Friday, 12 November 2010

Girls & Boys

This is a subject that's always been near and dear to my heart, but following recent reads, recent blogs of mine and recent discussions, it's very much at the forefront of my mind.

I do not believe there is any real, significant, fundamental difference between girls and boys based on their gender.

Let me elaborate: I've been an owner of animals since I got my first cat aged four; I've had pets of both sexes and been around animals of different sexes pretty much all my life, and I can state with confidence that I have never noticed any significant difference in personality (and believe me, animals have their own personality, but that's a blog for another day) based on their gender. Sure, male dogs with hump things, male peacocks will flash their colourful tails, male cats spray their territory while females physically cannot...I don't deny their are clear differences physically between the genders, and I am sure that these physical differences can have an impact on behaviour - the influence of hormones is not something I am inclined to argue against.

However, when it comes to personality traits like having a temper, liking this or that, being kind, having a gentle nature, wanting things clean, preferring things messy - I'm pretty sure it's bollocks to say this is in any way related to gender (beyond social influences, which I'll get to) and to state that "men and women are different" is reductive and insulting. To both sexes.

I love violent video games and paintballing and the toy I wanted most as a kid was
Scalextric (and one day I will damned well own one); I like playing Grand Theft Auto and taking the stolen pixilated cars on a rampage through the make-believe city; I mostly wear trousers and trainers and I'm partial to a pint in the pub while watching football or rugby on the big screen.

I also enjoy horse-riding, like wearing make-up, enjoy baking and cooking, melt into a puddle of gooey emotion around cats, especially kittens, cry like a baby when someone dies in a film (yep, I even cry at
Titanic, god help me) and dream of owning an Alessi-stocked kitchen.

I don't like any of these things because I'm a girl. I like them because I'm me, the product of my DNA, my family background, and the people I choose to be friends with. A combination of nature and nurture, in which I'm sure having double-X chromosomes does play a part - but that double-X doesn't tell the whole story, and frankly presuming it does is an insult to me.

If I said, "Bill likes x because he's gay", that would be homophobic. If I said, "Kate likes x because she's black", that would be racist.

So why isn't it sexist, and therefore just as offensive, to say "Julie likes x because she's a girl"? Why isn't sexism socially perceived to be just as bad as racism or homophobia?

Yes, society plays a huge part in how we turn out, and currently, most of Western society seems to think that people will behave in certain set ways based on their gender: boys like blue and football and astronauts; girls like pink and ponies and fairies (with pink fairy ponies obviously being the zenith of female desire). Yet by presuming that girls and boys are fundamentally different, we're perpetuating this misconception and taking an active part in continuing to support this fantasy gender-division.

If everyone around you expects you to like pink and hate football because you're a girl, then there is enormous
peer pressure on you to conform, to live up to expectations; it's a rare person who is strong enough to defy expectations, especially when you're a teenager. If your family, friends, role-models, TV and film characters, people in magazines and characters in books are all sending the same message ("You're a girl so you like x and hate y; you're a boy so you like y and hate x") then it begins to be seen as "normal"; and if you're not "normal", you're different; and different is bad.

What this attitude fails to take into account is everyone's own, individual, idiosyncratic personality. Kate likes x because she's Kate, not because she's gay/straight, female/male, Caucasian/Asian etc. Sure, ethnicity, race, religion, gender and sexuality all play a part in making you, you, but each individual aspect doesn't tell the whole story, and to say otherwise is, frankly, both old-fashioned and reductive, not to mention pretty offensive.

I often feel like I'm taking crazy pills when this issue comes up: most people think that there's true gender equality in British society at the moment (
there isn't) so what am I getting so riled up about; or they'll take offence that I am "insulting" them by presuming they are furthering the gender gap through their own actions and/or opinions; or they'll turn the issue into a joke, which is offensive to me in and of itself, as their facetious attitude implies my opinions are invalid and the issues at hand comical; or they'll just think I'm wrong, that there is a real difference between boys and girls, and to say otherwise makes me stupid (the patronising bastards).

I'm not the
only one to feel this way; but sometimes it sure as hell can feel like it. The worst thing is when this issue arises with someone I'm close to, and I suddenly realise that not only am I talking to a sexist; but I'm talking to a sexist who thinks I am in the wrong for challenging their beliefs on the gender divide.

What I also find very personally upsetting and distressing is the results of this socially-created gender divide: there's still a huge pay gap; it's presumed women will do the majority of the work raising children; women are seen to be the ones who should do the cooking and cleaning; women have to battle against preconceived, often contrary, notions of how they should behave in the workplace; women can have difficulty getting, or keeping, the same jobs as men; and most distressingly of all, women are much more likely to be perceived as sex-objects and therefore are more likely to be subject to sexual attack, either verbally, physically, or both.

Violence against women is a huge issue, and not one I'm going to get into here; pertinent information can be found at sites like End Violence Against Women and Womankind Worldwide.

What I will say is that, from my own personal experience, I have experienced sexual abuse because I'm female. I've been returning from the bar in a pub, hands full of drinks for me and my friends, and had a man grope my breasts and laugh at the shock on my face; I've been returning home on the train after a day's work and had my backside and breasts groped by strangers because they're drunk, returning from the football/rugby and felt entitled to do that to me; I've had offensive terms yelled at me in the street, and believe me I'm hardly dressed as or looking like "Page Three" material at the time, and I've worked in places where men have made sexist jokes, followed me around the warehouse floor so they can stare at me while I work, and speculated about my sex-life.

I find it hard to separate these issues in my mind: if you think men and women are fundamentally different, then you probably think one sex is better than the other; if you think one sex is better than the other, then you think one sex has the right to discriminate against the other; and if you think one sex has the right to discriminate against the other, you probably think one sex has the right to verbally and/or physically abuse the other - "look at the way she was dressed, she was asking for it"; "she came home with me, she was asking for it"; "she passed out drunk in public, she was asking for it". And no, I don't think sexual abuse is committed by men against women, but statistically that is what mostly happens.

Maybe I am prejudiced for making these associations, for thinking that because someone acknowledges and either plays along with, or panders to, these largely false gender divisions, they might end up discriminating against me, or another woman. But that's my problem - and to be honest, I'm yet to be convinced that I am wrong to make that association.

I don't think that just because someone I'm close to displays an old-fashioned or sexist attitude, they will end up committing sexual violence against me; but I do think their attitude contributes to perpetuating sexual discrimination which could lead other men to commit sexual violence. Perhaps that's reductive of me; but it's still what I fear is the consequence of their attitude.

So, is it just me, or is any one else railing against the prejudice around them and determined to try and change things for the future...?