Thursday, 8 November 2007

Girls And Boys and Boys and Girls

The other day my youngest reported that she had talked to a boy in her class on the way home from school. "He's really nice," she burbled. "Not like a boy at all."

This sort of comment from her always amazes me. I'm not given to kneejerk anti-male statements. I've almost never indulged in the Women are smart, men are stupid cracks that some women are prone to make, and I have always tried to treat the whole gender issue as fairly and reasonably as possible. I make a big fuss about how happy I am to have daughters, but I know that if I'd had sons I'd have loved them as tenderly and deeply as I love my girls. A lot of the boys in our neighborhood strike me as being pleasant, and I've always encouraged my daughters to make friends with boys and girls. And yet they both have this Ewww, boys! attitude. Why?

I am convinced there is a natural antipathy to boys, particularly among girls who have grown up without brothers, and always when girls sense they are being treated as second class citizens. I was one of three girls myself, and my sisters and I feared and loathed boys beyond reason -- even, at times, our two cousins who lived next door. We had learned several things by the time we entered elementary school:

1) Boys were mean. They tended to tease animals and others mercilessly.

2) Boys generally got away with it. I used to grind my teeth in anger and frustration when I heard my aunt's indulgent "Boys will be boys" response to some broken toy or other gross insult. My cousins' grinning Nyah, nyah, nyah hardly helped.

3) Boys were greedy and never shared. They were also, on occasion, served more food. Because they were boys.

4) Boys made fun of things we held dear. Our dolls and stuffed animals were scorned and savaged. Cute clothes we prized were scoffed and ruined when they kicked mud at us.

5) Boys tried to hold us back. We couldn't climb into their tree houses because we were girls. They wouldn't let us play in their games, and they mocked ours when we started them. Infuriatingly, though, they often tried to poach on what they viewed as our territory. I'll never forget a smug neighbor telling me that he had made brownies. That he might grow up to be a cook some day, better than any woman. Because as everyone knew, men were the most famous chefs. Ooh, that one rankled.

Once, on my way back from school, a boy stopped me. "Hold out your hand," he demanded imperiously.

I was too smart for that, of course, and refused to do this. "You'll hurt me."

"I will not!" the boy protested.

"Promise!" I said, and the boy promised.

Once he'd made that promise, I was fine. I knew that if you broke a promise, God saw. Looking down from heaven, God would frown and smite anyone who broke his word. In perfect trust, I extended my hand. The boy seized it in his own grubby paw.

Starting with my thumb, the boy began to count, working his way down my fingers: "Davey -- Crockett -- never -- said -- "

"Ouch!" I screamed, as the boy bent my pinky all the way back.

Well pleased, the little shit ran off laughing. Trivial though this incident might seem, it made a huge impression on me: Don't trust boys.

I could end here, in which case you would think that our hatred of boys wasn't really beyond reason; plenty of them obviously earned it. But to this day, I remember another incident with equal clarity.

I was perhaps seven years old, my older sister ten and my younger sister just six. We were walking along a dusty road, on our way back from the store with a jar of pickles we had been sent to buy. A boy about my older sister's age stopped us.

"Hello," he said. We nodded and eyed him warily.

"Want some candy?" the boy asked.

My sisters and I traded glances. We knew all about the candy ruse, but this boy was a boy, after all -- not an adult with a car.

"What kind?" my older sister bravely asked.

The boy was carrying a paper sack we viewed with deep suspicion. What might it have inside? A fake cockroach like our cousins had? Rubber chocolates? A plastic snake?

Reaching into the bag, the boy extracted three mint patties. Not the small kind you sometimes get after a meal at restaurants, but great, huge patties as big around as a teacup. Our jaws dropped.

"Thank you," my older sister breathed. My younger sister and I chorused our own thanks, still wary, and the boy went on his way.

"Do you think they're poison?" my little sister whispered.

My older sister shook her head. "They're wrapped too well," she pointed out.

We saw that this was true: the patties were obviously still perfectly sealed. We unwrapped them and began to eat. They were delicious, and we didn't drop dead.

Five minutes later, as we licked the candy off our lips and carefully folded up the wrappers and tucked them into our pockets, my older sister shook her head in amazement. "I guess some boys are good," she said.

Honestly, it was a revelation. And she was absolutely right.


Danette Haworth said...

OMG, Mary! What a great story.

My sister and I had an advantage--we were OLDER than our two brothers. NO ONE made fun of us. We were the bosses when our parents were at work and my brothers knew that GIRLS RULED!

Carole said...

Having only boys I have one rebuttal to your post.

1. Girls giggle.

Brave Astronaut said...

I could get all huffy and demand a retraction at the denigration of the men of the world, but alas, sometimes we (men) do get the breaks. I don't like it so please no hate mail.

That being said, I will share a story from my father's childhood. He and my uncle convinced my aunt to play a game with them. It was called "Joan of Arc." They tied up my aunt to a tree and surrounded her with wood and were standing there with matches lit, when my grandmother burst from the house screaming "Arret! Arret! [Stop! in French] before bringing the game to its conclusion. My father will still tell that story with a mischevious twinkle in his eye, and he's 78 now.

At least you women will usually live longer than the rest of us, provided you don't have brothers . . .

Katie Alender said...

Boys are silly. And they do gossip and carry on in a manner that society likes to pretend applies only to women. Often when the husb has friends or work associates around, I'll start singing the "Pick a little talk a little" song from The Music Man.

But I still like them. I guess I never went through the "boys are yucky" phase. In fact, I used to chase them down on the playground and try to be their girlfriend. I probably inspired several of those NO GIRLS ALLOWED signs.

Kara said...

so what you're saying, basically, is that boys tend to make girls feel like red-nosed reindeer? with the exception of santa. yeah. i get it.

The Anti-Wife said...

What a wonderful story. Boys are good for some things!

Gorilla Bananas said...

Boys and girls are supposed to hate each other before puberty - it's how they assert their sexual identity. A bit like cowboys and Indians.

A Paperback Writer said...

Wow. I would've hated boys too if I'd grown up isolated from them like that. (It has been my experience that isolation breeds misunderstanding of the "other" which breeds prejudice.)
However, NO ONE in my experience played favorites to either gender. How absolutely disgusting!
I have a brother 8 years older than I am -- and mostly male cousins. When I was just shy of 4, we moved to a new neighborhood where the only other children were two boys across the street: one a year older and his brother 6 years older than I was.
I learned very early that younger, smaller people were tormented -- unless they got smart. I got smart really early. Once the boys realized I was as smart or smarter than they were (remember that most of the boys were much older, and the one closest to my age was indeed very intelligent), I was one of them.
If I wanted to play with dolls, then I had to play by myself or have a friend come over. But if I wanted to play in the neighborhood, then it was pirates or soldiers or bikes or on the trampoline or board games.
To this day, I still feel more comfortable socializing with men than with women -- as (in my experience, at least) the men are less inclined to be catty and gossipy.
I suppose it all would've been different if I'd had a sister, and -- wow -- have you brought that to light! Right now, I'm really quite glad I did not!

Brian said...

As an only child I had no trouble with either boys or girls. When I visited my grandparents almost every weekend , ( I enjoyed it and it may have been a relief to my parents ) I was able to trade reading matter with the twins across the road, Beryl and Betty, one a short blonde with a limp , the other a tall redhead. Many a Girls' Crystal weekly magazine of theirs I devoured, though they did not seem all that keen on my Triumph or Champion magazines
And there was a fair mix of boys and girls at the bottom of the street where my home was , where I could zoom down the hill on my scooter and spend afterschool times with them playing all the various children's games, with no strife among us .
In Primary School, our school buildings, playgrounds etc. were well separated . High School, of course, meant girls, and a couple of young ladies were quite content to take naif me under their wings .I learnt a lot from them but , alas, mainly theory only.
So I never experienced intersex strife .


Mary Witzl said...

Danette -- If our cousins had been a lot younger than we were, I think we might have had an easier time of it. Oddly, they had a lot of good points, but their mother operated on the rule that her children could do no wrong. My mother had a completely different rule.

Carole -- This may sound odd, but I LOVE the sound of girls giggling! My youngest has a good friend, a boy, who giggles too. Truly, it is music to my ears. Especially when contrasted with all that bitchy fighting they also get into.

BA -- I'm not taking a potshot at boys and men here, honest! I am merely examining the issue of gender differences in a thoughtful, reasoned manner, perhaps shaking my head at the unenlightened, unrepentant male boors of the world. And if my cousins are reading this, Nyah, nyah, nyah, and you can be damned glad that I never told about the dart that time.

Though now that I have read your father's and aunt's story about Joan of Arc, I see that it could have been so much worse. What sort of look does your aunt get in her eye when she tells the story?

Katie -- Boys and men do bitch and whine, but I think women are better at this. In due time, the fellows should catch up with us, though.

Although I was generally rather fearful of boys, there was one I found thoroughly compelling in kindgergarten. I used to hang on to his collar and follow him doggedly around the playground. I remember being mortified by my behavior, but unable to help myself. He hated it.

Kara -- I always used to sympathize with Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer. I wanted to think that in a similar situation I would tell Santa sorry, but he and the other reindeers could damn well find their own way through the blizzard. I'm not sure that I ever saw it as a gender issue, though.

Anti-wife -- Boys and men are good for tons of things, and I frown every time I hear James Brown sing that song about it being a man's world. It isn't anybody's world.

GB -- Come to think of it, we are a little like cowboys and Indians: we have our own separate cultures, our own very different values and ideas about the way we should live our lives. And an unshakable conviction that the other side is wrong.

APW -- I am more comfortable around women, though I tend not to make friends with very bitchy ones. I am really almost as unbitchy as a woman can get, regardless of what my daughters will say. (They think it is bitchy to ask someone to clean her hair out of the shower drain and put her dirty clothes in the laundry basket.)

As children, my sisters and I did not have street smarts. We were naive and airy-fairy and shocked that others did not obey the golden rule or play nicely. We could have learned a lot from having a few very assertive girls around. We did play with our cousins, and we did all sorts of neutral kid stuff like climbing trees, playing soldiers, etc.

Personally, I do think that girls and women are bitchier than boys and men. But it has always been my experience that men gossip as much as women, they just tend to call it getting together with the boys or networking.

Brian -- We would have gotten on fine as kids! I always enjoyed reading boy magazines, and would have been thrilled if a boy had expressed an interest in the rare girls' magazine I got hold of. To this day, I love reading adventure books, non-fiction, and soldiers' memoirs. And amusingly, my husband is more of a fiction man and not very interested in non-fiction.

My husband was one of three boys and his mother died very early, so he grew up in a family of all boys and men. He also went to a public school which was all boys, and he was desperately interested in girls and women. He thinks it great that he is now surrounded by girls and a woman.

Kim Ayres said...

But I was one of the boys who didn't pull girl's hair or treat them bad. However, that just meant that none of them wanted to go out with me because I was "too nice".

-eve- said...

Haha, after all the terrible stories of boys, I was expecting something really gross at the end, but after all, it seems some boys are good...! LOL! I've got a brother, and he's always been lovely (possibly since he has me to bring him up to be nice...heehee)

debra said...

A whole bunch of years ago, when I was about 12 or so, I was in a race. Since I was first in the girls' group, I was to race the boy who was first in his group. I won the race by a foot or so, but the teacher said that the boy won. I have never forgottten it. Ok for me-- I know that the victory was mine. But the poor boy, he had to live with a hollow victory that had never been his...

Merry Jelinek said...

I have the same sensibilities about the sexes as paperback writer, I grew up with two older brothers, and I'm raising a girl and two boys.

There were only two other girls on the block growing up, one much younger. The one that was two years older was a bigger tom boy than I was - she was spectacular, played ball better than the boys and could take most of them in a fight. Her poor mother had three boys before her and looked so forward to her little girl... boy was she ever annoyed when her daughter wouldn't touch a single foofy frothy dress - she wouldn't even wear the jumper for school (we went to the Catholic school) she'd wear the boys pants...

Needless to say, I wound up with an awful lot of hand me down foofy dresses with the tags still on, that my mother couldn't get me to wear either. And I'm still very particular about my female friends - they're all down to earth and tend to get along with the boys, too.

My daughter, however, is the oldest.... perhaps because her brothers aren't older and therefore as much of an influence, but my daughter has quite the diva bone in her. She loves glitzy girly things... though she also loves gross things, so perhaps she's a cross between the two...

Raising both sexes I have to say, boys, on the whole, are far less dramatic and prone to crying for nearly no sensical reason at all... I think my daughter actually enjoys the process of throwing herself across the bed as if the world has ended because I told her to change her shirt.

However, my daughter doesn't have an 'evil laugh' or maniacal grin, their words, not mine... the boys do... probably because they're up to something like the boys you knew growing up....

Great post, it was lots of fun to read...

A Paperback Writer said...

Kim Ayres,
I have a similar problem: as I am so at ease around boys and men, I have no "mystique," and it's always hard to me to get men to find me interesting. The only ones who do are the men who see me perform and haven't met me up close and personal. In other words, I can only get men to be interested in me when I'm being someone else.
On the good side, though, I rarely have problems with men talking down to me or showing gender prejudice.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- It is true that girls tend to like boys who are relatively well-behaved, though not too good. This strikes me as a slightly hypocritical attitude on our part. A lot of women and girls I know want men to BE good, but not always ACT good. I think it's the challenge that appeals -- the idea that we can exert a taming influence. A man who is too good gives us nothing to work for.

Eve -- Good for you, and some day your brother -- and whatever partner he ends up with -- will be very grateful. Men with good sisters who take pains to educate them usually turn out well. My husband was lucky: he had three aunties and a grandmother who helped bring him up. Otherwise, God knows what might have happened.

Debra -- You are very kind and forgiving! You also have a good, solid sense of confidence in yourself that I admire even more than your running skill (which I admire plenty, as a non-runner). You say that you knew the victory was yours. If this had happened to me, I would have assumed I'd really lost: I was always quick to accept others' judgments, sad to say. Did you ever talk to the boy about this race? I'd be interested to know if he ever admitted that you were the winner!

Merry -- My two girls have certainly had their drama queen moments, though I have seen some of their friends in action and my daughters pale in comparison.

Your story about the neighbor and her mother's attempts to get her to wear frilly, girly clothing is funny! My mother bought a few girly dresses for my older sister, but she scorned them so thoroughly that my mother, who hardly wanted to waste her money, just gave up and let us wear pretty much what we wanted as long as it was clean. When we lived in Japan, I bought my kids unisex stuff that was easy to play in. One of the girls who went to their nursery school wore neatly pressed cotton dresses with Peter Pan collars and both kids envied her these. One day, this girl started coming to school dressed in scruffy jeans and boy tops: her mother had given birth to twins and no longer had the time to fuss over her daughter's appearance. This was such a liberation for this little girl and I don't think I've seen a happier child. It is possible that my two took this to heart; shortly after this happened, they stopped nagging me to get them cute dresses with Peter Pan collars.

My two do like some glitzy stuff, but I try not to mind too much -- it could be so much worse!

APW -- Believe it or not, I have this problem too: I have never been any good at flirting. I'm not sure why; my mother thought it was all nonsense and never had any skill at flirting herself, and it is possible that this is what limited me. Also, my older sister was completely lacking in this area. I think the whole business of creating a false persona and learning to flatter and flirt is something girls learn in part from their mothers or older sisters.

Once, at a party, I copied a friend who was very flirtatious. I did everything I'd seen her do, flicking my hair about, rolling my eyes, reaching out and touching people and giggling. I was wildly successful, but it was a pyrrhic victory: the men I had succeeded in attracting struck me as contemptible fools and I could not enjoy the spoils of my victory.

debra said...

Mary, the boy, who had been my friend, never looked me in the face again. So many lifetimes ago. I would never go back.

Mary Witzl said...

Debra -- What that teacher did is absolutely appalling, and shame on him or her! As for the boy, isn't it strange that sometimes the people who have wronged us resent us the most? Every time he looked at you, he was reminded that you were both the true and moral victor. And that would have hurt him far more than losing to a girl would have.

A friend of mine just went back to her 30th high school reunion. One of her friends cried and said that she would do anything to be back in high school again. My friend and I couldn't get over that: NOTHING would ever make us want to go back to that time! The unfairness, the pettiness, the sometimes hateful or insensitive teachers.

But think what a great story this would make.

JR's Thumbprints said...

If everyone had the "Boys Will Be Boys" attitude, my prison GED classes would never be empty. Wait a minute! They never are.

I thought I'd stop by and tell you how much I enjoyed your nonfiction piece in GlassFire Magazine. Hope to read more of your work in the near future.

Eryl Shields said...

I remember boys being ghastly when in groups but perfectly nice when you got them alone, as I was growing up. I found this incredibly confusing.

These days, the nicest men I know grew up amongst women and girls. And I still find most men confusing.

Mary Witzl said...

JR -- Thank you for reading my article and commenting on my blog! I've just been over to your blog, and I'll go and look at your Glassfire piece too.

Getting a letter of acceptance was so amazing I'm still not quite over it. And I don't use the word 'amazing' as lightly as many do nowadays.

Eryl -- What you experienced with boys is so true and it used to confuse me too. Boys were often nice individually, but horrible in groups. My daughters know several boys who are kind even when they are with other boys. I find these boys as unusual and enthralling as my daughters do. And all of them have wonderful mothers...

Anonymous said...

I grew up with two older brothers and since they were always required to keep an eye out for me, I was allowed to join in all the boy activities.

Interestingly, my brothers always claim that is was the girls who got away with everything "because they girls."

Mary Witzl said...

Riley -- Ooh, your brothers and I could swap some good stories, I'm sure of it. I'll bet I suffered more than they did, though.