hold on to the outdated fairy tales of love and marriage, the existence of the One, and the expectation of motherhood, particularly through mainstream media — magazines, movies, books, music — that continue to preach this outdated, and frankly unrealistic, version of what a woman and her life should be. And what of the “happily ever after” of that narrative — the birthing and raising of babies and the transition to soccer mom? Women who do not have children, by choice or circumstance, are still being told they are incomplete, not real women, or that they have not fulfilled their duties or the expectations of society. The fairy tale narrative pervasively remains intact.
We also see this in the patriarchal confusion attached to the idea of women having casual sex. The contrasting message of if a woman sleeps around, she is a slut but if she doesn’t put out, she’s a terrible person, is a message that continues to be reinforced, despite the countless dating apps begging for the opposite. Women continue to be treated as these objects of desire when instead we are people and deserve to make our own choices. Waiting for marriage is on par with casual sex; both are equal options if it’s your choice.
We all have a choice
I’m not suggesting that marriage and motherhood are inherently bad for women. I am not suggesting the abolishing of marriage or family or motherhood. They are legitimate choices. However, by reinforcing the fairy tale romance plot, we are setting our women up for negative adulthoods riddled with feelings of disappointment, disillusionment, loneliness, shame, embarrassment, and social anxiety. Even if a woman does get married and have children, chances are she will end up as a single mother at some point, which can lead to feelings of having failed to maintain the brief, despite her situation being perfectly acceptable. And what about women who, for whatever reason, give a child up for adoption, or choose to adopt as single people? And what about women who refuse to be limited by sex and gender categorization and patronizing patriarchal modes of being? Why can’t women — and men, for that matter — just be humans living their lives?
An outdated mantra
British poet Wilfred Owen, having experienced the trenches of WWI, demanded the cessation of recruiting young men through the glorification of war, arguing in his posthumously published poem, Dulce et Decorum Est., that if one knew the horrors of war, one would not tell boys and young men “The old Lie” that it is noble to die for one’s country. More than one hundred years later, we need to stop telling girls and young women the old (women’s) lie: they need to be good and grow up to find the One, get married and have babies, and live happily ever after.
It’s time we start telling the truth to our girls that the only narrative that women need to follow is their own.