Lao Tzu

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Big Lie of “The Dangerous Book for Boys”

What are little boys made of?
Snakes and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That's what little girls are made of.

Well, anyway, that’s what we heard as children a long, long time ago.  But such nonsense didn’t keep millions of little girls in America, including me, from playing in the mud, making paper-airplanes, constructing little wood boats with propellers, racing across town on our bikes, climbing tall trees, building forts and waging dirt-clod wars with all the other kids, both boys and girls.

Thankfully, given half a chance, children, just being themselves, defy the authoritarian wet dream of gender polarity (”boys will be boys and girls will be girls, and never the twain shall meet”), as naturally as birds sing; try as you might, you can no more remove the gender complexity, the humanity, from a girl, or boy, than you can take the song from a bird. Regardless, here comes “The Dangerous Book for Boys,”  to insist, yet again, on a special realm for boys, where girls dare not tread.

And don’t the likes of Rush Limbaugh and the American Enterprise Institute just love this book to pieces!  Yes they do!

But I thought we had won this battle.  Haven’t we settled this argument by now?  Apparently not.  Here we go again, where discrimination and prejudice against women and girls develops and thrives behind the bogus pretext of the celebration of boyhood, and the resurrection of the notion of adventure and fun as belonging to the exclusive domain of male children. The book, after all, is not entitled, “The Dangerous Book for Kids,” a fact that should not be glossed over, as if the word “boys” can in any way mean both boys and girls, as the word “man” used to mean both sexes in the lexicon of the patriarchy in the bad old days.  Simply put, the title of the book means what it says.  And it means to create a sharp line between the genders, just like that between the biological sexes, and to send a strong message—boys can do these things and be this way; girls cannot.

Okay, yes—sex and gender differences do exist.  I am not blind.  Males, in general, are stronger, bigger, hairier, and tend to be more aggressive; females, in general, tend to be more petite, graceful, smooth-skinned, and gentle (I am being simplistic, of course, but you get the idea...).  But let us remind ourselves of another distinction here, that is, let us distinguish between sex and gender, at least as I understand them: Sex refers to biology, to the biological sexes of male and female, from anatomy to physiology and to genes; gender refers to a spectrum of masculinity and femininity, from highly masculine to highly feminine and an infinite range of shadings and blends of each, stretching in between those two poles of masculinity and femininity. Without getting into anomalous sex variations, hermaphrodites and the like, we have but two sexes, male and female, and that’s pretty much it.  But gender tells a different story, for it is possible to be a feminine male or a masculine female, to be a woman who could beat many men at tennis, if such matches were allowed (think Serena Williams), or target shooting, or whatever; or to be a man who loves to sew and prefers decorating to sports.  How many shadings of gender expression do we see every day, and how many ways do humans defy gender stereotypes—do I have to count them?

Do you see how insane it is—how the authors of The Dangerous Book for Boys conflate sex and gender?  They see a world of two sexes, yes, but they want those two sexes to behave as only two genders as well, and for each gender to conform to specific behaviors, but where a boy gets to enjoy a bunch of stuff all kids like —making paper airplanes, camping, carving, shooting cap guns, doing science experiments— and a girl, I assume, can just sit in the corner and look pretty, hoping for her Prince Charming to arrive and rescue her, while she cuts out paper dolls in ironic anticipation of her future identity.

But does this world view fit with reality?  Is it the truth about boys and girls?  Well, sure, we girls did enjoy the girlie stuff, like playing princess and rocking our dolls; nobody can deny it, unless you were a girl who disdained such “silliness.” But even I, who loved my dolly, also loved to swing like a monkey from branch to branch, or delighted in exploring beyond fences displaying “No Trespassing” signs; I enjoyed fishing, throwing water balloons; I carved notches in my cap gun’s grip for the number of bad guys I’d shot, supposedly. Should I have been told, “Don’t do that; that’s for boys only?”  And wouldn’t that have been a big, fat lie?  And when parents give The Dangerous Book for Boys to their sons, what message do you think their daughters will internalize, when they happen on the book and leaf through it, a book with a title that so blatantly ignores and disregards them as whole persons?  If such daughters enjoy the activities described in the book, won’t they feel, on some level, all wrong about themselves and be forced to either acquiesce in defeat or rebel in defiance?  I have to ask: Can’t we see the damage, once and for all?

Truth be told, only a few childhood activities can reasonably be designated for boys only, rationally to be listed in a Table of Contents in a book entitled, The Dangerous Book for Boys.  One would be Pissing Contests; another would be Circle Jerks...and maybe rugby. Everything else—tying knots, playing Stickball, knowledge about the world, or fossils, or building a treehouse, or any of the other things listed in the book—certainly do not pose difficulties for many girls, either of disinterest of physical challenge.

The question is, what happens to girls who get the message that within the large world of human activity, only the supposed “feminine” activities will be appropriate for them?  Moreover, what happens to boys who get the message too, the one telling them that they have powers and knowledge girls may not have, that they have an entitlement to exclude girls from these realms; or if they prefer sewing to playing violent video games, they fail as males?  What happens to us all?  For, despite the truth of my claim at the beginning of this post, that is, that children defy gender polarization, children do get the message eventually, and what we get —still, to this day— is a whole load of crap that damages the lives of women... and men, for that matter.

I do not doubt that such pressures to conform to gender stereotypes account for teen suicide to a significant degree.

I am not going to count the ways, but if you look around, you can see that this one book simply joins hands in unity and solidarity with an infinite number of gender stereotyping influences —advertising, movies, video games, children’s books, music videos, toys and toy stores— to create a solid, sexist reality out there for girls, as well as for boys. Yes, it’s true, more and more women rise above such oppression, to do and be, according to their talents and abilities. Regardless, the Glass Ceiling and discrimination in the work place —consequences of such fossilized gender prejudice learned during childhood— still exists.  And how many other girls and women face ugly, unfair obstacles throughout their schooling, before they even have a chance to fulfill whatever potential they may have? (Everyday Sexism: Evidence for Its Incidence, Nature, and Psychological Impact From Three Daily Diary Studies - Statistical Data Included 

...and how many others never get that far, but rather adopt and internalize gender stereotyping from the get-go, to end up marrying damaged guys who think domination and control over a wife, and other women as well, defines them as “real men;” or end up allowing themselves to be exploited for their “only useful talents” —because it is their “role” to please men— according to the “natural order of things,” that is, their bodies and their looks.  Or, if they cannot live up to the stereotype of a proper feminine girl, they can always have a sex change, to put an end to the discomfort and misery of being a misfit, of being “different.”

The Dangerous Book for Boys poses dangers, for sure, but not the kind we need to adopt as a society.  I am not into banning books, but at least let’s not applaud —and purchase— what ought to be ignored, if not condemned entirely.

Damage of gender stereotyping— links:
Dangerous Book for Boys:
Re-imagining masculinity:

Comments to this blog post can be found here: The Big Lie of The Dangerous Book for Boys @ Thom Hartmann's forum.