Tuesday, June 8, 2010

And Now, I Scream, Because That's What Girls Do

I’m afraid today’s gonna be a rant.

It all started because of a blog post I read yesterday, about stereo-typing gender in novels. And then got sort of nudged on its way by a book I was reading last night. And then my annoyance and rant was finally solidified this morning when I was hunting for Legos for my daughter’s birthday.

I’ll spare you the agony of my thought processes and instead sum up the thesis that all three of these things were putting forth: men and women are inherently different.  Different enough to want drastically different things out of life. Different enough that the same behaviors mean different things. Almost different enough to be two different species, according to the blog post and its comments.

harry_siriusAs an author, I write people who are not like me all the time. With any character, you have to ask yourself, “would this character really react this way?” It’s a question that gets harder the further away a character is from your own personal experience. Writing about a bookish girl who plays a lot of musical instruments, for instance, is going to be a different kettle of fish for me than writing about, say, a divorced astronaut with gout. One of them is a far longer jump for me than the other.

But I have to tell you, I don’t think that merely crossing the gender divide is enough to make me trade my writer pogo stick for a jet plane. A male version of me would not be as different as people seem to think. And this is what it comes down to: gender stereotypes are something that really toast my bread.

Bu they’re in reviews, in product placement, everywhere. On the Lego site, they had a ton of cool sections. Pirates, Star Wars, Castles, Fire Trucks . . . and then one section labeled “Recommended for girls.” Guess what was in it? Grocery store. House. A Lego heart. A Lego bunny. Shopping center. Post man. Garbage man. A marketplace. And pink things, of course. You know what Thing 1, my daughter, really wanted? A castle. With some swash-buckling guys and a princess. Such a thing was nearly impossible to find -- I had to get a castle and then track down a princess on eBay, because you just couldn’t get a castle with a chick in it. Because of course, girls don’t play with castles.

And then, the other day, Thing 2 (4 year old boy) came home from school and said that he didn’t want to watch a movie that he and Thing 1 used to love to watch, because it was “girly.” I said, “How do you figure?” He said that one of his friends at school had said so. He couldn’t watch it because it would somehow diminish his stature. I gotta tell you, that steamed my clams. (yes, there’s a lot of cooking going on in this post. It’s how you can tell I’m really hot around the collar)(oh! oh! the puns!)(I amuse myself).

angelina-jolie-daniel-craig-tomb-raiderThe thing is this: yes, there are some physiological differences between men and women. They were just talking on Mythbusters last night about how women have higher pain tolerance, for instance. But the vast psychological gap between men and women, the one that makes books like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus possible, is created after we pop out of the womb. There are little subtle things that we do every day to reinforce stereotypes. We say, for instance, that we want a sensitive man who cries. (and guess what, little boys cry just as often as little girls). But when we’re watching a movie and the big burly man cries at the funeral and says “it’s so beautiful!” what does the audience do? We don’t say “awww.” We laugh, right? So what guy in his right mind is going to not suppress his tears or his sentimentality? And we say we want strong women who make up their minds. But a woman who shoots from the hip and says just what she wants? Well, then she’s a bitch -- where’s her sense of tact?

And the thing is, so many teens I know don’t question these attitudes. They take it as fact, when in different eras, what was was seen as feminine and masculine was wildly different. Men were painters without any snickering. Women couldn’t play violin because the arm position was provocative. To be tanned was unbecoming for a woman. It was not seen as unmanly to be a patron of the arts. Society makes up a lot of rules for what it means to be a man or a woman. And society is us. That means we can unmake them too.

Okay, so I need to bring this back around to my writing philosophy. And it’s this: yes, I know there are women and men who are wildly different from one another, who fall classically along gender lines. But I also know that there are those who are not that different, the ones who have escaped or resisted a lot of the influences that makes us pink-clad shoppers versus muscle-bound Maxim readers. And when I write, my characters will often be plucked from that latter group. Boys who read poetry and girls who swear and guys who play music and chicks who love cars. I refuse to see the gender gap in YA fiction as a chasm of fixed proportions. I refuse to constantly make sure my girls are acting “girly” and my boys are acting “guyish.” That would mean letting current mores define gender and character for me.

Because when it comes down to it, a stereotype is only true now. An individual is true for ever.

Picture 4


BenCracknell said...

Once again, a powerful and deeply meaningful entry. I can't express enough how great it is to have an articulate voice to speak the way I feel. When I write, like yourself, a lot of my characters and switched around. My girls are--like yours--manly, but still femininely independant, and my guys are what would be though of as gay. Maybe that's just because I'm gay myself, and I hate any sterotype, but whatever. It's great to hear from you!

Can't wait until I can finally claw my way through Linger!

Have a great week!

Jessica said...

Oh Maggie I love when you rant! You always do it so well, and on this topic I completely agree. It's funny really because this happened at the school I work at yesterday. One of my girls started bawling, because the other girls called her a "Tomboy" and it hurt her feelings. (Grrrr....)

I sat her down and asked her why she was upset. She said she just wanted to be like the other girls, she just wanted to fit in. How do you explain to a 7 year old child that being yourself is perfectly okay, when everything else around her says otherwise? I ended up explaining to her that if she is a tomboy, then I am one too. I love reading, cooking and painted nails, yes. I also love playing baseball, video games and paintball! That made her smile :). Us tomboys have to stick together.

Gender stereotypes drive me NUTS. Especially because of how they affect kids.

Not Hannah said...

People routinely throw up in my face that River is a "girly girl." As if I will not like her as much because fingernail polish has been PUSHED on her like crack since she was an infant. As if she NEVER, EVER jumps in a puddle or rides a bike or plays with cars. As if, somehow, it will punish ME, her not-fingernail-polish wearing mom. (My toenails, however, are blue. Thanks.) Argh. Loved this post.

Also, is The Rock wearing a polar bear skin? I'm just asking.

Anonymous said...

Maggie, I agree with this so much. I even see it in my own house. My dad is constantly making fun on my younger brother, Jackson, for liking the color purple, because it's a "girly" color. My older brother, Bentley makes fun of my TV shows and books because what I watch is "girly," and reading is supposedly only for girls. Sometimes, people really need to get a clue.

Natalie (Mindful Musings) said...

You've definitely got a point. I think a lot of us reinforce gender stereotypes on a daily basis without even realizing it. Why? Because that's how our society has evolved. I do know that I like to read books that cross the "gender" line with their characters. I always feel a lot of respect for the author for having the guts to do something that might seem different than the norm.

And I loved the picture of The Rock. Wow! Lol

Dawn Embers said...

Nicely put. My characters do girly things often, as males, but they are all gay. I try to balance it though with boyish behavior as I don't want to fall into that stereotyping either.

I love legos as a kid. My sister played with barbies and I played with legos. She would get mad that she coudln't build it the way it looked on the box. I would do it the way the instructions said and then find new ways to build it in similar fashion. So much fun.

Variety said...

AMEN! And thank you for saying it just right. As I student studying sociology, I took sociology of gender last year, and there is so much research to back this up. Men and women are more alike than they are different. But our culture is stereotyping more and more, and those stereotypes are becoming more extreme. One thing that keeps reinforcing these stereotypes is being quick to call those who cross gender boundaries "gay". Maybe they are, maybe they aren't - but crossing gender boundaries does NOT necessarily equal gay.

As a parent, I try so hard to encourage what I consider "good" traits (values) in all my kids, regardless of gender. I want my son to be kind, compassionate, and sensitive. And I want my girls to be tough, strong, and independent. I see no problem with my daughter (and this has happened, as well as many other examples) painting her fingernails and toenails to go ride 4-wheelers with Dad. And my son loves to cook.

Thanks for writing characters who are true to themselves. And thanks for choosing the soapbox-topic-of-the-day.

Princess Weena said...

Ah yes, I've been here before. When my son was two, I wanted to get him a kitchen because he loved playing with pots and pans. My mother-n-law was completely shocked, and proceeded to talk me right out of the idea. I chalked it up to the era she was raised in, but man I wish I would've just done what I thought best. I know he would have had a blast.

Anonymous said...

I was a strange child. I loved pink, and Barbies, and horses (from a distance) but I also liked Lego and probably a lot of other 'boy' things that have slipped my mind. I am now, at the business end of my teenage years, a walking anti-stereotype. Well I would be if I hated Twilight with a passion(which I don't, because I won't be pressured by people who think it's 'cool' to hate romantic stories, like 'Twilight' and 'Shiver')and shunned pink for fear that my eyes would combust.

Maybe my own non-girly life is the reason why the vast majority of my own major female characters are tough nuts. Even my girlier ones don't balk at getting their hands dirty. My guys tend to be more traditionally feminine in some ways, like enjoying poetry and shedding a couple tears over the horrible things I've thrown their way (I am not a kind writer :) ). Then again, I think I might be a closet feminist, which might explain my tendency to switch gender roles in my writing.

Gender roles are frustrating. They force people to hide who they are for fear of ridicule. We are who we are, and I am a pseudo-tomboy who is attending her Debutante Ball on Friday (because I can). It is up to us to make our own choices, as we only have our own life to live.

Anonymous said...

Yeah-I was stunned when my kids came home talking about things that 'were for girls' or games that only boys could play. We have boy/girl twins so they have shared everything from the beginning, they both regularly played with each other's things. There was no thought as to what was for girls or what was for boys. Once the external forces start to influence them around three it becomes disheartening, it is an ongoing conversation in our household.

Jen the bibliophile said...

Tell me about it! I hate gender rolls more than anything! From the age of 10 til I was 21 i refused to wear the color pink and I made my mother remove it from my room as I could no longer stand the dreadful color staring back at me any longer. *gasp* yes, I know I was protesting, even at 10. I was angry that people wanted me to fit in the norm. I suppose because I never did and I still don't. Yes, I loved to paint my toenails, but so did my brothers, it was a nice group activity among the household. My brothers won't admit it out loud mind you, but still...

It's horrible, but it's such a prominent thing from a couple of my older brothers and very much my father that I'm a girl and I'll never do it as well as them. I've made it my lifelong goal to prove that I can do anything they can do... but better! My husband doesn't get it, but I don't see why I'm somehow lowly just because I'm a woman. I know it's not like that everywhere, but *sigh* it seems to be.

Anonymous said...

The Rock: Time to Put on My Big Girl Panties.


alanasays said...

I've been reading so much about gender stereotypes and sexism lately, it's all of a sudden become really topical. It's great. It's made me question a lot of things I put up with or dish out, and has got me thinking about it as a legitimate issue. I love it!

Anonymous said...

God, you're awesome. I love reading your rants :)

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I am LOVING the comments, by the way. It's hard for me to reply to them all individually here (versus the Livejournal blog) but rest assured that I'm reading and nodding and thinking. This post has generated some of the most fascinating discussion!

Anonymous said...

I grew up with boys so I spent a lot of time wrestling, climbing trees, and playing with action figures... then when we moved to America, I was inundated with Barbies, NKOTB, and Jonathan Brandis (RIP) and left all my tree climbing and warring behind. Strange.
I haven't lost the urge to climb trees though.
I have a degree in Human Development and we call this the age old battle of Nature vs. Nurture. It will probably never be won.

Ariadne said...

In love with this post.

readmore said...

Ah, I love this rant, Maggie. I can remember when my son was around 3 and he would put his older sister's skirt on (there was a particular purple Spumoni one he liked) and twirl to the song "Oklahoma." The two kids and I had such a grand time singing and twirling. Pure joy! Of course, his grandmother, my mother-in-law, told me that I needed to hide that skirt from him, that it wasn't appropriate. Ha! Didn't hide it, and he didn't want to dress "like a girl" later either. I guess that's what she was afraid of, or that he would become homosexual. What she didn't understand is that I didn't see that as a bad thing, although he is heterosexual at 23. He is, also, a creative and fascinating individual. My daughter was the one more into sports than my son, and she turned out great, too.

I love the part in your blogging about the Legos. Recommended for girls? Come on, people. Unbelievable!

Maggie Stiefvater said...

*grin* Great store, readmore!!!!

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