Angi Becker Stevens desperately wanted to be one of the boys growing up, and eventually realized that her entire self-worth was dependent on boys’ opinions of her.
As I remember it, I spent my early childhood in a refreshingly gender-neutral manner; I was equally fond of Legos and Barbies, Matchbox cars and model trains and My Little Pony. In school, I spent my time with a group of girls, mostly by default. At home, as an only child without many playmates in the neighborhood, I was often more interested in reading and writing stories than anything else. By the time I reached early adolescence, however, something shifted. I wanted to be one of the boys.
It’s important to note that I never actually had any confusion or discomfort with my assigned gender; I was perfectly content with my female body, or at least as much as anyone is ever comfortable in their own skin during those awkward years. This would be a much different story were it actually one of realizing my gender was male. But I simply decided at some point that I preferred the company of boys. I always maintained a close relationship with one girlfriend, who I could pass countless hours with reading Sassy magazine and watching Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp movies and agonizing over our latest crushes.
But when it came to being part of a group, I found myself far more comfortable surrounded by boys than by girls. I lacked any athletic ability, an unfortunate curse for a would-be tomboy. But an early onset of puberty had given me a height advantage over all the boys in my class, and I could hold my own playing rough with them. My mom thought it was great when, on a class trip, she overheard one of my male friends telling another “Don’t mess with Angi, she’ll kick your ass.”
I didn’t just want to spent my time with the boys, I wanted to emulate them. I listened to their grunge music (which I legitimately preferred to the girls’ pop), I wore the same name brand sweatshirts and Adidas soccer shoes, I read the same books (again, which I genuinely enjoyed) about dragons and elves. I kept up on college basketball and begged my mom to buy me the latest, bloodiest Sega fighting games.
And most importantly, I was not a wimp. I did not show emotion. I laughed at dirty jokes (and often explained to my male friends what they meant). I took great care to craft an image of myself as the girl who was not grossed out by things like spit or toads or blood, who didn’t mind scraping a knee or getting dirty, who swore like a boy and could dish out insults as well as I could take them. I prided myself, more than anything, on being nothing at all like a girl.
As feminists, I think we tend to celebrate young women for acts of gender disobedience, and I think that celebration is not entirely unwarranted. Traditional female roles are clearly in many ways more repressive than traditional male roles, and it’s easy to romanticize the women and girls who brazenly reject that repression. But to view all girlhood acts of gender non-conformity as necessarily positive strikes me, now, as an oversimplification.
All these years later, when I look back on my adolescence, it seems that rather than being progressive, it was actually quite anti-feminist. After all, it wasn’t as if I had liberated myself from caring what the boys thought of me; on the contrary, my entire life centered on proving myself and gaining their approval. Sure, I was seeking their approval as one of their own rather than aspiring to a standard of femininity, but the end result was the same: It was the boys I looked to as determiners of my worth.
It would have been much different if I had seen prescribed feminine roles as unappealing. But I mistook those artificial stereotypes for the reality of who and what girls and women were, and felt a general distaste for the girls themselves. I valued the boys’ opinions more. I associated all things masculine with being cool, fun, interesting. I associated femininity with weakness, and considered my female classmates for the most part to be shallow and frivolous. I was as insulted as any 12-year-old boy would be when told that I “spit like a girl.”
And while many aspects of my boyish identity were certainly authentic—I am still not, and never have been, a particularly feminine woman—it would be a lie to say I was any less caught up in playing and fulfilling a certain ideal than my female peers were. To make matters worse, I still longed pitifully for the boys’ romantic interest as well. Twenty years later, I still feel a pang at the memory of early heartbreaks: the first boy I ever held hands with, on a field trip to the symphony, later telling me that it would never happen in front of anyone. A few years down the road, a painful conversation with a close friend I was hopelessly smitten with: I asked him, what if he enjoyed spending time with a girl, had a ton in common with her, but found her unattractive? He told me that hypothetical-but-obviously-me girl would be his friend, but never his girlfriend.
Those are just two brief examples, but my youthful romantic disappointments were numerous enough to fill page after page of the wirebound notebooks I poured my heart into. On a few occasions, I decided out of frustration that I needed to show these guys I was, in fact, a female—possible girlfriend-material—and I did something out of character, like wear a skirt to school. But the boys responded by mocking me just as severely as if one of them had suddenly donned a dress, and I only ended up humiliated and longing for a pair of jeans. My entire self-worth was dependent on male opinion. I wanted both to be respected as a boy and desired as a girl, and felt continuously that I failed at both—especially the latter. In hindsight, it was hardly a feminist ideal.
I see echoes of my own adolescence in many of the double-standards we live with in our society, a society that still values men and masculinity much higher than women and femininity. This hierarchy is evident in childhood, when it’s far more acceptable for little girls to break gender barriers by playing with trucks and climbing trees than it is for boys to wear princess dresses and have tea parties. And it is evident in adulthood, where it is often applauded as an achievement when women enter traditionally “masculine” careers, but men are frequently still looked down on for entering into “pink-collar” fields like nursing or teaching.
The message we are constantly sent is that masculinity is superior, and so it makes sense for women to aspire to be more like men. Femininity is weak and inferior, and for a man to renounce his manhood and aspire to be more like a woman is appalling. This is the society in which the most insulting word an adolescent boy—and some tomboys—can imagine being called is “girl.”
I certainly don’t mean to suggest in any way that girls really are naturally feminine, and the path to equality is simply to give femininity equal value. I absolutely reject such essentialist views of gender, and believe the reality is that we are each unique, complex combinations of so-called “masculine” and “feminine” traits, some of us falling closer to one end of the spectrum or the other, without any necessary correlation to our biological sex. But I also believe that when we associate all things feminine with inferiority, that’s patriarchy at work. And I know that my adolescent desire to be one of the boys was born of a belief that boys were ultimately more valuable human beings. Instead of being liberating, my years as a would-be tomboy were built on a foundation of internalized sexism that has taken me years to untangle.
I think it’s vital that we support gender non-conformity in kids, and that we learn to recognize gender as more of a spectrum than a binary. But as we do so, we have to be mindful not to hold any one place on that spectrum to a higher esteem than all the others. When my daughter went through her princess-worship phase, and her bedroom began to resemble the nexus of all things pink in the universe, I wondered where on earth this child had come from. But—though we had critical and age-appropriate conversations about the flaws in the fairytales—I indulged her. Because as much as some part of me wanted to see her put down the Cinderella doll and go play with some toy trucks in the mud, I did not want to teach her that “girly” equals bad.
The princess obsession eventually dissipated, but not due to any discouraging on my part. My daughter is 9 now, and just the other day she said to me “I’m glad I’m not an over-the-top tomboy, and I’m also not an over-the-top girly girl.” I’m glad, too. But what’s most important to me is that she’s authentically herself, not trying to conform to anyone’s idea of who she should be. And that’s the kind of gender-freedom I want for all of us.
Angi Becker Stevens lives in the metro-Detroit area, where she is an active member of The Organization for a Free Society. Her writing on feminism and other forms of social justice has appeared in such places as RH Reality Check, the Ms. Magazine blog, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. Her first collection of short fiction will be available in 2014 from Aqueous Books.