How Surpassing the South Doesn’t Automatically Make You a Grown Up
In a new memoir on moving from the South to the Northeast, the author largely falls into all-too-typical stereotypes about what it means to be an adult.
The South that Anna Mitchael writes about in her epically titled new book, Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am: How I Ditched the South, Forgot My Manners, and Managed to Survive My Twenties with (Most of) My Dignity Still Intact, is a South with which I, as a Southerner, am unfamiliar. It’s a South filled with tacky bridesmaid dresses and sage grandmothers. It is a South where co-habitation before marriage is a sin. It’s a South much more stereotypical than the one I know, mainly because I rejected those traditional values much earlier than Mitchael, eschewing things like her large Southern college experience, where she was molded into a pearl-wearing genteel woman.
Going into this book, I thought our common connection of geography would make me feel a connection with the author. Not only am I from the South, but I, too, moved to a big Northern city after college (although Washington, D.C., is typically classified as in the "Mid-Atlantic"). Mitchael became an author after ditching an advertising career in Boston. Mitchael, who has roots in Texas, may have had a slightly different experience than in my home state of North Carolina.
What Mitchael describes in her book as going against the grain of her Southern roots—getting a job in Boston, moving in with her boyfriend, etc.—sounds to me more like adhering to the standard ideas of heterosexual modernity. Mitchael certainly steps away from the traditional ideals of the South, but what she also steps into the traditional ideals of city living as a single heterosexual white woman.
Mitchael frets over men. She frets over being single. She chooses vegetarianism on a whim, but not for any concrete reason. She makes lists of the shallow life lessons she learned being a Southern bridesmaid. She writes in a pseudo-Carrie Bradshaw manner, pretending there’s meaning in everything while never really dissecting anything. In short, the whole book is irritating.
At one point, Mitchael claims she does not play the games that sometime go along with dating. “Now when a man texts me, I still wait at least a day to text him back,” she writes. “This isn’t playing games; it’s knowing that you are a person worth waiting for. And there is a lot more to you than can be communicated in 140 maximum words allowed by Twitter.” To clarify, Mitchael makes it a rule to never respond in a timely manner to a man showing interest in her. And this isn’t a game how?
In fact, it’s exactly the type of game that Sex and the City taught women (or would have, had texting been popular then), and the type of superficial power women who don’t know better attempt to wield in a play for the upper hand. In reality, communicating in an open and honest manner would be much more powerful, and also, y’know, totally less rude.
Though Mitchael eventually finds a suitor she doesn’t want to ignore, a man she’ll only call “The Yankee,” she then devotes her life to his whims, moving from Boston to Seattle when her partner’s job requires it and then on to New York City. Sadder still, when her relationship eventually dissolves, Mitchael finds herself ordering take-out for two, because, astonishingly, she’s embarrassed to let the delivery man know her boyfriend broke up with her.
It’s around this point in the book that Mitchael lets forth with a nine-page metaphor, comparing her breakup to a gradually dilapidating town. Every institution and building in this fictional place is somehow reminiscent of her crumbling relationship. It’s the longest, most dragging section of the book, and it reminds me a 6th grade metaphor exercise gone wrong.
Corny, woe-is-me moments aside, there are moments of clarity in Mitchael’s writing. In one instance, she writes, “I couldn’t force myself to be a grown-up, no matter how hard I tried. I could put all the pieces of the grown-up puzzle in order, but until the right glue was inside me, none of those pieces were going to stick.” Indeed, unlike a generation ago, when 25-year-olds were frequently on their second child, being a twenty-something today often means perpetually play-acting at adulthood. Personally, I’ve got grown-up jobs, pay rent and bills, but I still feel like I’m 18 on the inside, at summer camp and imagining what it will be like when I’m a real adult. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.
The problem is that, while Mitchael describes how hard it is to be a twenty-something, she also rarely makes actual attempts to grow and mature. It’s one thing for Mitchael to scoff when someone calls her ma’am, insisting instead on her first name, Anna, but I suspect being a real grown up has something to do with feeling fine with ordering a takeout meal for one.
Lisa Gillespie is a former staff writer for Campus Progress as well as the Managing Editor & New Media Director at Street Sense. She graduated from the University of North Carolina–Asheville.
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