Southern Legitimacy Statement: As for my southern legitimacy statement, here it goes. I grew up in Mineral Wells, Texas where my mother sold rattlesnakes that had been frozen and subsequently fashioned into paperweights. Nothing could put a smile on her face like a big bag of vipers! Also, my aunt and uncle were first cousins, something I was not supposed to mention even though it was not an uncommon occurrence in my hometown. I have more southern legitimacy, but I’ll stop for now.
All Women Are Bunnies
To understand what men want, I need not cast any further than the sepia-drenched days of my youth for which AM country radio provided the soundtrack. At the time I believed that a constant barrage of country music constituted child abuse, but now I am grateful for this helpful primer into the male psyche. Unlike most philosophical questions such as What is the meaning of life, Where is the remote? Why can’t I be happy? and How many licks does it take to get the center of a Tootsie Pop, the answer required no journey or guru.
Country radio also made me understand why I needed to know what men wanted. If I didn’t, I’d be sleeping single in a double bed. I’d be thinking about all the things I’d wished I’d said. I’d have one less egg to fry. Conway Twitty wouldn’t even have had me in his mind.
As a young girl, I didn’t fry eggs, only slices of bologna that morphed into a pleasing flying saucer shapes as they cooked. I shared a double bed with my great grandmother, and I didn’t give her permission to eat crackers in my bed anytime because it was technically her bed, and she resisted my mother’s efforts to get her to stop eating snacks in it without a tray.
From an early age, I realized I wasn’t the kind of girl that guys my age noticed. At six, I had inspired the teenage son of my parents’ friends to write me a poem, something about being a funny beauty who wore a red hat.
Older men, it turned out, would be my fate star. I would have to pretend to give a shit about Steely Dan. I would feign agreement that “Pretzel Logic” held far more critical importance than “Aja.” I would hide my love for the commercially successful song “Peg” and resign myself to another night listening to “Katy Lied.” The real test of my best supporting actress abilities would be Frank Zappa. I would hear about FZ, as his followers refer to him, many a night, about how his music transcends time and space. These odes to Mr. Zappa were delivered in reverent tones usually reserved for fantasy football draft picks. At any rate, it seemed like a lot of genuflection for a man who wrote “The Illinois Enema Bandit.” Only Bryan’s Song inspired a more passionate defense.
I couldn’t, however, know these bleak realities which awaited me. Long before anyone coined the term “friend zone,” I lived in it, the girl who spent a lot of time with boys – boys who liked other boys and faced their own bleak realities represented by the handful of confirmed bachelors in town, three of whom played piano during church services, boys who needed help on their homework, and boys who wanted advice concerning other girls.
To my consternation, none of these boys saw me “in that way.” And given my slightly weak right eye, underdeveloped body, pigeon-toed gait, and propensity for quoting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” I was grateful to be of use, even as a lending library or a homegrown “Dear Abby” for the people who needed to know if a girl could fake a store-bought pregnancy test instead of the usual slew of letters Abby answered about annoying in-laws and men who just couldn’t keep their clothes off the bathroom floor.
Advice, never in short supply whether one is seeking or dispensing it, proved plentiful if contradictory in regards to men. The two most popular pieces were quoted so often they had a talismanic quality and both had to do with allowing, dare I say encouraging, men to believe what scientists refer to as bullshit.
The first gem, let them chase you, had a common sense appeal. By some combination of sorcery, cryptic speech, and prolonged eye contact, the woman made the man she liked believe that he had decided on her. No one mentioned that the man in your sites might run from instead of to someone who stared at them in an eerie fashion and spoke in riddles.
This belief morphed into the more accessible idea of playing hard to get which became the basis for many a self-help tome, most famously, The Rules, a dating guide about meeting Mr. Right, a term no one used at that point, much like career girl or negligee. Published on Valentine’s Day in 1995, I’d already filed for divorce from an early, ill-considered marriage and needed help with the paperwork, not dating advice. But The Rules became a flashpoint for daytime television hosts, and I couldn’t get away from the talk of it from its authors and the women who drank the sherry and called themselves Rules Girls. One of the most controversial points was that The Rules advised its sad single lady readers to refuse dates unless the offer came a week in advance.
This approach, the whole make him buy the cow strategy, seemed about as simple as learning to breathe underwater. It a stark contrast with my tendency as a teenager to rush to the phone lest I miss a late night invitation to drive around the car wash with a real life boy instead of watching episodes of thirtysomething I’d saved on VHS. In the days before answering machines and cell phones, the dude on the other end would call someone else if you didn’t pick up the phone. Alas, no one mentioned that playing hard to get didn’t work unless you actually were hard to get.
The second piece of common wisdom I learned early was that women should let men win. You were not to be Billie Jean King in a battle against Bobby Riggs. You were to employ a tiny bit of effort and then, ta da, let him win. Unlike the whole playing hard to get, this strategy proved second nature to me as I never had interest in games and my physical agility confined itself to a freakish flexibility borne out of years of gymnastics. Without trying, men almost always won out of my sheer lack of coordination, a deficit so pronounced that people accused me of throwing the game.
But I get ahead of myself. The proverbial late bloomer, I spent a lot of time on the bench, the third wheel, prized for my ability to write term papers on demand. The boys who liked boys made up my social life almost exclusively until high school. We formed a Hello Kitty club in which I was banned from coloring or placing stickers in our communal Hello Kitty’s activity books. Arts and crafts had never been my strong suit. My fourth-grade paper-mache Santa looked as if he had been in a horrible disfiguring accident.
My fellow Hello Kitty members, and I also failed to impress boys at the annual talent show. I wore a purple tulle skirt and twirled a baton to Neil Diamond’s “America” and my friend Kelvin played the theme to “Hill Street Blues.” Kelvin received honorable mention for his efforts while all I managed was to conk myself in my head with my baton while Neil belted out the chorus of his love song to immigrants, yelling today over and over while I tried to retrieve my fallen weapon. The winner wore a tight neon green leotard that accentuated her huge boobs and did a combination tumbling and dance routine to A/C D/C’s “Highway to Hell.” We had to face facts – none of us could compete on that particular stretch of the highway to hell.
By high school we referred to ourselves as Funsters, a play on Funyons, a chip shaped like an onion ring with a faintly metallic taste that didn’t even pretend to resemble a flavor found in nature. Feminism was as fashionable as bell bottoms. MS ran an article on grooming unwanted facial hair. An infamous headline of the time suggested women over forty were more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married. The Funsters were of little help in my quest to understand what men wanted from women.
So I did what the dark time demanded and what I had done since childhood. I read books like Flowers in the Attic which taught me that men wanted to sleep with their sisters with whom they had been trapped in an attic for years. I watched reruns of Hogan’s Heroes which put the dark in dark comedy but proved equal parts illumination and confusion on matters of the heart. I observed the boys and men I knew and the girls next door and the femme fatales for which they pined. And I listened to music.
From what I could gather, there appeared to be two types of women that men wanted – the good-hearted woman or the damaged bad girl. The first one is the one Waylon Jennings sang of in “Good-Hearted Woman.” For those unfamiliar, this gist of this narrative masterpiece is a good-hearted woman in love with a good timin’ man. To quote, “she doesn’t talk about the bad times or the bad things he’s done, she just talks about the good times they’ve had and all the good times to come.” Waylon claims that “when the party’s all over, she’ll welcome him home again, a good-hearted woman in love with her good-timin man.”
The Grateful Dead also wrote an ode to this spunky little lady in “Sugar Magnolia.” To note: “She’s got everything delightful, she’s got everything I need/ takes the wheel when I’m seeing double, pays my tickets when I speed – she can wade in a drop of dew/ skimming through rays of violet.” I have no idea how anyone skims through rays of violet, but alas, the Dead appeared to be seriously invested in surrealist metaphor and weed.
The second type of woman has no shortage of odes either, but perhaps the one that sums her up best comes from the Velvet Underground’s song, “Venus in Furs” which implores someone named Severin to tell her special friend to taste the whip and bleed. On the face of it, this seemed like some creepy shit.
The first type is your ride and die bitch, your old lady, the woman who will have your babies and watch you draw your last breath. The second only gets called bitch at the end, usually proceeded by the word crazy. She’s one of your ninety-nine problems. This girl will not dwell on the good times you’ve had or the good times to come. This girl asks what have you done for me lately. This girl will key your car or take a razorblade to your tires. She will not pay your tickets when you speed. She’s someone who your family and friends issue warnings, as one might if she were a tornado or road work.
Both have inherent dangers – the good-hearted woman could morph into being as exciting as your mother and the bad damaged girl could morph into the iconic bunny boiler Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, yelling, I will not be ignored, Dan.
And of course, ideally women would encompass both of these ideals, depending on the situation (read, what men want at that particular moment).
When I turned closer to home for direction, I recalled how my mother believed herself a good-hearted woman, but she employed the wicked crazy techniques, much like I did with games requiring physical strength, meaning it wasn’t work for her to appear wicked crazy. She parlayed her neurosis into a philosophy.
“Men like change, excitement. They don’t want the same-old, same-old look of contempt marring her beautiful face, contempt for an imaginary woman who didn’t make the effort and let herself go. Letting yourself go, a venal bordering on mortal sin in those days, meant that you had failed in the greatest duty of womanhood – pretending to care. Violation of this sacred pact was viewed with pity at best, more often with derision.
I pushed back against what I perceived as the inherent sexism as the premise. Women were supposed to be user-friendly, long before computers gave us the term. I had read Gloria Steinem’s account of going undercover as a Playboy bunny and found it remarkable. Even so, I still had an attraction to the iconic bunny and to the trashy femininity it espoused. I begged for sandals that turned into roller skates with the push of a button. I coveted a silver sequined tube top that I never got to pair with the skate sandals that were always out of our financial reach.
This left me with a dilemma. I wanted to be an object of desire and to be the master of my fate. I wanted to fight the revolution and wear a pink neon colored leotard adorned with the iconic Playboy bunny. Difficult? Certainly. But if there’s a woman who can wade through a drop of dew, I figured I could manage my own contradictions.
As for what men want, that’s never been the central conundrum. It’s answered at every turn. What do women want? That’s the mystery. But I’ll tell you a secret –the answer is simple. It’s what you suspected all along. Nothing less than your soul.