...and then

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Everyone wants to be a boy.

I was reading this piece the other day and it came at a time when I'd been particularly sensitive to misogyny in various contexts. As I read this, a realisation that had been waiting to show itself shone clearly through a lot of the things that I had been thinking about.

You don't have to go as far as high numbers of teen pregnancy, dowry deaths or street sexual harassment to know how deeply we hate our women. Start in a home. A girl child, these days, is constantly being pushed to doing everything a boy child does. So much so that I know families where dolls or breakfast/kitchens sets will not be bought for the girl lest she think that is her "role" in life, to nurture and cook. I myself am guilty of steering my 3.5 year old away from those horrendous little kitchen sets, I must confess. While I might be getting in the way of nature, I do it with the intention of not giving her the idea that primarily, domestic chores are a girl's work. Ironically, I don't realise that I am her default role model -- I do everything from changing light bulbs, hunting rats, running every errand to baking muffins with them, bathing them and tucking them in -- and because of that I shouldn't be worried about her getting stuck with any stereotypes . Which is what early feminists who decided that buying little girls dolls and breakfast sets gave out subliminal messages of domesticity were trying to do in the first place. But all you need to do is watch a three year old as she wanders wide-eyed and greedy through the aisles of the toys section in a store. She goes for pink, she goes for baby dolls and she goes for breakfast sets. At least, most of the time. In my case, my daughter also goes for monsters, snakes and spiders but dolls come first. And I've never bought her a doll till she demanded one last year.

Friends who have boys for children tell me of their experiences with watching little girls of their friends. They tell me with more than a hint of pride in their voice about how their little boy was all over the place and being a "kid" and how their friend's little girl was prim and proper, and gave her mother a peaceful time. Parents who have little girls sometimes tell me their daughters are quiet and manageable; that they wish she becomes rambunctious and tom boyish as she grows, that they feel she's too proper and is having no fun just because she's not bringing the roof down.

Let me not even count the number of women who glow with pride when someone tells them they are tomboyish. (There's no reason they shouldn't. But how many of you glow with pride when someone tells you, "wow, you're so feminine/macho". In fact, if you've noticed, this is usually employed as a snide little comment most times.) Or the number of women who say they are "one of the guys" and cannot behave like a girl. Pray, tell me, what does a girl behave like? This is a list I get. From girls, mind you. Gossipy. Senti. Jealous. Love shopping. Clingy. Not sporty. Not technical. Complicated. Not one nice word about our own kind. For every word that is used to describe a girl's purported behavior, I can find 10 boys who fit that description. Except, maybe, complicated. That, I have to reluctantly agree, is a woman's forte. But that's only because we do it so well.

For example, look at this nonsense.
Who comes up with self-defeating, woman-hating crap like this? Exactly who has set down rules for what a lady acts like? Even if you can forgive that, how on earth do you forgive the third line?!

As mothers who want our girls to be storming male bastions (forgive me, anti-cliche god) when they grow up, we're doing everything in our power to take them away from what might be their natural tendency. Which is to be fierce, intelligent and delightful creatures who say things like "dinosaurs look like dinosaurs and nothing else." While a boy may hang from door jambs, I find a girl will hang on to a thought, develop it and use it later in conversation. A boy might be able to identify cars well before he's three by their marques, but a girl may be identifying behavior pointers, books and tapping an imagination that may or may not turn her into an entertaining drama queen later in life.

We're telling our women to not be emotional at work because it undermines our authority. We're telling women to not take days off to be with our kids when they are sick because it gives us a reputation of being unreliable. We are encouraging employers who ask us what our "family" plans are when they hire us by assuring them that we have no intention of getting pregnant for a few years, because, as we all know, the kind of satisfaction nine hours in a cubicle gives you comes nowhere close to raising a child. We're telling our women don't wear distracting earrings, try and avoid bright feminine colours in corporate settings, we're telling our women keep our hair short because it's easier to manage and is less distracting in a corporate environment, we're telling our women to not cry like a girl, to compete like a boy and to be everything a man is, except shirtless. We're telling our women it's more fun to be a guy than to be a girl. I see this all around me -- teenaged girls doing their darnedest to not be feminine, blossoming at compliments when they are told their tastes are those of a guy; grown up women actively drinking what is popularly considered a "man's drink" not because she's developed a taste for it but because she wants to be considered equal to a man; so many instances of this aspiration to be a man. Subtle, unconscious, relentless but we teach our children to dislike women much before they can even say misogyny.

I grew under the kaleidoscopic upbringing of a mother who never doubted my capacity to do anything I wanted. If anything stopped me, it was my own severe lack of confidence as a teenager. I don't think she ever imposed restrictions on me. There were unspoken limits but to my then-sensible mind, they were acceptable. I fought the odd how-come-he-gets-to-go-out-after-9 battle but that was it. She empowered me, subtly and dare I say, without saying the words explicitly, that freedom was about being free in my mind, and not about what I wore, who I hung out with or what time I got home. She would, of course, tell me to sit like a lady, or that girls don't certain things (smoke, for eg) but I honestly don't remember any of that; what I do remember is her unspoken messages that I was as good as the next guy without her pushing me to become one. And at 32, it is her I give credit to when I have reached this conclusion. That women and men can never be equal. Somewhat like elephants and marigolds -- there's no comparison. We may have and fight for equal rights in all social contexts, we may demand equal pay, we may even ask for equally nice leather goods. But to think that intrinsically a woman can be a man is just defeating the very purpose of there being two genders. Because, you know, I don't want to see a man breastfeeding and a woman peeing standing up.  

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Blogger Ghadeer said...

That's a lovely article: I totally agree! Trying to be a man is telling yourself that being a woman is inferior. Just like you said: we don't want to end up with one gender.

2:21 pm  
Blogger D said...

Loved this piece. A very timely one for me as well. I'm thinking of very similar thoughts these days so thank you!

2:43 pm  
Blogger Srinidhi said...

I love being a woman. My womanly love for pink along with my love for sports. (Not cause i like being a man)

I think equality merely means not treating women any differently from men. I guess I never want to be treated like a man. I just don't want to feel ashamed or skeptical about being a woman.

a thought provoking post..

3:08 pm  
Blogger Nandini Vishwanath said...

Fantastic post and much needed.

3:45 pm  
Blogger Anirudh Arun said...

Oh good. Someone finally voices what I've been thinking for a while now, really...

But all these things come in bouts and cycles! I'm sure there'll be a day when being feminine thing is the greatest fad. C'mon now, shaved chests are already in...

4:18 pm  
Anonymous Poorna said...

Ah wonderful! Empathise a lot. Especially with girls aspiring to be men. I remember being surprised when a girlfriend told me that she pretends not to like chickflicks.

I remember Amma telling me that men and women need not be the same in order to be equal. So thankful that I got to see her practice it as well :)

11:02 am  
Blogger Ramya said...

Very thought provoking post.

For the longest time, I was like that. In my early 20's I decided I didnt like pink anymore because it was too feminine. It took me many years to shake that off and accept that I absolutely love all things pink, and that if thats girly, thats fine, because there isn't anything wrong in being pink. That realisation led to the purchase of a pink laptop which is the source of much amusement for my friends, but which I love.

1:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just before reading this blog, saw a news item in Times of India, where Taslima has voiced against priyanka chopra father..it seems he has conveyed priyanka is like a son to me....will any dad tell the reverse?

8:34 pm  
Blogger Sythe said...

Really enjoyed this piece! Really well written!

More please!

1:29 am  
Blogger Sumi Mathai said...

thoughtful. many of ur points are realities what we somehow steer towards to, almost inadvertently but yea, kinda pathetic.

10:51 pm  
Blogger Otter said...

As a teacher at an elementary school, I see this alot with boys refusing to use the color pink. I tell them that my fav color is pink and theyre shocked. My daughter's fav color is pink also. My wife is the odd one. She likes blue.

7:28 am  
Blogger Saintly Sita said...

Well, I'm a little confused and conflicted about the whole thing.

To begin with, I was greatly influenced by the writings of second-wave feminists, chiefly Germaine Greer and Gayle Rubin as a twenty-something.

They shaped my understanding of gender and sexual difference at a time when I was casting about, looking for female role models who had somehow managed not to submerge their original personality under the all-encompassing cloak of femininity.

A part of me genuinely believes, like they did, that gender and sexual difference is socially manufactured and is not an innate biological trait (besides the obvious biological apparatus that no one denies the existence of).

My understanding of the world around me has been shaped not by my “womanliness” but by who I am as a person.

I like to believe that I would have held the same beliefs, values and attitudes were I a man.

When I think of who I am, I see myself not through the narrow prism of gender but through the more comforting (to me), lens of individualism.

You disparage women who “glow with pride” when they are described as tomboys.

It is perhaps an unconscious reaction to the ceaseless admonitions one receives while growing up female in India.

Perhaps a lot of young girls feel the need to rebel against socially imposed definitions of what it means to “be feminine” in India.

Their expressed desire to be “tomboyish” is a reaction to the ceaseless societal surveillance of what they wear, how they behave and how they think.

I think women manifest their anger at being “the second sex” in a variety of ways.

Some go the whole hog and become ultra-feminine, others swing in the opposite direction and wish to be “one of the guys”.

Why can’t a woman pick and choose personality traits and be the person she wants to be?

After all, most personality traits are not innately masculine or feminine.

They exist along a continuum.

Why can’t women just be individuals, persons in their own right and not just symbols that stand for/ or against something?

And about the pink and blue thing: pink was originally supposed to be the “baby boy” colour and blue the “baby girl” colour.

Somehow, in their infinite wisdom, marketers decided to turn it around and we’ve been saddled with the colour wars ever since.

6:28 pm  
Blogger Sandhya Menon said...

jnana, D, Srinidhi, Nandini, Sythe <: Thank you :)

Anirudh: You never know.

Ramya: Glad you're finding yourself and getting comfortable with it :)

Otter: Well done!

: By no means is this post that of a person who has sorted herself out. It's just saying aloud the things I myself grapple with, so if you are a little confused and conlficed about the whole thing, you have company :) Greer, among others, has been my own guiding light as a teenager when I wondered what it meant to narrow yourself down from an individual to a gender, because that, too, is important and I agree some part of this difference between the two genders is socially manufactured -- but on a more or less superficial level. My kids, who I bring up with the greatest sense of neutrality precisely because I believe I am a humanist more than a genderist, have shown me otherwise. Let me give you a simple and straight example -- cliched as it may sound, before any influences could make a difference to preferences, my son was rivetted by cars (he's only two now) and my daughter wasn't. My daughter loves reading and sometimes, she likes dolls. My son loves dolls too. But he'll gladly throw the doll away in favour of a car. Same too with motor skills -- more often than now I find boys have greater spatial awareness and are more coordinated than girls are. My own 2 y.o. and 3 y.o. are live, astonishing examples. And for once, I had concede to my mother when she says that there is a fundamental difference between the two sexes. Also you misundertand me, I don't disparage tomboys. I used to be one of them. I disparage women who call themselves tomboys because they think it's cool. I don't disparage anything that comes naturally.
That said, thank you for taking the time out to respond like this and I hope I'll see you back here :) BTW, have you read The Whole Woman? It brings up a lot of what I talk about here. Also, about pink and blue -- scientifically, till age three all kids love pink. I consciously tried to keep my daughter away from it :)

11:15 pm  
Blogger anaghaa said...

I loved this post! Really, pushing one gender to be ike the other defeats the purpose of there being 2 genders.

1:39 pm  

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