Saturday, January 5, 2008

What's So Bad About Being A Girl?

Walking through the bookstore in December, I stumbled across a display of bright turquoise books – The Daring Book for Girls. Flipping through its pages, chapters on how to tie knots, a section on how to short sheet a bed, tips for public speaking, and a chapter on modern women leaders, I knew that my nine year old godchild would love it. Later that evening before wrapping it up, I found myself reading some of the chapters aloud to my husband. Not only is there a chapter on how to make a lemon powered clock, but as an English teacher, I loved the chapter titled “Words to Impress.” My first thought was, “Finally, a book that doesn’t distinguish between activities being either ‘girly’ or ‘tom-boy’!” The chapter on “Knots and Stitches” is followed by a chapter on the rules for softball. The chapter on “How to Change a Tire” is followed by “How to Make Your Own Quill Pen.”

However, in the December issue of Philadelphia Magazine, Sandy Hingston declares, “If girls were buying this book for themselves, I’d be worried.” In her article “A Dangerous Book for Girls,” Ms. Hingston rebukes Andrea Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz’s new compilation as nothing more than a modern etiquette book meant to reinforce feminine stereotypes. In addition, she denounces the book for being a mere marketing ploy meant to ride on the success of the wildly popular and mildly controversial The Dangerous Book for Boys. In a patronizing tone, Ms. Hingston writes, “Where boys played rugby, girls would play hop-scotch. And where boys skinned rabbits, girls would…well, there really wasn’t anything analogous to that. Girls would learn Japanese t-shirt folding, though.” Her article begins with subtle jabs at the authors and quickly descends into venomous quips about how of course publishers would want to put out a comparable book for girls because “After all, there’s blue and pink. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Football and cheerleading. One water fountain for the white kids, and one for the …oh, wait.”

Her critique starts with the book’s “sparkly” cover, which she declares indicative of the stereotyping held within its pages. She highlights stereotypical chapters. “Take the chapter on ‘How to Negotiate a Salary.’ It quotes JFK (‘Let us never fear to negotiate’), suggests girls research the going rates, and advises them to smile and be friendly. Uh-huh. That’s how Rupert Murdoch made his.” In essence arguing that our goal should be to create an army of seven year old girl cut-throats? Ms. Hingston ends her diatribe by declaring the book as nothing more than a “big, sparkly vitamin pill” girls will be forced to take by well-intentioned but ill-informed adults. She seems to be arguing for a book for girls that pushes past anything traditionally considered feminine and instead wants a book for girls that includes…well, what? The same chapters as those found in The Dangerous Book for Boys? Why do we recoil from anything labeled feminine?

Ms. Hingston seems to be attacking the book from an American feminist stand-point. The American feminist position is one that tends to focus on equality and works to identify male privilege and create social change to provide women with similar privilege. An important and noble pursuit, especially given that women have been marginalized throughout history and to this day. However, such a stance can be viewed in contrast to the French feminist position. The French position, a feminism of difference, is one which is cognizant of historical and current ways that the feminine has been pathologized and suggests that there are uniquely feminine socially constructed attributes (not biological) which account for the differences between the genders. The danger in Ms. Hingston’s position, that is, one of a feminism of equality, is that it functions as a veiled and even more profound form of misogony in that all things thought to be stereotypically feminine are considered reprehensible. Do we really want a book for girls that contains the exact same chapters as the book for boys? Such a book would cover-over the real (albeit, socially constructed) gender differences between the masculine and the feminine, and would in fact support the idea that anything traditionally considered feminine was shameful. What would happen to the girls who enjoyed hop-scotch?

There is a tension between a feminism of equality, which at its extreme pathologizes the feminine, much like Ms. Hingston does in her critique of the Daring Book for Girls, and on the other side, a feminism of difference, which at its extreme can sink into biological essentialism, the sophmoric Mars vs. Venus argument. Is it possible to talk about gender, specifically feminine attributes, in a positive fashion without falling prey to these extremes?


Jennifer Ward said...

Thanks Andrea for such a kind and thoughtful email. I think that your book is a wonderful balance of all that it means to be female.

Penelope said...

This question is a huge struggle for modern feminism, that's for sure.

I am very frustrated by the way that American feminism seems to have got about halfway and stopped. Ok, we get the idea that women should be able to do what men do (if they want) and get paid the same, but then we forget to turn it around so that traditional 'female' things are just as privileged as the supposedly masculine ones. (Although, even the basics of a feminism of equality haven't been so successfully put into play in America either.) So basically, you're right, we need to somehow balance the feminism of equality with the feminism of difference.

Me? If I had a daughter (or a son) I'd buy both. We'd talk about how it was totally ok for them to do the things in either that they found fun.

(Spoken by a girl who played He-Man and Transformers with her older brother and dolls and ponies with her younger brother...)

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