[This post is a companion piece of sorts to my “How Power Rangers Made Me a Feminist” post, although you don’t need to have read that post to read this one. In the Power Rangers post, I discussed how sexism in TV shows had a negative effect on me growing up, while in this post, I discuss how the awesome books I read when I was a kid had a good effect on me as I grew up. You see, I don’t hate everything! Just the terrible stuff]
I never wanted to be a boy.
And it turns out, that’s somewhat of an unusual experience.
Back during my finals season (*shudder*), a series of interrelated blog posts penned by female speculative fiction authors went up. First it was Stina Leicht. Then Kate Elliot. Then Kirstyn McDermott. and N.K. Jemisin. There are probably more I missed. I was, of course, dying of finals, so I couldn’t do anything more than gather links. But there was something so powerful, and so disturbing, about these women’s stories, that I kept on going back to them.
Let’s see if you can spot the common thread, shall we?
Stina Leicht: “[Girls] are barraged with the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place for them specifically at an early age. I have memories of such information filtering down to me at age eight through ten. So much so, that I went through a phase of denial. I took on male behaviors, thinking that would make me safe. (I was a tomboy.) I also went through a phase of not wanting to be female (…) because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females.”
Kirstyn McDermott: “I was a tomboy for most of my childhood. Thankfully, I have a wonderful mother who I can’t ever remember saying that I couldn’t/shouldn’t do something or like something or be something just because I was a girl […] I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. Although I didn’t think I ever consciously took that on board when I was a kid . . . I reckon it did manage to seep in. And I reckon I reacted to it just the way Stina Leicht did, by rebelling against everything girlish[…] Because being a girl isn’t safe.”
Kate Elliot (guest-posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “What I saw was that the things I yearned for–adventure, travel, sword fights, the excitement engaged in by characters in the fiction I loved to read–and the things I had–ambition to strive for lofty goals, an inner drive, a questing mind that wanted to discover–were things that society and literature and film told me were reserved for boys. When I was in 7th grade and twelve years old, my Language Arts teacher […] gave us a questionnaire of “fill in the blank” questions meant, I suppose, to make us think about our selves and our lives […] The last question was the most open-ended one: “I wish . . . ”
I wrote: I wish I was a boy.
What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.
Being a girl was second-class, even in some ways shameful. Boys got the good things, they were clearly seen to be better, it was obviously better to be a boy, and furthermore, the dreams I had and the desires and hopes were boy dreams, not girl dreams.”
N.K. Jemisin (guest posting at The Fantasy Book Cafe): “I did what I could to reject the GIRL box whenever I could. To that end I’d started reading science fiction — but never fantasy, because fantasy was girly […] Fantasy was full of women in scraps of stupid-looking armor, being rescued or having relationships or healing people or something. Science fiction was full of men going places and doing things […] Then I clearly remember thinking, but I’m a girl. And that was it. It wasn’t an especially shocking realization, but it was a profound one. In that moment I began to understand: the problem wasn’t that some books were infested with girl cooties; the real problem was my irrational fear of girliness. And myself.”
Did you spot it?
It’s fairly obvious, but I’ll paraphrase it for practicality’s sake. When they were young, these women all went through a period where they wanted to be a boy and/or they hated being a girl.
[Cue Sigmund Freud jumping out and yelling “PENIS ENVY” at the top of his lungs. Calm down, Freud]
I don’t know about other people, but I find these stories very hard to read. To me, they show how, from a very young age, we teach girls to hate themselves, to think of themselves as second class, as worthless, as unsafe. Even smart, strong, successful women like Kate Elliot, N.K. Jemisin, Stina Leicht and Kirstyn McDermott – women who I might (stupidly) expect to have been unaffected by the negative effects of sexism (again, very stupid assumption) – had to go through a long, sometimes painful, phase where they reconciled themselves to their status as women.
And no one should have to reconcile themselves to their gender.
[Quick side-note: Obviously this particular “I want to be a boy” phenomenon is quite different from transgendered people, whose gender identity does not match their birth sex. But transgendered people shouldn’t have to reconcile themselves to their birth sex either; they should be able to safely live as the gender they identify with.//End side note//]
But this phenomenon is not restricted to the four women listed above. If I take a moment to think about it, I can list at least two or three close female friends who have admitted to going through “boy” phases. I can certainly think of more who have deliberately rejected anything “girly.” And then, when I talked to my mother about these stories, she said she’d felt exactly the same way when she was a kid. She’d gone through a phase where she decided she didn’t like being a girl, so she dressed like a boy, talked like a boy and adopted “boy” mannerisms [I saw the pictures. There is proof]. Which shocked the hell out of me, because I’ve always thought my mother was extraordinarily comfortable in the way she expressed her gender identity.
When I think about it, it’s staggeringly common, this desire to be a boy. And on an intellectual level, I completely understand it. Being a girl in our society means not being safe. Being a girl means being judged according to norms which, for all the changes in the past fifty years, are still very traditional. Being a girl means your body is public property. Being a girl means that your rights are a political ping-pong ball; a”hot-button issue.” Being a girl means people feel free to tell you to shut up, sit down and make them a sandwich.
Wanting to be a boy – or at least, not wanting to be a girl – makes total sense.
So why didn’t I ever want to be one?
Because I never did. I’ve thought about this a lot in the past couple weeks, and I cannot, for the life of me, think of any period in my life where I wanted to be a boy. I can’t even think of a period when I really rejected “femininity” (whatever that means) [ Sure, I went through a phase where I decapitated my barbie dolls and buried them in the backyard… but I was always a morbid child]. I have a lot of moments where I wish I were as free as a boy, or where I wish I could walk at night and be safe like a boy, or where I wish that women were paid the same amount as men. But I never wanted to be a boy.
Which is strange. When I was a kid, I read tons of science fiction and epic fantasy – traditionally “male” genres. For years, my greatest ambition was to be – I kid you not – a warrior. I spent hours practicing side kicks against an tree in our backyard. I still have a big heavy stick in my room I used to practice “staff fighting.” Somewhere in my house ( I will not reveal where) is a diary where I recorded my “training” sessions (Hey, don’t judge me, okay? At least I wasn’t plotting the nuclear apocalypse). I wasn’t quite a tomboy, but I was pretty close.
So given how much of my identity was “male” oriented, why didn’t I ever want to be a boy?
On some level, I think I knew, even from a young age, that girls could do anything they wanted to, and the problem wasn’t with girls, it was with people and institutions who didn’t get that. So yes, I could read science fiction as a girl, and yes, I could beat a tree to a pulp as a girl, and there wasn’t anything wrong with me.
But I don’t think this belief came because I was smarter or wiser or better educated than girls who did go through a “I want to be a boy” phase.
I think it was because of books.
Kate Elliot: “After that, at the tender age of 15, I decided I had had enough of there not being anyone like me even in my own stories. I decided to write about girls, about women–about men, too–but women in equal space and equal importance to the story. This was not a small decision. It went against what I saw when I read; it went against received wisdom, especially in adventure stories […] I realized that in my own small way I might help overturn this diminishment of female lives not only by portraying women in diverse ways that allowed women a full range of personalities, occupations, roles, and stories, but also by respecting the centrality and importance of the women’s work so often considered (often by women) trivial, demeaning, and lesser.”
Tamora Pierce: “Why do I write so many strong female characters? When I was a kid, 7-8 books out of all books written for kids through teens had boy heroes. Those that had girl heroes showed them at “feminine” pursuits, or if they were a little feisty, a male hero had to bail them out by book’s end (…) When I encountered fantasy, I had the same problem: virtually no girl heroes. The ones I found, adult women all, settled down, hated other women, or died. I didn’t understand why there were no girls (or those that existed were severely compromised) in the adventure books, so I began to write what I wanted to read: adventure books with girl heroes.”
Kate Elliot and Tamora Pierce didn’t see female characters, so they started writing them. You know who else did that? Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr., Patricia Wrede, Louise Fitzhugh, N.K. Jemisin, Gail Carson Levine, Robin McKinley, Seanan McGuire, Nancy Farmer – the list goes on. And on. There are droves of female authors who grew up reading books with almost no female protagonists, and who turned around and said: “Screw that. I’m writing about chicks.”
And guess who grew up reading those books?
I read Tamora Pierce. I read Robin McKinley. I read Madeleine L’Engle. I read Harriet the Spy and Ella Enchanted and Dealing with Dragons. I read The Babysitter’s Club (yes, The Babysitter’s Club, you gotta problem with that?). I read Nancy Farmer. I devoured Sailor Moon and Yoko Tsuno. I read Hope was Here and Born Confused.
In these books girls were the heroes – all kinds of heroes. They were knights and policewomen, spies and politicians, ordinary students and fashion experts, electricians and caterers, waitresses and magic girls, aliens and historians – oh my!
So if I didn’t see my girlhood as limiting me, it was because in the world of my reading, there were no limits to what a girl could be, or to how she could save the day.
You know why I wanted to be a warrior when I was a kid? Because I was reading Tamora Pierce. You know why I didn’t see being a warrior as a “male” pursuit? Because Tamora Pierce’s warriors were female. Even in the Alanna series, when Alanna was the only female knight, there were other women warriors [Thayet and Buri, to name a few]. So when I was pounding that tree into a pulp, I was doing it in the grand tradition of Keladry of Mindelan, Buriram Tourakom, Alanna the Lioness and Daja Kisubo (although I’m sure none of them would be silly enough to practice kicking on a tree).
Eventually, my warrior ways (god, this is embarrassing. I’m so glad this blog is under a pseudonym) – prompted me to take Tae-Kwon-Do lessons. Which was lovely, except for the fact that the instructors would always try to goad male students by saying:
“Are you going to get a girl beat you?”
[Spoiler warning: Yes]
Or: “You hit like a girl!”
[No shit, Sherlock. I am a girl]
But you know what? Even though that bothered the hell out of me (and it went straight into my growing realization that “Wow, people are kind of sexist”) – I knew better. I knew no one could joust like Keladry of Mindelan or swordfight better than Alanna the Lioness. I knew no one was stealthier than Harriet the Spy or braver than Usagi (AKA: Sailor Moon) or more loyal than Dimple Lala. I knew no one was cleverer than Ella and no one was smarter than Yoko Tsuno.
I knew that there was nothing shameful with being “like a girl.”
And someday, everyone else was going to figure it out.
So to all those authors who grew up wishing to be boys. Who grew up knowing that being a girl was unsafe, that being a girl made you “lesser than.” To all of you who then turned around and said: “Screw this, I’m writing about chicks.” Who said “girl can be the heroes.” Who were brave enough, and strong enough, and determined enough, to fight the good fight. Who told the people who thought there was no market for girl heroes “You’re wrong” and who got those books published anyways.
To all those authors, in short, who made it possible for me to have a shelf upon shelf of fantastic books with smart, strong, independent women as heroes.
I have never wanted to be a boy. I have always been happy to be a girl. And it’s because you showed me that being a girl was great.
And to all those people who say “but it’s just a book/a video game/ a comic book. It’s not real. Everyone knows it’s not real. So it doesn’t affect you. Now stop complaining about the lack of female/queer/people of color/ disabled/etc. characters and go make me a sandwich.”
I say: “You’re wrong. And go make yourself that sandwich. Git.”
[Giant disclaimer: the state of fiction is nowhere near equitable enough, either when it comes to female characters, or to other marginalized character s(queer, people of color, trans, disabled etc.). In fact, even though I read a lot of books with female protagonists as a child, I still read more books with male protagonists (and that was with me actively trying to FIND books with female protagonists). We’re not there yet. But the fight is worth it.]