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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Be it Resolved..."the bitch" versus "the good girl"

Last Thursday's salon evening saw us debating the question, What gets you further in life?... Being a "good girl" or a "bitch"? If the aim of the evening was to flesh out these two tropes commonly assigned to women, the use of the debate format allowed us to step, quite literally, into the shoes of each trope and give voice to their respective characters and concerns.

Rona began with a brief summary of the origins of debating. Introducing us to the process of "Socratic Questioning" and the workings of "Imaginative Empathy," she challenged us to spot the differences between debate and dialogue, and asked us to consider the merits and shortcomings of both. This included an opening question on how we felt about debate as a form...Memories of high school debating teams intermingled, here, with strong opinions about the value (or not!) of politicians going face-to-face before an election during a televised debate. It was decided that good debating should be well researched, entertaining, insightful and respectful. Linnet's discussion of the London Debating Societies that briefly flourished during the Age of Enlightenment helped to shed light on how these good debating qualities evolved within, and became synonomous with, a more inclusive "bourgeois public sphere" over the course of the 18th Century. Likewise, her discussion of women's gradual entry into these debating societies and her exploration of the part the societies played in helping the general public to hammer out a new understanding of gender roles and gender relations provided us with an insight into how women fit into the growth and development of the debate format.

And then, it was time to start debating! The first exercise was designed to prep the group for the forthcoming debate, and took the form of a socratic questioning session done in pairs. The idea was to help each other find clarity in our views as they related to the evening's debate question. Through this exercise we were able to start building a characterization of "the good girl" and "the bitch" as tropes, and of our respective conceptions of what getting "further in life" might look like. On returning to the group, and after a brief feedback session that revealed people's process of questioning as well as their rough character sketches, Rona randomly split the group into good girls and bitches for the debate. Before setting off, Linnet helped the good girls to get into character by reading them an excerpt from the 1851 edition of The Etiquette Book for Ladies. Meanwhile, the bitches were getting a good dose of 'bitchspeak' courtesy of the bitch manifesto by Jo Freeman.

Each group was given 10 minutes to prepare a platform of 3 strong points supporting their argument that either bitches, or good girls, get further in life. After each side presented their platform, there ensued a lively, hotly contested, and at times, hilarious, round of open debate. The crossfire round completed, Rona asked members of each group to consider a point that had been made over the course of the evening that made them think about the good girl or the bitch differently, or that challenged their own preconceived idea about either one of these tropes. Here is a taste of what debaters presented as arguments to suggest that their trope got further in life, and the kind of rebuttals that came back at them...

Argument: Good Girls are well liked, helpful, always asked to the party again and again, and in fact, will be the first in line to help set up that party and clear it away...Small wonder they get all those invitations! Good Girls get on in life because they are easy going and diplomatic, and people will always be ready and willing to help them out because they don't ruffle any feathers.

Rebuttal: The good girl is suppressing her true self and lives in the shadow of others. Though she pretends to be so nice and accommodating, she is in fact as manipulative as the next person - doing good in order to get on. She never becomes her own person, so busy is she helping others to become their own persons. She is dull and uninteresting, so why would anyone even want her at their party?!

Argument: The Bitch lives in the moment, she doesn't care what people think of her, she has no time for convention, she gets on by being fiercely herself, and because it's impossible to ignore her. Leave it to the co-dependent good girl to concern herself with getting on "further" in life, sneers the bitch. For the bitch, there are no limits when it comes to life...She IS life, and she is making it happen all around her on her own terms.

Rebuttal: the bitch doesn't care who she steps on to get on...she is mean, aggressive, egotistical and insensitive. People do not like her, are not prepared to help her, and she is - whether she is prepared to admit it or not - as effected by people's opinion of her as is the good girl.

Linnet finished the debate with a question to the whole group about which of the tropes was more true to herself, and which was the more revolutionary. From the discussion that followed it became clear that both tropes were reactive tropes - each struggling to find a way through a generally constrictive status quo and each, as a result, becoming defined by her positioning in relation to the status quo. One always beavering away within the limits of convention...The other always fighting against those limits and spilling outside of them...In the end, we decided, it was the bitch who probably made the greatest headway when it came to challenging the status quo, though whether she managed to shake things up for other women in so doing was a question we found ourselves pondering as the evening drew to a close.

This is fitting, given that our next salon evening - on January 12, 2012 - is all about challenging the status quo through the literary genre known as the manifesto...A conversational form, if you like, that is at once a rousing call to action, at once an eloquent account of an individual's or collective's beliefs and goals. Looking at the manifesto will give us an opportunity to pry open the prickly subject of women and their anger. It will also provide us with the perfect opportunity to look at wine women and philosophy's very own manifesta - if you want to get a head start, you can find it on our website!