I'm The Smart One, She's The Pretty One

What's with the compulsion to make sisters into Spice Girls?

The other day my friend Christopher, who has not met my sister, offered me an analysis of our relationship.

“You know,” he said. “You’re one of those sibling pairs where one of you is the bombastic one and one of you is the dry sardonic one. You’re the bombastic one.”Okay, so A) no, I was not aware of that apparently standard method of classifying siblings. But also B) Christopher is one of my freelancers, meaning that B1) it’s in his professional interest to not piss me off and B2) he is pretty well aware that being sardonic is my day job. So why does my sister get to be “the sardonic one”? The hell?

Still, when I transmitted his opinion to my sister, she said “I like that assessment.” (Well, she WOULD.) Then she added “Especially compared to our parents’: You’re the ‘smart one’ and I’m the ‘sporty one.’”This was not at all my understanding of which ones we were. I am pretty sure our parents think I’m the “dysfunctionally smart” one -- that’s a direct quote -- and she’s the pretty, successful, ambitious one. There was certainly a time when I was supposed to have gotten the brains and she was supposed to have gotten the looks and athleticism, but that was before she got old enough for everyone to realize that she also got plenty of brains, and I just got the particular kind of brains that memorize things easily and get obsessed with books.

In fact, I’m willing to bet that neither of those is precisely our parents’ evaluation, and I’m sure people’s judgments vary. She’s much more chic than I am now, but I used to be the stylish one and she was the slob, or at any rate we were the goth one and the tomboy. We might be “the brunette one” and “the blonde/redhead/purple-haired one” if someone were really reserving judgment, or “the normal one” and “the not normal one” if they weren’t -- I’ve heard both. Certainly we are frequently “the one who works for [whatever impressive publication my sister works for at the time]” and “the other one.”

But at no point has this boundary-drawing ever been necessary. As you might guess from the fact that we are goth and tomboy and fair and brunette and sporty and bombastic, we are not so difficult to tell apart that you couldn’t just say “Jess” and “Sam” and be reasonably assured that people would know which one you meant. There’s just apparently something irresistible about making sisters into Spice Girls.

This mostly doesn’t bother me, honest. I’m not even serious about being pissed about being the “bombastic one.” What I dislike about it, though, is the implication that there’s not enough of any one thing to go around.

OK, only I am Ginger Sis and only she is Baby Sis, but is there any reason we can’t both be Scary and Posh and Sporty? (Sam’s not wrong in thinking she’s the sporty one, but I was a college athlete, which tends to get forgotten -- partly for the sensible reason that I’m not in the least athletic, but partly because she’s the sporty one.) Or, to bring it into this century, is there any reason we can’t both be brainy and sardonic and stylish, if perhaps in different ways and to different degrees?

In reality, of course, we are. And most people know that, but there’s still a sort of instinct to assign characteristics to one sister or the other but not both. Maybe it’s because, as my grandmother is so fond of saying, “sisters are the closest things in the world” -- whether you like it or not, nobody shares more with you, both in terms of nature and nurture. That kind of similarity calls out for boundary lines, or seems to. If you have to share half your DNA and the whole of your upbringing (in the case of biological full siblings raised together, anyway), the least you can do is stake your claim as “the quiet one.”

Or maybe it’s because it’s ingrained in our culture. Honestly, I blame "Little Women"; everyone I know, and everyone I know’s mother, was exposed at an early age to the smart one, the domestic one, the tarty one and the saint. And oh god, Noel Streatfeild -- the actress, the dancer, the tomboy. Or that show "Sisters"! (Anyone else? No?) It’s how these girls find their callings, how they forge their relations to each other and their paths outward. But for people who are not actually characters designed to fit neatly in their niches, it can be kind of a downer.

(An aside: My sister points out that we should give a shout-out to twins, who get this way worse than we do. Especially, she says, because one of them always has to be the cute one. “There were twins at my school,” she told me, “who did all the same activities and I couldn’t tell them apart, but I knew Phil was the cute one. And I got a rush every time one of them flirted with me, because I was always like ‘I wonder if this is Phil!’”)Obviously people aren’t actually trying to limit siblings when they engage in this kind of taxonomy. They mean to be descriptive, not prescriptive -- it’s not that you can ONLY be “the smart one,” ever, or that the ones who aren’t “the smart one” can’t be smart. too. I think everybody knows that intellectually. But it’s funny how penned-in you can end up feeling by the definitions you adopt, or that get pinned on you -- the ones that are only intended to highlight your differences.

I do think I felt I had to live up to being “the smart one” (or “the dysfunctionally smart one”); as far back as junior high. I chose the school programs I went to and the hobbies I felt comfortable doing based in part on whether it was “what smart kids did,” even if I was sort of bad at it. There was no way I could have gone to art school, for instance, even though I sort of wanted to, because I was convinced smart kids didn’t do that -- but they did go to the math/science/computer magnet high school, which turned out to be an embarrassing struggle and undermined some of my academic confidence. Meanwhile my sister, who had no pressure to be the smart one, got an Ivy League degree, started a school publication, and beelined into a journalism career.

Part of that’s just me, of course -- I’m hypersensitive to other people’s expectations. (And my sister is generally awesome at stuff, which is just her.) But unless one sister gets pegged “the hypersensitive to other people’s expectations one,” you never know who’s going to be derailed by being compared to her siblings, even positively.

Of course there will always be an instinct to classify -- we’re a pretty pattern-driven bunch of monkeys -- but when possible, maybe we should leave the Spice Girl sister act to "Little Women."But I might just be saying that because I’m the bombastic one.


Bonus poetry corner! Here is a poem on this subject called "I Wish I Had More Sisters" that makes me cry a lot and also makes me kind of want to renounce every single thing I said above because it is so beautiful. Last stanza:

There would be both more and lessof me to have to bear. None of uswould be forced to be strongerthan we could be. Each of us couldbe all of us. The pretty one.The smart one. The bitter one.The unaccountably-happy-for-no-reason one. I could be,for example, the hopelessone, and the next day my sisterwould take my place, and I wouldhold her up until my arms gave wayand another sister would relieve me.