Today I encountered a rather angry and defiant nine-year-old girl. Maybe she was ten or eleven, but regardless of the number, part of her attitude reminded me of myself at a similar age. She proclaimed her disdain for flowers, dresses, and other “girly” things. She loudly announced, “I hate princesses. They’re ugly,” while the four-year-old girl next to her drew ten crowned princesses and purple kitties on purple paper.
From my perspective at first this seemed insensitive and harsh, and perhaps downright wrong of the outspoken, opinionated nine-year-old. I tried explaining that liking princesses was okay, and you can like both girl and boy things, or one, or neither. Of course this didn’t sink in — what nine-year-old girl listens to someone trying to explain that other opinions are right too?
But she reminded me of me. I was that girl, the one who hated admitting affection for dresses, the colour pink, and swore to wear jeans and rubber boots to her wedding. Especially at school, where there were boys around, I would play tag, partake in spitting contests, and look down on the girls who openly obsessed about girlish things. While this in part was a facade (I enjoyed playing Barbies as much as the next girl), my expressions of contempt for femininity was most likely my first feminist act (albeit a little narrow-minded).
I was probably subconsciously angry about being part of the gender that received the lesser end of the power battle I witnessed between men/boys and women/girls. The boys at school were the ones allowed to get in trouble, do rough things, do well in class, and have the opportunity to have really cool career options like astronaut, carpenter, soldier, or police officer. Most of the elementary school teachers were women, and the principal for many years was a man. All of my friends’ fathers were the breadwinners of their families, and nearly all the adult women I knew were mothers. Like the nine-year-old girl I met today, I knew something was unbalanced in this gender division, and I was angry about it.
Of course at home and school they taught us girls that we could be anything we wanted, too. We could be astronauts as well. But hearing it and seeing it and becoming it are entirely different things. The message we received was something along the lines of “Astronaut is a male occupation that girls can aim for.” They never said this, but that was what we understood. Instead of astronaut being just an occupation, it was so obviously a male occupation that women could attempt (girls can be astronauts, too). We all knew how important astronauts were, and for it to be a male occupation meant (subliminally) to be male was more important.
Taunts were thrown around: you’re such a girl! you’re such a sissy! Never was you’re such a boy! hurled as an insult. To the young mind, being more masculine and hating feminine things meant being “better,” and we adapted to this mindset to surpass our delicate butterfly-loving fellows through angry and often wrong outbursts of opinion.
As I grew older and more perceptive, I moved my anger away from feminine things and towards the gender imbalance itself. Instead of hating on girls who adored pink flowered dresses, I questioned the reasons for it. I was still angry. I remember vividly my grade seven gym class where the teacher offhandedly mentioned that boys can throw balls farther and harder. I took this personally as a female — were my abilities biologically going to be less superior than that of my male classmates? Was I doomed to be less important because of my gender?
I guess I was a pretty intense pre-teen, still upset about the gender gap without knowing why or how or what I could do about it other than prove to the boys that I could be as good at everything as they were (or better) and to prove to the girls that they could, too.
But that angry pre-teen developed an interest in feminism and gender equality, and turned her anger into passion. She still gets frustrated at people who think (or pretend to think) that a woman’s place is in a kitchen, nursery, or classroom, but that is expected. She likes things that are classified as both feminine and masculine, and tries to blur the lines between gender-based categories for the children she works with. Boys can like princesses, and so can girls. Girls can like tractors, and so can boys. Maybe you like neither, or both.
Whatever it was that first made the nine-year-old I met today angry about femininity in herself and her classmates, I hope that like me, she turns her anger into something a little more balanced and productive. Who knows? Maybe one day she’ll identify herself as a feminist, just as I do.
Has any one else experienced the evolution of the nine-year-old feminist?