There's a work of maybe-satire that's been floating around the Internet for the last couple of weeks. You may have seen it. You may have laughed at it or shared it on your Facebook page or read blog posts about it, like Lindy West's amusing take on Jezebel yesterday. It's a piece in the University of Georgia student newspaper Red and Black titled "How to find that perfect husband in college," by Amber Estes, purportedly the girl in the image below, purportedly a sophomore majoring in public relations.
If this isn't satire it's unbelievable, but even if it is satire (and the paper's EIC, for the record, thought that it clearly was) there's a lot of wrong here. It's too easy to sit back and laugh at something like this while remaining blind to its more insidious elements. Because what Estes is describing, tongue in cheek or not, is a stereotype of a woman that a lot of people actually do believe exists. (If you've been to college at any point in the last 50 years, you probably remember someone referring to that girl who was just there for her "MRS" degree, no?) What's ultimately gross about those jokes and this piece is that they're just another vehicle for woman-bashing, albeit one cloaked in extreme ridiculousness or even in a kind of presumed feminism, aka, women shouldn't go to college to try to find husbands. But to mock women for, say, actively wanting to get married (while on the other side of the coin, mocking them for not doing that) presents a situation in which women are stereotyped and criticized for whatever they choose—and whatever they choose has to do with men in these and most examples. In fact, a look at some of the most common stereotypes about women indicate a frightening reality: In the collective mind, sometimes there is no way for women to behave. That is not very funny.
In the vein of our 9 articles "for women" that journalists should stop writing, here are 10 stereotypes about women that we should be very careful about passing off as meaningless jokes. Because whether you're a woman or a man, the "right" way to behave is to make good decisions for yourself that aren't based in someone else's perceived stereotype about you, or in the countering fear of being branded as such a type. There are so many stereotypes, ranging from the overly emotional "hysterical" woman (who may or may not have PMS) to the coldly vicious, calculating "anti-woman" to the tomboy to the superficial, shallow girly-girl. None are flattering; none are hilarious; most are couched in relationships, or lack thereof, with men. The following are just a few.
The "Crazy." Girlfriend, wife, total stranger, holder of an unrequited crush, or just "somebody that you used to know," this person has acted in a way that is most easily brushed off as nuts, though no actual diagnosis has been made. This is, as others have written before me, an undermining way to make others feel better about behavior that perhaps they are complicit in. Craziness might be: Liking someone more than they like you. Yelling at someone for not behaving in the way you want them to. Contacting someone too much. Contacting someone erratically. Misunderstanding someone's reactions to you. Demanding to know what went wrong, if something went wrong. Being too direct. Not being direct enough. Jumping into bed too soon, or not soon enough, or erratically. Changing your mind. Not changing your mind. In short: Craziness is anything and everything the other party (who in so dubbing someone as such becomes the default non-crazy one) wants it to be, except, most likely, any form of actual mental illness (which shouldn't, for the record, be called "craziness" either). It's just a way to put people down, so pick another word.
The Nagging Shrew, or the Happy Housewife. You have to be one or the other, right? Either you're a woman who's somehow managed to grab a guy and make him yours (maybe you faked a pregnancy? Charmed him with magical potions? Have him tied up in your walk-in closet?) only to abuse, castigate, and demand any number of things immediately and with great shrillness, or you're a bland idiot without goals or ambitions who's perfectly overjoyed to find occupation picking up your man's socks and putting the toilet seat back down again, hooray! Both of these "jokes" make everyone involved look bad.
The New Old Maid. This is the woman of whom men and other women, particularly of a certain age, ask concernedly, in hushed whispers, though sometimes in front of that woman's own face, "Is something wrong with her?" Why wouldn't she want to get married and settle down? If she's actively chosen not to, or hasn't gotten around to it by the time she's in her mid-twenties or, egad, her thirties, surely there's something deeply flawed inside of her, even if it's not apparent. Or perhaps she doesn't like men!?, these charming people wonder. This so-stereotyped woman is often put in the position of thinking she has to "womansplain" or make excuses for her choices—even though they are personal choices and, really, should require no such rationalization. In fact, rationalizing only tends to prove to those asking that the lady doth protest too much, thereby again feeding the stereotype of her being too picky, too difficult, too whatever to do what is expected of her. (Note that a guy in this situation rarely meets with the same disapproval as does a woman.)
The Gold-Digger. Ah, this one just wants a man for his money, and so she is superficial and vile and reprehensible, with totally the wrong values. In a quite similar stereotype as trophy wife, however, she's exploited rather than the one doing the exploiting, and therefore it's a bit more OK or at least, less threatening. (If the man is the one opportunistically taking the advantage here, is the subtext, it's more "normal.") But you simply can't be a woman who overtly dates a man for money, even though, come on, everyone dates everyone else for something. Compare this to the cougar, in which the woman can't be the more powerful, either...
The Bimbo, or Trophy-Wife. See above. If you're pretty and younger than your husband who chose you for your looks, you can be bestowed with the great compliment of being objectified as a trophy wife. If you're maybe not very smart, in whoever's opinion, or perhaps you simply don't look smart (further objectification) and also either don't want to be married or haven't found the right guy yet, you might get to be called a bimbo.
The Cougar. The cougar of course is the opposite of the trophy-wife; she's the one with the trophy-husband-or-boyfriend, who she might be older and more "powerful" than. But she gets yelled at just the same by people who judge her as, essentially, one of the big cats sinking her teeth and claws into the weaker specimen she chooses. Interestingly, the cougar might also be considered a Baby/Wedding Freak, or a New Old Maid, depending on how she feels about the institution of marriage. And, no, you can't be a cougar if you're 16, but really, no woman is a cougar. She's just a human, dating or in a relationship with another human.
The "Feminazi." This is someone who has been determined, usually by men, to hate men. Usually this person doesn't hate men (until maybe she is called names by them), but instead the name-callers are judging because they feel threatened (a common theme with stereotypes). We can of course thank Rush Limbaugh for popularizing this awful, awful term, which he used to describe Gloria Steinem, Susan Sarandon, and others before kindly moving on to further criticisms, like "slut." Even the terms "feminist" and "activist," if used in a certain way, can take on the implications of this word, which is essentially just an insult from folks who are afraid that independent women are going to somehow undermine society. Fear is a nasty thing, isn't it?
The Virgin, or the Whore. Damned if you don't, damned if you do might be the overall message to take away with this one, and with the idea of female stereotypes in general. If you're a virgin of a certain age in this modern world you are a weirdo, a prude, frigid, or possibly even "crazy." But if you are sexually active and not married to a person to whom you are otherwise committed, you've also won the ire of many. And if you sleep or have slept with more than one or even many, for fun, because you wanted to, or just because, you're damned, girl. If you would or have considered abortion, don't even show your face ... but also don't show your face if you use birth control. You might get called a slut.
These are just a few of the many ways women can go wrong in the eyes of others. It's amazing, with such a narrow path upon which to stride and reap the benefits of not being condemned for some sort of illicit womanhood, that we exist at all!
Obviously, stereotypes are bad. To assume that a woman is only out to snag a husband is as undermining and damaging as assuming a woman is one of those "crazy feminists" out to destroy the institution of marriage. Such types are actually quite rare; as people, we're far more complicated than any trope. But cliches are powerful because they're easy, and that's why we see them standing in again and again for "real" human qualities and characters. The important thing is that we learn to recognize and call out such stereotypes when they're being used, because they're not just "funny" or stupid; they're a way in which women can continue to be belittled, undermined, or told they're doing it wrong. Everyone makes mistakes, but shame through stereotype shouldn't become a form of punishment any more than we should believe in stereotypes as realities—or as a form of entertainment—themselves.