By Carly Priest, Opinions Editor
From ages 5-11, I didn’t once wear a swimsuit top to the public swimming pool. I think it was because I wanted to look like my brother. My parents were very supportive of my decision to go topless, and allowed me to spend every class pool party, ocean excursion and lakeside summer with no shirt on. Though scandalized contemporary standards would probably condemn me half-naked, I actually don’t have a single recollection of a stranger ever telling me to cover up. Granted, it was northern California and I typically appeared so androgynous that strangers likely just assumed I was a little boy—but even that seems remarkable, given the hyper-feminized and hyper-masculinized boxes our contemporary society emphasizes to constrain little girls and little boys.
Outside the pool, I wore all my brother’s old hand-me-downs, and consistently refused clothing that I knew was marketed towards girls. I was one of two girls on a t-ball team, I constantly roughhoused (someone always got hurt), and my mom not-so-fondly recalls having to prepare me for weeks to “wear a costume”— A.K.A. the beautiful dresses sweet grandmother would send every Easter for my sisters and I to match in. In my most dramatic moods, I actually told people I was supposed to be born a boy, but “accidentally walked out of heaven through the wrong door.” Today, I see clearly the tremendous benefits gleaned from my foray as an ostensibly gender-ambiguous child. While all my siblings and I were spoiled rotten with a wide array of “gender-neutral” and “gender-specific” toys, I suspect my seven-year-old self probably felt far less pressure to select those toys beyond our playroom marketed for “girls only.” I estimate that I was told “girls can’t do that” on far fewer occasions than my sisters. I trotted along unaware that other girls grew up having to defend how strong they were and how far they could throw a baseball, apparently two variables everyone already knows according to one’s sex. I could grow up in blissful oblivion—no female-centric modesty codes, no mountains of gaudy pink wrapping paper on my birthdays.
I realize now my family was way ahead of their time.
In the last week, you may have heard of Suzanne Venker, or the impending release of her new book The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men and Marriage. According to the “about me” section on her website, Venker acts as a contributor on Fox News, and serves as a columnist for PJ Media and the Washington Examiner. Though most recently Venker became the recent subject of internet criticism for her critique of “Alpha Wives,” it’s not her first time at the rodeo. In November 2012 another Op-Ed Venker authored (also published by Fox News) called “The War on Men” also went viral, alongside her thesis: “women aren’t women anymore…[and] Now the men have nowhere to go.” In her most recent work about alpha wives, Venker sympathetically retells the story of her mother, original bossy woman: “despite [her] allegiance to my father, [my mother] never quite mastered wifedom… Everything was “No” unless she determined it was appropriate to say yes.” Venker further suggests the root of the “alpha female problem”—women as decision makers in their homes—stems from increased autonomy in the 21st-century: “too many women have been groomed to be leaders rather than to be wives. Simply put, women have become too much like men. They’re too competitive. Too masculine. Too alpha.” As a “lost cause” Alpha Woman (you can join me, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama, Kamala Harris and Malala Yousafzai. We meet Tuesday nights at 7:00), I suppose it would be intolerant for me to ridicule. So, I say women take note: be free and go forth, abandon our decision-making skills and defer to those of your spouse—though you may know better, he knows more by virtue of sex—herein lies mastery of the 9th wonder of the ancient world: “wifedom.”
If you’re shocked, don’t be. This idea of the “alpha wife” or “alpha female” as an unflattering portrait of the proverbial bossy woman existed long before Venker entered the scene. A quick Google search reveals pages and pages of advice, warnings, and quizzes, all specifically marketed towards the unhappy alpha wife. For research purposes (and comedic effect) I actually took the “Alpha/Beta” quiz provided on Sonya Rhodes’ website (Rhodes authored The Alpha Woman Meets Her Match: How Today’s Strong Women can find Love and Happiness without Settling in 2014) to predict whether one day, this spider will be able to trap a fly in her web. I’d say the first yes/no statement of a long string, “I tend to be bossy” really set my creative flow in motion (for all those interested, I’m a major alpha). Though the quiz masqueraded as gender-neutral (meaning that though marketed expressly towards women, gender was not a considered factor in most of the yes/no statements) two of the yes/no statements were explicitly gendered: “for women: I am never intimidated by men” and “for men: I would never talk down to a woman.” Out of curiosity, I took the quiz two additional times, and answering only the female-specific question on the first attempt, and the male-specific on the second. My experiment yielded opposite results: after answering only the “for women” question in the affirmative “yes,” I was categorized as “2% low alpha.” After refreshing the page and answering only the “for men” question affirmatively, I was gauged at “2% low beta.” Shockingly, though I was a “low alpha” in one result and a “low beta” in the other, I was labeled with identical personality results: unsure of self, too conforming, passive, anxious, excessively self-critical, a poor judge of others’ motivations and intentions, and afraid of my own shadow. A man who self-reported he would “never talk down to a woman,” and a woman who said she wasn’t ever “intimidated by men,” got the same result: unfeminine or emasculated. It seems the old framework of “Man of the house” and “housewife” are not such mutually-exclusive terms after all—gender roles, roll on.
I share my story as a wild child to better trace the convoluted logic of Venker and Rhodes and (the shameful espousing of their conclusions by mainstream media outlets) to its origin. The “male, alpha; female, beta” dichotomy Venker presents does not reflect a festering new pestilent, but the result of a ravening by noxious epidemic. Take, for example, the continued practice of assigning children a “feminine” or “masculine” color based on biological birth gender. Such reveals a problematic gendering persists. We still block girls and discourage boys from certain careers, we tell our little girls to wear shirts at the pool—girls, beta; boys, alpha. We stand at the crossroads of an arbitrary progressiveness—while many understand kids will be kids and colors will be colors, we give little boys and girls gender-specific rules, aspirations, and expectations. At the end of the day, we cannot begin restructure of our hierarchical ordering—to proceed with intersectional understanding—until we fully dismantle the notion that we should raise boys and girls any differently from one another. I mean really—I’m strong as hell. Besides, we got some great pictures out of it.
ACCOMPANYING IMAGE: Author aged 7