Print Edition - 2018-11-18  |  Free the Words

If you like a guy, tell him

  • Let every day be Sadie Hawkins Day
- KATE NEUMAN

Nov 18, 2018-

I still remember my first Sadie Hawkins Day. We spilled out of the cafeteria and divided ourselves, amoeba-like, into two lines on either side of the basketball court.

Everyone seemed to know what to do. Someone must have yelled ‘Go!’ The boys scattered, and the girls, after a quick five-count, tore after them. I aimed straight. I caught Matthew Kirschenbaum up by the swings; I don’t think he was running at top speed.

‘Do you want me to release you?’ I asked. He shook his head.

This, I remember thinking, is how it should be.

Sadie Hawkins Day--traditionally celebrated on Nov. 15--was the one day a year when it was the girls who pursued the boys, instead of the other way around. It was big back then, if less so now.

In the early 1970s, Seventeen magazine urged prepubescent me to guard my self-respect, which meant, I knew, to not be obvious about liking a boy. The same message came through in the stories we were raised on, the TV shows we watched. Yvette Mimieux nearly died from wanting it in the classic teenage melodrama ‘Where the Boys Are,’ and much, much earlier, Eve got all of humanity kicked out of Eden by wanting that apple. Her punishment: Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. The first woman and the first lesson.

So I grew up believing that girls were supposed to be wanted, but we were not supposed to want. If we did want, we were never, ever to show it. Any move on behalf of our own desires should be in service of getting men to act on theirs.

I always envied the girls who seemed so peaceful waiting for boys to talk to them; I wasn’t of that tribe. My mother used to shake her head and say, ‘Just let them come to you,’ but I was no good at biding my time. In sixth grade, I asked a boy I liked if he liked me; in freshman year of college, I asked a man I was attracted to if he felt the same. In each case, I felt that something was wrong with me for having brought up the topic. I was too much like a guy, I thought. But even then, I was asking them about their desires, not speaking my own.

As I got older, I developed other methods for getting a man to make the first move: bumping into him as we walked together, shivering with unfelt cold, standing fetchingly on steps that would bring me to his eye level--all so he’d be overtaken with desire and, for God’s sake, kiss me. So much work, this active passivity--but I never considered kissing any of them first. After all, what worse insult can a man give a woman than ‘She wanted it,’ a phrase that carries its own sneer.

So the reason that afternoon is still so bright in my memory, why I can still feel the metal chain of the swing in my hand, see Matthew’s smile: Sadie Hawkins was a day of respite from pretending not to want, or from distorting my want into a hint.

How great, I thought, that someone came up with this idea!

But when I look up its history now, I find that Sadie Hawkins is not, as I had always assumed, a remnant of Puritan times, a day when the rules went topsy-turvy in the spirit of a medieval carnival. It was not a safety valve for the female energy that might otherwise knock out the spigot with its force of pent-up desire.

No, the holiday dates only from 1937. In the comic strip ‘Li’l Abner’ by Al Capp, Sadie Hawkins is ‘the homely daughter of the earliest settler.’ Her powerful father, fed up that she has had no marriage proposals, declares a namesake day for her during which she will chase the unmarried men in town, and the one she catches will have to marry her.

The intention wasn’t of liberation, then--it was a joke at the expense of unmarried women, and a naked invocation of patriarchal power. This is disheartening.

And yet, I’m not sure how much the origin matters. In 1941, only four years after the strip appeared, Life magazine reported that Sadie Hawkins Day was being celebrated at ‘over 500 schools, colleges, and Army camps.’ Perhaps unwittingly, Al Capp had given women permission to pursue what they wanted.

I’d like to think that women are becoming more comfortable voicing their own desires, that there’s no need for permission anymore. But change seems slow in coming. Stories of heterosexual marriage proposals usually still feature the man asking and the woman thrilled to be asked.

How about the youngest generation, who have the benefit of the new fluidity of gender—have they transcended this dynamic? Maybe not as much as we would hope. Consider the hoopla around ‘promposals’: Girls may send out emissaries to test the waters, but the request still usually comes from the boy--sometimes with as many bells and whistles as a marriage proposal.

And with the same enactment of amazed gratitude on the girl’s part. They cling to their own disempowerment and call it romance. Is romance worth such passivity?

As the MeToo movement threatens to uproot the patriarchal assumption of women as objects, we need to recognise that women’s self-denial is connected to the mentality that allows men to believe that our desire is their prerogative. Our conditioned passivity leaves a vacuum that male narcissism fills with its version of us.

Until it is no big deal for a woman to say, ‘I want,’ as well as ‘I don’t want’—until heterosexual women no longer feel the need to wait for the man to propose or to invite us to the prom or to kiss us on a beautiful summer evening when we want to kiss--we leave ourselves at the mercy of men’s desires.

Sadie Hawkins should be any and every day we choose.

 

Published: 18-11-2018 07:51

User's Feedback

Click here for your comments

Comment via Facebook

Don't have facebook account? Use this form to comment