Friday, November 19, 2010

Stories Seep In

A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a male friend and the subject turned to girls and science. We talked about why it is so damaging that the default attitude is that girls are good at language and nurturing and boys are good at math and science. He just couldn't understand why girls and women don't just shrug that off and do what they want to do. I couldn't really think of a way to explain it at the time, or until last night, in fact.

When I was growing up, I was the smart one. Learn to read before the age of 2, and people regard you as a brain with legs. They don't really think anything else about you. I was never encouraged to participate in sports or physical activities- I was a thinker. Thinkers think, they don't make layups or hit home runs.

This was the story that was told about me and it became the story I told myself. "I'm bad at sports." I know this because everyone told me this. "I can't dance, I'm not good at that sort of thing." That's what everyone says. It's true, you know. "I don't even want to, don't worry about it."

But really, I did. I wanted to dance more than anything. I wanted to hit home runs and make free throws. Unfortunately, I was chained to my books by the stories that had settled into my bones. I made those stories true and they made me less.

Anyway, my joints have been stiffening lately, more than usual, so I finally followed my doctor's advice and tried Tai Chi*. I always wanted to try Tai Chi. It's so beautiful, flowy and graceful. But I am not graceful. I'm bookish, you see. I'm not good at that sort of thing.

It turns out I am good at that sort of thing. My balance sucks and I'm stiff as hell, but I have no trouble at all mimicking the moves as far as I am able. Turns out, I only need to see something done once to be able to do it myself. I actually have a talent for this.

Which makes me super pissed off because I could have gone clubbing back before I got sick and had a fabulous time if I hadn't let the stories people told about me become the stories I told myself.

That's the crime of the patriarchy. We tell girls they aren't good at math and science, boys are better. We tell them this enough and they tell themselves this and then it becomes true. It settles into your mind back where deeply held understanding goes- where we keep "don't pee in your pants" and other such almost unbreakable codes. Then you never think about it again. It's just there. "I am a thinker, not an athlete." "I am a girl, I am better suited to things that aren't all mathy and scientific."

In the end, we rob everyone with these stories. The world wouldn't be the same if Madame Curie had never picked up a beaker. The world isn't what it could be because of all the other Curies who never did break free of their stories.

*Tai Chi is short for Tai Chi Chuan, which means Supreme Ultimate Fist. The Chinese should name everything.


  1. Okay, first of all - Tai Chi! I love Tai Chi. And it gets a bad rap as slow-moving woo, when the slow movements are actually just the learning stages for a surprisingly effective martial art. Someday I will get to do martial arts again...

    Moving back to your actual point: to be fair, these sorts of controlling stories aren't limited to girls. My wife has a pair of male cousins; somewhere in their youth, it was decided that the older one was the "smart" one, while the younger one was the "athletic" one. Which was true, because having decided that, their parents kept the older one reading and studying, while they kept the younger one working out and playing sports (particularly baseball, in this case).

    In truth, the older brother is quite athletic, and the younger one is quite smart. In both cases, though, those traits are less developed because of this strange in-family narrative.

    That's not to say that there aren't some strong patriarchal tendencies in the way those narratives get created, of course.

  2. Being someone who has never quite "fit in" anywhere, all I can say is that we limit ourselves. I grew up as "the smart one"-which I am- and my teachers categorized me as nonathletic. Well, I paid no attention and competed horseback at an international level. The last year I shot competitively, I won the state championship in clay pigeon shooting.

    It's all in knowing yourself and refusing to accept the labels of others...

  3. It's certainly all about knowing yourself, jennifer. Totally agreed there.

    But I think it's a rare, strong individual who can do what you did and say, "Eh, forget you" to elders and authority figures and - let's face it - loved ones during the formative years of childhood and adolescence. My myth was always "the little one." I was born premature, so I was wee literally from the moment of birth. My mom is wee, my grandma is wee, and the women on my dad's side are NOT so wee. So where my genes would say, "Hey, some small stuff, some not so small stuff," the story told about me was always about the small stuff. Guess which one seems to have sunk in? I truly can't help but think that some of that wormed its way in to whichever part of my brain it is that steers the evolution of the eating disorder.

    Also: Michael, you're right - it's definitely not just a female thing.

  4. I could have gone clubbing back before I got sick and had a fabulous time if I hadn't let the stories people told about me become the stories I told myself.

    That's the crime of the patriarchy.

    Bullshit. That's the crime of listening to what other people say, and guys fall prey to it just as much as girls do.

  5. I disagree most emphatically, WEM. Yes, it is a gender-neutral phenomena, but a male-oriented society like ours uses it against girls far more than against guys. Yes, there are probably world-class hair-stylists or brilliant stay-at-home dads out there who never discovered their potential due to societial gender roles. But, let's face it, the above sentence sounds utterly trivial in comparison to the same thing with "world-class nuclear scientists" and "brilliant medical researchers."*

    What PF's saying is that the modern-day patriarchy doesn't directly stop anyone from doing what they're good at: it's more subtle than that. Instead, it encourages them not to consider that they might be good at something it associates with the the other gender. And the best-paying, highest contributing occupations are almost invariably associated with the penis-wielders.

    *footnote: Not that the would-have-been world-class hair-stylist is any less of a personal tragedy, but on a more long-term societal level, the loss of Marie Curie would have had a much greater impact than the loss of the 'fro and the mullet.

  6. and it goes even deeper - the "double standard" is *SO* alive and well.

    the narritives of my family - i was the "brainy" one, middle little sister was the "artsy" one, youngest sister was the "athletic one".

    and yet - i had a 4.0, played 8 different instruments in HS, as well as 3 choirs - before HS i played both BasketBall and Soccer, and the ONLY reason i didn't play BBall in High School is because the "girl" team sucked, and i was used to being on the "boy" team - i "played too hard" for the girl's team [coach didn't want me, because i "played like a boy". sigh]

    my "artsy" sister did some acting - and is now a professional nanny.
    my "sporty" sister is... well, to be honest, she's white trash.

    those narratives had even MORE going on - at one point, middle sister was bi, then gay, then straight - "actors don't have to follow the normal sexual paradigm". "sure - but are you ATTRACTED TO WOMEN? if not, stop this BS. it's annoying and gives women who ARE attracted to women a bad name"

    youngest sister is blonde. and is 100% convinced that she's "STUPID" - when her IQ is 165. but she BELIEVES she's stupid, because BLONDES ARE STUPID; JOCKS ARE STUPID, and she's both.

    not EVEN going to go into stuff about my older younger sister... that's just TOO sad :(

    the double standard says: despite the fact that i was the ONLY student to score a perfect SAT, i was harrassed about my grades, especially in science and math classes. there were perpetual rumors that i'd HAD SEX with this or that teacher to get my grade. the fact that i got 100% on every test DIDN'T MATTER - i was a GIRL, i had large breasts - it was IMPOSSIBLE that i could just be that smart.

    and i think it's WORSE today than it was in 89-93.

  7. Patriarchies aren't subtle, Quasar ol' bean!

    This aint no patriarchy. Women/girls suffer from gender stereotyping like men/boys do, though it takes different forms with each.

    Letting stories from 3rd parties affect how you think about yourself IS HUMAN. It is not the result of gender bias. Anyone who thinks differently needs to revisit high school as an adult, and watch carefully.

  8. WEM = i think you're missing what Patriarchy *IS*.

    a culture that continues to have different standards for male and female, especially one where MEN are expected and supported in "success" and MEN are told they can do anything while women are forever told "girls can't do Math" and constantly pressured to Have Babies but Don't Have Sex Out Of Wedlock and oh, By The Way, Marry Before X Age or No Man Will Ever Want You and You'll Be Doomed TO Be A Spinster... etc - that *IS* a Patriarchy.
    and society where i have to fight this EVERY CLASS in college is a Patriarchy. especially, being told on a regular basis "you're a woman, you CAN'T know about X" is Patriarchy.

    just because Patriarchy hurts men too does NOT mean it isn't Patriarchy. go look up the word, read some feminist websites, educate yourself.

  9. And by that logic, we also live under a matriarchy because it's not ok for men to do things that are acceptable for women.


    Again: just because there are biases doesn't mean they're systemic, and it certainly doesn't mean they're all in the same direction. This isn't a patriarchy any more than it's a matriarchy. We simply live in a society with both asshats and people who are overly sensitive to asshattery.

  10. I'm quite educated, thank you very much.

    And, if I may be so bold, it's NOT acceptable for men to discuss ways in which men are belittled by women, while it's perfectly acceptable for women to talk about the biases they deal with.

    Down with our estrogenic overlords!


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