Feminism | Posted by Julie Graves on 04/3/2017
Manners Or Sexism?
“Girls, you NEVER say no to a guy when he asks you to dance,” barked the instructor at the sea of awkward children, anxiously tugging at our itchy formalwear. I was in fifth grade, in the midst of a “manners” course. There were a million things I would rather be doing, like reading a book or even doing homework. But my mom had threatened to take away a book I was reading at the time if I did not attend this course. She put her rebellious daughter in a dress and sent her to a ballroom in heels to learn to waltz without stepping on her partner’s feet (which I did anyway).
I live in the South, where this course is a tradition. For countless years in my community, children of a certain socioeconomic background have been sent to a local country club to learn how to properly socialize, dance, eat, and generally conduct themselves. For many of us, joining a course like this one was a tradition that spanned over generations of our families. The class I took is called “Invitational,” and kids either looked forward to the opportunity to wear fancy dresses, or complained incessantly. Why do fifth graders need to know how to behave at a ball? The latter group wondered.
I particularly dreaded the dancing section of class. The food section—in which we were taught the purpose and correct use of the many forks on a dinner table—was fine because they gave us fancy punch and cookies to munch on. But the dancing section required each boy to ask a girl to dance after the instructor demonstrated the proper steps. During this time, I would always dart away and duck behind the crowd of awkward ten-year-olds so none of the instructors could pull me up and none of the guys could ask me to dance.
The thing that bothered me most about these dance lessons was that the girls were taught to never say no to a guy who asked us to dance. Even if we were tired, even if the guy made us uncomfortable, we were told to remember how much courage it must have taken him to ask. We were taught to look past our own feelings to make the boy’s life more comfortable.
Not being able to have any say in the manner, not having any power over the situation, made me uncomfortable at the time, but looking back I realize just how problematic that lesson was. The “manners” that Southern society holds so dear actually just work to internalize sexism. Girls are taught not to wear clothing deemed “inappropriate,” not to act too loudly, not to have such strong opinions, not to say no to a boy asking you to dance. These “manners” teach girls at a young age that their consent is irrelevant.
Recently, I realized just how internalized this lesson has become for so many of my friends. A girl I know was talking about agreeing to go on a date with a guy even though she only wanted to be his friend. When I inquired as to why she didn’t just tell him that, or suggest they go out together with a larger group, she responded, “I didn’t want to be mean.” When I questioned her decision further, everyone in our group looked at me like I had proposed something radical. Feeling like you have the power to say no should not be considered radical. Women should be taught to feel comfortable to say no whenever they want to.
We should teach young girls to be empowered, to take charge of situations, instead of complacently accepting them. We should teach them to be comfortable with and accept themselves; to pursue whatever they wish and fearlessly explore the world. We should re-think “manners” as acts that not only make other people happy, but also make people feel good about themselves; They should not be equated to complacency, but framed as making respectful choices for oneself.