Monday, October 26, 2009

Breaking out of the "Good Girl" mold

I recently finished Rachel Simmons's The Curse of the Good Girl, which is about how expectations of perfection limit girls' personal and professional development. Simmons presents a societal perception of "good girls" as being intelligent but not opinionated, accomplished but not intimidating. Good girls always say yes, never complain, and always do the right thing. Simmons argues that the impossibility of these standards causes girls to lose their identities*. Because the pressure to be nice causes girls to avoid addressing conflicts, many girls only have "nice mode" and "out-of-control mode" and enter into adulthood unprepared for addressing emotions of anger and frustration. The pressure to appear perfect also causes adolescent girls to be risk averse in the classroom and on the playing field, keeping their mouths shut and "playing nice." Because society expects girls to be perfect, they also take it much more personally when their mistakes are made known. The combination of these behaviors prevents many girls from making mistakes, getting feedback on those mistakes, and learning from their mistakes. Simmons asks parents and educators to recognize what is happening in order to change expectations and, ultimately, girls' behaviors.

While I wish Simmons had provided some speculation as to 1) how these standards of the "good girl" came about and 2) ways in which society reinforces them, I liked this book for thoroughly exploring the consequences of society's expectations of girls. Simmons's main points particularly resonated with me because the "curse of the good girl" is one of my main complaints about Harvard as a male-dominated institution. It had always bothered me that the "good girl" is a ubiquitous character at Harvard, playing the nonthreatening and admiring audience to the equally ubiquitous omniscient male "section hero." As my college roommate Marianne puts it, at Harvard it is difficult to be a woman who thinks about these things without becoming cynical.

I recommend this book to all parents of daughters, to all educators, and to women who wonder why they find themselves and other women exhibiting self-destructive nice-girl behaviors**.

* The book Reviving Ophelia raises questions about what causes the loss of self in adolescent girls. This had been something we talked quite a bit about in my all-girls middle/high school.
** I get the feeling that this book is primarily for people who deal with adolescent girls. There are many exercises in the book for the reader to do with an adolescent girl. While I still found the book useful, doing those exercises alone was somewhat awkward. ;)

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