Wednesday, June 6, 2012

I hate when sexism is actually practical

"The girls were going to paint their nails and talk about their feelings, and the boys were going to play football."

My sister said this recently when we were discussing gender and the church.  Apparently her thoughts on the subject were "and they wonder why I don't go to youth group."

I mean, clearly it's wrong because why do you assume all girls want to be boring and paint their nails?

Oh, actually.  I'll take this opportunity to mention I do like painting my nails.  I think they look really cool.  But if anyone is going to accuse me of liking it "because" I'm a girl, well ... I kinda don't want to paint my nails any more.

This is actually a far trickier question than I originally thought.  What if a lot of girls are more feminine (and less easily offended...) than me?  What if you were given the duty of planning an activity for the girls in the youth group, and you asked them what they wanted to do, and the majority said they wanted to do something stereotypically feminine, because THAT'S WHAT THEY ACTUALLY WANT TO DO.

I don't want to be so angry about sexism and assumptions that I forget that there are generalizations you can make about the differences between boys and girls, and those are true statements.  I'm actually imagining a graph with 2 bell curves on it:

Real women have curves.

See, for some attributes you measure, the graph will look like that- a statistically significant difference between the averages for men and women.  But look at the overlap in the tails of the distributions.

(And we could speculate about the reasons for the difference- is it because men and women are genetically different?  Is it because of what society says men and women are supposed to be like?  It doesn't matter the reason- the fact is that a lot of girls genuinely do like "girl things" and a lot of boys genuinely do like "boy things.")

But I really do wonder how much of it is that they actually like those things and how much is that everyone assumes they like those things.  Haha, I would love some real statistics on some of this stuff.  So I don't have to draw a bell curve in Paint like I did up there.

I present to you a hypothetical scenario:  Suppose you had 4 kids- 2 boys and 2 girls.  And you tell them they can do some extracurricular activities.  So each kid thinks about it and decides which one they want to do.  And both of the girls, completely independently and of their own free will, decided to take dance class.  And both of the boys, completely independently and of their own free will, decided to play soccer.

And then suppose somebody described the situation as "The girls take dance and the boys play sports."  Is that an accurate description?  I say no.  Because that makes it sound like "The girls take dance because they're girls.  You know how cute and one-dimensional girls are."

But Perfect Number, how can you have a problem with "The girls take dance and the boys play sports"?  It is a completely correct statement about those 4 hypothetical children.  How can you say it's not okay to say that?

I summarize it this way:  I have a problem with statements about how boys and girls are different, and with treating boys and girls differently, when I feel limited by it.  When people take the true statement that "boys and girls tend to be different in this particular characteristic" and from that conclude that we should make ALL the girls do this certain thing, and ALL the boys do that certain thing, and this is how boys and girls are SUPPOSED TO BE.

When other people notice that I'm doing something that doesn't match a feminine stereotype (like writing an equation to explain my feelings about dating- really though, how do people understand their feelings without a decent amount of algebra?), I feel good about that, because it means I'm independent and I make my own choices.  When people notice I'm doing something that IS "feminine", I don't like it, because although I chose to do that thing because I personally do actually like it, I feel like other people see it as "ah well obviously she likes cute kittens- all girls do- girls are all the same."

Women should go ahead and be as feminine as they want or as non-feminine as they want.

Let's not take generalizations about what boys/girls like and use them to tell boys/girls what they're supposed to like.  But in a practical way, how does this work?  What if you ARE planning an activity for the girls in the youth group?

I don't know.  That's tricky.  Does it actually make practical sense to treat everyone exactly the same?

All right, what does everyone else think?  Do other women feel the same way, or is this because I'm a nerd girl and for a long time I've felt the tension between my nerd cred and my femininity?  (Because if no one else feels the same way, maybe I'm just too sensitive?)

Do any men want to share if there's some sort of similar thing with stereotypes about men?  I'd expect it would play out differently- seems like it's way more socially acceptable for girls to be "not feminine" than for boys to be "not manly."  Tell me all about it.


By the way, this week I am participating in Rachel Held Evans's "Week of Mutuality"- blogging about equality of women in the church. 

Also, here is one of her posts which relates to what I've written here


  1. This is an excellent post! I agree with all of your thoughts.

    My concern is the same as yours; how do we balance a recognition of legitimate gender differences (wherever they come from) without turning them intro prescriptions? It seems like we're always going too far one direction or the other.

    Another concern I have is how recognizing these "general" gender divides may be self-perpetuating. How many kids are noticing the gender tendencies that we are acknowledging, and interpreting it as "Oh I have to fit that stereotype, because everyone knows that's how boys/girls act"? How do we keep those kids from thinking that and explain to them that those are just general observations, but not prescriptive?

    Like you, I don't have The Super Answer. But I'm a nerd as well. Perhaps if we combine our nerdly powers?


    1. Thanks! ^_^ Also that is a good point about whether people (kids especially) try to force themselves into certain gender roles.

      Also, glad to hear you're a nerd.

  2. or we could just stop trying so hard not to step on anyone's toes. as long as you aren't actively excluding anyone, the people who want to be feminine can be and the people who want to be masculine can be.

    1. Yeah. But I want everyone to truly feel like they do have the freedom to be as feminine or masculine as they want.

  3. I've talked with my feminist girlfriend about these kinds of things before. She believes that gender stereotypes are 'self-fulfilling', that is that girls would choose girly things because they are seen as girly by society. Same for men.

    Now I have been trying to figure out exactly how much of these differences are due to biological differences and how many are societal, and I've been realizing the two are almost impossible to separate at this point.

    Scientifically, experiments have been done showing that women score lower on math tests when they are specifically asked their gender beforehand (making it salient I suppose), but do the same as a mixed gender group when not. (I guess the stereotype is that women aren't as good at math? Not in my experience but whatever). [[Also Asians do better at math when made aware they're Asian]]

    fMRI studies confirm differences in thinking patterns, but does this difference make one worse/better, or simply different?

    Overall, I think more science needs to be done on this subject.

    As for men, we have a ton of stereotypes. We're expected to show emotions less, be strong, brave, assertive and physical. Supposedly we think about sex every 6 seconds.

    I'm a man, and I hate sports, show my emotions and don't think about sex all the time. In summer camp when I was little they would have blocks of activities, and I remember there would sometimes be a arts & crafts-type activity and some sports activity. Sometimes I felt compelled to join the sports and stay away from the crafts because that's what all the other guys did.

    1. Cool, thanks for your comment! ^_^ I've also read about the studies where if you ask about gender, girls score less on the math test. I don't know why that is and it makes me kind of angry and really want to go take a math test because I know nothing like that could affect my math skillz. Right?

  4. I think this is fantastic; thanks for posting it! It really is an interesting topic and hard to come to a conclusion on the matter.

    Thinking about it from my own personal experience, I find that I genuinely like most "girly" activities because I truly enjoy them. Yet, I'm pretty nerdy and somehow that is overshadowed by my "girly" hobbies.

    To an extent I think I leaned toward predominately feminine activities due to outside influences, yet once I really got into dance classes and things of that sort I really began to enjoy myself regardless of societal stigmas or anything.

    The nerd community really should start working on this problem at hand...

    : )

  5. This post reminds me of a really painful, awkward class I had this semester in my Theology Class [that I should be studying for right now.] Picture about 20 late teenage males up, and about half a dozen girls. For the life of me, I can't remember what the class discussion was on, but me being an opinionated little puss always has a few ideas to chuck into the mix. It just happens this class, five of us six girls were all sitting in the same row up the front. I chucked out a bit of a strange analogy - all I remember is it was related to sleeping beauty - but said if you could get past the 'Disney' theme I think it was quite a powerful way of looking at it. The lecturer [male, early thirties] looked at me, smirked and commented about how cute it was that I mentioned Disney ... oh, and look. How nice is it that we can have girls in the classroom, all of them are together, having a nice slumber-party ... excluding of course poor Katie in the back corner.

    I understandably was quite offended at how he just cast off my whole insight because of the 'feminine label'. So, being a 'strong, independent woman' I talked to him about it afterwards, where he apologised profusely, potentially being sarcastic the whole time. It was very hard to tell.
    Why are we incapable of looking past stereotypes, shutting off ideas just because of their labels? It's such a good point you've brought up, we seem to leap at chances to put people in boxes of female and male, completely disregarding those who don't want to be boxed up.

    1. Oh wow. That would make me really angry too.

      Also "we seem to leap at chances to put people in boxes of female and male"- that's a good way of putting it. I don't want to be boxed- I want to do whatever I want to do, and whether it aligns with the majority of women or not, whatever.

  6. I don't know what to say about this other than:
    My oldest son started using sticks as guns before he'd ever had any introduction to what a gun was. He just picked one up in the park one day and started "shooting" it.

    My daughter may as well have come out of the womb talking. Trying to get the boys to talk is... frustrating, at best.

    My daughter also just started out being interested in clothes. Initially, purple clothes, but what she is going to wear and how she is going to wear it was just something she did on her own as soon as she was able to do anything with her own clothing. The boys would (almost) wear bags if that's what we gave them to wear.

    However, my daughter is also way more interested in sports than either of the boys. She excels at softball. She's a rough and tumble kid and has always been the one that wants to be thrown around.

    So, yeah, there are reasons for gender stereotypes, but that doesn't mean we should live by them.

    1. Cool, thanks for commenting. I bet people with kids have more insight than I do about how boys and girls tend to be naturally different.

  7. If you are truly interested in finding out more about science for differences in men and women, this is an excellent article. It's long but it is very thorough. The more sciency stuff is toward the middle, while most of the rest is theological. However, I recommend the whole thing if you have the time.

    1. Thanks for posting this- yeah it is really long, but it says a lot of things better than I could word it (like about statistical significance, about how even if you find differences exist, that says nothing about the way it "should be", the different possible interpretations people have about what "complementarity" means, etc etc).

  8. I'm jumping in on this a few days late, but there's something else going on here that I wanted to point out. Why is it that boys playing football is cool and good, but girls painting their nails and talking about feelings is boring and kind of dumb? Why is it that it's way more acceptable for girls to do boy things than boys to do girl things? Isn't it because, deep down, we all have imbibed this cultural assumption that masculine is better than feminine? Sports are cool and brave; sewing and make-up parties are silly and stupid. When a girl does a boy thing, she's lifting herself up. When a boy does a girl thing, he's degrading himself.

    It's so widespread that we don't even notice it-- but it's the patriarchy of our culture at work. Part of the reason we bristle when someone talks about something we do in terms of feminine stereotypes, is that being described according to feminine stereotypes makes us appear weak and "sissy" (a misogynist word if I ever heard one!). It's not just that we don't want to be limited. It's that we don't want to be limited to that.

    Only by being aware of this are we ever going to get around it. Because in truth, sitting together painting nails and talking about feelings is not intrinsically more boring or stupid than running around a field chasing a ball.

    1. Wow, thanks for bringing that up- this is so true! I guess it shows that sexism goes so deep and is a problem on so many levels- so even girls think of feminine things as being inferior.

    2. Yes, exactly. And that's what we have to see and learn to change, even in ourselves. The stereotypes will largely lose their power when the underlying misogyny dies. :)

  9. I'm a feminist, and I've always struggled with femininity/masculinity (not to say that all feminists do, or that it is a problem inherent to feminism...I can only speak from experience). I've always wanted to defy stereotypes about gender, which for a while I thought meant fighting any implication that personality traits and interests are determined by gender. By this point I've realized that some things are socialization- but there is probably some inherent difference between boys and girls. I don't mean that this applies to everybody, or that it means boys and girls "should" do different things, but on average boys are more masculine and girls are more feminine. There needs to be more flexibility in gender roles, but we can't completely ignore that. This has applied to me personally because I like some traditionally feminine things (talking about emotions and relationships) and some traditionally masculine things (like dinosaurs and rockets). I realized that I sometimes feel guilty for my "feminine" side, and proud of my more "masculine" tendencies. This is totally wrong and a form of internalized misogyny.

  10. I can definitely relate to that- I feel more proud of my "masculine" traits than "feminine" ones. (I guess this is because I'm a woman studying math and engineering? I wonder if other women feel the same way.) Like you said, it's "totally wrong and a form of internalized misogyny."