Tuesday, October 12, 2010

It's a Girl

As I sat on the couch holding Samantha’s newborn baby, her mother came through the front door carrying a small package wrapped in plastic.

“From Vivian,” her mother said, handing Samantha one of those ornate little envelopes that I had only seen on Chinese New Year.

“How much?” Samantha’s mother asked her.

Samantha opened the envelope and showed me the contents: a crisp new hundred dollar bill.

“Very good,” said Samantha’s mother.

She turned to me. “This is a Chinese tradition,” she told me. “When you have a boy baby, is traditional to bring money and meat.” She pointed at the package she was holding. I couldn’t see through the opaque white plastic wrapper to figure out what sort of meat it contained, whether it was chicken or beef, raw or cooked.

“For boy, you give money and meat,” she repeated.

“What if it’s a girl?” I asked. Samantha’s mother didn’t seem to understand my question. Samantha repeated it: “Ma. What do they give you if the baby is a girl?”

“Oh, if a girl,” said Samantha’s mother, nodding her head. “You still bring meat, but less money. Maybe twenty dollars.”

Samantha and I looked at each other and burst into hysterical laughter. Her mom joined us laughing, too. It was a sinister moment of female bonding as we laughed in shared acknowledgment of our lesser worth.

For two women raised in America like Samantha and myself, this laughter is partly directed at the quaint misogyny of less enlightened nations. A daughter is to be celebrated with one-fifth the enthusiasm of a son, we are thinking. How cute!

In America, at the moment of birth, a daughter is worth as much as a son. Nowadays, she could grow up to be anything—almost. As long as she doesn’t want to pilot a submarine or become a philosophy professor, the sky is the limit. Hell, if she’s white and Christian, we now have documented evidence that she could grow up to almost become president of the United States.

This is how I was raised—to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. My father imbued my sister and I with all the high expectations he would have had for a son, buying us erector sets and electrical engineering kits, staying up late doing mathematical proofs with us while we were still in elementary school, expecting us to magically know how to throw a baseball properly because it came naturally to him.

School confirmed this impression of equality for me. The honors math and science classes I took were equally populated by boys and girls, and the girls were often the strongest students. Many of those girls went on to become scientists and engineers. While I have not talked to most of them about their experiences, I don’t get the impression that they had to crack any significant glass ceilings on their way to these positions. The main obstacle they felt was loneliness, as the numbers of their fellow women scientists and engineers dwindled, as women like me and my sister tossed aside our technical aptitudes in favor of more traditionally feminine careers.

The ideology of equality in high schools like mine is why I’m never surprised when my students believe sexism no longer exists.

“Men and women are equal now,” a girl in hot pants and a halter top will say, and her male classmate will nod serenely in his baggy sweats and oversized tee.

If you ask them if men and women are treated the same in our culture, though, their narrative is strikingly different.

“My friend has a twin brother, and he’s allowed to go out whenever he wants and do whatever he wants, but she has a curfew. They’re the same exact age.”

“How do her parents explain the difference?” I asked.

“They say, You’re a girl and he’s a boy.”

I ask the students why parents would treat their children differently based on their genders.

“They don’t want their daughters to get pregnant,” the students say.

What if their sons get their girlfriends pregnant? Is that as bad?

Noooo, they all shake their heads. Definitely not as bad.

My friend who teaches health told me today that during a discussion of types of contraception, one of these same students volunteered a chastity belt as an option.

“I’m not writing that one on the board,” she said.

“I’m serious,” the student said. “If I have a daughter, she’s never going to be allowed to have sex.”

This is the logic that explains the articles opposing abortion that my students often bring in as part of a debate assignment. Young people need to take responsibility for their actions, the articles say. A young woman needs to learn that if she wants to be sexually active, there are consequences to that decision.

I’ve scanned so many of these articles, and found nary a mention of boys. Articles praising abstinence-only education will laud the positive outcome of far fewer high school girls having sex (or admitting that they do), without ever explaining if this same result was seen in boys; evidently the main goal was to stop the girls from having sex.

These little inequalities and indignities are well-known and obvious, tiresome and uncouth to talk about, so we don’t. No one needs to hear that we still live in a society where women are largely judged on how they look, while men are largely judged on what they can do. If you go out to a bar where men and women are looking for mates, it’s not worth the breath it would take to point out that the men are off-handedly mentioning how they can shoot a gun and they’re working on their pilot’s license and they are an ace at poker, while the women are flashing their cleavage and batting their heavily-mascara’d eyelashes and making the perfect cute face whenever someone points a camera in their direction. If he’s marginally handsome, so much the better, and if she’s really good at playing pool, well, that’s a small enough transgression to be sexy, as long as she’s really pretty.

Only stupid people play out these tired gender roles, you’ll say, and you’ll be right, mostly. I know plenty of women who are considered quite attractive, and whose attractiveness lies in their intelligence and skill—as long as they are also pretty and thin. However, I don’t know any women who aren’t conventionally attractive but who are largely courted for their intelligence, sense of humor, athleticism, or power. There are a million billion trillion men like this, who are funny-looking, with protruding bellies or bad clothing or pockmarked faces or the wrinkles that give them character, who are still considered models of attractiveness, sex symbols, because they are amazing actors or athletes or singers or businessmen.

You’ll say this has less to do with social roles and more to do with whom we are trying to attract. Men are fundamentally visual in their attraction, you’ll say, and women are less so, which explains why gay men are more likely than lesbians are to feel pressure to be good-looking. And you’ll be right, maybe. Maybe if we stopped feeling the need to be so damned attractive all the time, we could accomplish a lot more.

I think this hypothesis could explain the decided lack of femininity in the two recently appointed Supreme Court justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Perhaps they needed to renounce the distraction of feminine self-presentation in order to focus on the achievements that got them to the Supreme Court. Or maybe that's what we need to believe about them. It almost seems that, to be seen as credible in one of the most powerful jobs in the country, women have to present themselves as men. The female mannerisms, the politeness, coyness, flirtiness that characterize femininity all suggest lack of credibility, a lack of focus on what's really important. Women can be judged by what we can do, but only if we are willing to renounce our femininity.

Maybe that’s why my friend and her mother and I laugh so bitterly at the greater promise that the Chinese see in their sons. It is not because the girl can’t grow up to do everything that the boy can; it’s because society won’t find her attractive if she does, and, we are horribly afraid, neither will we.


pINGVA said...

The bar example is a bit artificial. It's a mating playground, so humans fallback to their "natural" gender roles. It's a Discovery Channel material on our species' mating behavior.

But if we consider, say, EBM, where nobody is accorded any slack or preference because of the gender (the very idea seems rather inappropriate), we see a very gender-neutral environment. In my experience, this kind of neutrality is a prevalent norm.

I'm not sure about the SCOTUS example, too. Male Justices aren't exactly epitomes of masculinity either, even if we consider masculinity in a "broader", Esquire-cover-worthiness sense.

It almost seems that, to be seen as credible in one of the most powerful jobs in the country, women have to present themselves as men.

It seems interesting to contrast this statement with the whole "wise Latina" ordeal. The soundbites don't do this episode justice (no pun intended), the entire speech is worth reading.

Justice Sotomayor, for one, is very far from "renouncing the distraction of her femininity" (or racial identity, for that matter). This demonstrated (flaunted, even?) lack of gender neutrality, however, didn't prevent her confirmation, and, perhaps, played a role in Justice Sotomayor's nomination.

Karin Spirn said...

pIngva, your comments are much appreciated and give me lots to think about, as always.

A couple things strike me differently than how they strike you:

1. I NEVER feel that ebm is a gender neutral environment. I feel that my status as female (often as THE female)is QUITE evident there, and that it has to be in the context of a place where one learns to fight (but I can see that it would not seem that way since I think, given that context of a martial arts school, it's quite gender-neutral as such places go).

2. I agree that Sotomayor drew attention to her femaleness in her bid for her position, and that is a great point. However, I'd still argue that she might have drawn attention to her status as female, but not her femininity, which is different (since a man can be feminine and a woman masculine).

I was curious what you thought as (if I am correct) the father of a daughter, since I actually know precious few of those at the moment--most of my friends are popping out those lucrative boys.

pINGVA said...

I'm seriously confused about point #1

I obviously don't see all of the dynamics, but, at the risk of offending you, your status as female simply doesn't register with me at EBM -- you're just one of the students/comrades at the school. We pair up and train according to physique and skill, and whereas the former may correlate with gender, the latter certainly doesn't.

I remember one of the male students (who won't be named) exhaustedly saying, "I kick like a girl", met with a response by others -- "you wish".

As for my daughter Daria, I don't ever expect to use the "because you're a girl" argument.

I wanted to list here some of the "male" things that I'd expect her to be able to do, like "solve differential equations", "field-strip an AR-15" but I just realized that I don't really think along these lines. This whole "male" vs. "female" thing applied to occupations, skills, interests and hobbies just seems ridiculous to me, a thing of remote times and places.

Speaking of which, my grandmother was an actress of drama theatre in a time and place where the punishment for such a "transgression" by a female was death or mutilation. That didn't stop her and she went on to make a career in acting and performance. I'm not sure why I mention this, perhaps because it informs my lack of tolerance for any medieval BS like "traditional" gender roles.

Karin Spirn said...

That's a very cute story about kicking like a girl, and I'm glad so many men came to the defense of my gender's kicking abilities. EBM is a great place for women to train. The complexities of being a woman martial artist who mainly trains with men are subtle,and not "unfair," just the facts of how things are, and they are too numerous and hard to explain to get into them all here, but as an example:

I frequently spar with men who are terrified to hit me, despite me having many years more experience than them. I have to say, "You can hit me. You can hit me harder than that." I don't think this is a bad thing: it comes from deep-seated mores about not hitting women, which in themselves are probably a good thing, and also from lack of knowledge of how what amount of strength to use against a smaller and weaker opponent, again a good instinct to air on the side of caution.

That's just one example. So I don't think people treat me unfairly, but definitely differently.

I bet you are a great dad and role model for your daughter. (You kind of remind me of my dad, who has a similar passion to always do new and crazy things). She'll be running up mountains and swimming through mud in no time.

adam said...

Is gender socially constructed or an innate feature of evolutionary processes?Is it both? How do we disentangle the various threads of that well-worn academic carpet? Should it even matter? It matters to some people if sexuality is innate or a choice. Is there a similar dynamic at work in societies views on gender?

Karin Spirn said...

Good question, Adam--not just the nature/nurture issue, but whether and why it matters. I sometimes wonder whether certain traits I have that I associate as "feminine" (like crying when I get injured) are physiological or psychological. I suppose, as with homosexuality, it matters whether the traits are cultural because then you could change them. And then the question becomes, but would you want to?

Jessica said...

Hmmm... in contrast to your Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor example, I think it could be argued that in some contexts traditionally "female" skills-- the ability to flirt, the ability to make yourself likable-- are becoming increasingly important to success. I work in a large company, and people who do my job are hired because they can both project authority/intelligence AND because they can charm people-- busy people who are higher up on the company ladder-- into giving them information and time that might be in short supply. I know that my ability to "flirt" my way to the stuff I need-- in the sense of "flirting" that means making my colleagues feel liked and important-- makes me better at my job than someone who is very technically adept but is not as able to develop quick rapport with colleagues. Interestingly, in my department both men and women are hired for the entry-level positions, but women outnumber men in the highest ranking positions, which I think may not be an accident. So although I agree that performance of these "feminine" skills can detract from authority in more adversarial situations (such as those lawyers must regularly face), their deployment can provide a clear advantage in other contexts.

Karin Spirn said...

That's a good point, Jessica. The dominant figures at my job are mostly women, which I figured was because teaching is a traditionally feminine job (not to mention not a particularly socially powerful one). But one thing that is highly valued at my job is "emotional intelligence," which is typically a more feminine attribute. That will get you a lot further, power-wise, than just being competent otherwise.

Since our salaries are union-negotiated, though, our emotional intelligence gets us influence to make things happen the way we want, but not much else.

Jessica said...

I should also note that my position is not traditionally one of the highest-paid positions in the industry! My point was not that sexism isn't alive and well but that I think society is starting to recognize the inherent value of "female" skills more (although perhaps not in the monetary sense...)... the idea of lower paid "pink collar" jobs is alive and well IMO.