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.