Patience Is A (Feminist) Virtue
Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can
Seldom found in woman, never found in man.
We often hear that "patience is a virtue." It's the second half of the sentiment largely goes unspoken: Patience is a virtue for women. What is patience, exactly? In Helper By Design, Elyse Fitzpatrick's guide to submitting to your man in the name of God, patience is defined as the "power to endure without complaint something which is disagreeable." That's right, ladies—our gender is number one in leading lives of quiet desperation.
Throughout history, this "power to endure" has proven . . . inconvenient. While patience has its perks in dealing with events that lie entirely outside of our control—war, famine, terminal illness—it becomes a bit of a bother when applied to the realm of romantic relationships. Wait to be asked on a date. Wait to be swept off your feet. Wait for sex—if not until marriage, then at least 90 days. Wait for him to bend down on one knee. Once hitched, wait on him. Then, die.
Why are women encouraged to wait around for major life events to just happen to us? Patience, my dear. These relationship milestones have been engineered and reinforced along traditional gender lines in order to test a woman's ability to shut up and sit pretty, while encouraging men of action to make all the decisions around here. But unfortunately for the patience lobby, us women have figured a few things out over the history of time. One: Our vaginas won't implode upon completion of premarital sex. Two: Our significant others can still love us without investing two paychecks worth of bling into one of our virtuous little fingers. And three: Waiting does not work. Ever.
In light of these developments, some have chosen to trash those pesky romantic milestones altogether, refusing to see virginity and weddings as indicators of our worth as women. Others have flipped the gender script they're based upon: Ask out. Initiate sex. Propose. But some just can't let go of the passivity thing, and they're going to try their hardest to make feminine patience work in the 21st century. For them, the ideal of passive patience needn't be discarded; it's just got to be re-coded and re-sold as proactive patience. Nowadays, getting men to come to you doesn't have to be a pathetic waste of time—it can be a subversive, brave, and even—yes—feminist act of empowerment!
Coincidentally, all of these people appear to be concentrated in our nation's record labels, movie studios, publishing houses, and newspapers. Behold, pop culture's vision of a feminism of patience: No need to abandon traditional marriage—just celebrate women who are strong enough to get what they want (that ring). Don't propose to your significant other—just subversively coerce him into doing it for you. Don't bother waiting around in your ivory tower for your prince to come—just make damned sure you're on the receiving end of that fairy-tale ending. Girl power!
Exhibit A: The works of Taylor Swift.
Hoo boy, how are we going to reconcile this one, ladies? Taylor Swift sings songs about waiting around, being a princess, and crying for her "Romeo" to rescue her from her dad, who is so mean. Then, she makes videos for these songs where she is literally waiting in an ivory tower for her prince to come:
Romeo take me somewhere we can be alone
I'll be waiting all there's left to do is run
You'll be the prince and I'll be the princess
It's a love story baby just say yes
Okay. Breathe. Despite the traditional trappings—Romeo, waiting, prince, princess—it's not hard to find a girl-power lining in this song. Swift is coaching Romeo here. She's giving him exact instructions on where to find her. She's charting out their escape route. And she's imploring him to say yes to her demands. That is, until we get to the fairy-tale ending:
Romeo save me I've been feeling so alone
I keep waiting for you but you never come
Is this in my head? I don't know what to think
He knelt to the ground and pulled out a ring
And said, marry me Juliet
You'll never have to be alone
I love you and that's all I really know
I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress
It's a love story baby just say yes
Ooh! So close! Notice how Swift whiles away her time waiting, crying, wishing, hoping, praying, etc. while all Romeo has to do is . . . go over and talk to her dad. It's not exactly rocket science, folks. And yet, Swift expends a whole lot of emotional energy in order to goad the love of her life into performing the most basic of tasks, instead of just, like, dealing with her father herself, or realizing that her father is a dick and she's 18 so he can't tell her what to do anyway. But whatever—surely we can channel all of Swift's emotional energy into some sort of feminist reading of her work? Alyssa Rosenberg, noted critic of passivity in popular culture, sees Swift as feminist, in a way:
I am an enormous sucker for . . . Taylor Swift's "Love Story," which is an absurdly mature and lovely piece of pop songwriting. "I was a scarlet letter" spoken as a declaration of pride, devotion, and sexual desire is kind of amazing as a commercially successful act of feminist reclamation.
I don't see the phrase as a "feminist reclamation" so much as a mixed literary metaphor inserted into a song about waiting to get a ring on that finger. And "Love Story" is not Swift's sole offense: In "You Belong With Me," Swift passively spins elaborate fantasies that the boy of her dreams is dating her, and not his girlfriend. In the song, Swift is "Dreaming bout the day when you'll wake up and find / That what you're lookin' for has been here the whole time." Since Swift refuses to just ask him out or something, her solution is to aggressively strut her passivity in front of his face at every opportunity.
But let's be fair—while Swift's princess persona is a bit dull, Swift herself has been spending her pre-wedding days writing and recording hit crossover records. That's something, Ann Powers argues for the Los Angeles Times:
the authority these fledgling artists claim is a great sign of feminism's ripple effects. Swift might play a princess in many of her songs—in fact, the best parts of "Fearless" meditate on the princess myth and how reality subverts it—but in the studio she's her own boss, writing and producing those fairy tales.
This is the Sarah Palin theory of feminism. If she's a woman, and she does stuff, it's feminist—even if that stuff is writing songs about waiting around for boys do stuff to you. These women don't deserve our ire, but they don't deserve a cookie, either. Swift should be celebrated as a promising entertainer who writes catchy tunes I like to listen to on the radio. Feminist? Not so much.
Exhibit B: The cautionary tale.
If "Anna", the central character in the upcoming rom-com Leap Year, is a "princess," it is in the urban dictionary sense of the word: She is a beautiful, well-heeled control freak with a serious thirst for a solitaire diamond. Anna wants to propose to her boyfriend, but she can't, because girls can't propose to boys. So our determined young heroine finds a patience loop-hole: Propose to her boyfriend on a day that only comes around once every four years, because it is socially acceptable to do so, in Ireland, on that day alone (?). Anna hops on a plane to secure the man of her dreams on her own terms.
But ho ho, no, not so fast, independent woman. You've still got to wait—for your plane to get re-routed, your car to get blocked by a sea of cows, your ass to fall down a muddy hill, and a charming and handsome Irishman to accompany you on your hilarious misadventures. In fact, our heroine has to wait juuuuust long enough for her boyfriend to realize that he, in fact, wants to propose to her—and for the charming and handsome Irishman to begin to aggressively court her also.
Moral of the story: There's nothing more irresistible than a woman who desperately needs to get married as soon as possible . . . as long as she doesn't end up doing the proposing. That would be pathetic.
Exhibit C: Team Bella
Bella Swan, the heroine of the Twilight series, gets a lot of flack for being a passive lump of femininity with no defining characteristics besides her tasty blood. (Rosenberg has penned an exquisitely written anti-Bella screed). By series end, that blood will catapult her into vampire royalty, making her a—you guessed it!—princess. But in New Moon, the second installment in the Twilight series, Bella actually takes on a ton of pretty sweet hobbies.
She fixes up old motorcycles! She jumps off cliffs! She goes on joyrides with dumpy bikers! She sees movies with her friends! She uses e-mail! Okay—so our expectations for Bella's extracurricular activities are pretty low. She actually spends the better part of New Moon staring out of a window, watching the seasons change as she "endures without complaint something which is disagreeable"—bad vampire break-up. But the motorcycle thing is pretty rad, right? Too bad she only does the more interesting stuff to prove how vulnerable and suicidal she is in an attempt to coerce her ex-boyfriend to come back and save her from herself.
Bella's empowerment of desperation presents the most difficult form of patience to re-cast as a new feminism. But let's give it a try—if we can't give up the wedding shit, and we can't give up the princess shit, and we can't give up the patience shit, then we have got to find some way to justify this to ourselves. Sady Doyle, in a brilliant turn, points out that Bella is passive in the way that men in porn are: They're faceless, save for one sizable talent (tasty blood = big penis), and somehow they've got tons of perky, tanned blondes servicing them for no apparent reason. This is exactly what happens to Bella—she does nothing, she is nothing, and hot guys fight over her. (Nevermind that one other thing Bella doesn't do: Sex before marriage). No, it's not feminist. But at least women aren't alone in this peculiar set-up. Plus, it helps religious ladies get off, apparently, so proceeds go toward a good cause.
Exhibit D: Feminist v. Princess
Last year, the Washington Post published Rachel Beckman's "One Ring Circus," a story about the years Beckman spent waiting, wishing, agonizing and flat-out fantasizing that her boyfriend Eli would propose to her. Beckman is more attached to the romantic relationship milestones than most—she began imagining Eli's proposal after their first kiss. A few years down the road, she had formed an "Engagement Watch Team" among her coworkers to chart Eli's every move. The obsession was not all white taffeta and seating arrangements; the anticipation of the proposal haunted her. One Valentine's Day, Beckman "carefully checked every dish of food for a diamond ring so that I didn't accidentally swallow it and become one of those proposals-gone-bad stories in the bridal magazines." When Beckman, then in her early 2o's, realized Eli wasn't popping the question that moment, she wept.
Unsurprisingly, the diamond fever left Beckman with some personal conflicts:
I felt like engagement was the one off-limits topic. I didn't want to pressure him or spoil the big, elaborate surprise proposal (that he hadn't even started planning). I was caught in a Catch-22. I could be hands-off and leave it all to him (feminist Rachel says no), or I could be hands-on and get what I want (princess Rachel says no).
I don't doubt that Beckman has been largely influenced by the feminist movement. But the distinction between the "princess" who waits patiently for her boyfriend to propose to her and the "feminist" who actively coerces her boyfriend into proposing sets up a bit of a false dichotomy. The main difference appears to be that the princess waits around for her prince to ride up on his horse, while the feminist pressures her boyfriend to man up and play his assigned role.
A desire to get married is not necessarily an anti-feminist one. The problem is when the decision to wed is left exclusively to the man, leaving the woman to waste years of emotional energy as she waits patiently for him to do so. The whole point of the milestone is to set up a relationship based on feminine patience and masculine decision-making. Beckman's "feminist" solution is to micromanage the process—to talk openly about her desire to get married, open up negotiations as to the time frame, and instruct Eli on the perfect ring. In doing so, Beckman converts her private agony into proactive patience, but she can't go so far as to pop the question herself—in order to fulfill her lifelong engagement fantasy, she must submit to Eli's better judgment.
Beckman may see this subversive engagement planning as a feminist development, but really, women have always coped with a lack of institutional power by working behind the scenes. I appreciate Beckman's essay, because it's good to remember that achieving patience takes more than switching on your feminine tractor beams and waiting for your prince to come. Getting what you want while seemingly doing nothing is work. Even in 1964, Burt Bacharach knew that just waiting around and being a woman wasn't going to cut it. You have to strut your patience. You have to work your waiting.
"Wishin' and Hopin,'" a ditty made popular by Dusty Springfield, instructed women to stop their traditional wishin', hopin', thinkin', prayin', plannin', and dreamin', and instead, get off their asses and do stuff: like "the things he likes to do" and wearing "your hair just for him." As the song demonstrates, aggressively pursuing what you want isn't always an act of female empowerment.
Photo via George Eastman House