I clearly remember the day I realized I was “not like other girls”. I’ve mentioned this before, so excuse me if you’ve read this in my past writings, but it bears repeating because it was an early epiphany that has bred many more as the years roll by: I was four years old and playing with a girl who was both my classmate and neighbor. She insisted on playing house, and I wanted to do anything else. I finally acquiesced as long as I could be the “daddy” and not touch the “baby”. I decided that sweeping the floor would be my one “household” chore and then got yelled at by my “wife” for being bad at it.
I knew, in that moment and to the very bottom of my being, I never wanted to touch a real baby or keep a house or, really, be a girl at all. I didn’t like girls very much. Why would I want to be one?
The weird thing is, my nuclear family didn’t live by these stereotypes at all. My father and a daytime nanny were my primary caregivers, my mother was more the semi-absent disciplinarian because she worked longer hours and always had more of a commute. My mother was feminine but tougher than any man I’ve ever known. My dad is a “manly man” in many ways, but also one of the most nurturing and caring people I’ve had the pleasure to meet, let alone be raised by. They set a great example of how grey an area gender roles can, and should, be. Raising me was an act of balancing their talents and schedules, regardless of whether society thought those talents should belong to the person who had them.
I don’t know where I got the idea that gender roles were even, well, a thing. Maybe I watched a few too many Leave it to Beaver reruns, maybe it was due to attending Catholic Mass (and, later, elementary school), or perhaps it was that every so often another kid’s mother would express shock that my mother was rarely the one to go to school events or pick me up from someone’s house. I was often the only kid represented or accommodated by a father, which I didn’t realize was weird until other adults pointed that out, repeatedly.
Or maybe it was simply that most of the girls I met were more into playing with dolls than with baseballs, and pretending to be mothers instead of playing characters from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Every year, when my birthday rolled around, I could instantly tell who knew me or didn’t by whether they bought me dolls. I had hundreds of the things, mostly languishing in my toy closet waiting until they were old enough that we could donate them without insulting the giver, while my room was strewn with Legos, video game cartridges, sports gear, model and stuffed animals, and pieces from board games.
Ahhh, video game cartridges. Remember those?
In 1982, home gaming was still a pretty novel phenomenon and it was an amazing tool for destroying the gender divide, at least in my neighborhood. That Christmas I received my own TV and a ColecoVision. Games were expensive, even for us kids in an upper-middle-class NJ town, so we basically set up a network of buying different games and sharing them between us. Practically everyone had an Atari except for me, but I had the ColecoVision Atari attachment, so it worked. After school we’d take turns going to each other’s houses to play together, boys and girls alike, competing on truly equal footing at last, enjoying both the games and each other.
What happened between then and now? When did gaming become a divided world? According to the Entertainment Software Association, “Women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (36%) than boys age 18 or younger (17%),” yet the overwhelming perception is that this is another activity that separates the genders.
This benefits no one. Boys and girls are not that inherently different, neither are men and women. Perception is the problem, and everyone is harmed when we allow illusions to be substituted for reality.
Looking back, while I clearly remember “not liking girls”, many of my most precious memories were filled with girls. Those gaming sessions? Always at least half-female. Our neighborhood pickup games? Plenty of girls played in them, some regularly outperformed the boys, and my town had robust leagues for girls when we were old enough for them. My best friend was a girl who was four years older than me, and she loved fantasy novels and the Yankees and Led Zeppelin, too. I found another few girls in my class and neighborhood who preferred my styles of play.
I liked those girls because they were “not like other girls”. They were “like boys”.
That attitude persisted as I became a teen and adult. I found myself drawn to male-dominated careers and social circles, not despite the male-domination, but because of it. I rejoiced in being the only woman on the road with a group of men, men who complimented me on my “masculinity” and ability to fit right in with them. “You’re like a guy, but a guy who just happens to look like a hot chick. Best of both worlds!” That was an actual compliment I received, and I was very proud of it at the time, so proud that I memorized it, word-for-word.
But, here’s the thing: I’m not a guy. I wasn’t born into the wrong body, as some people truly are. I’m not even part-guy, really. I’m 100% woman.
And I was sexist. I was contributing to the very same problems that plagued my own experiences.
I feel terrible about all the times I put people (boys, girls, men, women) down by calling them “girly”. I can’t stand the idea that I participated in the objectification of talented women. I am aghast at how thrilled I was to be the only woman working in various companies and for various bands, because it kept me from having to deal with “feminine discussions” about gossip and superficial things.
As if discussing the latest video game or album for hours isn’t pretty superficial.
No matter how independently we may think, we are all susceptible to every little idea that swirls around us in society. Unless you actively fight the barrage, it’s easy to let these ideas plant their seeds in our brains.
These days, I’m sometimes accused of being a “man-hater” due to standing up on women’s issues. There could be nothing further from the truth, you could even say I venerated men a bit too much.
The qualities that make me like an individual are not masculine or feminine, as much as society would have me believe they are. I admire people who are curious, rational thinkers and still find delight in the beauty of sciences, philosophy, athletics, and arts alike. I like people who are both confident and flexible, humble enough to learn from others yet strong enough to stand up and teach what they know.
That is the kind of person I would like to be. I’m working on that. The best way to become who you would like to be is surround yourself with people who fit that description, and I’m incredibly grateful that my life is now full of them.
They come in all shapes, sizes, skin tones, gender orientations, sexual orientations, and from all sorts of backgrounds. Some are very social, others are not. All are flawed. All have reasons they are who they are, and many of those journeys have been far more difficult than my own.
The key to making the world a better place for everyone is a combination of speaking up and listening hard. These days, everyone is so busy trying to scream over each other that it’s easy to wonder if anyone is listening at all. Read the comments section on almost any internet post that has at least a few dozen of them and just count how many of those look like they belong on a different piece, often to the point of accusing the author of writing the opposite of what is actually on the page.
We can all do better.
There has never been a moment in my life when I wasn’t a feminist or held any doubts that women could excel at anything they tried, but I’ve sure had to work hard on breaking down my prejudices towards women socially. Considering my background, if I’ve had to work at that, how about people who were raised in more traditional families, or more homogeneous communities?
Sexism is deeply entrenched in most cultures, but that is not an excuse to get defensive or make excuses if you find you have acted or spoken in a sexist manner (the same applies to any form of othering, as well). We might be a sum of our pasts, but we are not beholden to them. Change is good, evolution is good. We can change our own minds. We can work to effect change in others and society at large. It just takes a little work and a lot of humility.
You could stick dozens of labels on every person I have met in life, and not one of those labels would encompass who that person is. Even put together, they still don’t encompass the whole person! Each person within any group has something that sets them apart from the group as well.
Assumptions are the largest blocks to finding people who are worth knowing. I have stopped assuming that a woman will have nothing in common with me, because I know now that’s a ridiculous notion, there are not only plenty of women who share my interests, but I can usually find at least one mutually interesting topic to share with anyone, even if we don’t have much in common at all.
I do not fit a stereotype – why should anyone else?