Salt and Seed
Neat Girl Versus Sweet Girl
That's because this kind of social landscaping, a necessary and inevitable aspect of human experience, is what the epistemologists would call "situated knowledge": knowledge that is embedded in culture, imbued with a particular point of view (hint: yours), the visible tip of a hidden iceberg of assumption and worldview. That means that social knowledge is always biased and partial, true, but it also means that it is fully alive in our self-concepts, our decisions, our relationships. It's small-minded, parochial, myopic—and we can't live without it.
Situated knowledge remains relevant to community experience as long as it accomplishes some necessary ideological work. Neat girls and sweet girls, of course, negotiate our vexed relationship to feminism. Neat girls incorporate some aspects of the feminist project: an emphasis on education, on leadership, on independence and achievement and a certain critical perspective. But neat girls conspicuously eschew other feminist ideals: they are not seriously ambitious, they do not seek structural power or confront authority, they adhere to traditional sexual mores, and they ultimately accept the roles of wife and mother.
Nor is the sweet girl, for her part, an atavistic pre-feminist gender ideal: the sweet girl is nothing more or less than not-neat-girl at the present moment, whether in 1911 or 2011. In this sense the category pair neat girl/sweet girl is what the cultural critic would call a "subversion and containment mechanism" (or she would if she was in graduate school about ten years ago); the neat girl subverts some conventions of femininity, but in the end she contains, or limits, the existential threat that feminism poses to the patriarchal institution. How you feel about that, of course, depends entirely on what you believe about feminism.
What this means for me and for all the lovely young brides I love to contemplate is that our identities will always be defined by deep historical currents beyond and outside of ourselves. So consider this my response to the recent Patheos roundtable on Mormon women and identity. No matter how strong-willed, self-possessed, or free-spirited the woman, and no matter how permissive the culture and expansive the catalog of identities from which she chooses—or believes that she chooses - she will always be authored by agents outside herself. And how you feel about that depends entirely on what you believe about yourself.
Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.