Guest column: Women shouldn’t use men for measure

Imagine hearing the phrase: “Wow, you’re just like one of the boys!” Then imagine hearing the phrase: “Wow, you’re just like every other woman!”

Now decide which phrase is a compliment.

That didn’t take very long, did it?

Let’s face it: For a young girl, or even for a woman fully grown, hearing she’s just “like one of the boys” is usually high praise. It implies she’s independent, trustworthy, candid, fair-minded and can probably light her farts.

“Being one of the guys” means she can throw fast and speak up where, in contrast, the “acting like a girl” means she can speak fast and throw up.

Isn’t it odd that only a rare woman wants to hear herself compared to a member of her own sex, as if it’s an insult beyond reconciliation? “Don’t call me ‘women,'” snaps a character from one of Dorothy Parker’s stories, to which her paramour replies, “I’m sorry, darling, I didn’t mean to use bad words.”

For all the “Grrl Power” videos and songs, I’m not convinced much has changed since I was a teenager. Conspicuous as my Love’s Baby Soft perfume and twice as irritating, my scorn for other girls was unmistakable. They were getting beauty tips from Seventeen magazine while I was singing along to “At Seventeen”; they were bopping along to “Love Will Keep Us Together” while I was reading “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” a literary novel about a woman’s desperation.

Growing up, I had nothing but contempt for those lesser creatures who spent all their time perfecting lip gloss and curling their hair — at least, I had contempt for the girls doing this. The cross-dressing guys in my school were far better at it. That’s one reason I maintain, to this day, the only ones who are happy to hear “You’re just like a woman!” are contestants on RuPaul’s “Drag Race.”

Forty years later, smart, hip female students queue up outside my office by the dozen to talk about how their best friends are male, how all the women they meet want to discuss only what’s trivial, and how their friends are bopping along to “Call Me, Maybe” while they’re reading “Gone Girl,” a literary novel about a woman’s desperation.

They repeat the catechism I used with few alterations: “All my best friends are guys. Guys just get me, you know? It’s not a sexual thing; we’re just friends. I have a boyfriend but he doesn’t actually even hang out with my guy friends. But I can only really talk to my male friends because other girls are just, like, too jealous and weird and competitive.”

When I suggest that they connect with the other 23 women loitering in the hallway who feel precisely the same way, they shrug it off. They think I don’t get it.

But I get it: Like them, I longed for the imprimatur of masculine approval. My immediate family consisted of a father and brother; I attended what had been an all-male college; I was promoted to full professor before menopause. I know what it’s like to live in Guy World and be encouraged to seek the tiara of The Woman Who Is Unlike Others.

How are we taught this? By the scene in Jane Austen novels where you learn to recognize the heroine because she is distinct and placed above her shallow, insignificant sisters. By the scene in every romantic comedy where the charming hero gazes at the female protagonist in wonderment and murmurs “I don’t believe there’s another woman like you in the whole world.” By the fact that entry into a “man’s world” remains a ticket to what’s considered the “real world” or “professional world,” as if women are not quite people, and are always amateurs.

Here’s the question: Can a woman can run with the big male dogs and avoid being thought of as a word used when talking about a female of their species? Not until women stop pretending to be what we aren’t and cross-acting (if not cross-dressing) as guys.

Until the reaction to hearing “You’re just like a woman” is “You mean I’m clever, creative, flexible, dynamic and empathetic? Thanks!” we still have some work to do. Girlfriends, let’s start. Guys? You’re welcome.

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.