Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Them are Dangerous

Today I was teaching House on Mango Street to my students (all girls) and we discussed the chapter, "The Family of Little Feet." To summarize, it's about three girls, ages approximately 10-14, who receive hand-me-down high heels, try them on, strut around their neighborhood, get a little too much male attention for their new looks and eventually hide the shoes under a basket until their mother tosses them out. In classic Cisneros style, the vignette goes from Cinderella to prostitution and back again in a the space of several similes. The whole thing becomes a meditation on the perils and pleasures of becoming a woman.

I asked my 14- and 15-year-old students to unpack the line where an old neighbor threatens to call the cops on the girls; staring at their pumps, he says, "Them are dangerous..." (41). It was amazing how many different kinds of danger my students saw in this scenario. There was the obvious danger of prostitution in the "bum man" offering the girls $1 for a kiss, and the implied danger of unwanted sexual advances from the boy on the bike begging the girls to "take [him] to heaven." But there was also the subtle danger of being pushed into a self-perception based largely on male response to one's external appearance--the loss of self inherent in that kind of objectification. And lastly, there was the danger of growing up too fast and of charging ahead into sexual dances for which one really isn't ready.

I thought maybe only jaded old me would see the connections between these perils and our everyday lives. However, my students nodded knowingly and described each danger in detail, both in the poem and in their lives. How discouraging. This book is 25 years old and yet here it is, appealing to another generation of young women because it so aptly describes their lived experience. Yet how encouraging--they may not be as naive as the little girls in the story...

But it was also telling that I asked the girls to think mainly about the dangers portrayed in the poem. It's a good piece, but where is the story about the absolute joy and power that comes when one's beauty and sexuality is received with respect and admiration, instead of invitations to prostitute oneself? I think these tales are largely missing from our society (and our schoolrooms) because those kinds of stories--and those kinds of women, the ones who claim and own and work their femininity to their advantage, and not to men's--well, "them are the most dangerous of all."

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