‘American Women Are Rude’, ‘Visiting Englishmen Are No Roses’
By MALCOLM BRADBURY and GLORIA STEINEM
This article is from ‘The New York times on The Web’ and can be seen by clicking here
Herewith an English novelist and recent visitor to the United States, Malcolm Bradbury, offers his opinion of American women. It is followed by a riposte from an American woman who has lived in England, Gloria Steinem, freelance and editor of “The Beach Book.”
March 29, 1964
American Women Are Rude by Malcolm Bradbury
One of the deepest traumas experienced by every Englishman who comes to America-and, these days, that’s almost every Englishman-is that of encountering, for the first time, in quantity and in her own native habitat, the American woman. Blind terror, a desire to learn judo, and a willingness to marry any girl who’ll sit at home of nights and sew are some of the symptoms usually associated with this confrontation.
“American women are generally rude,” said one visiting Englishman, still shaking from a recent encounter in a New York drugstore in which he had been hoicked off his stool by one of the breed. Another found American women fickle (“You don’t really know how well you’re doing,” he said).
Others are likely to brood over an age-old mystery that Europeans have never really been able to solve. They will observe that, though they are, properly enough, fascinated by the American girl, they are disturbed to discover that she grows up into the American woman. On the one hand, you have the young American girl, trim, smart, apparently just unwrapped from Cellophane packing, looking as fresh as a Daisy Miller. And on the other, you have the middle-aged American woman, with her shrieking voice and parchment skin, growing money-trees, doing plant-prayer, gossiping about her neighbors and scouring through genealogies for a regal connection.
All these comments are, of course, classical symptoms of the cultural divide that still separates the two English-speaking peoples, and I propose to take this occasion, on the authority of several years’ research, to try to clear up some of the confusions associated with the Anglo-American male-female relationship:
(1) It should be remembered that American women are, from the European view, men. A European visitor is likely, in the early days of his visit, to forget this. Yet, of course, years of emancipation have given American womenfolk personalities, opinions, leisure, money, careers and all the other characteristics of male power. At the same time, male authority has been diminished, male spending power has been reduced, and all fathers have been symbolically slaughtered. Thus the female has a rare charismatic power.
I remember once taking a frightened, hasty walk through the New York offices of Vogue, a central shrine of American womanhood. All over the building, career girls sat at their desks, typing and correcting proofs, smart, svelte, each one wearing a hat. I realized afterward that the hats were like those skulls medieval philosophers kept in their studies; they were momento mori to remind them what they really were.
(2) It should also be remembered that American girls are the product of enormous capital investment. Every country has something that it particularly likes to spend money on. Thus, in Germany it is veal; in England it is dogs; in the United States it is the young American girl. Such girls are a form of conspicuous consumption, like Christmas trees outside office buildings.
Because they are the products of such attention, young American girls can be very selective indeed about their standards, their clothese and their boy friends. In the Middle West, this selectivity is ritualized into something called rating dating; this means that a girl dates with men who bring her more and more prestige until finally, as with a thermometer, the mercury settles and she knows who she really is. This is a form of arranged marriage, in fact, in which the girl herself does the arranging; it would be considered old-fashioned in Europe, where marriage is supposedly for love. This period of choosing is the most important period in any girl’s life, and marriage is a necessary comedown.
Thus all those middle-aged ladies who, fresh from scavenging through Europe, sit in the bars on ocean liners, tipping waiters and apparently grinding their diamonds between their teeth, are really looking sadly into their drinks and wishing they were girls again. And thus it is that whenever you speak to some women’s club-the Daughters of Benedict Arnold, or whatever it may be-on “Africa-Wither?” Madam Chairman will rise, put on her diamond-encrusted glasses and say, “Hi, gals.” To any European woman in the audience, coming from a location where it is more prestigious to be old than to be young, this would be rude. It is, of course, simply politeness.
(3) It should further be remembered that American women have little sense of difficulty. “Very demanding” is what American women are often said to be. But as an English friend of mine, with an American wife, put it to me behind some vine plants at a party, “The thing about American women is they don’t understand what’s meant by ‘difficult.’ For instance, my wife keeps having these ideas. She’ll get up in the morning and say, ‘I’ve had this great idea; I’m going to have my legs plated with gold.’ That kind of thing. I tell her I can’t afford it; it’s too difficult, and she says, ‘But money is a means and not an end.’ I keep saying to her, ‘Do you realize our relationship is an ulcer-syndrome?”
The high expectations of the American women devolve particularly upon her menfolk, of whom the greatest courtesy is expected. A man shows his interest in a girl by performing innumerable ritual politeness-opening car doors for her, carrying such small packages as she has about her, presenting her regularly with gifts, and the like.
(4) It should be remembered, finally, that one nation’s rudeness is another nation’s manners. And so the foreigner is never quite sure whether Americans, generally, are being rude or not. I remember once a New York cabbie said to me, while I was waiting for him to open the taxi door and let me descend, “Whatsa matter, Mac, no legs?” It is quite possible, and even likely, that he was being, in his own way, perfectly amiable. As my English friend pointed out, “The thing about Americans is that they’re so nice. But sometimes it sounds so like other peoples’ being nasty that you have to be very careful indeed.”
Thus it is that the American woman who, at a party, analyzes your psychological make-up, questions all your standards, doubts your virility and accuses you of moral corruption-leaving you finally in a discarded heap by the wall-is not in any way trying to be rude. Quite the contrary: She is being very polite and social, because she is creating a relationship. As an American femme fatale once said to me, “I always think hostility is so much more friendly than total indifference.”
The curious mixture of toughness and hospitality that has the Englishman rocking on his feet is characteristic. My English friend summed it up by saying, “They want you to know they’re hospitable, but on the other hand, they don’t want you to think you can take them for a ride.”
Hence Americans have to be very rude before they are actually being rude. So often they are simply being nice. The interesting problem is that of discovering how to know when they are really, actually being rude, personally rude, to you. The trouble for an Englishman is that finding out means watching, questioning, prying-and that is, after all, very rude indeed.
Visiting Englishmen Are No Roses by Gloria Steinem
I have read Mr. Bradbury’s article with admiration and dismay. My first impulse was to put on something frilly, retire to the kitchen and stop all mental processes, in order to avoid those accusations of rudeness and regain, in his eyes, my femininity. But, on second thought, I cannot believe that a man, even an Englishman, really enjoys being admired by women with no taste. According to his witty novel “Eating People Is Wrong,” Mr. Bradbury doesn’t believe it either: One of his most sympathetic characters turns out to be a young girl with spirit, intelligence and a graduate degree.
So I have some hope Mr. Bradbury will understand that I am not trying to pay him back for 1776, or discourage English tourism, or upset the NATO alliance or, worst of all, be unfeminine when I say that visiting Englishmen are no roses either.
(1) Take their dress, for instance. It isn’t always easy to feel feminine and nonrude beside a man who wears slope-shouldered jackets nipped at the waist, speaks with an Oxonian lisp and says he’s “tiddly” when he means he’s drunk.
Of course, we realize that the fault is in the eye of the beholder, that some residue of our frontier tradition makes us feel the difference between men and women should be accentuated. Moreover, postwar Englishman are as tall and sturdy as their vitamin-fed American counterparts, and that’s a blessing. (It is difficult to feel feminine with a man who weighs less than you do and has smaller feet.) But visiting Englishmen-especially those from, or pretending to be from, the upper classes-might bear in mind that the effete English prototype causes just as incredulous a reaction here as does the loud, cigar-smoking American in London.
(2) A stout refusal to go native may have been invaluable to the British Empire, but times change. A British general once said that, had Americans been the colonial power in India, they would have intermarried and disappeared within 50 years. It’s probably true that our melting-pot culture has made us look upon adaptability as a virtue. That explains why, faced with a visitor who clings to his own customs with the same stubbornness that made him wear a dinner jacket in the jungle, we judge him rude. In fact, Englishmen seem to be constantly complaining (in a very genteel way) that no one here knows how to queue properly, or that drinks have ice in them, or that hotel managers just won’t lower room temperatures to a decent 60 degrees (how did they ever survive the tropics?), or that American girls look as if they interchangeable plastic parts (no wonder we’re so rude about their teeth).
Englishmen also tend to import their highly developed class sense intact without considering that, though we are full of status consciousness ourselves, we like to be less obvious (or more hypocritical) about it. We therefore resent the Englishman’s assumption that a working-class background (his or ours) is a disadvantage in “society,” that “no golf green is decent until it’s been rolled for 200 years,” and that it’s uproariously funny to call charwomen cleaning ladies.
(3) Americans don’t necessarily equate passivity with politeness. While I don’t go along with Mr. Bradbury’s American informant who found hostility charming, I do think that the Englishman’s horror of asking questions can make him seem uninterested to the point of rudeness. In 1955, when Americans stationed in England were still competing with Englishmen for the affections of local girls, a London tabloid ran an exposé called “Yank for a Day.” A masquerading reporter discovered that it was partly the Yank’s ready cash that made him attractive, and partly his un-English habit of treating girls “like real people” and acting “interested in us, not like our boys.”
It’s just possible that, had Mr. Bradbury’s bachelor friend asked his American girl a question now and then, she might not have married someone else.
(4) We know we’re difficult, but we love you. All right, so we have some tribal dating customs (every country has peasants; ours have money); and a talent for asking awkward questions (“Aren’t you glad you’re not a first-class power?”) and even, as we try to figure out how to be women and people at the same time, an alarming habit of overplaying our independence.
The thing is, we mean well, and if we react badly to criticism it is only because our basic Anglophilia makes us take English criticism more to heart than any other. But if our affection for the British has withstood the burning of the White House, the sale of buses to Cuba, Richard Burton, and the Beatles, it’s likely to withstand anything, including a fit of pique at being called rude.