I saw this the other day.
The phrase “like a girl” has influenced my thinking since I was young. With three older brothers, I’ve had cause to think about what it means to do anything “like a girl”, and to consider why gender has been ascribed to activity, and why one gender is judged to be inferior to the other. These considerations affected how I raised my children, particularly my boys, as it was important that they understood that the genders had no inherent superiority or inferiority. Since language shapes and reveals how we see the world, I chose consciously to focus their view of gender as merely biological constructs, not societal.
My upbringing was a different story.
I like to joke that I was raised by wolves, but the truth is not as colorful. I just have brothers who influenced me fundamentally. I also have an older sister, but as we’ve discovered in comparing notes on our rather separate childhoods, we each felt as though we were raised in an all-male household.
The Boys, as we still call them, were the center of the family’s existence, from basketball practices to track meets, Scout meetings to dinosaur models, the TV programs we watched to the board games we played, from the hand-me-down boys’ jeans I wore until I developed hips to the quantity and kinds of food Mom prepared. There was an element of survival of the fittest in our household, a competitive bent to all of our interactions that informed my social conduct well into adulthood.
It’s not surprising that as the youngest child, from a very young age, I wanted to be a boy and do “boy” things. I always wanted to play with the boys and their friends, and participate in any sports that were being played in the neighborhood. The main entertainment in the house was either playing sports or talking about sports or watching sports or watching movies about sports (or war, thanks to my Dad).
As often as I could, I horned in on basketball games, football games (which my brothers were technically prohibited from playing, but did anyway), bike races on the dirt track in the woods, sledding and skating and tree climbing and swimming. Any outdoor activity. I really wanted to play hockey on our frozen lake, but the boys in the neighborhood were serious about this game, as some of them played on the high school team, and I was unequivocally restricted from this activity.
My brothers did encourage my interest in baseball. Jim, the oldest, and John, the second-youngest, played catch and practiced fielding and pitched batting practice for me from early spring through the fall. In the waning hours of twilight, with the ball hardly visible, we’d be out in the street or down at the park throwing a ball back and forth endlessly. Jim, a talented pitcher in his day, diligently taught me the proper mechanics of throwing, and led me through monotonous, repetitive drills to cement into my muscles the motion required for throwing accurately and fast. Every summer, I wore a hole in the toe of my right shoe from dragging the foot behind as my throwing arm followed through on a throw.
Once, when one of the dads in the neighborhood happened to be down at the park with his kids, he watched my brother and me playing catch. To my brother, he commented, loudly enough for me to hear him, “Wow, she throws like a boy.”
I flushed with pride at that comment, the highest compliment a tomboy could receive. I never wanted to do anything like a girl. My brothers knew it, too, and would use that as an insult whenever possible: you hit like a girl, you dress like a girl, you talk like a girl. They’d insult each other that way, too. “He cried like a little girl…” “listen to you whining like a girl.” Every one of their insults for each other were related to either being or looking like a girl, or worse: female genitalia. I’m sure that’s still the case in locker rooms and high schools.
My sister and I were regularly informed of our inferiority in obvious and not so obvious ways. It was part of the time we lived in, part of the culture of the day. The Boys were allowed freedoms my sister and I were not. They could ride their bikes into town when they hit age 10, but I wasn’t allowed until I was a teenager. They made really good money as caddies at the country club, but my mother went off like a rocket when I wanted to apply. She said she didn’t want me around a bunch of “dirty old men.”
Babysitting was okay, though. Because there aren’t any dirty-minded dads who hire babysitters. Nope.
Boys were so obviously “better” than girls; they got to do all the fun household jobs I wanted to do, like mowing the lawn, or helping Dad move boulders for our rock garden, or chopping wood. I was left to do all the “girl” jobs; dishes and laundry and cleaning. To this day, I loathe cleaning the house, but could spend all day doing yard work. Happily.
I was also keenly aware of the fact that when boys grew up, they got to do the fun jobs I longed for. From the earliest time I can remember, I wanted to be a priest, but only boys could do that. My next fantasy career was professional baseball player. I remember the physical feeling of rage when I considered the fact that women are not allowed to play professional baseball. Softball — sure, but not baseball.
I didn’t want to play *softball*. Softball was for girls. I wanted to play *baseball*.
The restriction made me violently angry. I took out my rage in the batting cage.
This upbringing affected my personality. I love to watch sports, and have adopted hockey as my spectator sport of choice. I geek out over my team’s stats and schedule, keep an eye on what’s going on around the league. This benefits my marriage too, as hockey watching is now a joint activity, rather than something that divides us.
As an adult, I have usually preferred the company of men. I am fluent in male syntax, the cadences of humor and put-downs employed to communicate dominance and fellowship. I have little patience for the stereotypical currency of female relationships, which can include emotional blackmail, indirect communication about differences of opinion, and back-channel, third-party relayed judgments about insignificant matters.
But as I have grown into a more vocal time in my life, I’ve begun a calculated campaign to invert the anti-female rhetoric on which I was raised, to turn it around and allow it to reflect for a change the inferiority of men.
I key in on moments when men are demonstrating a very human emotional response, the same kind of emotional response that would result in a woman being called “unstable” or otherwise inferior. Angry because you got cut off in traffic? Gee, you must be having a mood swing. Upset because your team lost? Maybe it’s your time of the month. Learn how to control your emotions, men. You can’t let them rule you.
It’s my way of restoring some balance to the universe.
I know it makes men angry, I’ve seen that.
Part of me doesn’t care.
Because in this world where women are still treated as property, where we do the same jobs for 3/4 as much money, where our decisions about our sexuality and reproductive health are debated on the national stage, we need some ballast. Every little girl who has her dreams crushed by people telling her “girls don’t do that,” I want some man somewhere to feel that prick of doubt, if only for a moment. That little glimmer that suggests that maybe their dearly held belief in their inherent, God-given superiority may not be true. I want them to have to defend their native characteristics and justify their behavior and personalities just as women have had to do since the beginning of time. I want them to feel a tiny bit uncomfortable about their bodies, and really think about what it means to be a man. If it only lasts for a second, if all they do is pause and say “wait a minute, that’s not…HEY!” that’s good enough for me.
So for the time being, I will continue to use the same rhetoric on men that has been used on women. I’ll tell them that their penises are dirty, ugly things, that their bodies are good for only one purpose, and that’s propagating the species: that the fact that the only emotions most of them comfortably express are anger and frustration is evidence of their inherent weakness; that their tendency to detach emotionally from the people in their lives shows that they shouldn’t be allowed to hold positions of authority or participate in elections or own property; that their alarming and often violent impulsiveness is a clear demonstration of their lower intelligence.
Because that’s exactly what’s been happening to women for centuries. The only reason patriarchy and misogyny have dominated our species is because history is written by the victors; men have used brute strength to overpower women, to force them into subordinate and subservient roles.
No, men aren’t “better” than women. There are superior individuals in every walk of life, but gender doesn’t define superiority. But our culture continues to push the idea that women are less/weaker/incapable/inferior for no other reason than our biology.
All I’m doing is pushing back.
This was written for all the women who have taught me to stand on my strength: my sister, my daughter, and my mother.
For your enjoyment, a video
For more on this subject, start here.