Never hit a girl. Where does that idea come from, and what are its traveling companions? I recently watched Miss Congeniality, starring Sandra Bullock, and the idea sprang unbidden to my mind that American culture is conveying a message about women that is incongruous with the old rule “never hit a girl.”
In the movie, a tomboyish and unfeminine FBI agent, named Gracie Hart, (played by Bullock,) goes undercover in a beauty pageant to stop a criminal. The movie opens with the scene of a grade school playground where a young Gracie defends a boy from a bully. “Never hit a girl” is an acknowledged, if not quite obeyed, rule on the playground. The bully’s initial response to Gracie is “If you weren’t a girl, I’d bash your face in.” Of course, Gracie quickly demonstrates why that line of thinking is wrong.
Later, a grown up Agent Gracie Hart spars with fellow agent, Eric Matthews, while they discuss entering her into the beauty pageant. The violence is comical, but forceful. The conclusion of the conversation is that Gracie joins the pageant. The conclusion of the sparring match is that Eric and Gracie are equals in violence.
The movie hinges on the transformation of the tomboyish Gracie into a noticeably feminine and even beautiful woman. The transformation is highlighted by the response of her fellow agents, particularly Matthews, who goes from saying “no one thinks of you” as a woman, to admitting that Gracie is “gorgeous.” Gracie playfully taunts him with a sing-song “You think I’m gor-geous, you want to kiiiiss me.” This refrain comes back again near the end of the movie, when he does, in fact, kiss her, demonstrating that the transformation of their relationship is complete.
You might walk away from the movie thinking, “isn’t that nice, they’ll get married and then he’ll have a wife he can spar with.” But then that sing-song taunt comes back to mind, “You think I’m gor-geous, you want to kiiiiss me, love me and ma-rry me.” The line emphatically does not say “you want to punch me and fight me.” Nor is that the natural response of a man towards a beautiful woman. It’s an unnatural response.
If you asked an old-school guy why is “never hit a girl” a rule, he would say something like, “because she’s weaker than you. You’re not proving anything by beating up a girl, except that you’re a coward.” This makes sense in the old-school perspective because men and women are decidedly not equals in strength or combat. In that perspective, it is actually demeaning of a man’s masculinity to hit a woman. The man’s superiority in combat is assumed.
American culture has been giving us a very different presentation of women for quite some time now. Women are action movie stars. The nation is considering placing women in combat roles throughout the military. In some places, girls are playing high school football. These things don’t fit with the old maxim to “never hit a girl.”
Seriously, why should a man not hit Xena, warrior princess? Because she’ll straighten him out, that’s why. It’s the same reason you don’t hit Rambo. If someone came by and said, “Hey, pick on somebody your own size.” The response would be, “She can take care of herself.”
So then we have two ideas that don’t go together: 1) men shouldn’t hit women, 2) men and women are physical equals. Of course, it’s easy to see which one of these requires camera tricks to demonstrate. And there continue to be many, many ways in which even the most egalitarian among us do not see men and women as interchangeable. But the sad part is, American culture is attacking the natural prohibition on hitting a girl. In a stressful situation, when tempers run hot, that confusion won’t help anyone reach the right decision.