A simple belief about gender

Nearly every day, in the most casual conversation, people reveal their gender bias. Every time they do, they dig sexism deeper into their own minds and into the minds of anyone listening, including tiny children barely able to talk.

Today outside of school, I was standing next to another mom, a very nice person, fun, smart, and a great parent. The bell rang to let the kids switch from classrooms back to their homeroom before dismissal, and three little boys ran by us. “They’re not supposed to run, they should walk,” she remarked. “But… Boys! They never walk! You can’t make them!” (Said with affectionate approval.)

To most people, this sounds like an innocuous remark. To me, it is the equivalent of smiling benevolently and saying “Ah, white people! They’re so active and enterprising!” In other words, I find it jarring, bizarre, absolutely nonsensical, and offensive. I also find it actively harmful. I am embarrassed for them. I want to cover the ears of the children who heard that. Do they think that girls are naturally easier to tell what to do, or naturally less physically active? Either way, I consider it a harmful prejudice. If you are a little girl hearing this sort of statement many times daily since you were born, and you happen to be very physically active, then you feel like a freak, an outsider, abnormal.. you are “otherized” and marginalized. This conversation happens for many other areas of life, intellectual pursuits as well as physical. It has extremely damaging consequences for boys as well as girls.

And when I am asked to participate in a conversation where the point of it is to establish that we both agree on an essentialist and sexist worldview where boys are a certain way, and girls are a certain way, I refuse to participate in that conversation. I either contradict the statement as nicely as I can, or I walk away.

It is a personal reaction for me, as well, because I feel alienated by then knowing that other person is seeing my own gender in a particular way. This is strong language to use, but it assaults my own identity. I realize I am in a minority in this feeling, but the pressure often feels intense for me. When I was growing up in the hippy 70s, I experienced very little discussion of “how girls were”. I was how I was. That was it. I could do anything, and try anything, and be any way I wanted to be. Without constant messages from my own parents and teachers about what girls liked, and were, and did.

I watched the very beautiful and talented children from my son’s school in a dance performance yesterday, and loved every minute of it. But during the “Ghostbusters” dance, there was a scenario where the ghosts (mixed gender) menaced some scared people (all girls) who were then defended by dancers with enormous toy guns (all boys). I don’t object to the guns – they were fun! I object to the gender division, which sends a terrible, sexist message. Even if the children (from their own already installed gender biases and wanting to appear “normal”) self-selected to be scared girls and brave defending gun-wielding boys, as adults, we should set up similar situations to be even-handed; for example just saying, “I need two girls and two boys to be the defenders, and 3 girls and 3 boys to be the ones who run away from ghosts.” It could be that easy and natural.

What I want to point out here is that, no matter whether you agree with me or not, I would like people to notice the ubiquitousness of this conversation about gender. Why is it so important to have it? And to remark on how girls are and how boys are? Why is it a constant subject?

I argue that it has to be constantly asserted because it isn’t true. But the person asserting it has some vested interest in making it be true. And they are attempting to assuage that uncertainty, by saying how “of course it is”. By doing that, they make it become more true. Words are a magic spell that make ideas real.

What would our reality look like if we didn’t say these things all the time? If we ungendered our Toys R Us “pink vs. violent” toy aisles, our speech, and our minds? If we would quit telling our children that boys misbehave and are violent and physical, and yet somehow also magically grow up to be non-emotional and better engineers, and that girls are .. ugh, whatever women are supposed to be… Then a layer of bullshit would be removed from the world. We might still notice some broad generalizations that could be made, but the spectrum of full humanity could be nourished, accepted, and made stronger.

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16 Responses to A simple belief about gender

  1. Emma says:

    I totally agree Badger. It's one of the things I find hardest about social interaction.I also hate the exclamations from women and men that go: Men! Women!One person who was having a casual conversation with me the other day tried to tell me that I couldn't save money (despite, me saving money) because I was a woman, and all women loved shoes and were irresponsible with money. The worst part was that he was trying to flirt with me.I feel that pressure, very deeply, like yourself. And I know at times that I have been guilty of being silent. Basically, you are the only person I have heard, say their methods for dealing with it directly.Thank you. You are often an inspiration to me.

  2. Karianna says:

    Thought provoking, and I agree… mostlyI slip up on the part where biology dictates that there are differences in gender. So to me, there are some "trends" (not absolutes) when considering one gender versus another in terms of reactions to different stimuli.However, I absolutely agree in enforcing equality in things like gun-toting children versus scaredy-children.Let biology dictate potential differences, not our reaction to the children as a lump group.I like to treat each kid or adult as a person first, not as a man or a woman. But I know I don't always.

  3. Lesli says:

    I also agree. Gender is often used as a label, excuse, justification, you name it, by people about others as well as about themselves. When adults use their own gender to explain (usually excuse) their behavior, it particularly aggravates me. Examples would be "emotional" women and "cheating" men. Don't tell me you're acting that way because of your gender…I've seen both traits in both sexes, many times! 'Fess up, people, and say you acted that way because that's the way you are. End of story.In the case of the running boys you described, I've heard similar, and usually just say something like, "I don't know about that. My daughter and lots of her friends have non-stop energy, too. I think it's a kid thing. Though my oldest son usually prefers a good book. I'm feeling pretty antsy today, come to think of it, so maybe it's in the air!" To the man written about in the comments, I wouldn't be so nice.

  4. Lesli says:

    Oh, and an aside I thought of when I read your Toys 'R Us comment: My daughter loves Bionicles, and loves pink. So where are the pink Bionicles, she wants to know? Why do they only have in them in her big brother's favorite colors? (I tell her it's a great idea that' been waiting for her, so we spend time now "designing" toys for the market.) I feel like there's a huge toy niche that I'd love to be enterprising enough to fill with and for her. But in the meantime, any ideas?

  5. Anonymous says:

    I am like you, Badger, grew up in the 70s, listening to Free to Be You and Me (which by the way, is available on CD–and had a huge impact on my life) thinking that I could do whatever I wanted. 25–oh God, it's actually 30 years later, I still get the song William Wants a Doll stuck in my head. My daughter is in Montessori, and the gender roles are less defined, which is encouraging. But, my girl still says things that are so traditionally girly specific that is shocks me. Where it is coming from, I do not know.I think it is okay to respond to another's clear gender bias with a bit of a redirect–it is not confrontational, and it can open the speaker's eyes to what they are really saying.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Before my son was a drummer, he was a dancer. One who competed at the world championships of irish dance twice.Throughout the time he danced (4th-9th grades) various parents would ask me whether I was worried about him being engaged in an activity primarily for girls. Whenever those questions were asked, I had to do a reality check. When did someone decide that dance was limited to girls? Then tonight, we were all making dinner. My daughter was making muffins when my husband booted her aside to start the chili. As she rolled her eyes and waited rather impatiently she informed me that he was cooking "the man way"; that is to say, inefficiently since the chili would now be done ahead of the muffins.I was speechless. Great post.-DnW

  7. badgermama says:

    Thanks for the nice thoughtful comments, y'all! You really made my day!A peripheral link that I think is relevant:from Languagelog – on some unfounded assertions about gender difference repeatedly misquoted.

  8. wired says:

    I've noticed this too, and been shocked that people I think of as being like me (30ish, mixed gender of pre-school children, college) will say things like "I need to get the boy out of the house, you know how they are."Actually, my boy would like to sit on his butt and play video games with you, and my girl wants to roughouse. So?And do you know how hard it is to find doll accessories that do not say Little Mommy on them? Or kitchen toys that aren't pink? In my children's life, it is daddy who cooks and nurtures, and mommy with a computer. Why can't their roleplay toys be egalitarian?

  9. scribbit says:

    I agree with you in that I disagree with assigning gender traits to people. The idea that men are always one way and women another can be debilitating to everyone. However, having mothered several boys and girls for quite some time I can say there is a certain amount of truth to this other woman's comment. I was shocked to see how different my boys naturally are than my girls. From the beginning they preferred certain types of play, rougher interpersonal interaction and go at high speeds everywhere. Does that mean that there aren't girls who do the same thing? No, but I think boys have natural propensities for certain behavior. Our genes don't just dictate our hair color, we are a bigger product of genetics than most want to admit. An interesting post, thanks.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Thank you very much for posting this. I've been trying to fight gender stereotyping for ages. And I don't know if it's worth to argue with every person saying something like "You know, women always buy shoes. Men just don't get this." I think there's more cultural to it than gegentic. Did you know that Japanese think that men suck at maths?What I dislike about those remarks specifically is the assumption that one doesn't have to try to learn something because it may be hard. So, if boys really were more physically active than girls, they should obey the rules nonetheless."Strong language." Indeed.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I hatehatehate this kind of gender labelling too. Deflect/engage the way Leslie does, by biting my tongue and suggesting that the behaviour in question is more a 'kid thing' rather than a boy or girl thing. When there is a possible biological component to traditionally gendered behaviour (I'm thinking of things like the testosterone surge 2-4 year old boys) that should just make it more important for kids to work on behaving appropriately and maybe it should remind us to try and make rules that are possible for them to follow. Like Susanne said, does something being difficult give us license to give up?I'm freaking out because we are already getting this kind of talk in my mothers' group and the babies are barely 6 months old.

  12. Krisco says:

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying. I do think there is a lot of gender-definition shoved down our throats from the media and the culture constantly.However, now that I am a mom of small girls and spend time with other moms and their small boys – I am shocked at their natural differences. And they are natural. I am confident their mothers (or fathers; it happens to be the mothers I know better) are not suggesting, say, that the boys clear the bookshelves of all the books, or wrestle constantly, or see a bug and automatically stomp on it. And these are all things my girls have never yet done and just would never – and not because I wouldn't let them. Instead, they take books out a few at a time, never want to wrestle (unless it's with daddy and he initiated it) and want to keep the bugs and help them.So I hate to prove your point that otherwise intelligent-seeming parents (or so I tell myself) constantly say these stupid things. But I do actually see these natural differences.I wonder if it's more offensive to you because you personally didn't feel that way. Maybe the two extremes – very "girl" and very "boy" – are more obvious to observe in small children, but in reality there are also children who fall in between. The ones who, say, would perfectly well swipe all the books off the shelf for fun, but at the same time would not automatically stomp on a bug.(If all I've done is just prove your point again, I'm sorry. I am just trying to throw another idea into the mix here…)

  13. chris says:

    Great post.I think about this alot, probably because I am asked about it a lot. With six sons and only one daughter, people are always curious if she is "different" than they are. And the answer is yes. But also no. I find it such a weird question to try and answer. She loves all the princessy pink stuff right now, and at 3 yrs old it seems to be the age where boys and girls like to act out gender roles. I have no concerns that she is going to turn into one of the Pussycat Dolls ;-)On Halloween she dressed up as a princess carrying a sword. And you can not believe the number of people who asked her why she had a sword. As if a princess couldn't have a sword.

  14. Susan says:

    Your first example–of the boys running because they are boys–is interesting to me. I have two boys, one of whom has some neurological issues; he is hyper and distractable and has poor social skills. It took a long time for me to make people understand that his behavior was NOT just a reflection of his gender but a sign of some type of actual PROBLEM. For years, any time I would ask other adults about his behavior, they friends, family, teachers) would say, "No, he's FINE, boys are just LIKE that."I think you are right; assumptions about gender let us slide past what is really important or interesting or (sometimes) problematic about individual people, particularly children.

  15. Liz says:

    Here's a great post from Pandagon about perceptions of gender difference… Hmm, I should maybe write a new post on this.

  16. Sheryl says:

    One thing that drives me crazy is that my kids (8,6 and 4) are constantly pronouncing what's okay for a girl or a boy– toys, shows, activities, etc. And when I say, "They're just toys! They're for whoever wants to use them!" It just goes in one ear and out the other.It also drives me nuts that there are very few good role models on TV for boys or girls. They're all stereotypes (except maybe Kim Possible)