Any of you that follow me on Goodreads have seen evidence of my new literary crush: Jacky Faber the intrepid heroine of the Bloody Jack books. Jackie is impulsive, brash, inventive, whip-smart and immodest and I see more than a little of my own personality in her. When she misbehaves Jacky is prone to lay blame at her childhood as a street orphan in early 1800s London: ‘I wasn’t brought up proper’! The legions of well-kissed gentlemen she leaves in her wake are by turns gob-smacked or outraged or aroused. Jacky continually says ‘it was just a bit of fun’. Jacky can get away with this, because she is fictional, but were any girl to act like this in real life, the censure of society would quickly either stop it, or put it into the whore-house.
Jacky has made me realize how shoddy the cloak of modesty really is. Modesty, in short, is a two pronged tool; one prong is designed to keep people in their place, the second is designed to keep out the ‘other’. How it accomplishes the first is obvious – one only has to look to cultures that practice extreme modesty to see how rigidly ‘place’ is enforced. I am not making judgments here on the rightness of these cultures – just stating the fact that when rules of cultural modesty are enforced in the extreme, we also see restrictive gender roles, and rigid space rules that involve men’s space and women’s space being separate. Often times these cultures are also closed to strangers, which brings me to my second point:
The idea of the second prong of modesty (and related cultural rules) has me thinking deeper. In it’s most basic form, the rules that govern cultural behavior also create an easy short-hand for identifying those that don’t fit in. We fear the other so deeply that we create entire systems of coded rules and behaviors to keep them out. This works very well in an archaic situation where you need to be able to tell the marauding Viking from a local farmer, but it is not so good in the modern cultures of the first and second world. Fear of the other is one of the prime causes of our current insanity where our legislators vote against love and vote for semi-automatic weapons. After all – we need weapons to defend against the other and we cannot allow that other to adopt the cultural behaviors we hold dear because how on earth would we recognize them.
As a child I chafed against the constraints of modesty. I had no understanding how someone could equate my desire to take my shirt off while working in the fields, (just like all the boys), with sex or dirtiness. I just liked the feel of the sun on my shoulders. I was not required to stay clothed for my benefit. I was required to keep my shirt on so that I fit the pattern our culture had established. They needed me to fall in line so that I would not distract them from their vigilance towards the other.
Jacky gets away with breaking her culture’s rules because she is a fictional heroine. But I can’t help thinking that our culture would be far better off if more of us cast off these old rules, admitted the ‘other’ in our midst and learned to live and let live.