'Three Ways Women Can Relate to Each Other'
Bizarre advice anywhere but Stepford

A recent article from lds.org entitled “Celebrate Nurturing” was associated with a meme on the church’s Facebook page encouraging women to build friendships using three “techniques”:  speaking confidently of motherhood, speaking more often about nurturing, and expanding your circle of sisterhood.  This bizarre advice (the first two parts anyway) has little practical application, and raised more hackles than just my own; Gina Colvin had this to say about it.

While the original article was written by a woman, it’s hard to see how the advice as distilled into the meme would actually strengthen female relationships.  As Gina points out:

But isn’t it well meaning and kind?  No its not, in the same way that circulating a graphic of happy Pacific Islanders with the  slogans:  Speak Confidently in English, Speak Less Often of your Culture,  Expand your circle of Nice White Friends‘ is not kind and means more than innocent support  for a group of people.  It speaks at Pacific Islanders from a position of power in order to address their imagined deficits or essentialized traits and works to affirm prejudices already in public circulation.

She further posits that “the excessive valorization of  the feminine reproductive body and their  supposedly inherent nurturing qualities is a euphemism for men wanting more sex and hot dinners,” a point with which I happen to agree.  Most men I know don’t see women this way, but it seems to be the way women are viewed in official publications of the church.

Since the meme was published, I haven’t been able to quit thinking about the 1975 thriller, The Stepford Wives, based on Ira Levin’s 1972 novel.  The word “Stepford” has been used as shorthand for a seeming Utopian white picket fence community that is actually fake, a cover for something more sinister, which is one theme of the story.  But the aspect of the story that has haunted me is the experience of the women who move to the community as they try to build friendships and to find a way to fit in.  If you haven’t seen the movie, I encourage you to watch it.  IMO, it holds up over time.  I’d watch the original with Katharine Ross, although there has been a remake with Nicole Kidman a few years ago.  Katharine Ross beats Nicole Kidman any day in my book.

What do Stepford wives talk about? On what do they base their friendships? Oh right; they don’t have friendships because they are robots, not people.

Katharine plays Joanna, a photographer and young wife and mother who moves with her husband and kids from New York City to the town of Stepford.  She and her friend Bobbie, another new arrival, are disturbed by the behavior of the other women in the town.  All the other women are entirely devoted to family and their husbands, never contradicting or expressing a contrary opinion, exhibiting total submission to their husbands.  The wives in the community dress with an exaggerated femininity, wearing long dresses and floppy hats wherever they go, even to the grocery store, speak passively and softly, and they have no personal interests that would foster a shared intimacy with female friends. These docile and submissive qualities extend to their sex lives, as Joanna observes through the hedge.  A husband comes home in the middle of the day and his complaisant wife serenely allows him free access to her body as she gardens.  Behind it all is the Stepford Men’s Club, a secret organization for the town’s husbands.  None of the wives mind being excluded.  They are numbly content to cater to their husbands’ needs, tending the home with no personal interests, opinions or needs of their own.

But it is precisely those interests, opinions and needs that bind women together.  Women don’t go to lunch to chat about motherhood, confidently or otherwise, or if they do, what a boring conversation that would be!  And I’m not even sure what a conversation about nurturing would entail.  “What’s your favorite nurturing activity?  Mine too!”  You can value motherhood and even nurturing (whatever that word means) without it being the basis of your female friendships and without it being a topic of casual conversation.  In fact, it cannot be the basis of friendship because motherhood and nurturing are impersonal and conceptual.  It is our flaws, our uniqueness, our vulnerability that creates friendship.  It’s our shared opinions, our hopes and dreams, our fears and disappointments.  At times it’s our shared complaints and worries, and yes, even gossip. Telling women to base their friendships on talking about motherhood and nurturing is like telling chefs to build relationships by talking about nutrition.  That’s not the content of close friendly relationships, any more than nutrition facts capture the essence of one’s interest in gourmet cooking.

Ironically, the author of the article seems to understand this.  The person who created the meme, not so much.  The author states:

People who share common interests tend to gravitate toward each other. Young mothers tend to quickly develop friendships with one another because of their similar situations in life. Sisters who are finished rearing their families may feel that they have nothing in common with those just starting out. And sisters who have never had children also seem to be in their own circle.

She adds:

“All of us can find joy and fulfillment in the “muddled, mortal middle.” As sisters in Zion, we must look for our commonalities, recognize that we are all striving toward the same eternal goal, and realize that we can help each other along the path”

Expand your circle of friends to people who aren’t like you.

The author’s actual advice was given in the context of a never-married church member, aged 40, who wanted other women to know how to relate to people like her.  She advised that women with children tend to be too sensitive about motherhood when talking to women without children, but that it’s OK to talk about motherhood.  By omitting that, the meme alters the nature of the advice, implying that women (including the teen girl pictured who presumably is not a mother) should all just sit around talking about motherhood and nurturing.  The author also uses the term nurturing very loosely (it’s a very vague term), specifically noting that men also nurture (the meme ignores this) and giving an example of “nurturing” that is talking about a wedding with her niece.  I’m not entirely sure that meets my definition of nurturing, which is reserved for nursing baby rabbits back to health with an eyedropper and strained carrots.  The dictionary defines nurture as “to care for and encourage the growth or development of.”  I suppose I am nurturing the waiter when I leave a tip.  I am nurturing Hollywood when I choose which movie to see (telling them “make more movies like this one!”).  I am nurturing the government when I vote.  The final advice in the article, to expand one’s circle of sisterhood, is actually the only advice being offered in the article:  find ways to relate to people who may be different from you.

Why then is the meme boiled down to a nonsensical version of the author’s advice that sounds like it completely misunderstands how human relationships are formed?  It’s a strange meme; it’s off-putting advice.  It sounds like the sort of advice that the Disney engineers at the Stepford Men’s Club would give.  Memes are a feat of editing.  As Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  Whoever boiled this one down seemingly wants to give women an approved script (say “motherhood” and “nurture” a lot!) without regard to its practical application.  Come on. We can certainly do better than this.

Just to demonstrate how easy it is to do better, I found a great study on female friendships from the UK.  Here are a few conclusions of that study that would have made a better meme:

  • Don’t judge.  Both male and female friendships are based on trust.
  • Relax!  All people want to feel that they can let down their guard and be accepted for who they are.
  • Listen up.  While men often bond through shared activity (sports, drinking), women bond through conversation.

One final question, readers.  How would a conversation about nurturing go?  I’d love to hear some examples.