I didn’t like being a girl. It was harder to duck behind a tree when nature called when we were out playing in the woods. I sometimes had to do cruel things to the boys to prove I was tough as them. One of my friends wouldn’t let me play with his army men because I was a girl, and girls don’t play soldiers (I quickly disabused him of that notion, much to his astonishment).
But a lot of the time, I didn’t notice I was a girl. I was wearing pants and jumping my bike and getting in the mud and building stuff and commanding the pack, just like one of the boys.Hell, I was even more hardcore than some of them. When I crashed my bike on a road chip-sealed with cinders and road-rashed myself from toe to waist, I told ‘em I’d be right back, and hobbled home for some quick patching up. Alas, my mom decided someone with that many bleeding wounds needed to stay inside, but my friends respected the fact I hadn’t shed a tear. One of our buddies would head sobbing for home the instant he stubbed a toe. None of us wanted to be like that.
So yeah, I was usually one of the guys, which was fortunate, because there were a grand total of five girls in the entire neighborhood, none of them my age. No one had any problem with a tomboy, of course. And, outside of a few incidents like the Army Men War, no one bothered to tell me I couldn’t do something because female. Even when I went home and played with dolls, even when I prettied up my playhouse, no one thought it was odd for a girl to be a girl in boy’s clothes, mostly doing boy’s things.
The guys didn’t do girl stuff as much, but there were times when they’d come over to play dress-up, or do a nice afternoon tea with us, and my yellow Easybake Oven was one of the boys’ favorite things ever. I remember once when my one close girl friend and I were getting our nails painted by her mom, her brother wanted in on it, too. So his mom gave him a few red nails, until he got bored with manicures and wandered off.
But that was a line rarely crossed, that dividing line between girls and boys. We girls could wear anything, any time, but the boys never put on a dress outside of playing dress-up in the house. And as we all got older, they stopped doing even that. They had to hate girls, and run from our cooties, and be all tough and in to boy things like trucks. Girls were sort-of encouraged to be pretty and feminine, but we could run around in ripped jeans and ratty sneakers one day, and a dress the next. We could cross the boy-girl divide at will.
I didn’t think that was very fair, when I thought about it. Why shouldn’t the boys do the pretty clothes and makeup if they wanted? Why couldn’t they play the girlie games without getting tormented by peers and parents alike? Why couldn’t they be openly interested in girl stuff? I might have hated being a girl at times (especially after Aunty Flow made her first appearance), but I was grateful for the chameleon opportunities it gave me. People back then were great with girls doing boyish things, so I could do absolutely anything I wanted, while my boy friends were stuck on the boy side of the divide.
I think of that often, now, as the world gets ever more pinkified. I mean, for fuck’s sake, they’ve even gendered the dogs.
And while we’re fighting to get girls out of that box they’re being energetically stuffed in to lately, the one that says they love pink and princesses and ponies but heaven forfend they like boy colors and boys toys, we need to remember that boys are in a box, too. Libby Anne has both a son and a daughter, and she sees people trying to stuff them both in their respective boxes all the time.
“Look at him!” [Uncle Dale] said. “He’s obsessed with that train. He’s such a boy!” I frowned. I hate it when this happens. I took a deep breath.
“Actually,” I said, “When Sally was Bobby’s age, she was completely obsessed with large construction vehicles.”
Uncle Dale laughed. “How odd,” he said. His voice was dismissive.
“I don’t think it’s odd at all,” I replied. “I find that if you let kids just be kids rather than pushing them into gendered boxes their interests are generally eclectic.”
Neither Sally nor Bobby fit in conventional gender boxes, but someone who spotted Sally playing at princesses might very well respond with “She’s such a girl!” in the same way that Uncle Dale noticed Bobby fascinated by trains and responded with “He’s such a boy.”
What’s going on here exactly? Confirmation bias.
And that hurts girls, but boys have it bad, too. They’re not encouraged to play with dolls, put on makeup, stomp in high heels (unless their mom is as awesome as Libby Anne). If a girl crosses the divide, she often gets forced back into the girl box, but there are plenty of people cheering her on, encouraging her to break out again. Boys who try to cross, though – society loves to belittle them, be horrified by them, call them gay, tell them to man up. We need to fight to get them out of the box, too. We need to have a response ready when society tells them they’d better toe the masculine line.
We need so much more of that. Kids don’t need this gendered crap. Neither do adults. Let people be people. Erase the lines. Let the girls put on the firefighter’s outfit. Let the boys wear ballgowns. Let’s strive for a world where no one’s trapped in a gendered box.
And the next time you see a child crossing the divide, tell them they’re wonderful.