The Myth of the Helpless Female

Barbie WorldOne of my neighbours, a 60-something country guy named Paul, came over recently to say hi and offer me some firewood. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I’d been fixing my lawnmower.

“You need any help?” he asked.

“Nah. I just had to replace the starter cord. I’m putting it back together now.”

“Huh,” he said, looking impressed. “You’re not one of the usual useless females, are you?”

I muttered something along the lines of: “I can usually figure out how to do things… I don’t like useless people…” But I was flabbergasted as to how I was supposed to respond to his comment.

I’m pretty sure — no, I’m positive — that he meant it as a compliment. But it doesn’t feel right to say thank you for being essentially told that I’m not like most women, because I’m not “useless”.

This is not the first conversation I’ve had with someone about repairing the lawnmower (which, incidentally, is not actually mine — it’s one I borrowed from a friend). My other neighbour, an almost-deaf man in his late 60s with a heart of gold and the gender-bias of someone from the 1950s, laughed when he saw me working on the mower. The conversation went something like this:

Him: What are you doing?

Me: Fixing the mower.

Him: *laughs* You?

Me: Yes…

Him: *smiling patronisingly* What’s wrong with it?

Me: The starter cord broke. I was just replacing it.

Him: Well, what you’ve got to do is–

Me: It’s alright. I’ve done it.

Him: You?

Me: Yes.

Him: …. Maybe you should have a look at my car. *laughs and walks off*

Which leads me to believe, of course, that fixing a lawnmower is somehow related to having a penis.

Either that, or there is a large subset of the community that believes that to be the case.

Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to go on a lovely bushwalk through a mountain-top rainforest with a close friend and her three children. Halfway through the walk, her six-year-old daughter started limping and pretending her foot was sore. “She’s copying her book,” my friend explained.

So, it turns out that there’s this book — it may or may not be part of the Barbie franchise of sparkly pink merchandise — and the story invokves a group of girls going for a bushwalk. One of them goes off on her own and wanders into a cave. But don’t worry — she doesn’t get lost. She sprains her ankle and has to be rescued.

Yes, she sprains her ankle.

Honestly, I thought we were past the days of helpless female victims spraining their ankles and having to be rescued. But apparently not. Apparently, this is still what we’re teaching our girl-children.

Girls have weak ankles. Girls need to be rescued. Girls can’t look after themselves.

I had a conversation with a friend of a friend last week, actually. An incredibly talented, creative, intelligent woman who pretended not to understand cell phone plans, because it’s easier to appear stupid and helpless than to argue with her husband — and that way, she gets what she wants, and he feels happy and superior, and everyone wins.

Well, everyone wins assuming she’s happy for her husband to believe she’s helpless.

It strikes me that it’s a self-perpetuating cycle of women pretending to be helpless, which makes men treat women like they’re helpless, and so women pretend to be helpless… So much so that it’s seen as somehow aberrant for a woman to fix her own lawnmower. Or understand a cell phone plan. Or go exploring on her own and discover a rare type of fungi before being found, sprain-free, by her friends.

In fact, some of the “best” relationship advice I was ever given was about how to keep the man in my life happy. “Sometimes,” I was told, “you just have to let them open the olive jar.”

The idea being that in order for a man to feel happy in a relationship, the woman needs to ask him to help her do “manly” jobs, even though she’s perfectly capable of doing them for herself. You know, things like fixing broken things, and mowing the lawn, and lifting anything heavier than a saucepan…

I tried it. It worked. But eventually, I found myself asking:

What kind of relationship is this?

Is this the kind of relationship I want?

What am I teaching my children?

I have no interest in perpetuating the Myth of the Helpless Female.

And so when Paul, my always-helpful neighbour, told me I wasn’t like the “usual useless female”, I didn’t quite know how to respond. Should I be flattered? Angry? Grateful? Before I’d really worked out my emotions, he said, “My wife, God rest her, I loved her. But she was useless. She couldn’t do anything.”

And I felt sad. Because chances are, he never got to see the real her. He never got to see how useful and capable and intelligent she was, because she was too busy spraining her ankles and handing him jars of olives.

Just like she was taught.


Filed under Opinion, Random Stuff

16 responses to “The Myth of the Helpless Female

  1. So very true and so very sad. I’m a short woman, only 5 ft tall, and because I’m short, everyone seems to think I’m absolutely helpless. I’m not, I fix things all the time. I do what needs to be done, I might have to do it in a different way, but it still gets done by me! I’m not sure how I would have responded to your neighbor either, probably saying something like, most women if given a chance aren’t useless……

  2. Jo,

    You really have a way of getting to the heart of the matter when you write!

    It is a bit strange to think of anyone being considered automatically to be either capable of not capable when it comes to doing things these days, especially when it has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout the world that our assumptions about others are nearly always incorrect, not to mention often arrogant and based on old ways of thinking. Change can be difficult when so many times, we simply repeat what we have often heard.

    In my house, my wife is the mechanic, and the repair expert. On the other hand, I am very good at holding the flashlight. I take instructions well, and have a particular talent for taking care of children and housecleaning. It has been a very agreeable arrangement for many years in this regard, and I know better than to assume anything.

    Not everyone has the advantage of growing up in a household where it is encouraged to look at the world with an open mind about gender roles, and I think it’s the way we educate our children that is often to blame for perpetuating gender stereotypes. Each of my children were required to perform a variety of tasks growing up, just as I was, and it didn’t matter who was scheduled–if it was your turn–it was your turn. Period.

    It can be frustrating to see such silliness today, when we have so many men and women doing the opposite of what used to be only for one gender, It is changing slowly, but you are so right. We need to open our minds to new ways.

    Take heart! Change is inevitable……John H.

  3. My mom (rest her soul) was a woman far beyond her years. She raised all her children to be independent and respectful of all humans, bar none. One of my favorite memories of her happened when I was in my late teens. I was in the pool after work and as I dove into the water, I saw her marching across the yard with a sledge hammer. Mom was a small woman, barely reaching five feet. The hammer looked bigger than her. I was intrigued so circled back underwater so when I surfaced I was staring at her. She raised the hammer as high as she could and beat the ground repeatedly. When I asked her what she was doing, she replied, “Killing the biggest damn cock roach I’ve ever seen.” Nothing fazed her.

  4. I really enjoyed this blog. I think you dead on. While change may be inevitable, I find that I am deeply discouraged today, when the republicans have en mass voted against equal pay for women in the USA. Change, seems far off in the future.

  5. I always try to keep this in mind when writing — but without mechanically making sure the women are always the ones opening the pickle jars. Of the two (straight) couples I write about most, in one case the woman is an internationaly famous amateur detective, and she would delegate plebian tasks like that to her assistant/husband. In the other (a lunatic murderer and a nebbishy bass player), I think she (the killer) would handle the pickle jars. If they had a lawn, which is hard to imagine, I’m sure it would never occur to either of them to mow it.

    Oh, and my ex (5’0″) would have agreed with Jackie. I think that’s one reason she plays the drums and got a black belt in karate. 🙂

  6. Alex Hurst

    It’s good to see you again after so long! And wow…. I felt like I fell through a time warp with that post. Oddly, I’ve never had that experience before. I grew up in a house where my mother did the tiling, painting (walls), replacing whole toilets, caulking the bathroom, etc… and in every job I’ve worked at, my male boss has been more than willing to pass me his electronics when he finds out I know what all those “weird words” mean.

  7. Glad to see some of my fellow commenters (male and female) replying that this myth is dying a slow and rightful death.

    My wife and I jointly managed a very large lumber wholesale business. It’s a business that clung to stereotypical gender roles for far too long, particularly on the sawmill end of things, but in the retail end as well (we were in the middle). The vendor end in particular was an old-boys club. It actually started to amuse me to see these “old-boys” introduced to, and to become acquainted with, the powerhouse that is my wife. She would enter a boardroom type meeting, and they would presume she was there in a glorified secretarial role. And direct all of their attention to me and to our male business partner. We didn’t need to do a thing, other than what came natural–defer to her expertise. It usually only took one meeting–sometimes only minutes of the first meeting–for them to sense and assess not only her acumen and competency, but her personal potency.

    In our established roles as managers of employees, she was the tough cop to my easygoing version (I hate to use the terms good cop/bad cop, but you get the idea). Often it’s noted that women who are assertive are dismissed as being bitches. Oddly enough (and I still marvel at this), she was always respected, by employees, vendors and customers alike. And I dare say even well-liked by most (even by those who may have, at one time or another, mutter the b-word under their breath). I think it was due to her evident sincerity. That coupled with her competency created a potent business personality.

    I like to think that during our almost 20 years in that industry, she had a positive effect for the better. Over the years we saw more and more women gaining having a growing influence on the industry. These things change way to slowly, but they are changed by competent and sincere people, one starter cord at a time. Kudos, Jo!

    • Have to apologize for all of the typos here. :-/ Less competent male in the house. 😉

      • Unfortunately, it often seems to fall to the woman to be the “tough cop” while the man remains “likable, and easy to deal with.” One has to question that, too: Why should the tough cop role invariably fall to the woman executive. Why shouldn’t the man, an equal partner in the business, be the tough cop, while the woman can be easy and likable one?

      • Sevigne – I apologize if my comment reinforces yet another negative stereotype for women. It was reckless of me to simplify what was a complex situation. Thank you for the reminder that I should be judicious in speaking publicly of someone so dear to me. Our relationship, business and otherwise, is too precious to me to be left open to misinterpretation by my blithe oversimplification.

  8. Well said, my friend. My mother was an intelligent, independent woman who was never useless and my father appreciated that. My father taught me how to change oil and fix flat tires when I got my driving learner’s permit even though we had roadside assistance because he believed I should be able to do it on my own. Never did my parents discourage my intelligence, in fact, they wholeheartedly supported my placement in advanced classes and my decision to begin college at age 15. As I read the part about the conversations with your neighbors, I could hear my mother metaphorically growling in the background. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of men (and, even worse, women) stuck in the time warp, but it is changing, even if it is at a glacial pace. If you, and me, and every woman we know, and the men we know who don’t think this way keep on keepin’ on, things will continue to change.

  9. “because it’s easier to appear stupid and helpless than to argue with her husband — and that way, she gets what she wants, and he feels happy and superior, and everyone wins.”

    This is the heart of the problem. This, and women still mistrusting other women, for good reasons of competition of the most beautiful or cunning to survive in our long and difficult history of being the nurturers of the human race; reliant on men’s natural physical superior strength to protect both woman and child in turbulent times of war; and as guardians of future existence of the human race, being the child bearers who carry it forward.

    When women begin to put true sisterhood with other women above sexual/romantic relationships with men (or even with other women), when being the gender of a woman just happens to be the luck of the draw as far as Nature is concerned, then something will change. (Your point, but it’s not the whole reason for the continuing disparity between the genders that your post begins to explore.)

    As long as women, among themselves, still want to be adored, be the ONE, be the Mama in the room, not much, if anything, will change. Why should men change, if women themselves show no real–i.e., beyond superficial–interest in bringing about a transcendent change within themselves?

    I think the misperception of what men think about women, and what you’re railing against, has very little to do with being able to change a starter chord in a lawn mower, or being able to change a tire or oil in a care. It has to do with no longer seeking approval from the outside–whether it comes from men or other women.

    I don’t know how to change a starter chord in lawn mower and frankly, if my neighbour–male or female–can fix it for me, I’ll be grateful. Because not knowing how to do something like this does not in any way impair what I am convinced is the most important thing a woman can do–and must–if true equality is to come about between the sexes. Women must be willing to learn how to think independently. That’s what doesn’t happen in a day, for men or women. And it requires a kind of unconditional trust in other like-minded women for it to come about.

    In spite of so many great examples of women, current and historical, who were and are independent thinkers–philosophers, scientists, artists, writers, and so on–women still do not, even among those who believe they think independently, generally spend more time with like-minded women than they do in the company of women they feel will boost them personally in some way, keep them on top, give them approval. It’s a very deep rooted thing, often immediately rejected by the very women who believe they have gone beyond this kind of “adoration”/”approval” thinking in themselves. It’s fossilized in our our DNA.

    The only way to transcend the need for outside approval to validate our existence is to stay with the difficult; instead of falling in with the popular. That is, to stay with how much we actually mistrust other women, and for this not to be a problem. All that’s required is a willingness to unconditionally trust another woman, to give her the benefit of the doubt when she mistrusts us, because we see, in the end, there is only one woman we are each that one woman with everything in us that exists in another.

    When true independent thinking becomes more important than fitting in, and when it comes about as part of a true sisterhood with like-minded women, NOTHING will be able to prevent women from changing the world and standing side by side with men–as their (non-biological or related) sisters, friends, lovers, mothers of their children, and creators of a future as yet to be imagined.

  10. Imagine to be remembered as useless such as sad comment. In all my relationships, I was the one who assembled the furniture and gym equipment; asked for directions, changed tires ahd headlights; repaired the vacuum cleaner, etc. Even yesterday, I was the one who had to figure out why the Internet wasn’t working. It’s all with the pretense of “You have more patience than I do.” Which is a load of crap. If something needs to be fixed, you fix it.

    But I admit there are some things I won’t do. I won’t split wood because I am so uncoordinated that I’ll end up splitting my foot. I won’t operate a chain-saw because it terrifies me because of I’m so clumsy. And I won’t change the oil in my car because I know I’ll end up breaking something. But if I had no choice and no money to have it changed, guess who would be crawling under the car?

  11. Garet Nam

    “I had a conversation with a friend of a friend last week, actually. An incredibly talented, creative, intelligent woman who pretended not to understand cell phone plans,”

    I think part of this myth is perpetuated by females needing to soothe their own busted egos by complimenting each other every time they mention each other to someone else. You almost never hear a male do it.

    Yes, it happens at award ceremonies, weddings and general celebratory events. And it can also be said that the male ego doesn’t allow for such displays of affection since it’d serve to emasculate said man. But one could argue that because a man doesn’t ever do it unless it’s warranted, men acknowledge that their peers aren’t helpless and in need of fluffing up. Men are just men. Capable and creative if need be, dishonest and dastardly if shown in that light.

    “I had a conversation with a friend of a friend last week, actually. A man who pretended not to understand cell phone plans,” would be all you’d hear from a man. There’s no need to say he’s talented or creative, what on earth has that got to do with anything? Anyone can understand cell phone plans, only a baby or an animal wouldn’t be able to. Does a woman need to be talented, creative and intelligent just to understand cell phone plans?

    That is what perpetuates this myth. Since women often believe they need to be several orders of magnitude more capable than Einstein to do simple daily tasks a man several orders of magnitude dumber than Einstein could accomplish with one eye closed and one arm and leg tied behind him.

  12. John

    It would make more sense for you to go outside and interact with people every now and then. That way you would be able to make real observations about the capabilities of women. You wouldn’t need to live in your own fantasy world.

    • Thanks for your comment. If only I had your wisdom, I would talk to more people than just my computer. Oh, wait. I do.

      And perhaps, if I had your wisdom, I would understand more about the capabilities of women. Oh, wait. I am one.

      Maybe you should step outside your OWN fantasy world, and read the blog post again and try to understand what it is I was saying about the culture in which we live, and the way women are pushed into roles of either being helpless and dependent, or being painted as bossy, aggressive bitches. Maybe if you spent more time talking to actual women, instead of trolling them on the intrnet, you’d find some perspective.

Speak to me.

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