Archive for May, 2017

Whatever Happened to “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice”?

By Bob Litton

¶I believe I have always been averse to absurdities, especially grotesque and gruesome absurdities. That’s why I am coulrophobic (turned off by clowns). The aversion probably circumscribed my enjoyment childhood, affecting not only my reaction to clowns but also to some children’s stories and nursery rhymes. I couldn’t see anything amusing about Humpty Dumpty breaking his “crown” or in Jack breaking his either. And those poor three blind mice whose tails were cut off by the farmer’s wife? Phooey! One nursery rhyme particularly annoyed me, this one:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails
And puppy-dogs’ tails
That’s what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice [or “all things nice”]
That’s what little girls are made of.

¶The reported consensus of literary historians is that the above verses were composed by English poet Robert Southey (1771-1843), although they did not appear in any of his published works. Besides his own seven children, Southey and his wife supported the wives and children of his companion romantic poets Robert Lovell and Samuel Coleridge, after the former died and the latter abandoned his family, so we cannot criticize his personal observation of what children are like. He wrote some poetry and stories for children, including “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, which was probably my own favorite in childhood.
¶But I am digressing too much from my topic: the change in our image of girls and women.
¶What bothered me about the sketches of gender above is that it paints boys in such miniscule and dingy terms (Did Southey’s boys cut off the tails of puppies?). Of course, individual grains of sugar and spice are miniscule, too, but they are usually partaken in bulk and children of both genders can’t seem to get enough of them. Moreover, reserving “everything nice” for girls pretty much excludes any pleasant attributes for boys. As another grownup male complained on an Internet site that critiqued the verse, “It isn’t fair!” Hearing that poem read aloud was my introduction to the “battle of the sexes”.
¶Back in Southey’s time, girls and women, of the upper classes in England at least, were pointedly sheltered from the cruder aspects of life. They were expected to be the moral exemplars for society, maintaining values which men, for their part, had not many qualms of abusing. Sure, there were some young gentle women — Mary Shelley, for instance — who breached that rule; but, overall, it seems that people paid at least lip service to it until the early 20th century. And it has been a downward spiral ever since Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I was especially disappointed when, in 1987, the editor of the New Yorker magazine caved in and allowed a four-letter word to be printed; now that magazine’s pages are littered with words ordinarily reserved for Penthouse.
¶I was raised under the old code. Mother instructed me to surrender my seat on the trolley to ladies, especially old ladies. And I was taught by various elders that profanity was excusable only among adult males, never in the hearing of ladies. Recently, I mentioned my developing dismay about the modern trend of ubiquitous profanity to a female acquaintance at our local senior center (she is about my own age). “Yeah,” she said. “When I was young we couldn’t even say ‘sex’; we had to spell it, s-e-x’!”
¶One of the former residents at my apartment complex was an old harridan, whose unit was two doors south of mine. She was quite loud in every way: face-to-face conversation, her television-viewing, and on the phone. For some reason I never discovered, she would not have the courtesy to shut her front door when engaged in her racket-making and especially liked to stand on our common porch and chatter away on her cell phone. One afternoon, while I was outside sweeping leaves off the porch, she was in her living room, practically yelling into her phone. I walked over, opened her screen door, and pulled the main door shut. She jumped up from her chair and came to the door, opened it, and started cursing a blue streak. That old cliché about “words that would make a sailor blush” seems hardly adequate to describe her behavior. I silently kept on sweeping.
¶Don’t gather from the above that I am a “goody-two-shoes” (whatever that is!). I sometimes utter curse words, mostly while I’m driving, but my vocabulary level in the vulgar range is limited and I’m certainly not proud of my profanities; it’s just a release for my frustrations, I guess. It is mainly an echo of that old lesson “don’t swear in the company of ladies” that causes me to get slightly irritated when I hear fellows at my favorite bar punctuating their conversations with the activities and products of their body parts.
¶The problem is not just the presence of “ladies” (for they can be just as foul-mouthed); the issue is also the gratuitousness of such extended vulgarity. Imagine: If all of us — men, women and children alike — include an obscenity in every sentence we utter, those profanities would lose their effectiveness. After all, the rare use of a four-letter word used to signify a sudden change in temperament or it charged an incident with emergency. Now they are just wasted puffs of breath with a slightly foul and boring odor in them.
¶Female use of profanity is all part of the “women’s liberation” movement which began in the 1960s. It was also connected to the growing prevalence of smoking among professional women, epitomized by Philip Morris Company’s 1968 advertising slogan for its new Virginia Slims cigarettes: “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby!”* Of course, smoking by women was common in the 1920s, -30s, and -40s, in the movies at least; but the trend seemed to have burgeoned in the 1960s.
¶Before I go, I want to add a few words about the other new trend: tattooing. Like cursing, this feature used to be almost the exclusive property of sailors and South Seas islanders; but now it seems to have become fashionable in my home country. I frankly don’t understand it. The human body, at least for many of us, can be beautiful; but we seem determined to besmear it with ugliness. Those generally indistinguishable markings with their lurid colors, that look more like signs of a blood disease than artwork, are just another way of attracting attention to one’s self, when the best way to do that is to be well-groomed and courteous.

*If you would like to see how this slogan developed over the years, check out this site: http://flashbak.com/youve-come-a-long-way-baby-virginia-slims-advertising-year-by-year-365664/

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