I grew up in a family where the women catered endlessly to the men. Not out of respect, mind you, nor even affection. No, their wooing and appeasement of the various husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers in their orbit was a much more political endeavor. Like courtiers in the service of a childish and truculent king, they fawned and flattered the man in question, soothing his temper and his ego for the sake of a little peace and quiet. As a child I was struck by how effortlessly my aunts and grandmothers slid from gossiping about what a pain in the ass so-and-so was, to showering the man himself with compliments and praise the instant he materialized in the kitchen. My mother wasn’t very good at this game, mostly because she resented having to play it. And after all, as any good courtier knows, even the sweetest words fall flat if the delivery doesn’t convince. Not surprisingly, I take after my mom.
I hadn’t thought about the kitchen table gender diplomacy of my female relatives for a long time. Then I read Phillipa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl. If you haven’t read it or seen the movie, (critically panned, stars Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johannsson) it tells the story of Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn, the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII. Married at 12 to a nobleman, pushed into an affair with the king by her scheming, socially ambitious family, Mary was schooled in the arts of flattery and seduction from earliest childhood. It’s a terrific book, by the way – the literary version of a juicy beach read. The similarities between the powerless women in King Henry’s court, and the powerless women in my grandmother’s kitchen were staggering. In both places, youth and beauty were prized commodities and if played properly, tickets to security. In both places, every effort was directed toward the continual comfort and amusement of the monarch, regardless of how exhausting or irrational that effort might be. Like the king, the men in my family saw such service and coddling as a birthright. And like the Boleyn sisters, I think the women in my family viewed their own financial dependency as a fact of birth, too. After all, as my grandmother once pointed out, there’s no point arguing with the world. All you can do is use what you’ve got to get what you need.
Another book I read recently that I just loved is Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. It’s the novel that the very different (and utterly fabulous in its own right) Broadway musical of the same name is based upon. Wicked is the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz became the legendary bad girl on a broom. She wasn’t always a witch. Her name was Elphaba. She was a strange child, frightening to her parents, both of whom were too distracted - her mother by boredom and disappointment, her father by religious mania – to properly care for any child, much less one who bit, and resisted their embraces, and who was such an awfully vivid and unnatural shade of green. From these difficult beginnings the seeds of wickedness are sown, right? Perhaps, or perhaps not. It’s an easy conclusion to jump to, but Elphaba’s story is far more complicated. And, I so want you to read the book that I won’t give away any more details, or spoil any of the wonderful surprises in Maguire’s rich, imaginative story. But I can’t resist quoting my favorite sentence in the whole book:
“Or is it just that the world unwraps itself to you, again and again, as soon as you are ready to see it anew?”
Boy, is that ever the truth.