Neat Girl Versus Sweet Girl

There are few more pleasurable choices for light lunchtime reading than a handsome sheaf of wedding announcements. It's unusual for a wedding announcement to cross my threshold: my peers are already married, mostly, and our children are still pretty young. But at my parents' home, those creamy envelopes stamped cute arrive almost every day, and when I visit I make a point to sit down with the basket where they alight. I go through the stack, clucking with disapproval at the latest trends in stationery or layout or font or whatever, convinced that they portend the demise of marriage as we know it. I comment on the registry or the reception venue. And always, always I study the photograph and peer deeply into the soul of the bride through the lambent windows of her eyes.

It goes without saying that I discuss all of the forgoing with whichever female relative is handy at the moment. We heap special attention on the character of the bride. We try to keep our gossip nontoxic, and mostly we succeed. What is the girl like? What is she doing now, and what are post-nuptial plans? Is she similar to her affianced, or is it a case of opposites attracting? The point of our inquiry is to place the bride correctly into our bifurcate taxonomy of mulieris matrimonium: neat girl, or sweet girl?

As I was growing up, neat girl and sweet girl comprised a powerful heuristic for making sense of the female social landscape I encountered. Bad girls and mean girls, fortunately, rarely made appearances. But the categories neat and sweet were far from value-free judgments; on the contrary, as with any meaningful social tool, they were infused with intimations of approval and its opposite, identification and alienation, aspiration and hierarchy. She's a sweet girl spoke volumes. He's marrying a really neat girl spoke even more.

Sweet girls always wanted to go to BYU; neat girls sent away for information from Brown. Sweet girls take courses in family science; neat girls do pre-med. Sweet girls get dates every weekend; neat girls study at the library. Sweet girls are pretty and charming; neat girls are plain and talk too fast, or anyway that's how they describe themselves. Sweet girls don't serve missions; neat girls do, or at least get the papers from their bishop. Sweet girls wear cardigans in their engagement photos; neat girls wear blazers. Sweet girls want most of all to be a wife and mother; neat girls apply for MA programs and insist that they're not ready for marriage. Sweet girls marry at 20; neat girls marry at 23.

You get the idea, and you probably know the types even if you call them by different names and you lose the Mormon-specific context. Reese Witherspoon, sweet girl; Kate Winslett, neat girl. Katie Couric, sweet girl; Rachel Maddow, neat girl. Laura Bush, sweet girl; Condoleeza Rice, neat girl. St. Teresa of Avila, sweet girl; Joan of Arc, neat girl. Eliza Snow and Emma Smith, both neat girls. Sheri Dew, neat girl. Lady Gaga, neat girl. Rosalynde Welch—of course—neat girl.

Bella Swan is a neat girl, as are Clory McIntyre and Princess Ani and every other female protagonist ever conceived by a female writer; such is the nature of the relationship between literature and society, since the rise of the novel, anyway. Chances are you're a neat girl, too, and all the women you admire. It really doesn't matter so much, after all, whether you wore a cardigan or a blazer or any of the rest of it; if you can see the world through her first-person perspective—if she exists for you as a subject—then she's a neat 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.

3/29/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Mormon
  • Salt and Seed
  • Feminism
  • gender
  • Mormonism
  • Rosalynde Welch
    About Rosalynde Welch
    Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar who makes her home in St. Louis, Missouri, with her husband and four children.