Friday, November 16, 2012

Battle of the Sexes

I started second grade in a brand new school, good old Austin Road. When you start a new school, you tend to also start a new bus route. While the bus was never my favorite form of transportation, I remember making a friend early on that year. A sweet girl by the name of Jackie. I would get on the bus before her and wait anxiously until she joined me and we could enjoy the rest of the ride together. Those first 10 minutes alone were some of the least favorite of my day because, let's be honest, you just never know what's going to happen on a school bus.

The thing about Jackie was, she was kind of a tomboy, too. She played sports and liked to spend recess running around just like I did. And I remember this one conversation we had on the way to school more than anything else we ever did together. There we were, 7 years old, talking about why the boys in our class seemed to not want to talk or play with us and how we didn't always feel comfortable hanging out with the other girls. (At the time, I didn't realize that particular conundrum would become a theme in my life.) So, we devised a plan. Our devious little minds decided that if we were to actually walk into Mrs. DelGrosso's class talking about the Yankee game the night before, the boys might actually let us play with them. It wasn't hard for either of us to talk about it, both our dads were pretty obsessed with baseball and the games were always on at home. We'd both been to Yankee Stadium(the old one in the Bronx) and seen games in person and genuinely enjoyed the game. I think the plan even worked for a time. The boys couldn't resist chiming in on our, I'm sure, startlingly poignant observations about the most recent matchup. We had moved over to their turf, the world of sports. We were interesting. We were ok. For girls, that is.

It's interesting to me how often this memory comes back to me. For years I remembered it just as a silly story, as a small triumph in manipulation, in the power of becoming all things to all people. But more recently it reminds me of a deeper issue in our world, this way in which the "things of women" are often portrayed as less interesting, more silly, certainly less worth the time for most of us than the "things of men". I use quote marks because I hate that we put these interests into gendered categories at all. It's the same problem that labeled me, an athletic girl, as a tomboy or that makes people worry when a little boy likes dance or art more than his soccer games. The same issue that made me proud of being a tomboy and terrified of being a "girly girl." That made me struggle with feeling thankful that I was born a woman. Yes, I confess it. I've added to the problem just as much as the next person.  
 Don't hear me wrong. I am not trying to argue that there are no differences between men and women. I think there are beautiful ways in which we often approach life from different angles and we need each other to understand the world more fully because of that. But when my son says things like "I can't get that, it's a girl color" or tells me that the girls won't play with him at school, I wonder why it has been so easy for this divide to take root. I wonder at which point his friends will start to make fun of girls for the things they like to play. I wonder if they'll say things that I heard from boys growing up, things about my general inferiority or silliness or those backhanded compliments along the line of "you're different from other girls, you like sports" or "you can be one of the guys".

We own a board game called "Battle of the Sexes." I have no idea who got this game for me, but whoever it was no doubt thought it would be perfect. After all, half my life could probably be summed up by that phrase. The point of the game is for men to have to answer questions that women would typically know the answer to and vice versa. Um, can anybody say stereotypes?! Here's the deal with this game: every single time we have played it with people, the women have won. And every single time the men have complained that the game is unfair. It's my opinion that it probably is unfair, but only because it's reflective of a culture that makes it necessary for me to know more about "guy stuff" than men have to know about "girl stuff." The way we do gender is, a lot of the time, messed up.

Now, as a parent, I want my little boy to feel free to be who he is. To not feel bound by certain things, like the color of a toy or shirt, to learn how to respect the differences between him and the little girls he plays with and to not grow into the perspective that one gender is inherently better than the other. I want the little girls he is friends with to be given the chance to be themselves and not be at risk of being called a tomboy or girly-girl or needing to say or do a certain thing so the boys will think they are cool enough to hang out with. I want toy manufacturers to think hard about ways to engage kids that don't just play into stereotypes, challenging kids to explore all facets of their imagination, to put things on the market like this new female-oriented engineering toy, GoldiBlox, you can read about here or watch the video below. . If I had a daughter, you'd better believe I'd be pre-ordering. I might just get it for my son, in spite of his aversion to pink as a girl color.

Mostly, I don't want my kid to ever have to feel like this is a battle, that there is some inherent war going on between him and the girls in his life. I lived like that for way too long myself. It's a whole lot easier to just go ahead and be yourself and love the people around you for who they are than to constantly fight. To speak truth when necessary and to refuse to go along with the status quo when it's wrong, to take those parenting moments when you have the opportunity to impart some huge piece of wisdom on the subject and use them well. To refuse to get into those conversations, seemingly harmless, that jokingly bash the opposite gender or perpetuate harmful stereotypes on either side. To be light in one area in a world that still has a long way to go to be a just and safe place to live for all people.


  1. I have had nearly the opposite experience. I was nothing close to being a tomboy. I did enjoy riding my bike for miles and miles, but I didn't play sports or climb trees. It was a pink fire flower and I loved it. I graduated to a pink and gray ten speed after that. I begged my dad to paint my bedroom bright pink. I wanted to play dress-up, sing, dance, and be the next Whitney, Madonna, etc. I took piano lessons because I was forced to and dance because I wanted to. I loved Barbies, playing house, playing school, and bossing everyone around the way my mom did. If I had been a tomboy, then I think my mom would have put the smack down on it. In fact, she might have. I may never know. My dad probably would have been fine with either option or even somewhere in between. As a teacher, I have tried not to reinforce gender stereotypes and/or expectations of my students. We shall see what happens if/when we're blessed with our own kids. It's definitely food for thought!

  2. p.s. I was never into sports or watching sports when I was growing up. I only really got into college basketball when Christian Laettner led the Blue Devils to the championship in middle school. Gasp. I was a Duke fan at one point. It was only because I thought he was cute! Then, I went to UNC and in fact, became a huge basketball fan. It has been very interesting to have that in common with men of all ages. It's like I have a platform or an easy conversation starter with new folks I meet around here and especially with men. When I started my masters degree at Vanderbilt and met some young men at the church I attended there, they were pleasantly surprised at my interests that lined up with theirs and how "normal," I was with them. They were so impressed that they told one of my good friends that they liked me because I was just a "regular girl." At that time, I took it as a compliment because I had had other young men in the church make me feel less than adept in communicating with them and/or as if I would never be able to talk to men comfortably without them being a member of my family and/or an authority figure. Now, I look back and think about what it means to be a "regular girl," to those guys. Hmm.