To be “feminine” often means to embrace modesty, and to privilege good manners over honesty. The girl learns that a woman must be careful not to show too much of her body and not to talk to the wrong kinds of boys. She must know how to be friendly without being too friendly, and certainly not to the wrong people or at the wrong time. She must know how to eat without making it too obvious. She must also know which activities are permitted to her in public and which are not. Being a proper, feminine woman, according to Mother, means knowing the boundaries that a woman imposes on her self-expression so that she does not risk being misunderstood or maligned. However, those boundaries also disallow the genuine expression of the girl’s identity. Mother’s instructions, therefore, expose a tension between the expectations of femininity and the desire to be authentic.
One example of a disjunction between authenticity and appearance comes when Mother teaches the girl how to smile. Mother explains that there are different smiles for people she does not like very much, people she does not like at all, and for people whom she likes “completely.” This suggests to the girl that politeness means never revealing her true feelings about anyone, while it also limits the number of expressions and emotions that are available to the girl by mandating a smile (albeit different types of smiles) at all times. From this lesson, the girl is to understand that it is more important for women to be nice than to be authentic. It also suggests that other people’s perceptions matter more than her feelings.
Mother elevates social norms over authenticity. Her statement, “this is how to love a man,” reinforces the implicit understanding that homosexuality is not an option for the girl, and the phrase “this is how” asserts that there are rigid norms that dictate how she should experience love. Instead of discovering her own ways of loving, Mother tells the girl to try a prescribed set of methods, and if those don’t work Mother says that she should give up rather than figuring out what pleases her. This advice also intimates that the conventional ways of loving a man are just as—if not more important—than the feeling. In addition, Mother tells her daughter “how to bully a man” and shows her “how a man bullies you,” enforcing the understanding that relations between the sexes are borne from conflict, though still with set rules for each to follow.
Overall, Mother’s advice implicitly tells the girl that her value lies in her ability to properly present herself, rather than in discovering and honoring who she really is. In Mother’s conception of femininity, being a woman requires the denial of aspects of human existence, such as getting dirty or expressing one’s true feelings. Femininity, the girl learns, requires repression and masking. Black femininity, specifically, requires the girl to embrace her identity in the right ways—she may wear a headwrap, for instance, but she may not expose her kinky-curly hair. She may sing benna, but not in Sunday school, which follows the more solemn rules of European churches. She may love, but she must love a man. To be feminine, or to be a “lady,” is to know these standards and to live by them, regardless of what the girl would like to do.
Authenticity and Femininity ThemeTracker
Authenticity and Femininity Quotes in Girl
Don’t walk bare-head in the hot sun.
Is it true that you sing benna in Sunday school?
On Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming.
You mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions.
But I don’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school.
This is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming.
This is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.
This is how to bully a man; this is how a man bullies you; this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up.
Always squeeze bread to make sure it’s fresh; but what if the baker won’t let me feel the bread?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of woman who the baker won’t let near the bread?