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The Boston Phoenix Girl Power

The fine art of remaining a feminist while having a man kill all the spiders.

By Clea Simon

JANUARY 26, 1998:  Blame it on the spider. Blame it on that fat little monster that scrambled across my floor, scaring me off my feet and into a frenzy. Because although one would not ordinarily think that standing on the living room sofa, peeping like an abandoned sparrow chick, would be conducive to great philosophical breakthroughs, this time it was.

This breakthrough, like all the great ones, came by accident. I did not mean to jump onto the couch when I saw those angular legs hurrying that grape-size body across the floor. I did not mean to have my stomach clench up with disgust and fear at its robotic movements and its nasty, unreal speed, and I did not mean to abandon my newspaper and my dignity and jump. But I did. And there I was, waving my arms and squeaking, when the first great truth hit me: I was acting like a girl.

Luckily my mate responded to my distress calls and quickly dispatched the offender, but the thought stayed with me. As I stood there, flapping my arms, my past rushed up to greet me, and I realized that more and more I was becoming the kind of woman who stood on the sofa and shrieked, at least metaphorically. After years as an independent, contemporary, self-supporting feminist, I was becoming what I had feared. I was assuming the girl's role.

It wasn't just my burgeoning arachnophobia. This new persona was present in my daily decisions. As I looked around at my life, I realized I'd fallen into patterns I didn't even remember learning. I've been happily involved with someone for a while now, and I had fostered the illusion that our relationship was entirely equal. Yet somewhere along the line, I'd become the one who went grocery shopping and groomed the cat. I'd become the default chef, the one who rummaged through the fridge and cabinets when we'd both had long days at work and arrived home hungry and tired. (I knew, after all, that I would be the one who could turn three-day-old leftovers and a celery stalk into dinner.) This past holiday season, I was the one who wrote the greeting cards -- and handed them to my mate to sign. The gender role-playing worked both ways, too: over the past few months, I'd begun assuming he'd take responsibility for hauling the big barrels when our name came up on our building's trash-night roster, as he has for every light bulb that blows out in any fixture higher than a table lamp. For a recent birthday, I'd even given my mate an electric drill. Which I have never asked to borrow! Soon, I'd be wearing a frilly apron around the house and applying lipstick before breakfast. I was getting nervous.

I don't know exactly when this happened. In my single years I was tough, competent. In similar situations, facing spiders like the one I flapped at now, I'd been known to wield a mean can of Raid. In years past, I've even encouraged my cat to eat smaller spiders, poking at them to get them to move, so he would recognize them as crunchy treats. And throughout college, I was the roommate who, when the odd roach appeared, could be counted on to go after it, shoe in hand and cursing like a Marine (Semper Fi!).

In fact, I've always rejected the part of the squeamish female. Recently, when I hired a carpenter (a woman, of course) to do some heavy-duty installing, I made sure to let her know that the clamp she borrowed was one of my tools -- given me by my mother. My mother, I told her as I steadied her ladder, was the physically adept one of my parents. The one with the grasp of mechanical and spatial thinking. You know, I implied: all those stereotypical "boy" things. I did not tell her that I had not inherited my mother's patience for measuring and marking along with the clamp, the three hammers, and the impressive set of wrenches. If the carpenter noticed the much-puttied scars on my walls and windowsills, she was too polite to mention them -- and, deep in my denial, I could dismiss them, too.

But as I stood on the sofa, the audible, visual proof of the truth was too obvious to ignore: I was weepy, I was squeamish, I was behaving like the Barbie I had never owned. Could this be? That's when the second revelation hit me. Maybe I wasn't acting on pure panic so much as on personal preference, on decisions I had the leeway to make as a strong, adult female. Maybe I wasn't merely succumbing to years of subtle media mind control. Maybe, just maybe, the issue hasn't been one of talent, but of taste.

Thinking about it, I began to see my actions as evidence of strength. Perhaps I would simply prefer to stand on the furniture shrieking weakly, rather than feel the soft pop of a spider's exoskeleton under my hand. Just as I prefer to cook Thanksgiving dinner for eight of my mate's relatives, and get all the credit, than to face the dishes afterward. In this light, such decisions are laudable -- reasons not for shame but for pride, showing an understanding of myself that comes only with maturity and that can only help my equal and liberated relationship. My mate, after all, has a real aptitude for bundling garbage that I wouldn't want to undermine with my less graceful technique. And during last weekend's plumbing disaster, I knew I was fulfilling an important partnership function as I read humorous excerpts to him from the Sunday Times while he figured out how, exactly, he could wedge his head behind the toilet -- and then work it back out again.

And so these days I am focusing on seeing myself not as hampered by traditional gender roles so much as simply differently competenced than my mate. With this thought in mind, I can stand on the sofa proudly, knowing that I am not the lesser because I want to be there. Bouncing up there and screaming, I am still in control. I am merely exercising my freedom of choice.


Clea Simon is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Her last column was about skiing.


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