In Knee Length, poet and journalist Khalisa Rae navigates the nuances of an inherited conservative legacy. Pulling from memories of her religious upbringing and education, family history, and matrilineal teachings, Knee Length is a history reimagined and excavated—a rebellious relearning of desire and respectability, family and faith.
She That Findeth a Life Findeth a Good Thing
“Wives, be subject to your own husbands” — Ephesians 5:22
“An excellent wife is the crown of her husband, but she who brings shame is like rottenness in his bones.” —Proverbs 12:4
When you ask church elders or pastors about dating, they always preach the same old Proverbs 18: “He who findeth a good wife, findeth a good thing.” But I always wondered why that is the verse we focus on when dating questions arise. How did we skip straight to marriage, when dating is the best part? Why did no one talk about the fun? The butterflies, the awkward kisses, the pick-up lines. And why are most of the conversations aimed at women? More importantly, shouldn’t the statement be, “She who finds herself finds a good thing?”
The training begins when we are young. We are taught how to keep a house: which detergents to use, which towel and wallpaper covers, how to spot the best china sets, the right outfits to attract a husband, how to iron like June Cleaver. On Thanksgiving morning, my mom would wake me up to learn to make the rolls. She would show me how to make the turkey and ham, then guide me through scrubbing the tub, mopping, and doing laundry. I know this was her way of teaching me independence, but what I really learned was that these skills made me marketable. These were “wifely duties,” which was “what men want.”
Of course, I’m glad that my mother taught me important life skills, even if they were framed in a problematic way. But boys were never taught these same life skills. They weren’t instructed to be good husbands. Sermons even today are never aimed at men, never discuss ways they might keep their wives happy. The investment is always in what keeps husbands happy. At church I heard countless verses that said women were in service of their husbands, and this pervasive double standard just didn’t sit right with me. When were men in service of women? More importantly, when were women in service of themselves?
At school, teachers shoved the “waiting until marriage” message so far down our throats, I choked on a daily basis. Most of what we were told about dating was about abstaining from sex, letting the guy ask you out, and letting him pay. The idea was that we were waiting to be chosen. I remember all the white girls in my class that were “on track” to be chosen this way. The cheerleaders, who would grow up to be doctors and teachers, marry lawyers, and have a house, 2.5 kids, and a dog. They were dreaming of a white picket fence and a perfect wedding at age 8. Most of my youth was spent worrying about the future of my family, in ways that others weren’t.
I wanted a different path forward. I didn’t expect my whitewashed Christian school to explain the inner workings of dating, desire, or flirtation, all things I was curious about. When was it my turn to be in control of who I dated? Didn’t I get a say? In the movies, Prince Charming is the agent, the arbiter of how fast or slow things go. I wanted to make my own decisions. What happens if you don’t want to be the object of someone’s affection? Why couldn’t I ask someone out if I wanted, and what was wrong with being single? God forbid I wanted to date a girl. At the time, there was no talk of defying heteronormative gender roles, so I just fumbled my way through. So many important lessons were left out about using my voice and making my own decisions. The only advice I ever received from adults was to obey the scripture, finish school, and get married. These were the ultimate goals for a good woman.
When I got to public high school, I soaked up all that I could from my peers and from pop culture. Britney and Christina, Saved by the Bell, and Family Matters were excellent teachers. The problem with teaching young girls to aspire to be wives first and foremost is that they were robbed of the chance to learn how to be themselves. To learn what they want and need, and who they are, when men aren’t watching.
As a teen, I loved the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. I admired Julia Stiles’ character, Kat— the girl who learned early on that living in service of men was a waste of time, and that life was better lived when it was driven by your own dreams and desires. But of course, she was not praised for her behavior, and instead was seen as a spinster with no prospects. I loved the juxtaposition between Kat and her younger sister, Bianca. The archetypes of the good girl, popular and virginal, and the rebellious, bitchy shrew giving a middle finger to society’s expectations. I appreciated that the movie’s focus was on the many ways we fail to cultivate girls’ autonomy, on who they could be if they refused to perform for the male gaze.
The scene from the movie that stood out to me most was when Kat and Patrick, played by Heath Ledger, are in a car where she laments that everyone wishes she was more like Bianca. Patrick simply says, “she’s without.” I wondered why Kat took that as such a huge compliment, then realized it’s because our whole lives we are taught as girls to fill a role. Bianca was reduced to the role of the good girl, and there was no room left for her to become an actualized woman. Growing up, I always heard the matriarchs speak about how you catch and keep a man by being just like Bianca. Our value as women, as young girls, is how desirable we are. To do what you’re told and follow the rules, then wait to be chosen.
I loved that Kat was constantly questioning whether Patrick was even worthy of her time. That she decided a long time ago to put her happiness first, to trust her gut, and to be skeptical of people’s intentions. She was ambitious and had no interest in pandering to or performing for the male gaze. I envied that. Girls like Bianca seemed trapped to me. To live in service of what others expected seemed exhausting.
Don’t get me wrong—my talents and goals were important to my family. Yet despite that, I was still inundated with the importance of getting married and starting a family, still told that was the best achievement to aspire to. I craved more representation of women that were in service of themselves. That didn’t concern themselves with finding husbands but wanted to travel the world, to see sights, to seek fulfillment. Women who could snuff out bullshit and didn’t fall for the first guy with a pearly smile that showed interest. I wanted to be the choosy girl that knew her worth, and I wanted to see more examples of women that chose a different path. And it’s not like Sunday school teachers didn’t have examples to share with us: Esther and Ruth to begin with. Women who stood up for what they believed in and made their own rules, all while being faithful and spiritual. Why did we have to choose?
For every floor I learned to clean, I wish I could have been taught about self-actualization. To say “no” and punch men if they got handsy. I wish I was taught about self-pleasure, and seeing the world, and using my passions to change it. That relationships would come and go, but the key to true happiness isn’t Prince Charming proposing or a wedding; it was embracing who I was as a fearless woman. And even if Kat ends up with Patrick in the end, hell, she makes him work for it.