Thursday, June 01, 2006

Boys vs. Girls


The following is based on a comment I made at Half Changed World, in response to a question posed by Jennifer of the blog Under the Ponderosas: "What makes you say society is hard on boys who aren't conventionally masculine?" It got me to thinking and remembering, and led me to a thought about raising my son that I don't think I like very much.

When I was a kid in Saginaw, MI, I played the flute in my junior high school band, the only boy to do so. There were twelve chairs, and for the first half of the first year, I was dead last. The drum section - all macho schmucks - teased and bullied me relentlessly.

At some point - driven by an impulse that I did not consciously acknowledge - I started to practice furiously. In a single session, I zoomed past all the girls from last chair to first, and I held that first chair for the rest of my time in band.

At roughly the same time, I challenged one of the drummers to a fight. I lost, of course - of the dozen fights I was in that year, the best I could ever manage was a draw.

But a strange - or maybe just predictable - thing happened: the teasing and bullying gradually evaporated.

With hindsight, I see clearly that the end of the harassment had everything to do with dominating the girls in the flute section. It helped that I was willing to fight with my fists, even if I lost. The important thing is that I fought at all.

I just put Liko down to sleep. While I was watching him sleep, I remembered all this. I asked myself: if he faced the same level of teasing and bullying, would I want him to fight other boys and dominate girls if that meant an end to his persecution?

I'm afraid that for all my dude-feminist posturing, the answer is almost certainly yes.

Times have changed and also, Liko won't grow up in a place like Saginaw. Hopefully, he'll grow up in a more forgiving, egalitarian social atmosphere, where gender is not quite so polarized and people are more secure in difference, than the one I experienced in the Midwest in the mid-Eighties.

But it would obviously be better if my ideals weren't put to any kind of test.

Postscript: I still play the flute, but only for Liko. When I take it out and start putting it together, he scampers off to find his plastic yellow recorder. While I play little baby tunes, he tries to imitate me, his eyes watching my every move.

9 comments:

Kate said...

Times change. When I was in high school from 1986 to 1990, there were kids we thought were gay, but it was never said and they found safe places in the choir or drama club. My little sister started high school in 1991 and had friends who were "out" and left alone.

That said, there were other reasons to by bullied. I was "the fat girl" even though photographs of the time show me looking pretty trim. I was bullied relentlessly from the age of 7 to 12. I would have loved it if anyone, especially my parents, had told me there was anything I could do to stop it and/or control it.

chip said...

I missed that comment at HCW; was Jennifer actually serious about that???? I find it hard to believe that anyone would actually not know that...

I can totally relate to the dilemma you mention, and for me also the best thing is that my son is not growing up in the kind of community I grew up in. He and his sister also go to a nontraditional (though public) middle/high school where this is much less of an issue. He's not really had to deal with hard core masculinist kind of bullying. And he's managed the soft core bullying pretty well without having to dominate and fight.

BTW I love the image of you and Liko making music.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"I was 'the fat girl' even though photographs of the time show me looking pretty trim. I was bullied relentlessly from the age of 7 to 12."

Things get so magnified out of proportion; junior high is like a nightmare funhouse. From ten until...well, later in life than I care to admit... I pictured myself as a skinny, ugly dork...yes, I was thin -- and I'm still a dork -- but in my junior high yearbook, I look just about the same as many of my tormentors. We are all united in our bad Eighties hair and members-only jackets.

I've been thinking that more than one thing has changed in the past twenty years. Not only is "gay" (I'm talking less about sexual orientation and more about flexible gender identity) more accepted, but I think geek culture (computers, D&D, comics) is much, much more visible and powerful. In 2006, geeks rule the world, though that's not necessarily a good thing.

"I would have loved it if anyone, especially my parents, had told me there was anything I could do to stop it and/or control it."

This gets to the heart of the post: how do we as parents deal with teasing and bullying, whether our kids are the targets or the bullies or just bystanders? It's an emotional question, but also a political one, because teasing often plays on prejudice based on race, class, culture, gender, all that stuff, maybe especially gender and culture (accents, etc.)

I'm not even sure that my parents knew; in any case, adults aren't part of the funhouse and can't often see how distorted things can look from the 12-year-old's POV. From a distance, it all seems like kid's stuff, "growing up," and indeed, quite a lot of it isn't serious in the long run. Bullying that culminates in disasters like Columbine is actually quite rare -- though I think quite a few persecuted pre-teens and teens have played out Columbines in their heads. Why some (mostly boys) act out violent fantasies probably relates to a combination of impulse control and moral consciousness that kids have to get first and last from their parents.

I've been reading Andrea Gordon's blog (http://thestar.blogs.com/parenting/); with regards to the Lamott essay, Gordon talks about "the grief of recognizing that we can't save our children from their dark sides." She quotes something a doctor once told her: "You can't protect your kids from going through their crises. Crises are a part of life and they are destined to have them."

OK, but we still have to help, obviously: accept the dark side but try to help them keep it in perspective, in its place.

Teasing and bullying; the Lamott essay; the massacres in Iraq (commited by 19-year-old boys with machine guns, not much past high school) -- it all fits in terrible ways.

Now I'm rambling. I'll stop.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

"I was 'the fat girl' even though photographs of the time show me looking pretty trim. I was bullied relentlessly from the age of 7 to 12."

Things get so magnified out of proportion; junior high is like a nightmare funhouse. From ten until...well, later in life than I care to admit... I pictured myself as a skinny, ugly dork...yes, I was thin -- and I'm still a dork -- but in my junior high yearbook, I look just about the same as many of my tormentors. We are all united in our bad Eighties hair and members-only jackets.

I've been thinking that more than one thing has changed in the past twenty years. Not only is "gay" (I'm talking less about sexual orientation and more about flexible gender identity) more accepted, but I think geek culture (computers, D&D, comics) is much, much more visible and powerful. In 2006, geeks rule the world, though that's not necessarily a good thing.

"I would have loved it if anyone, especially my parents, had told me there was anything I could do to stop it and/or control it."

This gets to the heart of the post: how do we as parents deal with teasing and bullying, whether our kids are the targets or the bullies or just bystanders? It's an emotional question, but also a political one, because teasing often plays on prejudice based on race, class, culture, gender, all that stuff, maybe especially gender and culture (accents, etc.)

I'm not even sure that my parents knew; in any case, adults aren't part of the funhouse and can't often see how distorted things can look from the 12-year-old's POV. From a distance, it all seems like kid's stuff, "growing up," and indeed, quite a lot of it isn't serious in the long run. Bullying that culminates in disasters like Columbine is actually quite rare -- though I think quite a few persecuted pre-teens and teens have played out Columbines in their heads. Why some (mostly boys) act out violent fantasies probably relates to a combination of impulse control and moral consciousness that kids have to get first and last from their parents.

I've been reading Andrea Gordon's blog (http://thestar.blogs.com/parenting/); with regards to the Lamott essay, Gordon talks about "the grief of recognizing that we can't save our children from their dark sides." She quotes something a doctor once told her: "You can't protect your kids from going through their crises. Crises are a part of life and they are destined to have them."

OK, but we still have to help, obviously: accept the dark side but try to help them keep it in perspective, in its place.

Teasing and bullying; Lamott's slap and Sam's attitude; the massacres in Iraq (commited by 19-year-old boys with machine guns, not much past high school) -- it all fits in terrible ways.

Now I'm rambling. I'll stop.

chip said...

"You can't protect your kids from going through their crises" is certainly true.

But what we hopefully can do is give them tools, ways of seeing the world and themselves, and ways of dealing with others -- especially unpleasant others who take out their own personal pathologies on others around them -- so that they deal with their crises better than we dealt with them when we were their ages.

As for the gay thing, I don't think it's any more accepted at all in general; there are places where it is, but I think it's class and culturally specific. I am 100% sure that if I went back to the high school and middle school I went to, gay is today the same epithet it was back then. I think there may be a bit more acceptance of geekiness than before, but then again, maybe not.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

In response to Chip: It seems to me that these days, boys act an awful lot like girls. That is, they do things that only girls did when I was a teenager: they have beatiful long hair, they wear jewelry, they paint their nails, they care a lot about appearance. Girls of course do things that used to be only the domain of boys, particularly regarding sports.

It's been a long time since I was a teenager... But I suppose even though the differences between genders are not so great, certain lines still aren't crossed; and the kids know exactly where those lines are.

I don't have brothers. I was not close to any boys as a teen; I didn't have any male friends. Hence my ignorance. I don't remember ever being teased for not being girly enough, even though I was super athletic and could kick ass in gym class. (I could do 10 pullups without blinking, back in the day.) Once I was teased for wearing sneakers every day of high school -- though that is definitely not the same as what Jeremy describes.

Regarding Jeremy's point about raising a boy to defend himself: my son, who's 4, has come home from daycare with awful scratches, as if he were attacked by a cat -- actually he was attacked by his dear friend & the only other 4-year-old in the place. (The others are younger.) And now when he's mad, my son has begun scratching and hitting. I can't figure out how to make him stop. One of my neighbors is now hesitant about letting her kid play with mine, and I don't blame her. I hate to think that I'm raising a bully -- esp. when my boy has always seemed to me the sweetest, most generous kid.

chip said...

Jennifer, things must be different in Bend. I live in a town that's pretty tolerant of diverse gender identities, but I don't see many boys in middle or high school who fit the description you've given.

If you are a guy and don't meet the gender expectations, you suffer. And if you grow up in a place that's more traditional than where I live, you suffer more, including not only taunting but actual physical violence. That's a reality even today. Those boys in Bend are luck to have such freedom.

Gender expectations, constraints and pressures are much stronger and more limiting for boys than for girls. And I do think that's part of the overall problem.

Echidne of the Snakes has a recent post on this, a review of the book The Wimp Factor, where the author attempts to explain why men are so anxious about masculinity. From what Echidne's written, I think he gets at least part of the story right, though I'm not sure I buy the whole thing.

Helen H said...

My daughter hung out with the choir/band/drama group at her high school only a few years ago. They had a bigala club at the high school. As an official club. She was not an official member but went to some of their meetings and was friends with most of the members. Very little back lash because they were a group, a force unto themselves. Also, we live in MA.

That said, my husband and I had both lesbian friends and gay acquantances who invited us to their community dances in Moscow, ID in the late-80s/early-90s. In a public hall in the downtown. Openly pulicized. We often went. The Halloween parties were fabulous, and inexpensive fun nights out beyond the boozy college crowd were both hard to find and welcome. It was odd being in the extreme minority as one of the few "breeder" couples.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Comments were periodically down or screwed up (hence my double post, above), so I didn't get a chance to weigh in earlier. Belatedly: I suspect each of you is perfectly correct about your individual community; to me it just points up how our culture is in a transitional stage, where progress is unevenly distributed based on more factors than any ordinary mortal could keep track of. I think things have opened up, overall -- how could Will & Grace, Brokeback Mountain, etc. not have an impact on Middle America? Queers might be as hated as ever in many places, but queer images are just more normal and normalized. There are fissures appearing in communities whose public lives were once monolithic.