Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What Little Girls Are Made Of

"Sugar and spice
and everything nice
That's what little girls
are made of."

What would you do if you were in a foreign country, one where English is rarely spoken (though it is taught in schools), when a little girl you don't know, maybe ten years old, runs up to you on the street and says "You're very fat and you have a bad odor"?

This is exactly what happened to me last week. I was preoccupied by a conversation with a companion and wasn't paying attention to the little girl. But then she repeated the same sentence as I walked past her. I was perplexed enough by her words to ponder them for the rest of the day.

There is a scene in the movie musical Gigi (1958), which was based on an otherwise charming story by Colette, in which Maurice Chevalier strolls around a typical fin de siecle Paris street, and sings the song "Thank heaven for little girls". Chevalier, whom my mother adored, was 70 when he appeared in the film, near the end of a long and sometimes controversial career. It was a rather self-consciously charming song, in 1958, whose lascivious message contributed to its charm. I heard the song again recently in a HSBC commercial, with another singer imitating Chevalier's near-parodic intonations, singing "Thank heaven for little girls. They grow up i the most delightful way."

All these years later, that song strikes me as sinister, even somewhat scabrous. The old Frenchman is telling us to look around at all those little girls and think about what a man might do to them when they develop into women. It also asks us to accept the notion that little girls have no value in themselves as children except the potential of their growing up into sexually available women.

The little girl I encountered in the street last week wasn't making a spontaneous observation. As it happens, I am not very fat and I don't have a bad odor. She had simply prepared a little speech in English that she planned to use on the first foreigner she encountered. All foreigners are called Canos here and are all presumed to speak English. She might have found it in a Filipino textbook among the foreign phrases that you find in most English instructional books. The phrases are often absurd and perfectly useless in everyday speech. The little girl probably memorized the phrase, without perhaps understanding its meaning or its insulting intent. She might never have another chance to use it on unsuspecting foreigners, but if she does, another Cano might just take offense and give her a surprising slap in the head.

I am not, as it turns out, at all thankful for little girls. Like little boys, we are always having to make allowances for their ignorance, when we aren't taking advantage of it. Like most people, I look at children and I irresistibly remember my own childhood, which was not at all like I would like to remember it. I think Freud was right when he wrote:

"When the grown-up recalls his childhood it appears to him as a happy time in which one is happy for the moment and looks to the future without any wishes. It is for this reason that he envies children. But if children themselves could inform us about it they would probably give different reports. It seems that childhood is not that blissful idyl into which we later distort it, that on the contrary children are lashed through the years of childhood by the wish to become big, and to imitate the grown-ups. This wish instigates all their playing."(1)

I think it's safe to give that little girl who greeted me that day the benefit of the doubt. In her ignorance of the meaning of those words in English, she was probably showing off her mistaken knowledge of my language to get me to notice her and smile. I probably should've taken the time to stop and correct her, just as a Latino janitor did to me once when, years ago, I needed him to unlock the door to the public restroom and mispronounced the Spanish word emergencia with the accent on the next to last syllable instead of on the third one. Pitilessly, he took the time to correct me. But that little girl would probably have been as little receptive to the correction as I was all those years ago.

(1) Sigmund Freud, "Leonardo da Vinci".

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