SHE WAS a vision of speed and power, glamour and beauty. Of which, the last two were the most surprising. One does not expect to come across dazzle and loveliness in the world of track and field. It's a fish-out-of-water surprise, not unlike a red rose found blooming among wildflowers at the side of the road.
Me, I was never a big fan of the sport. But I'd always pause -- you simply had to pause -- when Florence Griffith Joyner was running. Not just because she won races and set records, but because she did so with long, painted nails, sexy track suits, and a silky mane flowing behind her, all serving to accentuate a compelling native beauty.
When she died Sept. 21 suddenly, absurdly, at just 38 years of age -- I was reminded of an e-mail I received a few weeks ago in response to a column about girls and women. I had written of how I am careful to praise my 8-year-old daughter less for her beauty than for her smarts. Too often, I said, girls are valued only for superficial traits. And I quoted approvingly a father who said he's pleased his daughter is a tough-minded young woman, "because I know she can handle the aggression of boys."
Let girls be girls
The woman who contacted me, while not disagreeing with any of that, raised a provocative question: Why is it that those of us who fancy ourselves progressive on issues of gender tend to praise women and girls only to the degree that they adopt traditionally male characteristics? Doesn't this devalue and demean those characteristics that are associated with females?
In other words, it's fine that we acknowledge that a woman can be tough. But can we respect her also if she's tender? Or sweet, or frilly or soft or any of a dozen other attributes that are often discounted, if not outright ridiculed, by feminist women and men.
And then there's beauty, a quality so mistrusted by some apostles of women's progress that it deserves separate consideration. When I'm in I-am-woman-hear-me-roar mode (as opposed to you-ain't-nothin'-but-a-hound-dog mode), I find myself suspicious of super-model beauty. I hear myself wondering if a given woman doesn't have way too much time on her hands. Full makeup kit, empty mind.
But this is as backward as any other stereotype, isn't it?
The problem with supporters of freedom movements -- sexual, social and otherwise -- is that in seeking what has been denied, they often demean what's there. In our eagerness to get to the new place, we -- some of us, at least -- denigrate the old. We embrace false dichotomies, accept counterfeit choices, so that a woman learns to limit herself by boundaries of "or." She can be tough or tender, smart or beautiful, powerful or sweet.
Then a woman like Florence Griffith Joyner, this magnificent package of unalike and uncompromised virtues, goes dashing through our lives, and maybe a woman begins to wonder at the limitations she accepts. Maybe it occurs to her that an "or" might just as easily be an "and."
zTC One does not have to accept super-woman myths to believe this. It's not a question of some insane attempt to do everything at once but, rather, a question of learning to be -- if not everything, then at least a few more things than stereotypes allow.
It doesn't matter which stereotype it is -- empowered woman or domestic slave; each comes with its own set of chains. But a free woman should be able to live, to simply be, between the extremes without apologies. And the world should be made safe for that.
This was, I'd like to think, one of the lasting lessons of Florence Griffith Joyner's life, one of the things to be taken from her rare combination of glamour and glory. Hers was an illustration of life without limits, a stunning example of the things women can be. And in that, she offered something valuable for women and girls and those who love them.
Now she's gone, slipped from life so suddenly, so young, so . . . fast.
The runner runs far ahead of us now. But we will struggle, if we are wise, to keep her, always, in sight.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His E-mail address is elpjaol.com.
Pub Date: 9/30/98