What does it mean to be a girl?

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The words “…like a girl” have been used as an insult to humiliate both men and women for generations; “you run like a girl”, “you hit like a girl” or even “you speak like a girl” are used to shame and put people down. A few weeks ago the feminine hygiene company ‘Always’ launched their Always #LikeAGirl campaign with a powerful video that, of course, has gone viral gaining over 30 million views on YouTube. It asks young people to demonstrate running, fighting, and throwing “like a girl”. They worryingly respond with flaying arms, waving hands, and hair flips:

When young girls are asked the same questions, the response is strikingly different. When director Lauren Greenfield, who directed the documentary ‘Girl Culture’, asks 10-year old Dakoda the same questions she responds by running with determination and strength. When asked to show what it looks like to fight like a girl Dakoda, punches hard at the air with focus and determination etched on her face. Many other young girls responded in similar, purposeful ways.

Some random commercial trying to sell sanitary pads to young women is obviously not about to ‘rewrite the rules’ for girls everywhere, but it highlights an important point: young girls are not the ones holding themselves back. It is society’s hoary old biases that are enforcing gender barriers and creating new ones that shackle these young girls to rigid stereotypes and limit what they think they can and cannot do. As the author Siri Hustvedt said when speaking on underground sexism, “Anything that becomes associated with girls and women loses status, whether it is a profession, a book, a movie, or a disease”.

When J.K. Rowling published her first Harry Potter book, her publisher Barry Cunningham told her young boys did not like reading books by women, especially not fantasy books. J.K. Rowling posted on her website, “He [Cunningham] thought that young boys might be wary of a book written by a woman”. Which is why she used her initials J.K. instead of her first name Joanne. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, as everyone in the world knows, went on to become some of the most successful books of all time, nearly outselling any other book in history, second only to the bible in sales.

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that boys and men probably knew Rowling was a woman when they paid for and read her books, given her celebrity status. I remember seeing a group of men who looked to be in their forties sitting at a bus stop early in the morning on the day ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’ was released. They were clutching their books with fevered joy and reading their brand new copies. These grown men must have stood in line at the special midnight release which took place in selected bookstores, throughout New Zealand in order to procure ‘The Half Blood Prince’ on the morning of its release. Hustvedt writes,

“Unconscious biases hurt women, but they also hurt men. I am sorry for men who feel emasculated by reading novels and doubly emasculated if the novel’s author is a woman. Not only are they the victims of irrational prejudice, they deprive themselves of crucial knowledge about the world”.

Biases and negative perceptions of genders are taught, we are not born with them. The good news is subconscious patterns of perception and behaviour can be made conscious. Siri Hustvedt goes on to say:

“Contemporary science confirms that our attitudes are shaped by implicit influences, but also that attention plays a role in reflective consciousness and judgement”.

Once people are aware of their negative behaviours and perceptions, they can change them. When the director for the Always #LikeAGirl add campaign challenged the negative perceptions the young adults held in relation to girls’ athletic abilities, they changed their minds. One young woman was asked if she would run differently now, if asked ‘how do girls run’? “Yes”, she said. “I would run like myself”.

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Young girls may not hold the same biases and sexism towards loaded phrases such as “…like a girl”, but they are acutely aware of the sexism they face as girls. The New York Times recently shot an educational documentary called ‘Gnarly in Pink’ that is beginning to trend on the Internet. It documents a group of 6-year old girls who have started a skateboarding gang called ‘The Pink Helmet Posse’ in America. These little girls are skating the parks of Southern California wearing fairy wings, pink nail polish, and tutus while dropping into bowls and pulling 360s.

Sierra, one of the girls in the skateboard gang said “I want the same amount of girls to be skating as boys. I want to be a professional skateboarder someday”. Sierra, at six years of age, is keenly aware of the lack of female representation in the skateboarding world. As the ed-doc points out, only 33 of the 192 competitors in the X Games in Los Angeles last year were women. The late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai put it well when she said, “The higher you go the fewer women there are.”

The Pink Helmet Posse has been meet with engrained sexism and have had their abilities undermined, like any girl who takes up an activity or sport that is perceived as ‘masculine’ and is dominated by men, because they are female skateboarders. One little boy asked a girl in the gang called Bella “Can you even skateboard?” Bella was distraught. Her mother told her “You just need to prove you can”. Bella’s mum went on to say, “Her whole life she is going to have to prove to the boys she can do it”. What about proving to herself she can do it? Girls are taught to seek men’s approval from a young age and, as Bella’s mother makes clear, even young boys. As the feminist and Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her Ted talk ‘We Should All be Feminists’: “We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think could be a good thing. But for the attention of men.”

Bella’s mother’s assertion that her daughter would have to prove to boys she can skateboard, reflects a society that is largely dominated by the public opinions and judgements of men. J.K Rowling may have taken the literary world by storm with her Harry Potter series but her books were overwhelmingly reviewed by men, and of course she had to use her initials not her full name to appease young boys and her male editor. When major literary journals review books written primarily by male authors and the reviewers themselves remain overwhelmingly men, as Julianna Ross of .mic suggests, “They make the old boys’ club that is the publishing industry even less hospitable to women, as it reminds them that this is still not their world”.

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When I spoke to The Girls Skate Network in America and asked the question “How many female judges are there for the Skateboarding division for both female and male categories at the X Games this year”? a representative said, “There are no female judges for X Games that I know of”.

When I talked to Alexis Pritchard-Todd, a Kiwi female Olympic boxer, on the phone, Alexis told me she first started training at 19, and on her first sparring session with her trainer Cam, she noticed he had many female boxers on his team. One of them was as young as 12. Alexis trains in a gym that fosters an anti-sexist and gender diverse environment. Alexis said “I never thought at any stage, ‘oh I am a girl, I am boxing this is not what I should be doing’. The culture in Cam’s gym has always been completely accepting of women fighters I have never ever had a bad comment from any of our fighters”. Creating environments that do not tolerate biases and belief systems that assume women are weak and incapable goes a long way to making women feel they can achieve. Positive role models like Alexis are powerful too. When I asked Alexis “what advice she would give young girls?” she said,

“I think all young girls need female role models or athletes in all sports – whether it be netball or any other sport out there – who are not afraid to be who they are. Don’t conform. Be yourself. That is what my mum always taught me”.

But not all athletic environments are as welcoming to women as Alexis’s gym, as the Pink Helmet Posse Gang has shown. These biases against girls’ abilities in sports and institionalised sexism contribute to them being twice as likely as boys to drop out of sports by the time they are 14. This worrying statistic does not, of course, stop at sports. Cara Santa Maria, a video who chose a career in a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) field, said in her recent vid-blog,

 

Women make up just about half of the American workforce, but we hold less than a quarter of the STEM jobs. In fact, a recent survey revealed some surprising findings about girls’ attitudes toward STEM careers. Thirty percent of teen girls say that math is their most challenging subject, while only nineteen percent of boys say the same thing”.

 

In New Zealand, women make up less than a quarter of those studying for a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and just over a third of those studying for a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology. As the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women (NACEW) points out, “These study trends mean that women do not fully participate in innovative work such as engineering”.

Women’s underrepresentation in science and maths, and occupying markedly fewer jobs in engineering has nothing to do with our abilities or capacity to undertake careers in STEM

“…the truth is, what appears to have the greatest impact on girls’ attitudes are sociocultural factors like stereotype threat”.

As Cara Santa Maria said during a video blog:

“You see, when people are afraid they’re being stereotyped, they can feel those eyes on them.”

Interestingly, the girls in the ‘Pink Helmet Posse’ embrace and at the same time challenge constructed negative “girl” stereotypes  – they are yet to internalise stereotype threat. The 6-year old girls in pink (a gendered colour), skateboarding in tutus and glitter and dressing as princesses while dreaming of making it to the X Games are yet to learn that princesses are rescued and often conveyed as weak or hapless. The girls in The Pink Posse are rejecting and rewriting this narrative – this is a powerful resistance to engrained negative biases held against women and girls. In the book Fifty Shades of Feminism, Lisa Power writes:

“When I was seven, I remember sitting up crying in bed one evening, sobbing to my mother because I wasn’t a boy. Not because I was a boy inside, but because boys got to swashbuckle and command armies and be princes who actually did deeds, not princesses who sat and waited for something to happen to them”.

The girls in The Pink Helmet Posse are not waiting for something to happen to them, they have learnt subversion young. These girls have taken up a ‘masculine sport’ and are facing down sexism while challenging what the world has told them they can or cannot be or do, without compromising their own identities, which obviously they are still forming.

The animated blockbuster Frozen, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, follows two female protagonists, Elsa and Anna, who are sisters and princesses. Frozen’s storyline counters the tiresome and damaging Disney trope of girls waiting around for their Prince Charming. As Lauren Davidson wrote for .Mic:

“Audiences were quick to jump on Disney’s subversive plot [in Frozen] that undermines the traditional concept of ‘true love’. Because the act of true love that saves Anna isn’t a kiss — a passive event from a dominant male that happens to her — but rather it’s the act of sacrificing herself for her sister. What’s more, it’s Anna’s own action that saves herself, and not the deed of someone else”.

Both Anna and Elsa are action oriented in Frozen; they fight monsters and have adventures. They “swashbuckle”. Neither Anna nor Elsa command armies but they certainly command themselves; they make their own decisions and do not seek out men’s’ affirmation to validate their existence.  Frozen does not focus on a princess waiting for true love then marrying some prince charming she just meet, but on sisterhood. Girls banding together to help each other to conquer great obstacles. Frozen was directed by a woman and grossed over one billion dollars; proving ‘female stories’ are something both young boys and girls want to see. Most importantly, this film showed young girls everywhere the power and importance of girls supporting and encouraging each other.

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The girls in ‘The Pink Helmet Posse’ have banded together to create their own gang and are supporting each other in a male dominated sport that is, as the sexism they have already faced shows, hostile towards young girls. The more that young girls can see the benefits that come from standing together, the less they will see each other as competition for “the attention of men” and the more they will view each other as comrades who stand together not divided. As Laurie Penny wrote in her new book, Unspeakable Things:

“…it isn’t threats of violence that keep women down but the fear of being unloved; the age-old fear that men don’t want outspoken, difficult women. Deep down, I know if I choose not to play the good-girl game, I might not get as many kisses as I want. And that’s so much more terrifying.”

When women refuse to toe the line, when they reject and challenge archaic gender roles, when they refuse to “play the good-girl game”, when they seek affirmation not from men but from themselves and each other, women and girls can and do challenge and shift biased perceptions. They can change their communities and their lives for the better.

 

 

 

7 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you Chloe – so well written and sadly so true – thank goodness for you after glancing through Bob Jones’s writing in the Herald today…male privilege at its extreme.

  2. Interesting post… it covers a lot of ground so I coudn’t possibly comment on it all. I too am suspicious of ‘marketing’ campaigns dressed up as challenging social norms *cough* Dove real beauty, etc. *cough*

    I would say that as a scientist myself, in NZ (and overseas) there are large gender differences in the branches of science. (I’ve always thought the grouping of all these subjects as ‘STEM’ topics is weird – why place them all together as if they’re a unit? perhaps a chestnut for a different conversation).

    I’ve seen data from the US for PhD completion rates, for example (which I can’t locate at the moment) showing a very sharp difference where engineering, for example, is highly male dominated but biological science is female dominated. As a biological scientist working in NZ this is also my impression. The official stats from NZ also show a higher female percentage of university enrolment, and of those who enrol, females are more likely to complete their degree than males. So in other words, relying on these broad statistics on ‘STEM’ subjects hides some very important differences within the diverse areas included as STEM.

  3. I love the sound of the Pink Helmet Posse. My two daughters love to play soccer and while I coach the team the youngest one is in the oldest has to put up with all sorts of nonsense from the boys. Not all the boys to be fair, but most of them. She is very good at soccer and this seems to leave some boys absolutely incensed – how dare a girl be better than them!

    Probably the thing she hates the most though is the boys in her team who don’t pass the ball to her or the ones who keep passing the ball behind her because they don’t think a girl can run fast. This despite the repeated evidence of their passes constantly missing their target.

    I get spitting mad at the attitudes on display in mixed sport and the belief that even very little boys have that they’re supposed to be superior to girls (despite the very apparent evidence that the reverse is true in terms of development). What’s interesting though is that these attitudes are not on display in the team I coach. I have a pretty good group of boys in the team but I also know that as the coach I determine these attitudes through my own behaviour. I take the girls seriously, not just as people either but as players.

    I can only assume from what happens on other teams that the majority of male coaches don’t do this – ignorant as they are of their own biases and inclined to indulge certain behaviour because “it’s just boys being boys”.

    It’s really obvious from my experience that “Boys being boys” is a major reason why girls don’t take up sport but it’s also why the girls don’t play as well as the boys when they do. When every playground game and after school scrimmage includes elements of violence most girls can’t be bothered. This means they don’t play as much and aren’t as proficient at the game and it just reinforces the boy’s sexist beliefs.

    Fortunately NZ Football has set up girls only summer leagues and it’s really obvious to me how much the girls love to play when there are no boys around. Turns out that running around a field chasing a ball is just as thrilling for little girls as it is for little boys.

    A small collection of Dad’s at our local club have taken the girls seriously and it’s reflected in the club statistics. We’ve only got 1 girl playing in the top three age groups but then, all of sudden when we get to the ages where we’ve put the effort in there are huge numbers of girls including one year where there are more girls than boys. It’s not like we’ve gone out recruiting either – it’s all happened because of the adults having the right attitude and then word of mouth amongst the girls does the rest.

    There’s more to life than sport, to be sure, but because of the emotion involved some of those attitudes that people try to keep hidden definitely rear their ugly head.

    • I recall reading somewhere that when a man has a daughter his empathy with what it is like to navigate our society as a woman increases, but when he has a son his perception of male superiority increases.

      Your experience is very interesting next to that.

      You’re right. There is more to life than sport.

      But… as a woman… life IS more than sport. And as your wonderful example so nicely illustrates, unconscious bias clearly exists.

      Unconscious bias. Its the thing we women have to fight against every day.

      Its why we have to be better, more prepared, more organised, more thorough, more serious… more everything! than men. And then thats only to just get considered for a job. After that… we still have to be… more.. better…

      So many women will have stories to tell, e.g. when in a meeting they suggest an idea which is dismissed, only to have a male colleague make exactly the same suggestion a few minutes later and be praised for his idea!

      Its enough to make one think one is becoming crazy!

      Try reading Kristen Schilt’s “Just One Of The Guys” to get a wonderful insight into how men and women experience every day life.

      As for myself I’m done with the whole society thing. I’ll make my own way on my own terms. I have my own business, I run it, at my own pace and on my terms. I will never again bow to anyone else’s idea of what I should be.

      • “I recall reading somewhere that when a man has a daughter his empathy with what it is like to navigate our society as a woman increases, but when he has a son his perception of male superiority increases.”

        I hadn’t heard that before but it makes sense. Even though I thought I had more empathy about this issue than most other guys I knew since I’ve become a father it’s become something I now take very personally.

        Something I wonder about is fathers with both sons and daughters – which way do they go.

  4. I do believe many parents are (unwittingly i hope) stereotyping girls at a very young age, especially with the princess mentality. The girls in the video clip above looked as though they weren’t the ones bought up with the typical princess stereotype. This is training girls from a young age to be superficial consumers of celebrity culture, clothes and bling.
    As a kid I was bought up with no gender stereotype, I wore dungarees, had short hair, won inter-school cross-counties, rode horses, looked like boy really. ( not cool but my point is…)
    I am quite repulsed as an adult when I see young girls wearing tiny plastic high heel shoes, (from the toy shop) pink and glitter everything, and the icing on the cake a tiara. Also make up…
    Once I was in a lift with a family and a little girl had a toy shopping trolley like the ones from the super market. I felt angry, and sorry for the little girl. No wonder these girls are obsessed with being a princess it has become normal crap to feed them with in our culture. I am all for fun and games for kids but i think it is a dangerous game to play.
    It is demoralising to see girls treated like pets, looking cute and silly. Rather than the fact this girl will be a woman one day and needs better role modelling and empowering from a young age. I cringe when i see girls playing with plastic babies in miniature prams, and huge barbie sets when the brother has a drum kit. The other thing I have noticed is that the princess mentality can carry on into adulthood in the belief the man will be the provider, all the woman has to do is look and act like a silly, pretty, princess who will be adored. This is not the real world, and will only leave a deluded false reality. So parents need to see these toys for what they are, tools to teach girls to spend money as adults on beauty, clothes, bling, celebrity culture, and creates people who are skin deep.

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