Monday, August 2, 2010

The moment, the click.

I'm six years old, playing basketball in the driveway on a summer's afternoon -- and by playing, I mean that I am running after the ball as it rolls down the street, going for three-pointers that even adults will miss, and dribbling (otherwise known as "slapping the ball") with two hands. My brother, a little older than myself, is showing me up. For one, he's actually tall enough to score. And secondly, he thinks before he throws. I won't knock my game, though. It takes a lot of guts to keep trying to compete with a rambunctious eight year-old who's a full foot and a half above you.

The hot sun is beating down on us relentlessly. Wiping away the sweat above his brow, my brother does what many men will do on a hot day -- he takes his shirt off and throws it on the grass. Well, I'm sweaty too. I'm at a tender young age, not yet aware of social norms or expectations -- and thus I decide that it is a perfectly reasonable solution to my high body temperature. As I go to remove mine, my brother begins to yell.

"What are you doing?!" I pause, my shirt folding back down.
"You can't do that," he says with mild disgust.
"How come?"
"Because you're a girl," he explains.

To my young mind, this is not a sensible explanation. Gender does not factor into the equation just yet; "girl" and "boy" are innocuous terms, terms without authority. For the first time, I am being told that there is something I should not do, simply because my body is different. What I didn't realize is that wanting to remove my shirt was one piece of an infinitely larger picture. All I knew at the time was that I was angry, that I was really hot, and that it just wasn't fair. That sense of injustice would never disappear -- even at age six, I wasn't about to let gender decide anything for me. I took off my shirt.

Slowly, I began to see that bigger picture. They told me that women before me could not have their own career, that they were baby-making machines. Only recently could women wear pants, go to college, or own property. Only recently was it illegal for a husband to beat his wife, and it hadn't even been a hundred years since women had earned the right to vote. It hit me like a brick to the face -- only recently could a woman have thoughts and feelings that were equally as important as a man's. And when they told me that we had never had a woman president, well, that sealed the deal. We spent only a week at most on women's history when I was young, and it sent me on a rampage.

When I was old enough to begin flirting with feminism, I thought I was the shit -- and I had forgotten what feminism was really all about. I went through high school parading my "feminist" status -- arguing with conservative friends about abortion, debating with history teachers about the lack of women's history, and proudly displaying Feministing on my bookmarks toolbar. There was a whole lot of agitation and angst, but what it all lacked was real, genuine passion and commitment to the movement. That passion wasn't ignited until my first composition class in college, when I had my real "click" moment and found myself sputtering out of control in a passionate fit.

"Is it possible for a society to mold similar behavior in men and women?" my professor asked us one day. As my professor began to answer with her own opinion, my classmates began to shift uncomfortably in their seats. She explained to us that men are aggressive and reckless because of testosterone, and women are submissive, emotional, and passive because of estrogen. "If you give women a shot of testosterone, you should see what happens.

"I've done too much research, read too much literature," she continues, "to believe that men and women can ever be anything alike."

I'm outraged. Each time I tried to debate, she would whip out of thin air some kind of statistic or study. It was intimidating to argue with a professor, much less one that I really did like. I felt myself flustered, because no matter how hard I tried, I simply didn't have the language to hold a real debate -- I couldn't put my thoughts into coherent sentences. But what I lacked, more than the language or research, was confidence. I was never sure if my supposed "feminist views" were "right." I had never really delved into them beyond a superficial level. Looking back, I would love to debate it with her all over again -- this time, with a little more assertiveness.

(I'll admit, even now, I could use the confidence. Putting your thoughts out in a zine is terrifying.)

If she had done enough research, she would know that high levels of estrogen can provoke aggressiveness as well -- and that women also possess testosterone, only at lower levels as their receptors for the hormone are more sensitive. She would also know that men and women express their aggression differently, as society affirms what kind of behavior is appropriate for each gender. Men lash out in what we see as "typical aggressiveness" which is more physical, whereas women express their rage socially. Had she done more research, she would know that our assumptions about gendered behavior reinforce that behavior, and as science has realized, these assumptions alter the way young minds develop, enlarging or stunting growth in certain areas of the brain. She would understand that all behaviors must be learned, and culture has much more accountability in what is learned. Not to mention, what we expose our kids to (this is really gender studies 101 -- the toy vacuums, the cars and motorcycles, the dolls, action figures) is exaggerating and inciting difference. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"It's just your generation," she tells me. "Your generation seems to have this theory that gender difference is all made up. But it isn't. Read any study you can find, you'll see. Feminist literature always fails to give you the real empircal facts, but science doesn't lie."

That afternoon, her words were ringing in my ears. It's just your generation. When I came home that day, I went down to my basement and, to my surprise, I started to cry. (When I realized that my professor would tell me that my estrogen levels are the reason I cried, I thought that maybe I should punch a pillow instead to prove her wrong.) As dorky as this is, to cheer myself up and arm myself for the next battle, I went on Wikipedia to read the article on feminism. I wanted to be able to fight back. I wanted the language, the research, the confidence to prove her wrong. I found myself so flustered and enraged, trying desperately to memorize and absorb as much of the article as I could.

But as I kept on reading through the history, the struggle, and the strength of so many women who came before me, I realized that feminism wasn't about proving my professor wrong. This wasn't another academic conquest or intellectual tennis match. Feminism is a challenge -- not a challenge issued to my professor alone, but to an entire culture -- one rooted in a long tradition of sexism and misogyny on the false pretense that some other, godly force has deemed women inferior. Feminism is not about winning a battle of words. It is a radical fight for justice and equality, it is the force that inspires women and men around the world, it is the medium through which women and men can inspire others, it is the pen that rewrites history, it is the light that exposes oppression in its deepest corners, it is the celebration of womanhood, it is the destruction of the chains of this culture which weigh us down in a suffocating binary... it is a movement, one which I finally felt a part of.

The next day, I was in the academic advisement office, signing the papers to change my major to Women's and Gender Studies.

I think my six year-old self would be proud. In fact, I'd venture to say that the shirt incident has, at last, been avenged.

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