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.