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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Those Horrible Boys

Those mean, horrible boys! They are sexist straight from the childhood while the good, patient girls are not sexist at all. See, for example, the following story:

A popular exercise among High School creative writing teachers in America is to ask students to imagine they have been transformed, for a day, into someone of the opposite sex, and describe what that day might be like. The results, apparently, are uncannily uniform. The girls all write long and detailed essays that clearly show they have spent a great deal of time thinking about the subject. Half of the boys usually refuse to write the essay entirely. Those who do make it clear they have not the slightest conception what being a teenage girl might be like, and deeply resent having to think about it.

The only conclusion we can draw from the story is that boys are infected by sexism at a much earlier age than girls and that these boys will continue spreading sexism throughout their lives. Of course, the story acquires a completely different meaning if we consider the following:

1. “Male students are consistently less likely to graduate from high school with a diploma. Nationally, the gender gap in graduation stands at nearly 8 percentage points. Females also earn diplomas at higher rates within every racial and ethnic group examined, with the largest disparity (more than 13 percentage points) found among black students.

2. Male students are much less likely to exhibit an interest in the Humanities subjects both at school and in college.

3. And as a professor of languages and literature, I can assure you that getting the very few male students we manage to attract to the Humanities to write anything on the subject where they need to imagine something quite impossible is a losing proposition every single time.

Conclusion: the suggestion that boys “resent” thinking specifically about what it means to be a girl is ridiculous. Boys generally do worse than girls in high school and they have less interest than girls in the Humanities disciplines in college. As an educator with over two decades of experience in teaching, I am convinced that the “deep resentment” these boys experience has nothing whatsoever to do with girls. Boys are socialized towards the “practical,” “useful” disciplines. As a result, an “imagine something outlandish” exercise is a task they see as a complete waste of time.

Let’s remember that the burden of being a provider for a bunch of other people and finding one’s gender identity through that is still almost exclusively male. Keeping that in mind, I’d also be quite resentful if, instead giving me an education that would allow me to be a good, reliable provider, my time would be wasted on the “imagine you are a big blue balloon” exercises.

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38 thoughts on “Those Horrible Boys

  1. the twisted spinster on said:

    I wonder if a tactic that could help would be to point out to these male students all the bestselling male writers who have written about female characters. Obviously boys who take literature and other Humanities-type classes are already inclined to be less rigid when it comes to only wanting to learn “practical” stuff, but pointing out that you can also be a success at that sort of thing does help make it more attractive, at least in this country. (Whether that is a good or bad thing I leave to another time.) Also, if I were that creative writing teacher, I’d wonder what those guys were doing in my class if they didn’t actually want to learn to creatively write. I took a creative writing class as if I recall correctly there was about a 50% male to female ratio, and the city I lived in at the time (Orlando) isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of high culture. Of course, that was about ten years ago.

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  2. Hmmm, could there be something biological about all of this? Nah, of course not, it has to be cultural, obviously.

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    • There may be a different cultural facet. Being that we live in a patriarchy, being a boy has a number of societal advantages over being a girl. Why would it be surprising that girls imagine what’s it’s like to be part of the the most societally privileged group, whereas boys don’t necessarily think about being a member of a group with a lower status? I think the refusal to write the essay, cited above, may have to do more with the boys not wanting to get laughed at by their peers for pretending to be a girl, because that would be emasculating and all sorts of demeaning (think the expression “You throw/fight like a girl!”) rather than having to do with boys never thinking about how it is to be a girl. As a mom, it seems that boys are plenty interested in what girls think or feel or what it’s like to be them.

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      • the twisted spinster on said:

        I’m not sure we live in a patriarchy so much as whatever the word would be for a juvenile, even pre-adolescent “boy’s world.” The word “patriarchy” at least implies adulthood, but refusing to even think what it would be like to be an “icky girl” is nowhere near an adult point of view. When our civilization was a true patriarchy, bad as that was, at least male poets and writers whose works had women and romance as their subject were not only accepted but expected. As a matter of fact, women writers and artists were often viewed askance, as women were not expected to be able to think as deeply as men about anything — even their own sex! — to be able to write anything of lasting value. Obviously this is not a good situation, but at least men were expected to be well-rounded and writing love poetry (for example) was not considered unmanly, but in fact the opposite. That’s why I say our culture is no longer patriarchal but instead based on the sensibilities of pre-adolescent boys for whom all things female have cooties.

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    • It is an interesting suggestion that there could be a biological aspect here, and I am usually open to such interpretations, but I cannot imagine how biological factors might come into paly here. But that does not make the adverb “obviously” the correct one here.

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    • “Hmmm, could there be something biological about all of this”

      – About what? Composition writing? 🙂 🙂

      I know that Renoir said he painted with his penis but I’m sure that was a metaphor. 🙂

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      • Titfortat used the adverb “obviously” above, if this is what you were asking about.

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      • It is not wanting to write about what its like to be a girl. There are lots of males who like writing, I know just as many who would not want to write that kind of story. 😉

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      • the twisted spinster on said:

        “There are lots of males who like writing, I know just as many who would not want to write that kind of story.”

        Well that’s too bad. They’re in school and they have to do the assignments or get a failing grade. When they graduate they are free to never think about girls again.

        Really, I’m tired of people giving stuff like this a pass when it comes to high school kids. “I don’t want to study (evolution, sex, history, whatever) because it offends me.” Tough shit. You’re in school. Do your goddamn homework. If any of your so-called “friends” calls you a sissy because you didn’t want to get an F and end up living under a bridge, it’s time to grow a spine and get new friends.

        And though college students are adults, that goes for them too. Sure, you’re paying for your classes. But you’re paying for a certain kind of thing — a disciplined environment where you are made to learn something. If you didn’t want to learn anything you shouldn’t have gone to college. Television and your parents’ basement waits for you.

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        • I agree completely that the students just have to suck it up or live with the consequences. However, I have to wonder why this assignment is even being given at all when its only goal that I can see is to reinforce the belief in the gender differences. I find the entire assignment to be deeply offensive and unnecessarily othering. Unless there is an assignment that says, “Imagine yourself as a person with dark / blond hair”, I find the idea that anybody should be asked to imagine themselves as “A girl” or “A boy” to be very disturbing. The people who will succeed at this assignment would be the ones who firmly believe in the separation of spheres between the sexes. probably, these would be kids from deeply patriarchal households.

          I, for one, would not be able to write even a very short post imagining myself as “A man” because “A man” does not exist. Different human beings who identify as male do.

          The stupid brainless busybody who devised this idiotic assignment is a disgrace to the entire teaching profession.

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      • the twisted spinster on said:

        Well you’ve got to start somewhere. I’m sure the students aren’t supposed to think of themselves as a generic but are supposed to actually imagine themselves as an individual who is the opposite sex. It sounds like a pretty standard creative writing exercise. I mean, I write fiction, and I imagine all sorts of different people of different sexes, races, etc. They are all also “individual” to me. The students who are refusing the assignment are not refusing to do something stupid — they’re refusing to create a fictional character different from themselves. In other words, they’re refusing to do what they signed up for that creative writing class (these are usually electives in high school, at least in the US) to do. If they didn’t want to do things like that they should have picked a class more suited to their temperaments.

        Of course, that’s if we are to take the writer of the paper linked in the post you linked to seriously. He didn’t, I notice, cite any actual studies to support his claim that “half” the boys refused to do it. He had a bibliography at the end of his paper (it’s a pdf) but nothing specifically was linked to his statement so I don’t know where he got that. All I can tell you is any writing-related class I’ve been in have had the male students participating as eagerly as the female ones, and writing about female characters, with varying degrees of competency of course but there was none of this “I’m not going to think about what it’s like being female because that’s sissy and I’ve got to concentrate on practical things because I’ll have to support a family one day.”

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        • “He didn’t, I notice, cite any actual studies to support his claim that “half” the boys refused to do it. He had a bibliography at the end of his paper (it’s a pdf) but nothing specifically was linked to his statement so I don’t know where he got that. All I can tell you is any writing-related class I’ve been in have had the male students participating as eagerly as the female ones, and writing about female characters, with varying degrees of competency of course but there was none of this “I’m not going to think about what it’s like being female because that’s sissy and I’ve got to concentrate on practical things because I’ll have to support a family one day.””

          – I think these are the most useful observations in the entire thread.

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  3. My oldest son is 12, has a great imagination and loves to write (short stories, school plays). He is also very interested in history and social sciences. But it is clear to me that my son is very much the exception among his friends, who are all much more typically “male” — into sports and math. For instance, my son has one extremely gifted friend, who plays a couple of instruments, loves math and is several grades accelerated (in math). This kid, however, reads very little and only what he must for school, is fairly poor at spelling and his vocabulary is average, at best. It’s probably a combination of individual inclination with the fact that no one pushes him to push himself in the humanities, because he already excels at the subjects that he’s “supposed” to be good at, being a boy…

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  4. “Titfortat used the adverb “obviously” above, if this is what you were asking about.”

    – He was trying to be sarcastic, I believe.

    Something is definitely weird about this commenting system on the new template but I can;t yet figure out what.

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  5. David and everybody: if when you reach the end of the page, you continue to scroll down, do the 2nd, the 3rd, etc. pages appear, or does the cursor stop moving?

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  6. When you are on a page of a particular entry, including the comments below it, the cursor stops moving after the comments. When you are on the main blog page, you can scroll through several entries. There is a (pair of, except for the first entry) link before the comments to the next or previous entry, somewhat obscurely labeled ‘newer’ and ‘older’, but if there are a lot of comments it takes a while to scroll to this point. My computer here at work scrolls much faster than the one at home, so it is less of a problem here.

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  7. Conclusion: the suggestion that boys “resent” thinking specifically about what it means to be a girl is ridiculous. … I am convinced that the “deep resentment” these boys experience has nothing whatsoever to do with girls. … [Boys see] an “imagine something outlandish” exercise is a task they see as a complete waste of time.

    And yet they enjoy outlandish imaginings of superheroes. Also of interstellar battles. Also video games consisting of tunnels and guns. Very impractical, that last one. I mean, where are the bathrooms?

    I think imagining that a lack of imagination can explain a blind spot in boys that applies rather specifically to girls requires reexamination.

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    • “And yet they enjoy outlandish imaginings of superheroes. Also of interstellar battles. Also video games consisting of tunnels and guns.”

      – And they eagerly write compositions on those subjects? Have you taught composition for a while? Have these topics been successful with boys in attracting them to the idea of writing?

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      • the twisted spinster on said:

        When I was in school all the boys loved talking about, drawing, and writing war stories and science fiction action stories. (Superhero stories weren’t common in the classes I took because in the 70s comic books hadn’t experienced a cultural resurgence and were considered kid stuff.) My German language classes were almost all male and all they talked about was World War II. My poor teacher (a man) kept trying to divert conversation to Goethe’s Faust and the like, but there were no Panzer divisions in Faust so he had trouble keeping their attention on it.

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  8. “I, for one, would not be able to write even a very short post imagining myself as ‘A man’”

    I actually do this, well not in posts, but I do it regularly, to fight conditioning. Ask myself, “what would a man do” (would they feel they couldn’t get out of xyz secretarial job for abc committee etc.) – and/or ask actual men, who are also put upon but who often do have a clearer idea of the extent of their rights and limits of their duties than I do, and often have a wider array of ways of saying no than I have at hand!

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  9. However, I have to wonder why this assignment is even being given at all when its only goal that I can see is to reinforce the belief in the gender differences. (Clarissa)

    Im curious, do you believe that the only differences in gender are cultural?

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    • “Im curious, do you believe that the only differences in gender are cultural”

      – Gender is a social construct. Within that social construct, there are cultural differences. And this is not something that I “believe.” There is a huge bias in all scientific studies towards finding the “differences between the sexes.” And even in spite of that bias, not a single scientific study until now has been able to find any such difference in the way men and women think, perceive information, imagine, learn, or in their interests, preferences, etc., etc.

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  10. So technically there is no misogyny or misandry only hatred of another person, right?

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    • “So technically there is no misogyny or misandry only hatred of another person, right?”

      – Where is this coming from?? Did you miss what I said about gender being a social construct? Social constructs don’t need to reflect any biological reality but the hatred they evoke is just as real. Racism is a good parallel. I don’t think that anybody can argue today that there is any actual difference between races. People keep coming up with new races (see my posts on Hispanics) all the time. Yet, racism persists.

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  11. I can’t speak directly about US culture, but I didn’t get the impression that boys were self-consciously hostile to the humanities, when I was at school. I do have some sense of why the writer claims there is such a problem, since I read comments on YouTube videos and it is clear that quite a few young males have a problem with viewing women as human beings. A significant number of young men must feel polarised by their gender, to the point that they would find it hard to put themselves in another’s shoes.

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    • ” since I read comments on YouTube videos and it is clear that quite a few young males have a problem with viewing women as human being”

      – I once caused a classroom full of 18-year-old women laugh hysterically for 5 minutes when I said that “men are people, too. They have feelings, you know.” The 3 men present were visibly uncomfortable.

      This is not a gender issue per se. The attitude you describe is the consequence of young men and women being raised in the “gender wars” environment of a patriarchal society. Both men and women don’t see each other as fully human in such societies. Hence, the deeply homoerotic nature of such societies.

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      • CLARISSA>>>This is not a gender issue per se. The attitude you describe is the consequence of young men and women being raised in the “gender wars” environment of a patriarchal society. Both men and women don’t see each other as fully human in such societies. Hence, the deeply homoerotic nature of such societies.

        Yes, I see how that may be possible, although if it is not a gender issue per se, then obviously it must be explained on the basis of something other than gender. Patriarchal society does produce gender issues per se.

        However there are ways of viewing the situation that add depth and meaning. One is that a lot of gender issues have to do with projection. For instance, it only dawned on me in the more recent years that a lot of my problems in life have come through projecting the better parts of my character out of myself and into others, in some respects particularly men. This is because I was brought up with the idea of the heroic male, a view which in many ways reflected reality fairly accurately. The men were all in the military and there was a war on, and many of them took great risks. Somehow, I essentialised this hazy childhood understanding of the world into the idea that men were necessarily fearless. I also projected out other extreme and false overestimations. I thought that people were generally truth-seeking and trustworthy. So, these were my own projections and they led to me not putting enough trust in my own capacity to be daring and honest, and trustworthy.

        Now that I have these qualities back again, I feel much more fully myself, more confident.

        But, polarised society encourages the projection of qualities out of oneself and the introjection of other types of distinct qualities, based on a formal division of labour. Consequently, nobody can be complete unless they reclaim their personal qualities for themselves and stop projecting.

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  12. NancyP on said:

    Boys resisting writing about imaginary situations? Say what?
    Science fiction, RPG gaming, and traditional comics have been favorites with boys for a long time.

    The resistance is definitely about status and about sexual development. Boys don’t want to imagine themselves as girls because they see themselves as more important than girls, and because they have to prove and be secure in their masculinity. Any non-masculine endeavor will make a junior high or high school boy an outcast, a target of bullies. Not all gay boys get bullied, not all straight boys are left alone. Butch equals good, nelly equals bad.

    Really, both boys and girls of grade 6 to grade 10 age range are at the peak of their obnoxiousness.

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    • “Boys resisting writing about imaginary situations? Say what?”

      – I’m saying that boys resist writing compositions. Why do people keep mentioning gaming to me? Playing videogames and writing compositions are two very different endeavors.

      “Any non-masculine endeavor will make a junior high or high school boy an outcast, a target of bullies. Not all gay boys get bullied, not all straight boys are left alone. Butch equals good, nelly equals bad.”

      – Isn’t it exactly the same with non-feminine girls?

      “Boys don’t want to imagine themselves as girls because they see themselves as more important than girls”

      – And girls feel the same about boys. Seriously, ask a bunch of 16-year-old girls what they think about boys and observe the eyes roll very far back into their heads. 🙂

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  13. This is definitely an interesting study. I would say that this could be really useful and that there would be more of a response if instructors framed it in a way that would show them how it could be helpful. Because it’s 4:17 am I can’t think of any examples, but I feel certain that there are situations that this exercise would be extremely helpful in.

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  14. Darque on said:

    As a guy who finished high school in the last five years – I will add my humble and qualified opinion on this:

    1. The boys in question did not want to consider the exercise because doing so with any kind of enthusiasm in front of their peers would , in their minds, result in a questioning of their masculinity – and by extension – ostracism or physical abuse by their peers.

    2. I am not a woman, so I feel less qualified to imagine why they were fine with the exercise.

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    • Jared on said:

      Yeah, it’s been longer since I graduated than Darque, but I would have viewed participation in this project as putting myself at risk of social harassment likely esaclating to violence. Personally I think that a large part of these boys refusal to participate is probably fueled by self preservation.

      Still, I think your theory of their believing it to be a waste of time has merit also, I was always heavily engaged with english as a subject, but viwed everything other than creative writing to be pointless waffle (not saying I was right 🙂 )

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  15. Politicalguineapig on said:

    Clarissa: Have you ever heard of fan fiction? Seriously, a lot of guys write about video games. I have, on my computer, a story I’m supposed to be vetting, by a guy, that’s vaguely set in an anime universe.
    Speaking as a *very* non feminine woman, I was bullied in primary school because I didn’t conform at all: I was too smart and not good at hiding it, a bit fat, and worst of all, preferred a boy’s company to that of my (rather dim) female peers. Weirdly, I didn’t have any trouble in high school, but most of my friends then were people I met online. I assume it’s the same for boys; step over the bounds of acceptable behavior and the pack will turn on you.
    I did go through a phase of wanting to be a boy: automatic math smarts, never wearing pink again, the ability to shut off one’s emotions, and the privilege of going everywhere without needing self-defense training or a healthy dose of fear sounded awesome to me. Back then, I would have aced the essay assignment, but I would have been hard-pressed to come up with one good thing about being a girl. And yeah, the tiered system makes it really hard to imagine being a less-privileged person: I could imagine being a boy, but not, say an African American of either sex, or a Native American.

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