Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Worker Caste Option

(source)

Many species of insects, including bees and ants, have a worker or soldier caste that, while usually recognized as female, is sterile, lacking reproductive functionality. This relates to feminism.

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I haven't written much on this topic before, but I was rereading a post by a very intelligent girl who used to go to my school, and I thought it would make a good frame for the topic. Thus, I present you an excerpt from Feminism, Love, My Wardrobe, and Other Things People Tell Me Not to Talk About, by Alina:
For her [A's sister], feminism is the freedom to dress scantily-clad and not be judged by society. For me, feminism is dressing in my business casual clothes and projecting an image of responsibility and intelligence. Because--when I am at work--I don't want you to think about dating me. I want you to take me seriously as a human person for what I am saying and thinking and doing--not for what I am wearing or who I am sleeping with.

And a girl's sexual reputation, at least in high school, is one of the most paradoxical things I have ever encountered. I think the experience can be summed up in one comment that I've heard repeated over and often: "I don't believe you've had sex."

The paralysis girls feel when faced with that statement reflects the contradictory claims society makes about girls' sexuality. Because how on earth are you supposed to respond to that? On the one hand, you're being judged for being a "prude", which is to imply that you don't give sexual favors to boys because of some sort of laughable moral high-ground or pathetic inexperience. Yet you are simultaneously being dared to deny these claims and flout your sex life--which will get you immediately labelled as a whore.

What many girls are, in the moment, unable to vocalize is that frustrated, hopeless, and worn-out point: my love life is none of your business.

This is an important conversation to have. I almost hesitate to add anything to it, though, because somehow or another I've isolated myself from the typical high school experience: I've fallen out with friends, certainly, and disliked people strongly, but I don't get hit on and classmates don't seem to see me as a "girl" so much as "that one person who ruins the curve." Thank goodness.

However, the very fact that I have so strongly distanced myself from my gender says a few things about how girls are treated. Namely, that sometime when I was younger I internalized the message that if you want to be taken seriously, you can't be a girl.

As I sat in the library this morning, one of my classmates was getting heckled for her supposed taste in boys. I'd just been talking to her about our inquiry projects, treating her as she deserves to be--as intelligent and capable. As soon as the topic changes to relationships, however, people treat her as less than that.

(Note, however, that this is terrible experiment design, not controlling for variables at all.)

Given the example of my classmate's experiences--and those of others, because she is definitely not the only girl I've seen objectified by people who are supposedly her friends--is it any wonder that girls like me punt? That we eschew anything "girly" or "feminine," that we prefer to take our gender off the table?

I am certain that being a boy has its downsides as well. However, speaking from my experience, when you're a girl, your sex--the fact that you have two X chromosomes--is ammunition leveled against your identity, your ambitions.

Keep in mind that my experiences are limited. I live in the very liberal Bay Area, and so I haven't run across much overt sexism. No one has told me, "No, you're not allowed to do X because you're a girl."

On the other hand, despite knowing many girls who are extremely intelligent and even like math and science, I am the only girl on the programming division of the robotics team. And my close friend and I were the only two girls out of about eight people who self-studied Calc BC last year, and we are the only girls who regularly show up to math club.

It seems, then, that even in my "progressive" little suburb, the message still floats around that girls can't make it in science and math. I don't mean to imply that every girl should fall in love with Taylor series--of course other fields exist where people can make valuable contributions to the world--but STEM is often cited as the source of the fastest-growing, most lucrative careers.

So we can extrapolate: "To be a girl is to be weak, and to be weak excludes you from high-paying jobs. Maybe you should stay in the kitchen."

I consider being a girl as part of "what" I am, not "who." I don't know if I've lost anything from this--most likely I have. But the marginal benefits--escaping for the most part the kind of scrutiny Alina mentions above, being treated as an intellectual equal in the subjects I love the most, and maintaining simple friendships with awesome dudes--far outweigh the marginal costs.

The decision--unconscious or not--to lose the trappings of femininity and so mutate, in the eyes of my peers, into a gender-neutral creature akin to a worker bee, has worked for me. Worker bees are left alone to get on with their business, instead of being defined, as the queen is, by their reproduction. (I'm leaving the drones out of the discussion for now because I haven't actually researched bees and I don't want to stress-test my metaphor that much at the moment.) But the trouble is that girls shouldn't have to make this decision.

The questions shouldn't be: girl xor human? Second X chromosome xor power? These things are not antithetical. They are not disjoint. Why, then do we seem to persist in treating them as such? The questions should be: girl && human? Second X chromosome && power? And the answer: True.

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