Monday, May 16, 2005

just a little girl

Yesterday I went to the McDonald's playland with my son; I've been remembering a little girl (approximately 4 years old?) ever since. She was running around, jumping and climbing and moving very quickly and very agilely. As she did so, she chanted, "You'll never catch me!" After a few minutes of this another child approached and, apparently thinking that the other child was in fact trying to catch her, the little girl changed her tune to "No, I'm just a little girl! I'm just a little girl!"
I've been trying to imagine the circumstances under which that phrase became engrained in her mind. Was it when a well-meaning parent tried to explain to a bigger child that s/he had to be gentle with littler children? Was it because someone influential in her life truly believes - and says to her - that there are certain things that, as a little girl, she can't or shouldn't do?
I've also been wondering what exactly that phrase means to the little girl (and to millions of other little girls), and how that meaning will change as she grows up. Will it change to "I can't do math - I'm a girl" or to "I can't run or throw right - I'm a girl" or "Take care of me please - I'm just a girl" or even "When my boyfriend/husband/significant other hits me, what can I do? I'm just a girl"? Is she learning not only to doubt her own abilities but also to use femininity as a way to get out of doing things that she actually can do?

12 Comments:

At 11:17 AM, Blogger Drek said...

You raise some interesting points, though I wonder about the emphasis in the phrase. For you, the emphasis was, "I'm just a little girl." I wonder if, for the child, it was, "I'm just a little girl."

 
At 1:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, you’re raised some very important questions.

I think it’s interesting that when she thought she could never be caught, she taunted the others, implicitly claiming (and hopefully believing) that her speed/wile would protect her. However, when it became clear that she may in fact be caught, she shifted her strategy in her efforts to win this game that she was (ostensibly) playing with herself. It sounds to me like she is exploiting all the techniques at her disposal, even if this requires using gender stereotypes (which she doesn’t understand) of women being frail, non-athletic or whatever. If she understands women as being delicate flowers, then this is hugely problematic, albeit not too surprising (just take a look at toddler’s clothing – boys are made of more durable, dark colored (read: don’t show stains!) fabrics with shorts, whereas girls’ clothing is made of pale colored, flowered, more delicate fabrics. And again compare boys and girls toys – boys’ toys typically limited to games requiring problem solving or physical activity, girls’ domestic talent). However, it almost seems as though this little girl was using gender stereotypes AGAINST this little boy. In other words, she was using them – when all else had failed – to get ahead. And I think it’s particularly telling that this particular strategy was her fallback, rather than her initial tactic. Does this make it acceptable? Probably not. Is it smart that some women -- who cannot get ahead in their professional lives b/c of their capacity to bear children or their exclusion from social networks -- use their sexuality to get the promotions they so often deserve? I guess the (pragmatic) question to ask is if using one’s sexuality (or gender stereotypes) to get we’re we want to get is but a short-term, superficial fix to the problem, and particularly whether it ultimately hurts women’s long term efforts to level the playing field.

In fact, this particular discussion brings to mind the debate over whether exotic dancers are exploiting the system, or whether it works the other way around. My initial instinct is to say that these women are capitalizing on these men’s desire for peeking at sexualized bodies. I want to say that they are working these foolish and pathetic men, and in doing so making more money than they could ever otherwise make. Of course two issues make this stance problematic: first, these women are doing this type of work (in which they make decent money) because they don’t have any ALTERNATIVES. Although some may claim that it doesn’t bother them and they feel little shame, they happen to live in a society in which this type of work is seen as degrading. How can this not affect their feeling about their own self worth? Second, a disproportionate number of women in this type of work are the victims of childhood sexual abuse. Why is this important and what conclusions can we draw? Well, I’m not sure, but it always interferes with my efforts to make the claim that these women are not the victims we make them out to be. I guess we want to think that as they were the worst kind of victims as children, they have necessarily grown into victims as adults. And then that they ‘fall into’ or are ‘drawn to’ victimizing jobs as adults, rather than actively choosing this type of work. Anyway, my ambivalence is clear, if only because this issue, as with the little girl who protected herself by falling back on (unfortunately too often self-fulfilling) gender stereotypes, is more complex than it appears on surface. I’m usually very wary of the mainstream, good old liberal discourse on victimization, I suppose because it grants too much agency to either the ‘structure’ or the victimizers. The goal for me, then, is to always acknowledge complexity in my efforts to capture and speak of agency, and then work to improve things with a deeper understanding of what’s going on in the lives of these people of whose lives we typically have little first hand knowledge. On that note, wasn’t there a documentary made about a group of exotic dancers who made attempts to form a labor union? Does anyone know the title?

 
At 8:49 PM, Blogger laura said...

You have given me much food for thought - thanks! I know the video you mean - we used it in our Intro to Sociology class a few years ago - but can't remember the name for the life of me. Regarding victimization and agency, I think we tend to paint victims as very 1-dimensional, when in real life they are of course also survivors and actors, and often all 3 at one time. For me, the most troubling of the points you raised (troubling because I've been thinking about it and still haven't arrived at a conclusion) was that of whether it is okay for a person to exploit stereotypes when it might help them, even if it hurts "the cause" in the long run. Good question.

 
At 4:24 PM, Blogger Michael said...

I believe you're thinking of Live Nude Girls Unite.

 
At 10:44 AM, Anonymous Adam said...

I heard similar statements from feminist protesters at the handgun raffle. They claimed that women should not carry guns because big strong men would just hit them and take the gun before they could get off a shot.

Of course, we would never hear such an argument from feminists when discussing women in combat or women as police officers - although the recent incident in the Alabama courthouse is an example of a woman being overpowered by a much (physically) stronger man.

 
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