Girls and Consequences

On the back of a recent SF Signal Mind Meld which asked a bunch of very smart women what genre books they would recommend to teenage girls, participant Stina Leicht penned some additional thoughts about the types of books that are often seen as “suitable” for girls to be reading as opposed to the types of books she thinks they should be reading, and why. It’s a good post and Leicht has some very interesting things to say about girls and growing up and the importance of young adult fiction in their lives.

One of the points she makes evokes the familiar argument that a person’s teenage years are where they get to experiment, make mistakes and generally practice how to be an adult, so they’ll be better at being adults when the time inevitably comes, and that fiction is an excellent — and safe — space in which to learn and practice. She also mentions the fact that teenage boys are usually more inclined to indulge in high-risk behaviours than girls of the same age, and suggests that it is therefore more important for girls to have access to “dangerous” books when they are growing up.

But it was a footnote to her post that really struck  me. In questioning why boys court risks more than girls, Leicht dismisses the oft-cited hormones as the culprit and instead offers the following suggestion:

It’s because girls run head-long into consequences much, much sooner than boys do. They 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 — not because I thought I was mistakenly born a girl, but because I was beginning to understand what was ahead and that the world did not like females. In fact, society at large might even hate females.

And then yesterday, I read a fantastic article about gender roles and fantasy which Kate Elliott wrote for Women in SF Month. Elliott talks about growing up as a tomboy in a rural community and how, at age twelve, her Language Arts teacher — who sounds amazing — asked the class to complete a sentence beginning, “I wish  . . .”:

I wrote: I wish I was a boy.

These days, that sentence could be interpreted in many ways. It could have been then, too, of course, but the conversation about gender in rural Oregon was a far more limited one. What she thought I don’t know. But I do know she called me aside and asked me about it privately. What did it mean to me that I said that? she asked me with concern.

What it meant to me was that it wasn’t worth being a girl.

Both these stories rang so true to me. 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. (Once or twice, when I was being particularly gross, she might have expressed an exasperated admonishment that I wasn’t being very ladylike. Huh? Who cared about being a lady!) I do remember being told such things by lots of other people, though — including some male relatives. And the consequences stuff? 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.

These days I’m constantly unpacking my thoughts about the colour pink, and my newly rekindled love of cooking, and whether or not to keep shaving my legs, and so many other things. Trying to work out how much of what I love and/or hate comes from a genuine personal response rather than a habitual reaction to/against The Feminine. (A process which, of course, is complicated by the recognition that those anti-feminine reactions are really just as “genuine” or otherwise as anything else I feel.)

Red Roses Doc MartensAnd here’s a odd thing that just popped into my head: I wear boots. Almost exclusively. Mainly flat-but thick-soled boots like Fluevogs or Doc Martens. (I adore my rose-embroidered Docs. Just look at them. Look at them. Now wipe the drool from your chin. Don’t worry, I’m doing it too and I already own a couple of pairs!*) Occasionally I wear more, ahem, ladylike boots with modest chunky heels or height boosted by platforms. I can’t remember the last time I owned a pair of normal women’s shoes with the standard pointy heels. I’ve never owned or worn heels more than two-and-a-half inches in height (platforms excluded — it’s the gradient that kills me) and I probably never will. I feel comfortable in boots. Often, I joke with friends about not wanting to wear any type of footwear that won’t allow me to break into a sprint at a moment’s notice. Except it’s not really a joke. Not even half a joke. When I say, “I feel comfortable in boots”, I don’t just mean physical comfort. I mean, “I feel safe in boots. I can run away if I need to.”

Because, in my head, wearing spiked stiletto heels isn’t safe. Because being a girl isn’t safe. And that’s precisely the sort of unconscious internalisation I’m talking about. Now, it’s not as though I go about my days with ears pricked and eyes darting about like a gazelle en route to the watering hole, but this is a genuine psychological underpinning that has helped define my choice of footwear as much as it has influenced my decision never to accept an invitation to an otherwise all male NFL drunken victory party.

Because being a girl isn’t safe.

This is a subject I want to come back to, but I need to think about it some more. Because it’s definitely worth thinking about.

* It was even a minor struggle to talk about my beloved boots like that because, as we all know, talking about shoes is the height of girlishness. See? The unpacking never ends.

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15 Comments

  1. Darn. Seems like every female writer I know was a tomboy. I wanted to be a tomboy, because that’s what all the girls in stories were, but in all tomboyish things I was a failure. I liked skirts and crafts and pink. Well, at least I got over the last one.

  2. I have almost never worn skirts, through my whole life. I just never did as a kid, and certainly not as a teen or young adult. I don’t remember whether this was a tomboy thing or what, but it did get to feeling like part of my identity. Last year I decided to try the whole skirts-thing, just to see whether I liked them – and to remind myself that I could be a ‘good feminist’ and do those sorts of things. Turns out, I quite like skirts. Of course, this was also when I started a new job, and OH THE FRETTING about how I might be perceived by people for wearing skirts!!

    Oh, the overthinking.

    Thanks for your post, Kirstyn.

    • You know, I feel quite different when I’m wearing a skirt or dress than when I’m wearing pants. Part of it is, I think, that a skirt/dress curtails your physical choices — the way you can sit, or bend over, or walk on a windy day. It makes me very aware of my clothing — my very feminine clothing — which in turn makes me constantly aware of my femaleness. Which, see above. I feel much more “gender-neutral” in pants, if that makes sense.

      • Pants and being gender-neutral does make sense, although interestingly I don’t usually feel much different in skirts. Probably because I’m not wearing tight or short skirts – actually sometimes pants feel more revealing, in an odd way! And I don’t have a problem with just striding along in a skirt in exactly the same way I do in pants 🙂
        Still, there is something of a difference in skirts. Even if it’s only other people’s perceptions.

  3. I wasn’t a tomboy, but I always hated some of the expectations that I was constantly bombarded with. When I was growing up, the first women got into West Point, but the only books I could find that had girls in them expected me to get married and have kids — and do nothing else. I never wore dresses, and have only worn very low high heels under duress (I have flat feet and my ankle rolls in them though, so I wear hiking boots, which keeps my ankles safe). I also don’t like the color pink that’s associated with girls. But I feel like the world is telling me I’m only the sum of my marketing, and I resent that.

    • Yep. Marketing is evil. It truly is. It reduces us all to fairly arbitrary categories, berates/belittles us when we don’t neatly fit those categories, and turns us into commodities … in order to make us consume other commodities. It’s a monster that I have no idea how to fight.😦

  4. I am the same way! I was a tomboy into my early 20s, and then i got a girly figure and wanted to wear more girly clothes but i would still rather be comfortable in jeans and sneakers then be all dressed up in make-up all the time🙂 I still to this day go back and forth about shaving my legs, and i like to read boy oriented books and play violent video games. I don’t understand the “princess complex” all the other girls my age had, and when i got barbie dolls I would interchange all their parts to make Frankenstein barbie, lol.

    Good post, I like these introspective/philosophical posts!
    -Emily Rose

  5. Hi Kirstyn,
    for some reason I read this post today. It is excellent and I agree with pretty much all of it. I was quite a tomboy (as in I could match it with the boys) but I liked my dolls, too but then I got breasts quite early and suddenly I was kinda frightened of the male gaze. When some garage mechanics called out “Cor, look at the boobs on her” when I was 12 I was mortified. to this day I do not wear close fitting garments and I am only just beginning to play with the idea of getting out those skirts and dresses I secretly buy because finally, I might just be able to “do” being a girl right. The things that happen to my female characters aren’t always just because they are female but a lot of the time it is. At least I’m learning how to write them stronger and capable now. And I’m learning to write them equal. When a teenager I HATED being a girl. Particularly in a Greek family with an older brother. I wanted to be a boy ‘cos they got all the breaks and only pretty girls stood half a chance and I was not that. I was smart, but who notices smarts when you’re a teenager? So I wasn’t a boy and I wasn’t good enough to be a girl.Damn!
    I believe that now, at last, I am coming to believe I am good enough to be a girl.
    Oh, and I want a pair of those rose embroidered boots, where might I purchase me some, please?🙂
    Lita

  6. Just as Kate Elliot stated, the term ‘tomboy’ merely means a young person who likes to be very active and, unfortunately, to be very active and outdoorsy still means to be boylike. I like to think that being very active, climbing trees, going on day adventures, is just as much a part of a girl’s repertoire as a boys, and wouldn’t require a special name for it.
    I’m also old enough to remember that pink was a bit of a girls colour when I was young, but not every bloody girl’s thing was pink. This is new, and this is marketing, and this is scary!
    Oh, and I love the boots. And yes, I do think about the shoe thing. Does being sexy for a woman have to mean being vulnerable? I hope not.

    • Vulnerable=sexy in women is very much a real thing, I’m afraid. It underlies so much of our cultural expression, it’s quite depressing. It was Poe who said, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world” and that trope is evident everywhere. Women crying — beautifully, always beautifully; that single falling tear and quivering lip, never bawling red-faced and sniffing back snot — is another. There’s an attractiveness we’re meant/made to feel about a women who is vulnerable and tragic and in need of rescuing. But that another whole blog post entirely!

  7. […] her blog, Kirstyn McDermott talks about shoes and safety.  I’ve had times when I felt the need to […]

  8. […] 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 […]


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