There are so many sound bites I absorbed in my youth that I interpret differently as I get older. The one that’s replaying in my mind recently is the much mocked “you like me, you really like me” from Sally Field’s 1984 Oscar acceptance speech.
When she received this award, I was a 16-year old girl who had been raised with the same sugar-and-spice messaging that most girls were, and are. If you are as sweet as a See’s butterscotch square and only as spicy as a dash of cinnamon in a bowl full of oatmeal cookie batter, you are everything nice, which is precisely what little girls are made of.
So Sally’s response made perfect sense to me. After all, who wouldn’t gush with gratitude over being recognized for impressing their peers and fans? To me, she was appropriately humble and excited for the award, and I took this at face value.
As the years progressed, however, I noticed that most adults only quoted this line while rolling their eyes to imply that someone was having a moment of pathetic neediness. I’m sure I nodded in agreement to such gestures to avoid revealing myself as a kindred spirit in need. But I never understood the cynicism.
Nearly three decades later, I think I finally have an inkling. What I’m realizing is that, as we age, the need to charm and please everyone around us starts to feel a lot like a muzzle. I think this is because we’re old enough to have seen and heard plenty of words and data to have developed strong opinions and convictions. And if we choose to take the muzzle off during moments of controversy to speak our mind, we risk sinking our ferocious teeth into someone. Yet if we leave it on, we’re guaranteed to bite our own tongue, again and again and again.
Of course, there are matters of degree here. Speaking our mind doesn’t have to come down like the lock-jaw bite of a Pit Bull, but there’s no denying that disagreeing with the status quo or the majority opinion will be perceived, at a minimum, as a Chihuahua nip. And even that can bring down a girl’s likability factor.
So the decision to disagree out loud becomes a decision to care less about feeling well liked.
I know this for sure after speaking out in my last Times column against teachers who are abusive or incompetent. As I struggled with the should-I-shouldn’t-I question prior to submitting, I knew there would be a price to pay for addressing such a polarizing subject.
One month later and I now know what that price is; one jeopardized friendship, two emotional and awkward school meetings, and a general reduction in friendly hellos on campus.
The stress and hurt I have felt because of these reactions affected me right down to my nerve endings as I recovered from my self-inflicted Sally Field-ectomy. But now that the worst of it appears to be past me, I feel good.
I would even go so far as to say that what I lost in my quest for mass appeal is nothing compared to the personal satisfaction and self respect I have gained by having the courage to speak out on a topic I feel passionately about.
The experience leaves me feeling feisty enough to try on some new sound bites for size. The one that’s resonating the loudest is an ambitious one by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich that says: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
Forget the sugar and spice—this is what we grown-up girls need to be made of.
This column appeared originally in the Times Media, Inc. family of newspapers.