Sunday, May 3, 2009

Girls, Playgrounds, and Girliness

When I was six, there was a hierarchy on the playground. It was not only a grade hierarchy, with the 5th graders at the top of the pyramid and the first graders at the bottom, but a gendered one as well. Boys would torment the girls who liked hop scotch, who liked jumping rope, who were girly and wore skirts. After it rained (and I live where it likes to rain), they would pick up the engorged worms and throw them at the girls who were considered too girly. The way to avoid that? Well, it was pretty simple. Show no fear, point out the girls who would screech and cry, and every once in a while 'attempt' to pick up a worm yourself. Truth is, the last thing I wanted was to get a worm in my hair, and so I did the cowardly thing. I colluded with the more powerful, the ones who were obviously better than those pink wearing, pig-tailed, girly girls - because no one was throwing anything at them, and no one sought to put them in the time out box for their trespasses. Because this was just what kids do. There were a couple of other girls in the group I hung out with in elementary school, but it was mostly a pack of boys. We'd beat on each other, play tag and a primitive version of war where two competing sides would fight minor skirmishes on the outskirts of what could be considered the playground and sometimes capture prisoners. It felt good to be in with the A-team, with the people who didn't get picked on simply because they were who they were. And so, there I stayed.

Part of this was because I was horribly bad at jump rope, but a lot of it was because I didn't want to get that worm - or whatever the worm equivalent was on a sunny day - on me. I hated girly things, and I wasn't overly fond of the girly people either. They were weak, as evidenced by their continued torment. And it was much easier to get cootie shots when I was touched by one than to actually admit that those girls and I had something in common; the second I stopped wanting to play war and picked up a jump rope, I would be just one of the masses who would be wormed. I don't remember boys having it all that bad, though they must have. There had to be a couple of boys who didn't want to throw worms, but felt like they had to. There had to be a couple of boys who would have preferred to play jump rope but couldn't, because not only was that something girls did, it was something those icky girls did, girls who you needed to be inoculated against to ensure you wouldn't develop some of those icky girly traits.

I imagine that this wasn't the case everywhere, that there were playgrounds where girly girls weren't tormented by the boys. The couple of playgrounds I've been in, though, both as a student and then as just a witness to the goings on, suggest otherwise. By the time I moved to a different town and a different playground, the game was no longer throwing worms but snapping bras. Nevertheless, the game pretty much remained the same. The girls who were girly had their bra straps snapped, and the girls who eschewed girly behavior were pretty much left alone. The fact remained, though, that girliness was something to avoid, to mock, and - as a girl - to fear. Which brings me to this point: girliness is in the eye of the beholder. I am, in certain respects, excessively girly. I like clothing, I like shoes, I like romantic-comedies, and as much as I like playing in the snow or waves, I'm also happiest curled up in a chair reading a book. But even with girliness being in the eye of the beholder, girliness is devalued more than girls are. Which is a problem, because I didn't start liking shoes until after I gave up my belief that a worm could come flying at my head at any second or that my bra was subject to snapping.

Marjorie Bell sums up this anti-girly bias best when she says,
I’ve noticed that lots of folks with only one daughter sound like, well, me, when I only had one daughter: “Golly, we have no idea how she got so girly! It’s crazy!” Alter-nately, parents of glitter-indifferent girls can sound self-righteous and self-congratulatory: “Oh, we consciously provided our daughter with toy cars and Legos to nurture her adventurous courageous spirit, thus providing the fertile soil in which a fearless gender warrior could grow! More lentil-quinoa loaf?”
The thing that strikes me about this quote - aside from the fact that my own mother told me that she would kill me if  I became a cheerleader and then told me she would kill me if I joined a sorority - is how it fits in with the greater narrative of society. My father, who has three girls and wanted four girls, has received condolences many times for a lack of son. Professions that are coded as feminine generally pay less. And while we simultaneously deride the princess for doing nothing while her prince comes to rescue her, we also - as Amy Wilson demonstrates - expect girls to be that way, to be the princess who has a love of pink and ponies. We expect it so much that I think we do what Bell states; we see behavior through the prism we've already constructed. So, for Bell, Josie initially comes off as intrinsically feminine even though she - like her sister - is "in the middle of the bell curve of girliness". It is kind of like how we see cars. I recently bought a car, and I swear I now see it everywhere after seeing it nowhere before. I doubt everyone in the world ran out and bought a car simply to fuck with me (my self-centeredness doesn't extend that far), and so it is just a matter of being attuned to this whole new model of vehicle. The same applies to gender, and how we picture the 'tells' of each gender.

I'm pretty sure that there is no answer to the great nature-nurture debate; I'm pretty sure that, like most things in life, there's a healthy mix of both nature and nurture in how each person develops. Likewise, I don't think there's a definitive answer to the individual-society debate. My constantly quoted friend seems to think that I'm more on the side of nurture, and more on the side of society, but that's not really true. I don't think that society creates every impulse, but I do think it influences us in ways we oftentimes fail to recognize; part of that is probably due to us as a society believing that we are individuals and autonomous, and having that be the ideal. That being said, it doesn't matter much to me if Amy Wilson came to her conclusions that a daughter would love princesses and ponies and princess parties, and how princessy girls are bad, all by herself or in conjunction with society telling us all that princessy girls are bad.

The fact remains that regardless of how Wilson herself came up with the idea that girls are "whine and mope, manipulate and triangulate", it could still be published as a viable idea on a mainstream news organization's website. Frankly, I do think that Wilson has been at the very least influenced by society's belief about girls and girly behavior, just like I am and the boys who threw worms at the girly girls on my playground were. But even if she came to these ideas independently, I still think it tells us something about society that this work could be published where it was published, without someone saying, "Boys don't mope or whine? Boys are never manipulative?", without someone recognizing that disliking girliness and devaluing girly girls is socially acceptable and maybe that's a bad thing for all of the girly girls out there.

An addendum:
Further reading: Why 'Tomboy'  Remains a Loaded Word. There are a couple of observations I really like in this article, primarily:
It's much better, contends Mullin, to be a tomboy than a sissy.

"We are more comfortable with girls exhibiting supposedly masculine traits than with boys exhibiting supposedly feminine traits. I suspect this is partly due to greater fear that a boy who transgresses gender norms will be homosexual, and to the idea that a girl is `trading up' when she is boyish, since masculinity tends to be more highly valued in our culture than femininity."
Feminism has done a great many things, and it has broken down the doorway for women into the field of what would have been traditionally men's work; but we as a society have a lot longer to go in order to recognize the value of what we see as traditional women's work and what we see as 'women's roles', and in allowing not only women to be valued while doing them but also allowing men access to those roles without being considered less of a man because of it.

15 comments:

MediaMaven said...

“We are more comfortable with girls exhibiting supposedly masculine traits than with boys exhibiting supposedly feminine traits. I suspect this is partly due to greater fear that a boy who transgresses gender norms will be homosexual, and to the idea that a girl is `trading up' when she is boyish, since masculinity tends to be more highly valued in our culture than femininity."I immediately had “What It Feels Like for a Girl” playing in my head.

I, like you, internalized this message as a kid, which is why I sought to distance myself from the girly girls when I was young. It wasn’t until I was much, much older (college) that I began to embrace the girlier aspects of myself.

I was actually called a tomboy today by a friend, an term I dismissed mainly because I think of tomboys as girls who are very much into sports, and I am very much not. But I understand why he came to that conclusion, because I often hang out with groups of males and fit along well in that “world”, and have done so at various times throughout my life.

Mullin also notes there's a tradition of positive tomboy characters in literature, from Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird to Lyra in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, "whose evil mother tries to dress her up in feminine fashion."I noticed this when I was in high school, and as soon as I did it completely revised my understanding of my entire life. No wonder I was who I was! Spunky girls abound in literature; they are more fun than the girly girls (think of the prissy Nellie Olson in the Little House on the Prairie series), running and chasing and yes, hanging with the boys. As the Toronto Star article points out, “girly girls [are] associate[d] with a valley girl stereotype of someone obsessed with shopping and vanity"; who wants to be defined by that?

mikhailbakunin said...

I think that you’ve removed all of the nuance from Amy Wilson’s article – taking her words out of context, ignoring her many caveats and qualifications, and generally distorting her message and her tone. You’ve also dismissed Wilson’s own pronouncements of shame at harboring the biases for which you excoriated her.

But more than this, you’ve completely disregarded Wilson’s jumping off point. From the start, Wilson is fighting against what she sees as the prevailing perception that girls are a blessing, while boys are more of a headache. A stranger who she meets in the store explains, “I had two boys first also. And then I had my girl. Thank God.” Wilson’s own friend insists that a girl will be “calm, easy” – the clear implication being that boys are neither of these things.

In your original narrative, all that seemed to matter was that “society” – uniformly – devalues women.

This is my major problem with much of your writing. I think that you often portray American society as some sort of monolithic entity – even though I know you recognize its variety and complexity. I know that you acknowledge the diversity of values and viewpoints that exist in our society, and that fact that individuals can critically evaluate their own thoughts and prejudices. I also know that you believe people are complicated – with conflicting ideas, morals, impulses, and emotions. Even our biases can be both useful and problematic.

Knowing this, I don’t understand how you can take such a nuanced article – in which Amy Wilson explores her own conflicting feelings and biases with a unique kind of self-awareness – and attempt to fit it so neatly into this pre-crafted narrative about the social devaluation of women

. . .

BTW, I don’t believe that girl are inclined to “whine and mope” any more than boys. All kids whine and mope. But at some point in early childhood, it definitely becomes more socially acceptable for girls to whine and mope.

Having been a camp counselor and an afterschool careperson for many years, I’ve witnessed many playground quarrels. In my experience, girls do tend to have a much more cerebral approach to conflict – manipulating and triangulating, rather than just pummeling each other. This may be chiefly the result of socialization, but these gender differences always seemed painfully apparent when I worked with kids.

To be honest, I’m not sure that “manipulation and triangulation” are necessarily traits that are devalued by “society.” In certain contexts – like the corporate and political arenas – they are, in fact, highly valued traits. If nothing else, they imply some degree of cleverness.

petpluto said...

I think that you’ve removed all of the nuance from Amy Wilson’s article – taking her words out of context, ignoring her many caveats and qualifications, and generally distorting her message and her tone.And I think you and I read articles like this in a profoundly different manner, and that just because I don't find her "many caveats" to be all that convincing doesn't mean I'm wrong.

It means that you see nuance where I see none. It means that for you, a sentence about how "not all girls are like this" is good enough, whereas for me it isn't. It means that you don't get as upset at the sheer hypocrisy of stating a dislike for girls who like pink poodles and then going out and buying your daughter a pink outfit. It means that you don't see the statement about wanting to protect her daughter from people who won't think she's good enough as she is as being myopic, even with the singular sentence about feeling ashamed about not being excited about her unborn daughter.

From the start, Wilson is fighting against what she sees as the prevailing perception that girls are a blessing, while boys are more of a headache.And she ignores how people who have girls first are asked while they're pregnant if they're trying for a boy. People generally assume - erroneously in many regards - that if you're pregnant and you have more than one of one sex that you're obviously trying for the other.

Wilson’s own friend insists that a girl will be “calm, easy” – the clear implication being that boys are neither of these things.And that doesn't negate Wilson's own stated prejudice in regard to girls. Just because someone is an idiot and essentializes gender doesn't give Wilson free reign to do so as well.

In your original narrative, all that seemed to matter was that “society” – uniformly – devalues women.In my study and experience, it does. Not everyone does, but the dominant thread among American society - from the progressive to the not - does have a sexist bent. Does that sexism also hurt men? Yes. Does that sexism devalue women and women's experiences? Yes. Does that sexism make women and their bodies public property? Yes. Does that sexism exist? Yes.

To be honest, I’m not sure that “manipulation and triangulation” are necessarily traits that are devalued by “society.” In certain contexts – like the corporate and political arenas – they are, in fact, highly valued traits. If nothing else, they imply some degree of cleverness.That must be why there are so many women in the upper echelons of business and politics.

Snark aside, a woman who is seen as manipulative and who triangulates isn't generally seen as clever - or valued. She's seen as a manipulative bitch. Men who manipulate the situation aren't generally seen as manipulators, and are seen as clever.

Knowing this, I don’t understand how you can take such a nuanced article – in which Amy Wilson explores her own conflicting feelings and biases with a unique kind of self-awareness – and attempt to fit it so neatly into this pre-crafted narrative about the social devaluation of womenBecause I see at most lipservice to self-awareness. I see unchecked hypocrisy and bias. I have read that article about 5 times, two before writing my original post and twice in the writing of this post, and once more in the attempt to see what you see of value in this article. I don't see it.

I see someone who isn't examining whether or not girliness is as bad or as prolific as she thinks it is, someone who hasn't really stopped to think about whether or not girls really whine more than her boys do. I see a response to girls and girliness that does fit in with the overt narrative set down by, yes, the dominant society - and bought into by plenty of girls (and boys) like myself and MM.

The article I find to be nuanced and self-aware, one that confronts the author's bias and conflicting feelings is the one by Marjorie Bell. Wilson's plays at self-awareness but doesn't get there in my view.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I am in agreement with your assessment. I was one of the girlie girls, but you know, we were mean as hell. I think it just looked that way from the outside... we got even with the boys and the collaborating girls: tacks on the seat, pencil stabs on the way back from the pencil sharpener, "accidental" spillage of glue in the hair, homework theft out of the desk, you name it. We got even. But a lot of times, they never knew it was us. Lots of "oops" was on purpose; passive aggression was instilled. I hated that and usually took credit for my deeds. But girliness doesn't equal weakness, rather, it means someone who will smile at you and then take a year to get even, and you will never know how that bad thing happened to you (gossip is the best example of evil being done to someone, that they are totally unaware of) ... you could call it karma in action. The difference between being socked in the face and the air let out of your tires when you aren't looking.

Both are bad, but ONE of those is the girlie method. Unfortunately, Wilson is obviously 1) middle-class, and 2) clueless... she never did figure out how her tire got flat. ;)

(PS: Wonderfully feminist post!)

MediaMaven said...

But girliness doesn't equal weakness, rather, it means someone who will smile at you and then take a year to get even, and you will never know how that bad thing happened to you (gossip is the best example of evil being done to someone, that they are totally unaware of) ... you could call it karma in action. The difference between being socked in the face and the air let out of your tires when you aren't looking. If that's the definition of girliness, then I don't want to be defined as a girl. That behavior is horrifying and should not be disguised as "karma".

I don't understand how the fac that Wilson is "obviously middle-class" has anything to do with the above description. Cruelty is not bound by social class.

mikhailbakunin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mikhailbakunin said...

And I think you and I read articles like this in a profoundly different manner, and that just because I don't find her "many caveats" to be all that convincing doesn't mean I'm wrong.

You’re not “wrong” in the objective sense. But I think that your reading is wrong, and that – at the very least – you’re misrepresenting Wilson’s tone.

It means that you see nuance where I see none. It means that for you, a sentence about how ‘not all girls are like this’ is good enough, whereas for me it isn't. It means that you don't get as upset at the sheer hypocrisy of stating a dislike for girls who like pink poodles and then going out and buying your daughter a pink outfit. It means that you don't see the statement about wanting to protect her daughter from people who won't think she's good enough as she is as being myopic, even with the singular sentence about feeling ashamed about not being excited about her unborn daughter.

Come on. The only part of this paragraph that isn’t a straw man is "you see nuance where I see none."

We're DEBATING whether Wilson is being hypocritical. Saying "I guess you don't get upset at hypocrisy like I do" is the rhetorical equivalent of a pro-lifer saying, "I guess you just love killing babies more than I do."

But girliness doesn't equal weakness; rather, it means someone who will smile at you and then take a year to get even, and you will never know how that bad thing happened to you (gossip is the best example of evil being done to someone, that they are totally unaware of) ... you could call it karma in action. The difference between being socked in the face and the air let out of your tires when you aren't looking.

I think this is exactly what Wilson means when she says that girls tend to "manipulate and triangulate."

petpluto said...

You’re not “wrong” in the objective sense. But I think that your reading is wrong, and that – at the very least – you’re misrepresenting Wilson’s tone.In that case, you're not "wrong" in the objective sense, but I think your reading is wrong and that - at the very least - you are seeing components of nuance and cultural examinations in Wilson's piece that aren't there.

I think it is like that gay marriage article you sent me about two or so months ago. You see something of value there that I never will; I see prejudicial writing that happens to be couched in familiar terms and that pretends to be even handed and even to examine social thought.

Come on. The only part of this paragraph that isn’t a straw man is "you see nuance where I see none." Oh, come on. There are at least two other sentences there that aren't straw men! ;-D

This one, for instance:

"It means that for you, a sentence about how ‘not all girls are like this’ is good enough, whereas for me it isn't."

I would even give me this one:

"It means that you don't see the statement about wanting to protect her daughter from people who won't think she's good enough as she is as being myopic"

Saying "I guess you don't get upset at hypocrisy like I do" is the rhetorical equivalent of a pro-lifer saying, "I guess you just love killing babies more than I do."You're right. I should have said, "You don't see the sheer hypocrisy of stating a dislike for girls who like pink poodles and then going out and buying your daughter a pink outfit, whereas that kind of hypocrisy is upsetting to me". I might change "upsetting" to "infuriating".

MediaMaven said...

But girliness doesn't equal weakness; rather, it means someone who will smile at you and then take a year to get even, and you will never know how that bad thing happened to you (gossip is the best example of evil being done to someone, that they are totally unaware of) ... you could call it karma in action. The difference between being socked in the face and the air let out of your tires when you aren't looking.

I think this is exactly what Wilson means when she says that girls tend to "manipulate and triangulate."
Exactly. And just from this I can understand why Wilson wouldn't want her daughter to live in a culture where this type of behavior is accepted and encouraged (even if just by her daughter's peers), and would be horrified to see her daughter turn into one of these girls.

petpluto said...

Exactly. And just from this I can understand why Wilson wouldn't want her daughter to live in a culture where this type of behavior is accepted and encouraged (even if just by her daughter's peers), and would be horrified to see her daughter turn into one of these girls.I can as well; except those aren't the problems Wilson mentioned in the article. She mentioned being leery of pink poodle parties and watching The Little Mermaid over and over again (which, as my mother could tell her, is a really easy fix; just 'lose' the DVD).

If Wilson had written an article that hadn't just skimmed the surface of what it meant to be girly, focusing almost solely on the pink and Hannah Montana part of what it meant, and had written how the Mean Girls-esque part of girliness is what she feared, then - well, I would still have a problem, but I would have had less of one. And if she'd had less of the "I'll throw this caveat in there to cover my butt" as well, then I would have even less of a problem, to the point where I probably wouldn't have noticed the article.

On an entirely different note, I've known a lot of girlie girls, and not many of them engaged in the year long 'smile while I plan to stick a knife in your back' behavior. Some could be catty, but I'm pretty sure that was a separate issue from their love of pink.

On an entirely unrelated note, can someone tell me why the replies are getting smooshed up with the italics? I'm really confused about that...

mikhailbakunin said...

Before I started commenting on your previous post, I asked my mom to read the Amy Wilson article. Then, I asked her if she was offended by any of the lines that you had highlighted. She said that she thinks the “girls whine and mope, manipulate and triangulate” quote is irrational – but not offensive.

When I asked her why she wasn’t offended, she said that she thinks all mothers – whether they’d admit it or not – engage in this kind of gender stereotyping, and all mothers have these irrational (and often contradictory) fears about their children. Many mothers worry that they won’t be able to identify with their kids – that boys will be brutes or that girls will be prima donnas. Many mothers also have an early preference for either girls or boys, but they ultimately change their minds after giving birth.

It seems like Wilson’s point in writing this piece was simply to present these very common and irrational fears, not to justify them. In fact, she says that she’s “ashamed” to be having many of these thoughts, even though she can’t “shake” them.

I think that my reading of Wilson’s article makes of more sense because this is what her play, Motherload, is about – the irrational, embarrassing, and often shameful thoughts and fears that pregnant mothers confront every day. Also, this is exactly how Wilson herself has explained the article.

Again, none of this means that your reading is “wrong.” I just think you’re being a bit unfair to her intent.

. . .

Also – and this isn’t really directed at you, Pet, but at Feministgal – I don’t think that the United States is anything like China in terms of gender preference. The majority of American and European couples who adopt have a clear preference for girls. And the majority of pregnant mothers in the United States who use sex selection are, likewise, typically trying to conceive a girl.

In the United States overall, expecting parents do have a small preference for boys (because men are slightly more partial to boys than women are to girls), but it’s still not very pronounced. Men tend to prefer boys and women tend to prefer girls.

I know this wasn’t really Feministgal’s point, but I just think her allusion to China was a little misleading in terms of American and European gender preferences . . .

By the way, if you’d like, you can now call me a hypocrite for defending Chris Matthews’ comment about China, Pet. : )

petpluto said...

I think that my reading of Wilson’s article makes of more sense because this is what her play, Motherload, is about – the irrational, embarrassing, and often shameful thoughts and fears that pregnant mothers confront every day.Here's where I think you and I have a bit of a break down.

I'm not judging Wilson's overall thought process. I don't know Wilson's overall thought process. What I'm judging is this particular article, how well it gets across the whole "irrational, embarrassing, and often shameful thoughts and fears pregnant mothers confront". I don't think it does. I think the article is shallow, doesn't articulate the 'shame' part of the process well, and does little to offer a counterpoint why she is ashamed. The whole of the article is just line after line about how much she dislikes girly girls. Maybe the show goes into greater detail and is a more nuanced offering. This article is not. Because it is not, I don't think I've misrepresented her message or tone in it. I don't think she offered "many" caveats or qualifications within the context of the article. And because of that, I have no problem judging Wilson's article, and the message contained therein. That message may be, again, shallow and not on par with her 'regular' message. But that just means that she wrote an insufficient article.

The majority of American and European couples who adopt have a clear preference for girls.Interesting.

Can you point me to studies? Not because I don't believe you, but because every study I've ever seen have said that white baby boys are the highest on the list of preferences (and those are rarely given up for adoption), and then white girls, and then light skinned minority girl babies, and then light skinned minority boys, and then dark skinned minority girls, and lastly dark skinned minority boys.

petpluto said...

By the way, if you’d like, you can now call me a hypocrite for defending Chris Matthews’ comment about China, Pet. : )Oh, I forgot.

HYPOCRITE!

mikhailbakunin said...

No, white baby boys aren't preferred in U.S. adoptions - that's a common misconception.

Here is a good article from Slate. You can find more stats on the Department of Health and Human Services website.

I'll check for more tomorrow, if I get a chance. Now I have to go to bed : )

MediaMaven said...

I finally read the article. It's pretty typical of parenting essays; even all the "embarrassing" stuff is de rigur and not that big of a deal. I was more annoyed with the links CNN incorporated; they were designed to feed into women's insecurities.

I understand Wilson's dislike of the comments she received, and her fears, even why she felt boys were more fun. To characterize girls as easy is silly (my parents can tell you that BOTH my brother and I were a handful) and ignores, as Wilson mentions, the personality they were born with. I was also more offended by the fact that the receptionist gave away the sex of the baby so casually over the phone. Of course Wilson would be upset!