This double standard (as in asking less of girls so that they think that’s all they’re capable of) is bad for girls — but let’s be honest here: it’s bad for boys too. Some of the examples in the book — of abuse heaped on girls for being physically more capable than boys (91-92) — are simply appalling. What were these boys thinking?! I found myself nodding upon reading: “The sooner little boys begin to realize that little girls are equal and that there will be many opportunities for a boy to be bested by a girl, the closer they will be to better mental health” (96). I was also thrilled to read that in many cases wise administrators are taking the right steps already in schools — and the results are telling:
Boys have actually begun looking up to girls who are strong and athletic. Ryan Spinney, a senior at Newburyport High, and captain of the boys’ cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track teams, says, “All the girls have determination; I admire that. They’re not different than the guys — anybody who is an athlete is an athlete…. I don’t really understand the concept of girls being inferior to men.” (111; ellipsis in original text)
This rather upbeat chapter ending was followed by a particularly dark section of the book which explored how we usually simply lightly overlook “the connection between girls’ depression and their sexual endangerment” (124). Some of the descriptions of what girls go through on a daily basis at school and in public, and their depressed or numbed reactions (138-139, 147), truly do sound precisely like victims of post-traumatic disorder. Thinking about it in retrospect, it’s one of those blisteringly obvious realizations that make me want to smack my head at being so obtuse.
I was, for example, bleakly amused to read that “fraternity life is so tainted with violence that insurance companies have designated frat houses the third most costly type of property to insure, after toxic waste dumps and amusement parks” (146). In such a toxic social environment, I wish more girls knew how to band together to tell mean-spirited boys that sexual violence (such as sexual assault and rape) and gender harassment (defined as deliberately malicious and disparaging statements across gender which express dominance but aren’t particularly sexual , such as “move your fat ass!”) is not okay and will not be accepted as normal behavior.
The breathtaking amount of arrogant male self-righteousness which causes this sort of unhealthy environment was dramatically highlighted in the author’s description of a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — with the result that schools may no longer simply ignore harassment (128-129). Apparently a 10 year old girl was consistently and openly harassed by an 11 year old boy to have sex with him (read the book, please, for the boy’s actual behaviors — they’re appalling), but despite repeated requests for help, no one at the school paid any attention.
Eventually in this horrible environment her grades dropped, and she had written a suicide note before her mom found out and courageously took action, fighting the problem every step of the way. The Supreme Court’s decision was five to four agreeing that harassment charges could be brought against the school. Here’s the part I found so appalling: in the dissent, Chief Justice Anthony M. Kennedy angrily wrote that “a teenager’s romantic overtures to a classmate (even when they are persistent and unwelcome) are an inescapable part of adolescence.”
What on earth was this man thinking?! This statement was so riddled with nonsense that I initially had trouble believing it came from a rational adult. First, the children were not teens! Second, this was not romance — unless the Chief Justice perversely also considers sexual violence and rape to be a part of romance! Third, throughout all the history I’m aware of, from Paleolithic times to now: adolescence is indeed a time of great hormonal upheaval — but it is not and has never been inescapably about fucking. Finally — and perhaps most telling — I have serious doubts the Chief Justice would have reacted with the same paternal indulgence to this boy’s sexual abuse… had it been directed at another boy — rather than a girl.
Unfortunately this pseudo-jolly misogyny is not confined to antiquated Chief Justices. One of the book’s saddest parts, to me, was that despite all the data about how good exercise is for both girls and boys, and after the passage of Title IX over 40 years ago! — girls are still consistently and deliberately being shorted (151-161). Dowling put it well, I think:
[I]t is not so much that men want women to be frail and incompetent, and certainly individual men have no consciousness of such a wish. What men want, simply, is to keep on being the ones with the power to make the big decisions, and this is easier to pull off when the other — the other race or the other gender — is economically weakened, intellectually weakened, or physically weakened, or ideally all three. (161)
Even today this situation is regularly embodied in sports — especially in the Olympics, whose history has been (with appalling consistency): “a history of contempt — toward nonwhites, toward developing countries, toward women. To break into the Games meant having to armor oneself against demeaning practices and behavior” (172). The individual examples are too numerous to list here, but I find it telling that only women were required to go through institutionalized “sex testing” which had no scientific basis and for which no reasonable rationale was ever published (174-180), and only women athletes are simultaneously infantilized, required to be the “moral guardians” of the sports in which they participate, and have their skills ambivalently described — as always somehow less than the men (181-186). I found it creepily apt both that men were not asked to take any sort of test to prove their male nature — and that the sex tests were outlawed only when a formerly male transgender woman protested in court (203).
What astonishes me is how this inequity is continued without question, despite frequent evidence that women are just as athletically competent — if not more so — than men. For example, studies are showing that women are better able to handle environmental stresses than men (206) — but this greater female endurance is not allowed to exhibit itself in co-ed competition. As Dowling notes of sports, “Today the goal is more one of deflecting attention from just how physically similar males and females actually are” (192; italics hers). For example, women’s sports are separated out from men’s — usually for laughable reasons (193) — and a minor change in the rules ensures the women’s sport is shorter, easier, lower, or in some other way less than the men’s. Amusingly, this always happens precisely when a woman wins in a man’s sport. The “traditional” method of handling such a disruption to the supposed natural order is for the male officials of the sport to immediately revoke the woman’s title, place a ban on male-female competition, start up a slightly different women’s version of the sport, and in some cases to also invalidate all the woman’s previous wins as well (193-194). Oh, yeah, that seems fair.
This is, of course, a relatively tame form of backlash by threatened men against women demonstrating increased capabilities (209); the sheer, hateful virulence of the misogyny expressed in many sports locker rooms is far more sickening (209-211). Dowling even asks right up front, in her Introduction: “Is women’s becoming more socially and economically powerful the reason men are playing the bully more flagrantly than ever?” (xxiv). Regrettably this is not the worst of it: research has identified “domestic violence as the number one health problem for women in the U.S., causing more injuries to them than automobile accidents, muggings, and rapes combined” (229; italics mine).