booknotes: the truth about boys and girls

I have recently discovered NetGalley, an online resource for requesting e-book versions of forthcoming titles from a wide variety of publishers. As a blogger and librarian, I was able to sign upi for an account and I've requested a handful of titles. It's my first true foray into the work of e-book reading. Verdict so far: meh on e-books in general, but I'm totally down with electronic advance review copies. It makes distributing ARCs so much more cost effective for publishers, which in turn makes it much more likely they'll be willing to share them with bloggers who might review the book but have no purchasing budget.

The first galley I read was The Truth About Boys and Girls: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett. Rivers and Barnett are the team that brought us Same Difference (2004), which tackles the work of scientists who claim that men and women are innately different in their psychological makeup. The Truth About Boys and Girls picks up this same subject, but focuses specifically on the way claims about innate gender difference are a) unsupported by rigorous scientific research, and b) continue to have potent persuasive power among parents, teachers, policymakers, and others involved in shaping the everyday life of children. This thesis is not going to be news to anyone who moves in feminist circles, so I would caution that unless you want to stay current on all the publications in this area, a quick skim of this book is likely all that is in order. Maybe I'm biased toward the overly technical and detailed, but when it comes to reviews of the relevant scientific research on this subject, I've found Rebecca Jordan-Young's Brainstorm and Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender to be the best critiques out there.

Still, this is a highly-readable book that might serve as an introduction to the topic, particularly those who feel at sea fairly quickly amidst scientific jargon. The chapters are arranged to take on the major areas of supposed gender difference: ability with maths, ability with language, empathy and caring, physical aggression, and several chapters at the end specifically targeted toward the rising popularity of sex-segregated classrooms (and the myth that sex-segregation enhances learning for both boys and girls).

The most frightening take-away from this book, I found, was the reminder that our world is becoming more not less invested in the idea of innate gender difference. As Barnett and Rivers point out in their introduction, "It's ironic that as neuroscience tells us more and more about the similarity of our brains, popular culture incessantly beams the opposite message, drowning out the real story" (5). Both girls and boys are harmed by these difference stereotypes (girls consistently being told they will under-perform in math and science, for example, thus increasing the likelihood due to stereotype threat that they will meet those low expectations). However, it's particularly striking to see how -- in our current cultural climate, at least -- boys are particularly vulnerable to the straightjacket of gendered expectations. Girls, at least, have alternate and fairly prominent voices advocating for them: they might get relentlessly marketed to by the Disney princess line and told they can't do math because their brains don't work that way ... but they also (most likely) have adults in their lives who encourage them to play soccer, ride bicycles, or take on leadership roles. The "boy crisis" panic of recent years, rather than focusing on the harm that gender stereotyping does to boys has actually focused mostly on reinforcing those stereotypes in ever-more extreme ways:
Out of this crucible of alarm, a particular image of the 'typical' boy has emerged in many media reports: he's unable to focus, can't sit still, hates to read, acts up in class, loves sports and video games, and gets in trouble a lot. Indeed, such boys do exist -- it has long been established that boys suffer more from attention deficit disorder than girls do -- and they need all the help they can get. But research shows that this picture does not reflect the typical boy. Boys, in fact, are as different from one another as they are from girls. Nonetheless, some are advocating boys-only classrooms in which boys would be taught in boot-camp fashion (78).
And a few pages later, summarizing the recommendations of author Leonard Sax:
A boy who likes to read, who does not enjoy contact sports, and who does not have a lot of close male friends has a problem, even if he thinks he is happy (89).
Although the authors don't overtly connect such panic about masculine behavior to homophobia, I have to say the above sentence fairly screams with "oh my god what if he has teh gay!" Later on, in the chapter about "rough and tumble" play, the authors do note that adult interpretation of children's play as conforming to gender stereotypes might actually be subverting them or otherwise working around those expectations in interesting ways. Rough and tumble play, they suggest "gives boys an acceptable medium for being physically close in cultural or social environments that otherwise discourage such behavior" (114). Obviously this doesn't mean that all physical closeness is homoerotic to the participants, but it does suggest that in a society that discourages boys from physical intimacy with one another and/or with girls -- physical closeness that most human beings need regardless of gender -- play that adults read as "masculine" and aggressive might actually be a way of meeting the human need for touch.

Like Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender, Rivers and Barnett emphasize the degree to which children perform gender based on the modeling and perceived expectations of the adults around them. For example, they note that the majority of research of the group behavior of children is conducted in school settings -- sites where adults are constantly reminding children that they are gendered beings (from the greeting of "good morning boys and girls!" to sorting children into male and female groups for recess).  Recent research on play behavior among children has found that in spaces where gender is not brought to the fore by adults -- for example in unstructured neighborhood play -- children are less likely to fall into gendered patterns of behavior, and to seek playmates across gender lines.

"In short," Barnett and Rivers write toward the end of The Truth, "the differences within each sex are greater than the differences between the sexes. It makes no sense to talk about boys and girls as if they were homogeneous groups that are different enough to warrant separate educational treatment" (180). "Not only do single-sex public schools violate constitutional principles, but they deprive our children of important learning opportunities and run the very real risk of reinforcing the toxic sex stereotypes that are rampant in our society" by encouraging children to think that boys and girls are so wholly alien from one another they can't even learn side-by-side.

Hopefully our society will get the message sooner or later. In the meantime, I can only say that I'm glad that there are so many feminist parents out there who are encouraging their daughters and sons to carry on bravely being who they are rather than what the outside world insists they ought to become.

1 comment:

  1. Pet peeve: when parents shake their heads and proudly describe how "naturally" their male and female children act out our culture's masculinity and femininity, with the apparent conviction that their children (who watch television, go to preschool, talk to people, live in the world) could not possibly have learned anything from the culture around them. It feels like they have trouble believing that Noah exists. A boy who's not "A Boy" (loud, trouble-making, rough, unkind, dirty, risk-taking, only interested in playing with other boys, uninterested in all things pretty)? Unpossible.

    Parenting culture and children's culture do seem to me to be far more restrictive and insistent in terms of gender than when you and I were little. Toy ads are WAY more gendered, as are clothes, rooms, etc. It really worries me. Where are we going? And everybody else seems to think that, compared to the 80s, we're living in an equality paradise where 'we don't need feminism anymore'? Awesome.