Pride and Prejudice and the Impossible Standards for Women

There’s a scene in Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Darcy and his friend Caroline Bingley describe to Elizabeth Bennett what it means to be an “accomplished lady.”

Caroline: “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing and the modern languages to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expression, or the word would be but half deserved.”

Mr. Darcy: “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.”

In Victorian England, to be an accomplished lady was the height of perfection for a woman. She was the ultimate catch, the one every man of means and status wanted to marry, the only proper wife material. However, that pressure to be perfect has not lessened; we still impose impossible standards on women.

She must be smart, funny, outgoing, and a great conversationalist. She must be extroverted, but also enjoy a night in. She should have a great job and be successful, but also be a family oriented caregiver and willing to raise children. She must be active and fit, never self conscious about anything because she is beautiful and curvy in all the right places. She should know who she is, what she wants, and never be pessimistic or complain.

fearsome

Women are asked to achieve this impossible ideal. They’re encouraged by men and by the media to be these beautiful and demure creatures, the perfect little wife to take home to Mom and Dad, and at the same time be a seductress with a lust for adventure between the sheets. To fit both these roles would require masking one’s true personality, stuffing away the least useful parts at different times of the day depending on whose approval you’re attempting to woo. But we can’t be all these things at once; something’s gotta give.

It’s true that men and women both carry around these mental check lists. Each has a list, consciously or not, of desired characteristics for their perfect spouse. But if we wait around for someone who meets every tiny expectation, than we’re likely to find ourselves still single and alone well past marriageable age. After all, compromise is one of the key pillars of any good relationship.

Instead of striving for perfection, we should do as Darcy ultimately did at the end of the book: sacrifice our own pride for the sake of love. We should give up the unrealistic ideals and, for the sake of our eventual happiness, compromise on all but the most important qualities.

 

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