Early deployments in the battle of the sexes

I had a short piece up at Slate’s Double X blog yesterday about the lessons I’ve learned this summer while teaching summer school. As those of you who follow me on Twitter might know, I’m teaching third and fourth grade English and writing, as well as SAT prep. It has been an exhausting, enlightening experience, one that has endowed me with a new respect for all the teachers I’ve had, from professors and TAs to coaches and singing teachers. It is hard bloody work, and it makes me want to look up all my favorite teachers and thank them so much for what they did, day after day, so that I could grow up loving learning (in the meantime, thanks, Mrs. Woolley and Mrs. Reeves!).

To the point. What’s really struck me as I’ve been observing my students, particularly the eight- and nine-year-olds, is how early on they learn about gender, and how thoroughly they’ve internalized the “battle of the sexes” mentality evident in the t-shirt – “The stupid factory… Where boys are made” – that prompted me to write the Double X post.

Last week, I was teaching a reading passage about the ancient Greeks and their beliefs about numbers. They believed, the passage said, that odd numbers were good, and even numbers were bad. So they called the odd numbers “male” and the even ones “female.” “Women were not highly regarded by the ancients,” the passage explained parenthetically. So I asked the class if they agreed that women were more malicious than men. All but two of the boys raised their hands in agreement, while most of the girls shook their heads. One little girl said, “they’re the same! Boys are mean too!” It’s moments like this – when a student espouses the belief that meanness knows no gender – that give me hope. But those moments are few and far between. In my classroom, the “boys are stupid, throw rocks at them” mentality is more common, and it worries me.

We gender our kids early. We dress our little girls in pink and our boys in blue, our girls in shirts with sparkles and cartoon kittens on them and our boys in shirts bearing pictures of robots and monsters. Sometimes, we sexualize the girls, dressing them in skinny jeans or string bikinis when they’re three years old. Or we dress them in clothing that reinforces traditional gender roles, like t-shirts with “Daddy’s Little Princess” or “Diva” emblazoned across the front. These practices are harmful, no doubt about it. And as Miriam pointed out a few weeks ago, gendering children as early on as we do only makes sense in a culture that is incredibly invested in the man-woman dichotomy and deeply uncomfortable with any gender ambiguity.

But the “battle of the sexes” mentality is, perhaps, even worse. It’s one thing to separate and distinguish between boys and girls unnecessarily, to mark them as inherently and immutably different. And of course, the reinforcement of outdated gender roles – princess, diva – is harmful to girls. But to pitch boys and girls against each other and to encourage them to see each other as enemies is something we should avoid at all costs. To be successful, the fight for gender equality must be a joint one, and its outcome will be win-win. Ultimately, feminism isn’t just about women fighting male dominance, but about all of us fighting sexism. How can we expect to raise kids who will be ready, as adults, to join that fight, if we’re training them up to do battle with each other?

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  1. Posted August 3, 2010 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts & writing with us.

    “Divide and conquer” has been a favored & successful strategy for oppressive people & systems throughout all of human history – if you can turn two groups against each other, they will be focused on that conflict instead of dismantling your system of control. I think you’re dead on that this is an obstacle for feminism.

  2. Posted August 3, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    This will give you some hope. My Mom teaches Kindergarten (ages 5-6), and I was helping out one day last January. She was reading a poem book to the kids which included a poem about football. The narrator was a girl who loved to play football. She commented about her brother saying she couldn’t play. The illustration, my Mom showed to her students, was obviously a girl with long braids and bright pink socks. She was also Black. My Mom asked her kids why the brother would say she couldn’t play football. Why a girl wouldn’t be able to play. None of her kids had an answer. Mom said later, in years past, the obvious answer of because she’s a girl would have been agreed upon by the students in a matter of seconds. Instead, we got silence and tiny confused faces. It was surprisingly life-affirming to see happen. Sometimes the world isn’t as gendered as we fear.

    • Posted August 3, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      This story pretty much made my day. Go little kids!

    • Posted August 3, 2010 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      What is the name of that poem? I’d like to read it, I love poetry.

  3. Posted August 3, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    The overall issue of “battle of the sexes” isn’t something the believers take literally — it typically seems to manifest itself in trash talk and sexist ideas rather than a desire to dominate. However, it is still unproductive, because the name-calling and the like is a distraction. If a boy treats a girl badly, she may simply telling herself cheap self-assurances like “boys are stupid” rather than acknowledge “that boy is a jerk, and I need to figure out how I’m going to deal with this problem.” People are most empowered when they think in accurate terms, because not only does it keep them from causing undue harm by acknowledging what they really want (and not just cheap “victories” at the expense of others such as “winning” against “the opposite sex”), it actually enables them to protect themselves.

  4. Posted August 3, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    “It’s one thing to separate and distinguish between boys and girls unnecessarily, to mark them as inherently and immutably different. And of course, the reinforcement of outdated gender roles – princess, diva – is harmful to girls. But to pitch boys and girls against each other and to encourage them to see each other as enemies is something we should avoid at all costs.”

    I agree. It just goes to show that sexism goes both ways and is harmful to both girls and boys. Why can’t people–all people of all genders, races, ages, etc.–just treat each other with kindness and respect?

  5. Posted August 4, 2010 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    How that T-Shirt is supposed to be feminist, I don’t know.

  6. Posted August 4, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    I agree that promoting a gender war among children is reprehensible. But the “battle of the sexes” you describe here and in the doublex post seems rather one-sided. Girls are wearing hateful t-shirts that advocate disdain and violence towards boys. But what are the boys’ responses?

  7. Posted August 9, 2010 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    With string bikinis on little girls, I find it very irresponsible for parents to encourage them to wear one. It’s made for an adult to show some accent and little girls don’t have any clue of what this means.

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