Every now and then, I read an article with a view of gender issues that is so out-of-touch with reality that it leaves me shaking my head and looking for something better to read. It is harder to ignore when the article comes from the director of our local children's counseling center, so I feel obliged to respond. When Marion S. Levine opens her parenting column "When Girls Misbehave" (PWN, 6/3) with the notion that misbehavior and aggression are male characteristics and wonder what to say when girls get out of hand, I feel like we're regressing.
When a family therapist can't work up the nerve to watch a show titled "Girls Behaving Badly" because it threatens her notions of gender identity, we're all in trouble. If she had just said that, like me, she doesn't watch much television because most of the programming is stupid; I would have been much more sympathetic.
Having dispensed with the ingenuous 1960s "baby-X" theories that male and female differences were all due to nature rather than nurture, most of us now generally recognize that there are distinct differences between males and females that are preprogrammed by nature. To jump from that point to an assumption that it is natural for young males to misbehave and act aggressively and natural for girls to be "sweetness" and light displays an outrageous sexist bias.
One of the reasons those horrible reality shows are so popular is that they present glimpses of human nature that are much more real than anything presented in supposedly more sophisticated media. The fact that so many kids want to watch emotionally stunted twits play out their love lives on reality TV is an indication that kids are desperate for some real and credible information about human nature and gender relations, and that they're not getting it elsewhere. Why they are not getting it is a complicated story that is reflected in Ms. Levine's denial of human nature.
Ms. Levine plays a "Blame game ... round -up," in which she lists the cultural influences that have led some girls to be mean, as if mean girls were a recent event in human history. I've known some very nice girls. I've known a few vicious girls. Most of the girls that I've known fit somewhere in between. The same is true for boys. Both boys and girls are human, so they span that spectrum. This should not be a difficult concept to grasp.
Not only have mean girls appeared in both literature and history for 2000 years, there have been more than a few real-life female monsters. Statistics may indicate that boys perpetrate more violent crimes than girls, but that's more violent crime, not all violent crime. Besides which, statistics do not take into account that women have traditionally used men as tools to inflict violence upon others rather than do it themselves. That is a lot harder to measure.
We haven't made girls mean by "smashing the old taboos about what was proper behavior for girls". There were always mean girls. Those old taboos were created to channel girls away from the bad behavior that came naturally. If Ms. Levine's therapy is based on denying the natural human nature of girls, she may be creating more problems than she solves. For Ms. Levine to wonder "why we often cannot expect sweetness and light from today's girls" sounds like something from a Victorian girls' novel.
In the middle of her seventh paragraph, Ms. Levine distinguishes between "bad girls" and "mean girls" and then ignores the issues presented by bad girls. It is disappointing to her understanding of gender identity issues. They don't fit her stereotype of girls as representatives of good, so she's not interested in them (as if they were boys)?
The social pathologies of young males are an immediate threat to society, so we hire police to intervene at street level and arrest them. The social pathologies of girls are less of a threat to society in general. Young girls are more likely to harm themselves, the children they have before they are mature enough to be parents, and the unlucky few who come close to them, so it is not as urgent for society as a whole to intervene. This may be a disservice to girls.
I've been glad to see school psychologists intervene early with violent boys in my kids' classes. Ms. Levine makes me wonder if they are even aware of other problems with girls.
Ms. Levine notes that Carol Gilligan suspects that the very mention of mean girls in books and movies represents a backlash against women. The fact that history and literature have always contained mean girls, not because of a plot by some male domination system, but because there have always been mean girls, escapes both of them completely.
The term backlash makes me think more of Susan Faludi's 1992 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Together with Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male they present an excellent and balanced view of the gender issues that were becoming evident in the 1990s. The problem with Faludi's otherwise exceptionally clear-sighted and humane portrayal of current reality was her diagnosis. Faludi thought that the backlash against the women's movement was the result of male resistance to female independence. It is obvious today that the retreat from gender equity is being led, in great part, by women themselves.
Another appalling thing is that, in Ms. Levine's closing call for mothers, sisters and daughters to balance against the competitiveness, the harshness, and yes, the meanness of life, she leaves males out of the equation. This confirms the attitude that she jokes about in her opening paragraph, that she considers aggression and misbehavior to be inherently male characteristics. It is frightening to hear such unrestrained sexist generalizations coming from a child and family therapist.
First, projecting these characteristics on boys is a self-fulfilling prophecy. How many boys have internalized her message that if they don't become mean and aggressive, they won't really become men?
Second, she is contributing to a culture where the most immature and emotionally unstable girls can justify being mean and aggressive by imagining that they are fighting the oppression of that infamous male-domination system. Self-identification as victim is often a method that mean people use to justify their own violence and aggression.
Third, I recall a concept in psychology called projection. In this case, some women are projecting their own undesirable characteristics upon men because they are afraid of facing them in their own human nature.
In closing, I'd like to make clear that I'm a feminist and that I'd like to see more equity of rights and responsibilities between the sexes. One of the things that most women sensibly rejected from the women's movement of the 1970s was the "women as separate species" theory of some extreme feminists. Ms. Levine seems to have been left behind by that more sensible majority of women, and is pandering to a regressive, infantile feminism that holds men responsible for everything that is wrong with the world.
Robert T. Schill