Monday, July 7, 2014

High Heels and Science: Being Girly is Okay

So this past week or so, this article about a Verizon commercial has been going around:

"Powerful Ad Shows What A Little Girl Hears When You Tell Her She's Pretty"

After watching the commercial, I have all kinds of things going through my head. Things that have been swirling about for a while now, and I am tired of holding it in. First, as a parent, I tell my boys not to get their clothes muddy, too. Because, LAUNDRY. Need I say more? And who are they to tell us what a girl hears when you tell her she's pretty? I'm a girl. I know just fine what I hear.

Because here is the thing: my personal experience as a girl was pretty much the opposite. No one took tools from me and said 'let your brother do that.' Everyone told me how great I was at science and math. From parents, to teachers, to professors. And knowing how much of a braggart I must sound, I was great at it. All my highest test scores and best/easiest grades were in math and science.

Everyone encouraged me to go into a science, depending on what subject they favored: My orthodontist told me I should be an orthodontist. My engineer dad encouraged me to be an engineer. My HS and college math professors said I should major in math. My physical science professor encouraged me to major in science.

And they were all men. They saw potential, they encouraged. Good on them! Exactly what the ad said adults should be doing. And what the ad suggests they aren't doing. Keep in mind, I am old. Like in my 30's *wink,* so this was back in the day women were discouraged from science, right?

By all accounts, I should have been in that 18% mentioned in the ad. Because I liked science. And I STILL liked it when I got to college. Plus, I was encouraged, which, according to this ad, simply doesn't happen for girls. And right up until my first semester of college, I planned to be an engineer.

So what happened? What went wrong???


That first semester, I realized that the classes that I loved were not math and science. So I switched. Majored in English. And I am one of those people who was somehow "failed" by society because I didn't major in science. Or so this study tells me.

Well I am here to tell you that I was not "failed." I did not fall out of love with math and science because society discouraged me or told me I couldn't be good at it. I simply loved other stuff more. I know it is not politically correct to suggest that gender might be an influence, but there it is.

In no way do I mean to suggest that there won't be women out there who love science best. Of course there are. And actually, I know and love quite a few of them. But why make the other 82% feel like crap for not choosing science? MUST we choose it simply because we can? Simply because others aren't?

I read an article where the author makes a conscious effort not to talk clothes or hair or pretty with little girls. And while I love a lot about the article, I was left with a question: What if a girl loves fashion? What if she loves make-up? What if she wants to cut hair? Are those desires unacceptable now? Are those subjects not "smart" enough? Not educated enough?

The coveted high heels
Because I have a little girl who loves all of that stuff. And trust me, this is not me thrusting girliness upon her. I was a Tomboy with a capital 'T.' I loved sports and taking things apart and running around without a shirt because my brothers could. So imagine my surprise when my own daughter is not like that. When my own daughter insists on cute girly froofy skirts that poof when she spins. When all she wants for her birthday is a pair of high heels (I don't even wear high heels!).
"But these jeans!" I say, "Don't you want to wear jeans? Like Mama?"

Nope, she's having none of it. She knows what she likes, and who I am to discourage that simply because the world says she should love science, and sports, and stuff that is not cutesy? Stuff that is "educated."

I have just read so many articles and seen so many ads (I'm talking to you, GoldieBlox with your anti-pink Super Bowl ad) on what you should and shouldn't say to little girls, and what you should and shouldn't give. I worry that the swing from healthy encouragement of letting girls be who they choose to be has switched to discouraging little girls from doing things that are esteemed to be "girly." Pink is not okay. Dresses are oppression incarnate. Choosing to teach or study English, or heavens, stay at home to raise children is letting societal stereotypes guide your life.

I assure you, it is not. And with that, I claim pink to be an acceptable color, dolls to be acceptable toys, and dresses to be acceptable attire.

In no way do I mean to belittle women who choose science. I LOVE science! I think it's great when women choose that—as long as it is their choice and not society forcing it upon them. I am sure there are girls who did not get the encouragement that I did. Girls who maybe would have gone into a science. And for that, I am sorry. Just as sorry as I am for girls who are put down for liking pink.

I defend the rights of girls to choose science or NOT. The rights of girls to love pink, blue, orange, black, fuscia, or all of them. To be a girly girl, a tomboy, or a mix of the two as they so choose. Society would vilify these words. Tell you they are insults. But I disagree! To be Girly is a joyous and beautiful thing. I know because I see it daily with my own daughter. To be a Tomboy is exciting and a daily adventure. I know because I lived it.

There is room for all of it, and we need to find a way to encourage the one without denigrating the other (whatever your preference may be).


Dianne K. Salerni said...

I have a daughter who likes to dress up pretty in fashionable dresses -- and also rocks her geeky Doctor Who t-shirts and TARDIS jewelry without caring what people think. She is the kid who will help my husband build something with power tools. She also bakes cookies and cakes. She loves to curl up with a good book in a hammock. She also trains for triathlons. She loves science AND English.

What we need in this country are more girls who DEFY being stereotyped!

Jean Michelle Miernik said...

Yes! My favorite thing about being a girl and having a little girl is that women can be celebrated for doing things with any gender stereotypes attached--girls can find power in breaking "the rules" and also in being girly.

However, I don't think pushing back against gendered marketing and sexist social standards (which truly do exist and affect young girls' choices) is intended to make anybody "feel like crap." I didn't interpret that commercial as bashing the word "pretty" or femininity; I saw it as pushing back against harmful stereotyping.

But it's complicated. I've definitely had fun embracing my daughter's pretty-pink-princess whims. And, I make sure to balance the fun that is heavily marketed to her from all directions with the stuff that isn't--like science, math, and sports. When a girl gets a lot of positive experiences that fall outside of girl stereotypes (like you did), having some fun with pink and frills and sparkles is pretty harmless.

I just keep in mind that it's not the same for all children; some girls really do get their gender-atypical passions smacked down, hence the persistent inequality we're seeing in math and science higher ed as well as the workplace. The commercial's criticism is of a social problem, not an individual one--your personal choice to become an English major is not being insulted; a society that coerces girls into that field who DON'T love it more than other things is what's being criticized.

MikeS said...

My girlie is a lot like your girlie, especially when it comes to the color pink. That doesn't mean she doesn't play with the boy toys to fit in with 3 brothers, but she definitely has a girlie attitude. I love her uniqueness.

Janet Johnson said...

@Jeannie Hello! Thanks so much for commenting. I appreciate hearing others' thoughts. I think you make some great points. And I think you are right. None of the ads or articles I mentioned were intended to make anybody "feel like crap" as I say. And I don't think they mean it as bashing, either. I am certainly bringing my own bag of issues to the table. But I really think that this onslaught of similarly minded commercials has unintended consequences. There is definitely an inequality like you mention, and I don't think that encouraging science and math and sports in girls is a bad thing. Not at all! In fact, yes! Do it!

But what I wonder is why that encouragement can't focus on the positive? Why in the Goldie Blox commercial, for example, do the amazing girl inventors have to rocket everything pink and frilly away? Of course it's about making a louder statement and destroying the old stereotype, but unintended consequences are that girls who love pink are suddenly vilified. The storyline suggests that they only like pink because that was their only option. In this ad, pink is not okay for girls! True, those words are never spoken, but the message is implied.

In the Verizon ad, I kept waiting for them to show girls doing instead of just being discouraged from doing. It never happened. I agree that they intended to push back against harmful stereotyping. But my question is, why push back with more harmful stereotyping?

I did use my personal experience to make a point, but I do realize they were speaking to society, not just me. But I wonder how much those studies take into account people like me who simply loved something else more? Certainly there are girls who are smacked down for liking something "gender-atypical." I hate that, and want the fight to continue. But can't it be done without putting down the other side? Femininity is not the enemy, and I feel like many of these ads forget that.

Thank you again for your comment and insights. Thank you for making me think more clearly. :)

Melissa Sarno said...

YES. You sum it up wonderfully. No one should be ashamed for loving something or shamed *into* loving something because it is stereotypical or a-typical for their gender. Period. There are successful women in all different kinds of fields. We should be highlighting and celebrating their achievements, instead of worrying about whether they fit in a box or outside of it. As a matter of fact: screw boxes in general. Sorry, feeling punchy today.

Jean Michelle Miernik said...

Right on, Janet. The commercials do play into the binary of girly/not girly. This is why I have changed my mind about Barbie movies. While they aren't my favorite to watch (because barf, they're so cheeseballs) I actually think it's a positive message for my daughter to see extreme pinky girly girls saving the day and doing all kinds of interesting things. Because you are so right, femininity does tend to get vilified in simple ads that push for gender atypical options for girls. Hmmm, this is an interesting conversation.

Janet Johnson said...

Jeannie, Yes! I am totally on the same page about Barbie movies. I groaned whenever I saw commercials for them until I watched one with my daughter. Total convert! And very interesting conversation. Thanks for having it with me. :D

Margo Berendsen said...

Ah yes, that's exactly it, why not encourage our girls to try lots of things and find what they like? why not teach them the benefits of science, and the benefits of home ec and the fun of fashion. The joy of working outside the home, and inside the home. Teach them how wonderful family traditions are, and to respect and learn from OTHER traditions.

Of course, my girls must love animals, esp. horses. nOn negotiable. AND WRITING. (insert evil grin)

Laurel Garver said...

As a mom of a tween girl, I find so much of gender stereotyping perplexing. I know my daughter has somehow picked up that things considered ultra-feminine like makeup and dresses are somehow bad, less-than, and selling out. And that strikes me as in some ways also buying into the stereotype, as you say. When we encourage girls to "be anything," do we imply that things traditionally conceived as feminine are less-than? That only dude-ish things are actually worth doing? It's a tricky to help guide girls through this present minefield, I think.

Slamdunk said...

Thanks for sharing the Huffington Post article as I had not seen that one.

I am all for encouraging children to experience potential careers so that they can make educated choices, but as you say, we should never condemn young women for following their passions. If there passion is in the fashion industry so be it.

I hope you had a nice 4th Janet.

Faith E. Hough said...

Janet, I had exactly the same reaction to that commercial. I have 3 sisters, 4 daughters, a bunch of nieces...and we have all had the privilege of being encouraged in whatever we love. One of my sisters went into medicine, one into theology and music, one into English, and I studied Spanish and education. I have a daughter who loves fairies and wears frilly skirts all the time; her sister likes to wear green pants and pretend she's Peter Pan. I don't think that my sister who went into English instead of a science feels that she was belittled into it; I don't think my pink-obsessed oldest daughter feels we're shaming her into a stereotype while we let her sister range free.
Why did we have to have this backlash of the positive movement to empower girls? Why can't we do great things wearing heels and lip gloss if we want to?
Sorry for the rant...I'm just glad to know I wasn't isolated in my reaction. :)

Kenneth said...

"But what I wonder is why that encouragement can't focus on the positive? "

This. I see this all over the place in politics and advertising. I wish we would stop trying to sell things and ideas by villainizing the alternatives. Just portray the positive aspects of an idea or product and the consumer make their own decision!

Marcia said...

I was also encouraged to pursue any subject I wanted, and was good at both math and English. I also majored in math in college, but realized writing was really the thing for me. I was not encouraged/allowed to be as girly as I wanted to be, however, and I didn't realize till much later how that colored my self-perception. We really do need to find ways to affirm one thing without denigrating its perceived opposite. The solution to letting the pendulum swing too wildly one way isn't to force it to go just as wildly the other.

Janet Johnson said...

@Kenneth - Yes! It is rampant. Politics are particularly terrible about that. More positivity could only do the world good.

@Marcia - I whole-heartedly agree! It seems that finding that pendulum in the center is quite rare. But I see it happen all too often that the wild swing one direction goes straight to wild the other way. You would think that we, as humans, would learn!