I occasionally find myself wide awake at 3 AM because my body thinks it’s funny to be a jerk sometimes, and as I lie there pretending to be asleep so my cats won’t decide it’s breakfast time, I often end up thinking Deep Thoughts. My thoughts this morning ventured back to childhood and some of my youthful interests, and I got to thinking yet again about the bizarre gender divide we’ve set up around certain activities.
There’s a continuing narrative, even in these “woke” modern days, that those born of the male and female persuasions are naturally and perhaps even biologically interested in different things. Girls like this and boys like that, and that’s just the way it is. And while we’re now beginning to encourage girl-type-children to enjoy pursuits outside of the stereotypical “feminine” realm (while stubbornly insisting the boy-type-children stay firmly in their place), we still have this idea that being born male or female automatically inclines a person toward certain endeavors.
But if we’re not biologically programmed to like certain things, then why do so many girls act this way while boys act that way?
Well, let’s talk about that via my own example.
When I was a young female-type-child growing up in the wilds of rural Pennsylvania, I had a wide range of interests. I liked dressing up, playing with dolls, and sewing, and I also liked playing with cars, climbing trees, having pretend sword fights, and imagining I was Luke Skywalker zipping along on my speeder-bike (which sadly was just a regular bike, but we must work with what we have). As I got a little older, I developed an interest in carpentry – I loved being in the garage on a warm summer morning hammering nails into boards, building lopsided masterpieces that were a hazard to anyone who dared to touch them. I played baseball, basketball, and football with my younger brothers, and at school in gym class I was a star field hockey player. When I passed age ten and decided I was close enough to sixteen to start saving up for a car (a fund that was permanently stuck around $50 due to my continuing need to purchase other vital items), I started becoming deeply interested in learning about car repair. I also wanted to take karate lessons, as I loved the idea of being able to defend myself with a quick sweep of my hands.
You might be wondering what became of these youthful passions, and if I am currently a star hockey player who is also a master of karate, carpentry, and car repair. Alas, I am not.
Sadly, I received very little encouragement in any of the above pursuits, and my interest in them gradually faded as a result. I was actually told flat-out by my dad that “girls don’t do karate,” and while my grandfather bemusedly allowed me to watch him as he fiddled with car engines in the garage, it never occurred to him to say, “Hey, why don’t I teach you about all this car engine stuff?”
My carpentry pursuits were likewise looked upon with amusement rather than as a sign of a talent that could be nurtured, and I was instead pushed gently but firmly in the direction of gymnastics, cheerleading, piano, and other endeavors more firmly in the realm of the feminine.
I don’t hold any ill will toward my parents or grandparents for any of this, because I know that none of it was malicious. They were only doing what they felt was right to prepare me to fill my predestined role in society. But when we ask the question, “Why do girls like this kind of stuff while boys like that kind of stuff?” I think it’s important to remember that kids naturally have interest in a wide range of things, but sometimes without even realizing it, we steer them in the direction of what we’ve come to believe is right and good and proper for someone of their gender.
My younger brother was chastised and teased for being too sensitive – it wasn’t right for a boy to cry when he was upset or get emotional over the end of a movie. I was yelled at for wrestling my male cousin, though some of the yelling may have occurred because the match ended with me triumphant and him crying. (His own fault, I felt, for saying, “Girls can’t wrestle.”)
The point of this isn’t to “woe is me” re: my own childhood, which honestly was a very good one despite some mild gender-related roadblocks. It’s more to suggest that this is something we need to be aware of, because quite honestly, it’s hurting everyone. While we may frown at a girl (or grown woman) who exists in the “masculine” sphere more than the feminine one, our reaction to boys and men who do the opposite is far more extreme. Boys are told unequivocally that acting “like a girl” is weak, shameful, and wrong. Is it any wonder, then, that they grow up thinking women are somehow “less” than they are?
We owe it to kids to let them be themselves, and to not get so hung up on categorizing them based on whether their body checks the “male” or “female” box. We’ve started sending wonderful messages of empowerment to young girls, but we seem to forget that empowering women doesn’t work unless we also work on dismantling the harmful anti-female messages we send to boys. And of course, there’s also the fact that these deeply instilled ideas of gender play a huge role in the continued existence of homophobia and transphobia, because queer people often seem to break the “rules” that were established in our young brains re: how certain people are supposed to act.
While I have no plans whatsoever to reproduce, I would like to adopt a child someday, and I hope that when I do, it’ll be socially acceptable for my kid to develop an interest in anything her/his/their weird little heart desires. If my daughter wants to be a hockey-playing mechanic with a black belt in karate, awesome. If she’d rather dabble in dress-making and learn to bake a mean souffle, awesome. I’m not sure I’m entirely certain what a souffle even is, but I will support her. And if my kid says, “Hey, I don’t think I’m a boy or a girl, I think I’m just me,” I will be a very proud parent and hope that society will know enough by then to be damn proud of my kid, too.
PS: I would like to mention, in terms of obnoxious gender-related things, that upon searching for stock photos to use in this post, I discovered that many pictures of grown-ass women are categorized under “child” (no men, of course, because that would be RIDICULOUS), and “girls playing sports” will show you a few photos of tennis, lacrosse, and swimming before switching over to images of dudes running around covered in manly dirt playing with balls. Very disappointed in you, stock photo site. VERY DISAPPOINTED.