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Perfect Girls and Grizzly Bears: The Harmful Effect of Rigid Gender Roles on Girls AND Boys

Updated on February 4, 2013

"Do you think I’m easy?" These, the first self-conscious words I uttered after being kissed by an older boy, are a clear illustration of the gender expectations with which I was raised. One hardly needs to wonder if my partner felt similar anxieties about being construed as "loose" or "forward." Indeed, his response, "The only way I could possibly consider you easy is that it would be easy for me to rape you," was so “forward” an example of aggressive "male behavior" that I felt threatened and vulnerable, not least so because it was true. While my companion was usually gentle and affectionate and had once sulked in several minutes of anxious guilt after stepping on my foot, he also happened to possess the stocky, muscular, two hundred fifty pound physique of a small grizzly bear, and could presumably subdue me with less than minimal effort on his part if he so desired.

Boys and girls are raised to fulfill distinct gender roles. In my previously mentioned personal experience, we clearly see the societally-prescribed types of the passive female, wracked with sexual guilt and self-restraint, and the aggressive male, unabashedly embracing his desire. While these roles have become less rigidly defined since the women’s movement, for example allowing women to enter the workforce, they are still an important factor in shaping our personalities and, unfortunately, in contributing to unequal educational opportunities for the two sexes. Initially, worries focused on what Schoolgirls author Peggy Orenstein dubbed a “confidence gap” between the sexes, in which girls’ voices were silenced in the classroom as male and female students were rewarded for “gender-appropriate” behavior, boys for aggression and active participation and girls for passivity and cooperation (Orenstein 1994). Later, other scholarship, such as William Pollack’s Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood, emerged suggesting that the problems faced by boys in school may actually be worse. However, something about this new movement, which suggests that “boys’ self esteem as learners is far more fragile than that of most girls,” seems blatantly reactionary and almost competitive, a “What about us?” cry from the opposite sex (Pollack 1999).

This is, of course, not to say that there are not many valid claims to be made by advocates for the welfare of boys. According to a report by the American Association of Women, “Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children,” boys are seven percent more likely than girls to repeat a grade, and they are also more likely to drop out of school (AAW 1999). Boys are also less likely to participate in non-athletic extracurricular activities, such as the performing arts and student government (AAW 1999). However, according to the same report, “one in five girls has been sexually or physically abused, one in four shows signs of depression, and one in four does not get needed health care” and that “In 1997, 1 in 3 girls took part in high school sports, compared with 1 in 2 boys” (AAW 1999). Girls are underrepresented in upper level math and science courses and, while they do receive higher grades than boys, they also earn fewer scores of 3 or higher on advanced placement tests (AAW 1999). There is still a gender gap in the workforce, with girls gravitating towards education, healthcare, and social services, and boys choosing careers in business and technology (AAW 1999). From this report, it would seem that each gender faces problems in schools, and that the overall issue is not one of a single gender being heavily disadvantaged, but of perceived gender roles influencing boys’ and girls’ performances in a number of different areas.

In Real Boys, William Pollack seems to believe that girls’ educational problems have been addressed to the point of becoming less significant and severe than boys’ problems. “Boys are now twice as likely to be labeled as ‘learning disabled,” he writes. “While the significant gaps in girls’ science and math achievement are improving greatly, boys’ scores on reading are lagging behind significantly and continue to show little improvement. Recent studies also show that not only is boys’ self-esteem more fragile than that of girls and that boys’ confidence as learners is impaired but also that boys are substantially more likely to endure disciplinary problems, be suspended from classes, or actually drop out of school entirely” (Pollack 1999). While Pollack does make a number of valid points, he seems to turn the gender discussion into a question of which group is more oppressed than the other, when the problems of each group seem inextricably intertwined. His pro-male stance is clearly visible in his somewhat artfully manipulated wording. Boys “endure disciplinary problems” rather than simply misbehaving, painting them as victims rather than perpetrators. If boys are more frequently the violators of school conduct rules, it is no wonder that they are also the majority of students suspended from classes. It is significant, however, that boys are more frequently reprimanded for misbehavior in schools, as this may be due to the more aggressive gender role that boys are called to fill.

Boys, Pollack writes, are taught from a young age to adopt a “mask of masculinity” and conform to a “Boy Code… a set of behaviors, rules of conduct, cultural shibboleths, and even a lexicon, that is inculcated into boys by our society—from the very beginning of a boy’s life” (Pollack 1999). This code prescribes a rigid set of acceptable behaviors for boys and shames boys for “not being ‘manly’ enough” (Pollack 1999). Writing of a five-year-old boy who is told, “‘You’re swinging like a girl!’” as he tries to throw a punch, Pollack says, “It’s hard to imagine how damaging these reproaches must be for boys” (1999). He fails to mention how damaging it must be for girls, who hear their gender used as an insult for the opposite sex every day. Each time a girl hears a boy told that he is somehow acting “like a girl,” it reinforces the notion that femininity is a negative trait, something that boys struggle to avoid. While boys are pressured to uphold a limiting masculine stereotype and occasionally directly targeted with accusations of femininity, girls are indirectly hurt by every such accusation they hear, reminded each time that they are inferior and associated heavily with weakness.

Pollack writes of three major “myths” about boyhood: First that “Boys will be boys,” second that “Boys should be boys,” and third that “Boys are toxic” (Pollack 1999). In other words, boys are naturally aggressive, boys are meant to be naturally aggressive, and boys, being naturally aggressive, are “bad,” misbehaved, and harmful to the people around them. As an example of the myth of boys’ toxicity, Pollack mentions a woman named Karen who sent her daughter to a private, all-girls’ school and her son to a public, coeducational school. “The reason, she explained, was that her daughter needed to learn that ‘all roles in society are open to women.’ Her son, on the other hand, needed to learn in the company of girls because they would help to make him more ‘sensitive and polished’” (Pollack 1999). Again, we are shown gender stereotypes that can be harmful to both boys and girls. In suggesting that the presence of boys may somehow stifle her daughter and that the presence of girls will somehow refine her son, Karen is buying into the stereotype of boys as aggressive, encroaching on her daughter’s right to equal educational opportunities, and girls as passive and well-behaved. The “civilizing effect” supposedly possessed by modern girls hearkens back to the Victorian image of the “angel in the house,” cited by Orenstein, who ruled the domestic sphere with quiet virtue, creating for her family a home environment free from the evils of the outside world (Orenstein 1994, Pollack 1999). This false gender dichotomy both stigmatizes boys, presenting aggressive behavior as natural to their sex, and harms girls, advancing the concept of the impossibly nice “perfect girl” also cited by Orenstein and teaching them that proper femininity is quiet and compliant (Orenstein 1994).

The results of being raised with this gender dichotomy are highly prevalent in Schoolgirls as well. Orenstein begins her book by telling about a classroom exercise in which students are asked to imagine how their lives would be different if they were born as members of the opposite sex. “Almost all of the boys’ observations about gender swapping involve disparaging ‘have to’s,” observed Orenstein, “whereas the girls seem wistful with longing. By sixth grade, it is clear that both girls and boys have learned to equate maleness with opportunity and femininity with constraint” (Orenstein 1994). Accordingly, the girls in Schoolgirls are mostly quiet and passive observers in the classroom, whereas the boys are constantly, aggressively vying for their teachers’ attention, even in spite of some teachers’ efforts to rectify this difference (Orenstein 1994). Whether consciously or subconsciously, teachers reinforce this pattern by praising students for “gender-appropriate” behavior. “In… observations of one hundred classrooms in four states,” writes Orenstein, “boys were routinely asked more complex questions than girls, and were commended for their academic acumen, while girls were commended for social skills and docility” (Orenstein 1994). This reinforcement of gender roles might lead, not only to girls being overlooked in the classroom, as Orenstein emphasizes, but to the disciplinary issues among boys mentioned by Pollack (Orenstein 1994, Pollack 1999).

While reinforcement of gender roles is not always or even usually deliberate, it is seldom hard to find. Perhaps it is most pronounced in middle school sex education classes. According to Orenstein, “Educator Michelle Fine has written that boys’ desire is included in classrooms, intrinsic to the biological lessons of erections, ejaculation, and wet dreams. Girls’ pleasure, however, is evaded, and their sexuality is discussed primarily through the veil or reproduction: the onset of menstruation, the identification of ovaries and the uterus. Desire, as it relates to girls, is reduced in most classrooms to one element: whether to say “yes” or “no”—not even to themselves, but to boys” (1994). The answer that girls are guided to is, of course, no. “Many parents and educators,” writes Orenstein, “Believe that we protect our daughters by exacerbating their vulnerability, by instilling them with what we know are the perils of sex: the fears of victimization, of pregnancy, or disease. Those fears are, of course, all too real, but so is desire, and we do not teach girls that” (Orenstein 1994). Boys, by contrast “are ‘made of’ nothing but desire… a natural force that girls don’t possess” (Orenstein 1994). The girls that Orenstein observed at Audubon Middle School actually believed that boys “needed” sex more than girls, while it was the consensus among girls at Weston Middle School that “‘Boys only think with their dicks’” (Orenstein 1994). Because boys’ desire is treated as an unchangeable fact of life, “Girls are… supposed to provide the moral inertia that (temporarily) slows that force. Just as in the classroom, just as in the family, girls’ sexual behavior is seen as containable; boys’ as inevitable” (Orenstein 1994). This false dichotomy between male and female desire is not only harmful to girls, but also to boys, who are not expected to or even thought capable of showing the same restraint and caution as girls with regards to sex, and are thus encouraged to engage in reckless behavior. Where “Sex ‘ruins’ girls; it enhances boys,” who become known as “players” rather than “sluts” (Orenstein 1994).

The treatment of boys’ sexual desire as inevitable and uncontrollable, coupled with the encouragement of boys to be more aggressive and girls to be more passive may even lead to sexual harassment, with boys encouraged to act out and girls hesitant to resist. Orenstein quotes one boy as saying that “All the guys do that stuff, it’s no big deal. The girls don’t mind. I mean, they don’t do anything about it. I’d beat the crap out of someone if they touched me like that. But girls are different, they don’t really do anything, so I guess it’s okay to do” (Orenstein 1994). Boys are implicitly taught that girls are the providers of “moral inertia,” and that they do not have to control their desires. Thus, some boys may be led to conclude that they may do as they like, so long as girls do not stop them.

Thus it was that I found myself, after many years of defending a somewhat archaic sense of my own virtue, pondering whether or not I had properly fulfilled my gender-based obligation to provide sexual resistance. I suppose that this was also the reason my grizzly companion deemed it appropriate to inform me of my apparently prime vulnerability. We were each reacting to the gender roles that we had been taught to fill, one of us more menacingly and inappropriately than the other. True to feminine form, I did not stop him. I did not comment on the sheer ludicrous inappropriateness of the remark. Rather, I believe that the subject may have been awkwardly changed instead. Although at the time, I was probably thinking of how horrifying men can be, I did not fully realize that my problem could not fully be addressed without also addressing his. Gender inequity is not a matter of improving things for men or improving things for women, because to accomplish one is to accomplish the other. By helping boys to express themselves in an open and honest way, true to themselves rather than to masculine stereotypes, we help girls who are intimidated and overshadowed by overaggressive boys. By helping girls to find their voices and advocate for themselves, we break down gender stereotypes and help boys to overcome the toughened, masculine façade and come to value perceived feminine traits. To truly achieve gender equity, we have to correct our conceptions of gender as a whole, not just of what it means to be a boy and what it means to be a girl.

Works Cited

Multicultural Education. (1999). Selection 21: American Association of University Women from "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children" (pp. 100-104). Marlowe and Company.

Orenstein, P. (1994). Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap. New York: Anchor Booke Editions.

Pollack, W. (1999). Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood. New York: Henry Holt and Company.


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