“Middle School Girls Gone Wild”… Really? I think the boys are wilder!

Today I was going to write about how this blog has served an unexpected purpose: social networking. When I set it up I had only intended it to be a place for me to write about the topics and issues that distracted me from my “other” work; often these would be pieces I had read in the newspaper that really irritated me and sent me off on a tangent that was not what I was “supposed” to be writing about. But in addition to serving that purpose, it has became an avenue upon which I met very interesting people. And I was going to tell you about them today.

But that entry will have to wait, because this morning a New York Times piece really irritated me. This New York Times Op-Ed piece, written by Lawrence Downes, the father of a middle school girl, begins with the words “It’s hard to write this without sounding like a prig” and ends with the declaration, “Boys don’t seem to have such constricted horizons. They wouldn’t stand for it — much less waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor of a school auditorium.”

Without reading the piece you can pretty much imagine its contents: middle-aged parent of middle-school child sits in middle-school auditorium watching a talent show which, predictably, falls pretty short on imagination and talent. The girls writhe around like stripper-wanna-bes to sexually explicit Janet Jackson lyrics (yes, what would outrage at mass media sexualization of girls without a swipe at Janet Jackson). The boys, somehow, never appear on stage. Or if they do, we never learn what their acts consist of. We are just told that they would never “waggle their butts and roll around for applause on the floor.” Hmm. Really?

I’m not so much angry at this man because he objects to the sexualized performance of the 6th, 7th, and 8th grade girls, though I would remind him that this is hardly a new phenomenon, and that way back in the 80s –good god 20 years ago — when I was in middle school, girls were prancing around imitating Madonna, Cindy Lauper and, yes, Janet Jackson.

No, I’m angry because he asserts that boys would never let themselves be so reduced to this kind of spectacle. And, while he doesn’t tell us what the boys did do for their performance, there is no question in my mind that boys are constantly reducing themselves to such spectacle. And being rewarded for doing so. Perhaps not an overtly sexualized spectacle, but a spectacle that rewards them for their physicality, their bodies, their writhing. A spectacle that places them in danger and that lauds their violent or at very least aggressive behavior. A spectacle that reduces their gender-role options rather than expanding them. And parents of boys are generally not appalled. No, in fact, this is seen as so commonplace that it is not worth even mentioning. No, beyond that, it is seen as so spectacular, so wonderful, that we organize leagues and teams and television channels and billion-dollar advertising campaigns around it.

Why are we not outraged at the valuing of young boys bodies and the lauding of their masculinity in organized competitive sports?

We are not angry about that because we believe that such activities prepare boys to be men. In fact, we so believe that the skills and capacities learned in sports are beneficial that we encourage girls to get involved too. And certainly capacities for teamwork and cooperation and the discipline of training are all very important. But those can be generated in a number of ways that are less aggressive than, say, football, a sport on which colleges and universities depend for money, which exploits the bodies of young men and subjects them to debilitating injury, but for which we celebrate them as participants.

No, we are not angry because we value aggression in boys. We see it as a sign of their masculinity. Apparently we don’t feel as strongly about valuing sexuality in girls. And that’s unfortunate, really. Think about it: aggression is rarely a positive attribute. In fact, boys and men end up struggling with their aggression in relationships with others. Aggression: fighting, abusiveness, intimidation, bullying. Sexuality, on the other hand, is linkable to pleasure, playfulness, intimacy, connection, communication. I don’t mean to suggest that it is always associated with these things, but the potential is always there within sexual experience to lead to these things. This is not true of aggression. It is hard to imagine aggression leading to anything particularly positive.

I’m angry because we privilege boys for their physical performances of gender even when those performances depend on aggression and even violence. Yet we criticize girls for their physical performances of gender, especially when those involve overt displays of sexuality. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that one of the reasons we are so fearful about our girls displaying their sexuality is because we fear what might happen to them at the hands of aggressive, out-of-control boys! Yet somehow it seems better to limit the girls’ personal expression than try to change the culture of violent masculinity.

I hope Mr. Downes rethinks his talent-show experience. What were the boys’ performances reflecting? And what about all those other instances where boys are rewarded for a very narrow, very physical, very exploitive, dangerous set of performances? If Mr. Downes is serious about his concern for gender equality, as he seems to be by his closing declaration, I hope he reexamines his feelings about the performances of these middle school girls in light of a new examination of middle school boys activities. I think he might find the range to be equally narrow, and the outcome to be much worse.

26 Comments

Filed under Childhood Memories, Gender, News and politics, public discourse, Relationships, sex, sexuality, sexuality and age

26 responses to ““Middle School Girls Gone Wild”… Really? I think the boys are wilder!

  1. astute, well said. i’d like to know what the boys were doing too. also, before cyndi lauper there were objections with dances like the watusi and the chacha. bravo

  2. Wow – that was simply awesome. Bravo!

  3. Joe

    Eh, weak, but I guess your bland, knee-jerk brand of feminism wouldn’t let you pass it by. Ugh.

  4. Argh, I don’t know where to begin. I normally enjoy your other posts but this rubbed me entirely the wrong way. I agree that Downes’ piece was a pile of tripe, but this post of yours is not much better.

    First I have to take issue with equating sports with aggression. I don’t believe that all sports are aggressive, and most are not violently aggressive.

    Secondly, while teaching aggression is bad, countless studies have shown that children who engage in sports are more self-assured and more assertive, both of which are good things. Not only that, but enrolling children, both male and female, in team sports helps teach them how to work together in a larger unit for a common goal, how to work with people they don’t necessarily agree with, and in some cases how to be a leader. These are also good things.

    And to say that we only value boys in sports misses a lot of the current emphasize to enroll girls in sports. If you examine the Title IX statistics from the last few years you’ll find that more women than ever are going to colleges based not only on academics but also on the sports programs they can be engaged in.

    Sports are not an evil. Sports is not the enemy.

    The real problem is our current culture’s prudish fear of sexuality, which serves to keep a lid on all things sexual until it boils over into 6th Graders dry-humping chairs. I’m all for children exploring their sexuality in a safe and healthy manner. I have serious doubts about whether it’s a healthy exploration when a 12-year-old is dancing and acting like a stripper, but I’m not going to recoil in fear when it happens.

  5. escapetoinertia

    Very nice. Too many blind themselves of the double standards set by society. And, what, now it’s suddenly an insult to be called a “feminist”? I’d choose that over “close-minded asshole” anyday.

  6. Well-written, but I must disagree. Your argument hinges on a strong belief bias — “there is no question in my mind that boys are constantly reducing themselves to such spectacle….”

    And then expands that bias into a one-sided value judgment, that boys get of scot-free for their performance — “I’m angry because we privilege boys for their physical performances of gender..”

    There is no question that neither of this is quite so black and white. My experience of what 12-year old boys were doing — um, yes, 20-years ago, as well — is standing on the sidelines frightened and intimidated by the shows of feminine sexuality.

    Those few boys who are aggressive were disciplined for it. Called ADD, given drugs to calm them down (how many girls are medicated for their gender-specific displays? What’s the anti-slut drug of choice?). Caught drinkin’, put in jail (proportional to boys, how many girls are in juvie?). Come down with one intellectual perturbance or another (proportional to boys, how many girls go on to college?). How many boys even make it out of adolescence at all? And so forth. It’s not all rosy on the boys’ side. It’s not. It’s tough on both genders because both boys and girls (hetero) are out there trying to get the best mate they can. Sexual selection is an anxiety-driven activity.

    I don’t blame or criticize the girls. They’ve identified the skills they need in the dating marketplace. The hypersexualized marketplace. The things they need to do to make the best sell for that football quarterback (make-up and miniskirts in junior high, giving head in HS, putting out on first/second dates afterwards). But for every quarterback expressing “priviledged aggression” and getting some, there’s a dozen geeks on the sidelines, a dozen goths sniffing glue or in jail.

  7. Well-written. I agree with your viewpoint.

    Being a boy, I can confirm that extra masculinity benefits one’s group identity and there is pressure to conform to certain physical standards and body images.

    Overall though, women are judged by their appearance more than men are. This isn’t always the case though, particulars of the circumstance and gender ratio and average age matters a lot.

    Don’t worry if some of the commenters didn’t get your point at all. ;)

  8. We live with the double standard that men are allowed to be sexual – the more they sex, the “better” they are – yet women are still required to shun sex and if they do are considered sluts. I was friends with all the school sluts, skanks, gays, and anyone else usually considered “sex-crazed” in high school. I’m still a freaking virgin, hate sex or anything overly sexual (minus dress), and just the thought of performing it on anyone makes me sick.

  9. While I may not agree 100% with your analogy between girls acting like strippers on a dance floor and boys sports programs, it is very accurate in its parallel. Both are in their basest forms, an evolution of mating ritual approaches. Girls imitating strippers are a more overt and less socially acceptable performance. However it is still a mating ritual that is very similar in proceedings to the socially acceptable beauty pageants (some of which often repugnantly present prepubescent girls in sexual costume and behaviors socially reserved for much older girls and women). And though male dominated sporting events have evolved in presentation and styles, it is still a pose down event where a group of males are out displaying in a socially accepted event that displays their physical and sexual worthiness as mating partners fit for procreation. And what women rarely see is the locker room posturing that goes on in the locker rooms before and after the events as the young males fight for pecking order. It can be mildly violent in public but inside and away from the public view the fight for rank and position is often demeaning and vicious to those trying to climb the social ladder, having trouble maintaining their pack status or attempting to break in or from the various Alpha groupings. The older the members of the pack, then the more likely the contests involve increased humiliation and/or become more violent and more vicious.

    And while I may agree that posters may be correct that boys may not have been as risqué on a dance floor twenty years ago, the younger and more modern males entering their sexual posturing phases that I have interacted with, have few qualms or restrictions in acting out explicit ritual mating dances in public, when presented the option to impress a blossoming young woman.

  10. If the point of your well written article is that society often has different standards for men than for women, then I might agree. Any society that values men for their prowess on the football field and women for the size of their breasts is a bit shallow, of course.

    But maybe you went a bit too far over the top. In balance, sport is a good thing for both genders. It teaches working together, fitness, and fair play. Those are good values that I recommend for both men and women.

    I am a father of a teenage son and daughter. I am glad my son does not play football and I value his academic achievements, which are many. My daughter is almost as bright and has a passion for dancing. I’ve been to the dance competitions and have seen many of the companies get up there and shake their booty. Fortunately, her school does not find this appropriate.

    There are alternatives to those of the shallow pop culture. And for me, Madonna wallowing on the ground in her “Like a Virgin” video is no more appealing today than it was when we laughed at it back in the 80s.

  11. “one of the reasons we are so fearful about our girls displaying their sexuality is because we fear what might happen to them at the hands of aggressive, out-of-control boys!”

    Well said, this is one of the fears that drives parents behavior and decisions. As most fears go, this one is full of falsehoods. Girls can be and many times are just as aggressive and out-of-control as the boys are.

  12. Although I agree with “zoopy” that “neither of this is quite so black and white,” I think you’ve touched on an important point that is given too little attention. Perhaps the most stark illustration of the gender difference in our response to aggression is that as adults, men who are aggressive are often thought forceful, dynamic, decisive — while an aggressive woman is usually described as a “bitch.” Meanwhile, boys growing up who devote themselves to scholarship are too often ostracized as “nerdy” (whether true or not), but when a girl emerges as valedictorian nobody seems to mind (or be surprised!).

    It also underscores one of my beliefs, that it’s a mistake for women to attempt to increase their aggressiveness. How can women improve their lot by adopting the worst qualities of men (and vice versa)? If girls can be constantly reassured that it’s good to be forceful, dynamic, and decisive, while boys can be reminded that these qualities do not equate with hostility, both genders will benefit.

    But I confess — I’m a big football fan.

  13. Very provocative – pun intended.
    But this does make me wonder about the whole concept of “letting boys be boys” and, on the same token, letting girls be girls. In today’s society, it has become far more commonplace for women to assert their sexuality, so much so that I wonder if the parents of the middle school girls are the only ones blinking anymore.
    Boys and girls are clearly different, recent studies of male vs. female brains show that chemicals decree it – but would it be a better world if we all tried to swing more towards the center? Acknowledge our natures, but at the same time, make an effort to be less extreme on each end? Maybe then we’d be a step closer to being less boys and girls and more people.
    Just some half formed thoughts, wish I could be clearer, but you certainly made me think.

  14. Ms. Knitter

    Now, as much as I’m all for cutting down on expressions of overt sexuality in kids who are barely old enough to have pubic hair, I have to commend you for your insightful look into the other side of things, and pointing out the hypocrisy in the gender-biased expressions that we deal with in our day-to-day lives. As much as we pretend we’re living in an enlightened age, we’re still carrying around beliefs that, by our own admissions, should be out of date in many ways.

    But human expression of anything is a tricky thing, and we’re just about guaranteed to offend somebody with everything that we do, be we male, female, or somewhere in the middle.

  15. I think you have only one point in your article. And it is: “one of the reasons we are so fearful about our girls displaying their sexuality is because we fear what might happen to them at the hands of aggressive, out-of-control boys!”. Indeed, the rapist is to blame, not the sexy-dressed victim.

    Sexuality, as aggressivity are important feelings. But they are not suitable for seventh-graders. Aggressivity is important in a certain way, for war is sometimes necessary. Worrying about girls’ sexuality is not invalid if it’s not together with the worry on boys’ aggressiveness. It’s as the worry on Africa poverty wasn’t valid if not together with the worry on Middle East and South America violence.

    We have evolved our behaviour, from the animal-like (eating, sleeping, wenching) to the “we-call-it-human”. Returning to our ancestor behaviours on sex matters, rejecting all the moral asserts that centuries gifted us on that, is not evolution, it’s involution or devolution. It’s called pre-trans fallacy. It occurs when you think that you are evolving, but you are going back. Chesterton has a good quote on this thing: “When you do not believe on God, it’s not that you don’t believe in nothing, you believe in anything” (somewhat freely quoted). Despite your religion thinkings, that I do not know what are, what he means is, when you become too skeptic, you have just become a believer on everything. You think you are better, you are worse.

    If you care about our social and moral evolution, if you care about what makes us diffferent from animals, you have to worry about extreme sexualization. As I said, sexuality is important, and I think it’s also a mistake to put a burka in every woman, subject to death by stoning if she neglects. Nevertheless, Mr. Downes is precise on his worries. Maybe your feminism (that I do not consider neither a good or bad quality) was touched when he meaned “boys don’t do such things”, maybe if I was a woman, I would feel insulted too, but he is worried about women and, despite what he meant, his warning can be a first step towards a rational development of sexuality. He has some points, you have one, and this one does not invalidated his’.

    Thanks for your time, and sorry for the “Engrish”. Greetings from Brazil.

  16. Amy

    When I was in middle school, the same sort of thing went on, although not really under the official auspices of any kind of talent show. The administration wouldn’t have stood for it.

    But the feeling I got then, as now, is that the girls aren’t flaunting their sexuality or anything like that. They are performing in the only way they know to get attention and popularity and adoration, which they require because of their desperately low self-worth. They’ve got the message that their bodies are their value, and what they can do with them behind closed (or not-so-closed) doors. The girls I knew who engaged in sexual stuff in middle school were all desperately unhappy, and they were letting others lead them around by it like a bull by the ring in its nose.

    I’m not anti-girl sexuality (far from it; I probably am the person who lost their virginity at the earliest age, 14, among my friends & associates — and I don’t regret it at all). I’m not patronizing “oh girls, low self-esteem, can’t be allowed to be sexual!” blah de blah. That’s just the way it was when I was in school — sadness; doing what they were expected to do, trying to be little busybee mini-adults but, like children often do, totally misunderstanding and skewing the reality of adulthood; going along for the ride like they had no way to get out of the rollercoaster cart. (The # of sad girls had been reduced a lot, %-wise, by mid-High School, I’ll note. By the time girls are feeling sexual because it’s fun.)

    If they were happy and delighting in it, I’d feel differently. But I’m haunted by the image of one of “happy in public, hopeless in private” socialite girls who was trying to borrow money from one of the very at-ease, full-of-himself popular boys, and was practically begging and whisper-hissing, “I’ll pay you back later.” It was obviously a suggestive offer, but all she wanted was to be able to buy some fries at lunch.

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  18. leyla

    Good article. Just wanted to point to the unmentionable; I suspect the NYT piece might just be a rationalization of a possible, albeit horrible, event and that might, might have been a middle aged d!ck stirring at the sight of pre or barely pubescent girls. Just a thought.

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  20. baconeater

    It’s an issue because when you put oversexualized girls together with aggressive boys it’s not good for the girls.

    Parents care about things like that.

  21. fred

    another angry liberal – boo hoo
    here’s a big hint: men and women are different

    your logic is retarted
    sports is constructive – shaping the body and mind;
    improving the physical strength of the body and the sharpness of the mind –

    sexualizing girls is deconstructive – perverting the body and the purpose of sexuality

    be a masculine man – if you’re a man
    be a feminine woman – if you’re a woman
    and you’ll be much happier

  22. mikemos

    That was a great critque on the NYT article. Kudos.

  23. Sentient

    What I find most interesting about your pieces is not the careful logic or the clear writing – though the world could certainly use more of both – but the responses they generate.

    It’s as if you’ve tapped the primal core, and try as you might to engage a rational discourse it simply won’t happen.

    People don’t like your liberal point of view. People like your liberal point of view. People want to defend sports. People want to help explain the parent’s point of view.

    No one seems to want to debate your main thesis – that boys are gender-expolited too. I guess when we reach the point when people can actually discuss these things rationally, we may not have the problems we have today.

  24. Tim

    I think it’s interesting that you’ve made several assumptions about aggressive behavior being categorically “bad.” This seems almost as short-sighted as suggesting that “sexual behavior is bad.”

    There are appropriate times and places for a range of human emotions and responses. To ignore this aspect of humanity in order to promote an apparent distaste for sports is no great accomplishment. – Tim

  25. db

    So well written. As an 8th student teacher for two weeks now, I must say that both genders of a certain maturity level seem to exhibit similar behaviors. Girls wear tiny tight shirts and pants and boys wear pants that show their entire behinds and writhe while walking with pants around their knees. I would imagine that their parents buy them their clothes. Although I have given it all the benefit of the doubt by thinking that both of these practices make hand-me-downs and used clothing cool, there is definitely an equal amount of the same type of outward expressive behavior occurring in both genders.