SciGirls and the Fine Art of Being a Boy

It seems like a while since I blogged anything, and it’s somewhat unlike me to let the entire Lenten/Easter season pass me by unacknowledged, but Easter seemed to sneak up on me this year in a way I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t have much to say, and I’ve never been very good at nattering on about nothing in particular.

Anyway, here I am again, with something to say:

My kids have discovered a new TV show that they love. It’s called SciGirls and, as the name implies, it’s a group of girls that do various sciency things, run investigations and experiments and try to answer the question of the day.

It’s a combination of live-action exchanges between real women in various scientific fields and school-age girls asking them questions with an animated overarching story that exists to set up the question of the day. If the overarching story is more than a little contrived, the science is real enough, and usually interesting.

Raising a pair of daughters of whom one is the epitome of nerdette tomboyishness and the other is more conventionally girly but still loves anything sciency, this is a great show, and one I can unequivocally get behind. Girls that do science. How cool is that?

And yet.

I have to wonder whether we aren’t creating future problems for ourselves with educating boys.

Hear me right, this is a worthy concept and a great show. It’s important that both girls and boys be shown that girls doing science isn’t something weird or unfeminine. I’m certainly not saying that girls would be better off learning something “traditional” like Home Economics or some such. Within the spectrum of personality and capability, there are indeed girls that love and are good at “boy” things (like science and mathematics), just as there are boys that are good at traditionally “girl” things like art and cookery. Rigid enforcement of gender roles is not now and never has been the answer.

But as I remember my own childhood and look at my own son’s development, I find myself uncomfortably wondering what it’s going to be like for him to try to discover what it is to be a boy in a world where there are no “boy” things any more.

When I was a kid, by and large the girls played House and the boys played War. Girls didn’t want to play War because there were no good girl roles in how we played it, and boys didn’t want to play House because we had only the vaguest idea of what our dads actually did out at work all day (and I’m old enough that it was usually traditionally arranged with the father going out to work and the mother staying at home to manage the household) and the only other boy roles were the kids, and that meant being bossed around by whichever girl was playing the mama.

These days, home situations are complex and confusing enough that no-one knows how to play House, if they even want to (it was always pretty boring to me) and they’ve probably banned the playing of War. In these times the kid’s about as likely to have a soldier for a mother as for a father, which means there are now good girl roles for the game, but we can’t have our kids playing something violent and jingoistic like War, can we?

The point of this reminiscence is that there’s a stage in kids’ development where they start to become aware of the different genders. No, I don’t mean when boys discover girls and girls discover boys in the romantic sense, I mean the age when boys begin to avoid anything contaminated by the presence of girls and when girls begin to think that boys are stupid. The age of, to use the wonderful American word, cooties. For my Brit readers who don’t have this useful Americanism, “cooties” are the mythical gender germs that make “boy stuff” unpalatable to girls and “girl stuff” unacceptable to boys. For my American readers, we Brits have the idea of cooties, we just don’t have as succinct and useful a term for it.

As enlightened adults, we don’t like to see the exclusivity of “boys only” games or the cloaked bullying of gender taunts, and while a lot of complete crap has gone on in the past under the general heading of Boys Being Boys, there is a valuable developmental purpose to the Age of Cooties.

The Age of Cooties is unformed minds groping their way towards an understanding of what it means to be male and female, and in boys, it manifests itself most typically in an avoidance of anything that girls do. At that age, gender identity is a matter of externals as much as it’s anything; men and boys do men things, women and girls do women things. As they continue to develop, gender identity becomes more and more a matter of numinous internals, but they have to pass through the Age of Cooties first.

And herein lies the problem.

As a society, we seem fundamentally confused about what gender identity really is. The old rigid gender role separation just looks like cooties for the adult world, but at the same time we’ve come up with ideas like “transgenderedness”, in which a female psyche is believed to inhabit a male body (why does it always seem to be that way round?) which I can’t help but view as effectively claiming the theologically-unacceptable that God made a mistake when He assigned my gender.

In trying to come out of our societal Age of Cooties, we’ve rightly recognised that women can do at least as good a job as a man in just about everything. We encourage women to go and excel in the traditionally male fields of military service, law enforcement, medicine, political leadership, science and so on. And this is a Good Thing. No, more than that; it’s a Really Good Thing. No-one is holding my girls back, and most of us have stopped trying.

But given the way the Age of Cooties manifests itself in boys – in an avoidance of “girly” activities and behaviours – I have to wonder whether all this right inclusion of girls won’t end up denying these fields to young boys.

We’ve rightly said to the boys that you have to let girls be doctors, be wage-earners, be managers and leaders, do science, go into combat. It is the enlightened stance that any and all of these are now appropriate for girls to do. We aren’t misogynist dinosaurs any more, I hope.

But if being a soldier is something girls do (and it is), what boy in the throes of their cootie developmental stage is going to want to be a soldier? If being a political or business leader is something girls do (and it is; if you come from a nation that has a queen, it’s really difficult to be against women in leadership), what boy in their Age of Cooties is going to think of it as a “boy thing” too? That’s not usually how it works.

And this brings me back to SciGirls.

I’m really happy with the show from the perspective of a father of daughters. It’s actively and presently cool. But as a former boy and current father of a son, I can’t help but feel a certain level of discomfort.

We stood by and let you make leadership a girl thing. We took the point that leadership ability doesn’t segregate neatly by gender any more than athletic ability does. We stood by and let you make military service a girl thing, recognising that if you have the desire and the physical ability then you should not be barred from something just because of the shape of your reproductive organs. We stood by and let you make combat service a girl thing, for the same reasons.

We had a good long struggle with letting women into the pulpit, but most of us recognise that if God genuinely gifts a woman with a preaching gift that it would be a sin to deny her the platform to use it.

And now you’re making science a girl thing. I wouldn’t mind something like SciGirls showing girls taking the lead in the sciences and doing the stuff, except that if you call it “SciGirls”, you can’t have a boy doing it too. The boy on SciGirls is there to have a problem caused by being ignorant or stupid and to call on the girls to rescue him. Like that’s any more of a positive role model for boys than it was for girls. And if you have a science show for teen and preteen girls on your network, that’s going to fill your “science show” slot and you probably aren’t going to also have a science show for equivalent-age boys, so science is now, according to children’s TV, exclusively a girl thing.

Part of the problem is that we seem to be making an assumption that young boys are going to keep on going into these fields anyway, so we are free to show it as an exclusively girl thing. And the only way we’re going to get the girls we desperately need in these fields is if we show it as an exclusively girl thing, because having a mixed-gender crew of juvenile problem-solvers Hasn’t Worked. I’m not so sure this assumption is accurate. I was one of the least “cootie-thinking”-dominated boys I knew as a child, but even I would have balked at SciGirls, asking why we couldn’t have some SciBoys as well. SciGirls is by definition girls doing science. It’s a Good Thing, but there’s nothing in that for boys.

And with every step, the world of masculinity contracts. What are we left with that isn’t something girls do? Heavy construction? Not so. My sister-in-law is in that field, and my own company has several women running dump-trucks and other equipment. Worldwide Wrestling Entertainment? Yeah. Ballet choreography for the overmuscled, with women reduced to the status of eye-candy announcers. Like that‘s something we want our sons to grow up to do. Really, we need to have better answers as a society for what masculinity is about than just a list of things we do, because we ourselves can show you women excelling in every single area we want to name.

Seriously, this is a vital stage of gender differentiation in young boys, and it’s beginning to look like we aren’t letting them go through it. We require boys to let the girls play, and rightly so, but in doing so we deny them the space they need to be boys.

We already have a gender problem with boys dropping out of school. If the subjects that they formerly had as a semiexclusive province get remade into girl things, are more boys going to be inclined to drop out? I don’t know, but I worry about the possibility.

I don’t have any answers, or even any ideas. I don’t advocate going back to a rigid separation of gender roles that never did us any good, but I do think we need to come up with some better concepts of what masculinity is all about. We need more men teaching our children, so that they can see good models of people being adults of both genders. We need to let our girls study science and mathematics and whatever else they want to without denying them the opportunity because those are “boy things”. But we also need to let our boys study and do traditional “girl things” if they want without raising questions about their gender identity. They’ll get enough of that from their peers without us adding to it.

Men can dance, for instance, using an activity that fell into my own personal “girl stuff” category, but they should do so in a manly way.

Maybe what we need is to abolish the categories of “boy things” and “girl things”, but I have a feeling that boys are going to create these categories anew by themselves as they go through the cootie developmental stage. I remember thinking things like “I don’t want to get out there and dance! It’s something girls are doing!” No-one told me that dancing was for girls; I knew of several famously good dancers who were men. But because most if not all of the people willing to get up and strut their stuff were girls, it was nonetheless a Girl Thing; that is, not a Boy Thing.

So what are we to do? Can we both include girls and give boys space to discover their masculinity? How do we go about it? If masculinity isn’t about what you do (and it isn’t), what are we, as a society, going to aver that it is about?

It’s a thorny nest of problems, and one that I have no answer for. Just asking the questions is not enough, but I’m afraid it’s all I’ve got right now.