There have been several fascinating essays posted recently by female science fiction and fantasy writers reflecting on their experience as girls and the disadvantage they felt from an early age. There’s a nice summary of these posts along with further reflections at a blog called Culturally Disoriented (hat tip to Kate Elliott for the link). The post is titled “I Never Wanted To Be A Boy.”
And you know what? I never wanted to be a boy, either.
Reading these reflections, I have finally — I’m fifty-one years old — begun to realize that I must have grown up blithely ignorant of the true nature of the world. Apparently I was living in my own geek bubble because, growing up in the seventies, I don’t remember feeling put-down or denied because I was a girl. I’m thinking specifically of those treacherous years between the age of ten and the hallelujah-thank-you-God salvation that was college at seventeen. As you may surmise from that statement, this wasn’t a great time for me — you will never catch me reminiscing fondly about high school — but my issues had to do with geeky things, not with the fact of my gender.
Like most of us who are into things SF-nal, I grew up reading adventure books, science fiction and fantasy among them, and I suppose that the protagonists were most often male, but I can’t remember that it bothered me. I used my favorite stories as a jumping-off point for my own imagined adventures. It was nothing for me to put myself into the plot, creating a female character I could happily inhabit, who had as much agency as anyone.
My ability to deny being denied probably has a couple of sources. First, I had no brothers, so even if my parents had been inclined to deal in boy privilege, they had no chance to do it. As it was, I don’t think they were inclined.
Mine was an odd, geeky, rather unsociable family. We did lots of fun and amazing things, but for the most part we kept to ourselves, which may be a second reason I wasn’t conscious of boy privilege — I wasn’t in close touch with more “traditional” families. And of course this was the northshore of Oahu in the 1970s. Caucasian families who had moved there from California were not expected to be conventional.
Mostly though, I have to credit my parents for my blissful ignorance. As I passed through my preteen and teen years, my ambitions ranged from being a primatologist in Africa (thank you, Jane Goodall, my hero!), to attending the Air Force Academy, to being an aerospace engineer, to being a field biologist. (The writer-thing didn’t occur to me until I was almost out of college.) I think my poor mother never knew quite what to make of her geeky, intellectual, overachieving daughter, but she never discouraged me from my interests. My dad actively encouraged me in many things. He was the one who put me on the back of a motorcycle at a tender age, took me camping and fishing, and let me take scuba lessons when I was thirteen.
If I was denied things because I was a girl, I frankly didn’t notice.
I even remember asking my dad once if things would have been different if he’d had sons, and he denied it, assuring me it didn’t make any difference to him.
So I grew up an athlete, swimming, hiking, snorkeling, taking on surfing for a brief time, and even running track one year—but I wasn’t reacting against traditional “girl stuff,” because I liked that too. I experimented with makeup. I wore dresses and high heels to school. These were the days when “Aloha Friday” was still observed in Hawaii, and I wore a mu`u mu`u to school. I even went to “charm school.” Seriously. Me. (What? You can’t tell?) I felt kind of weird about it, but I didn’t mind it. I was hoping it would help turn me into a competent woman. Even then, I could see how that could be valuable. Being a girl was not a problem for me.
Being a geek — different story.
I lived on the outskirts of a small plantation town. There was nothing wrong with the people there. They were nice. I never got in fights and I wasn’t harassed, but like so many quirky teens, I never fit in either. And the school wasn’t exactly a challenging intellectual environment. A large portion of the students had English as a second language, and at the time we had the lowest, or nearly the lowest academic rating in the state.
So it wasn’t my girl-self that was denied in my teenage years, it was my geek-self. I was a social misfit and yes, I had issues, but if I’d been a skinny, introverted, intellectual boy trapped behind glasses, interested in science, with my nose always in a weird novel, with a family that basically kept to itself — I don’t think my youth would have felt a whole lot different, or more satisfying.
So, to all the young geeks and misfits of any gender who are trapped in schools where they don’t fit in, there really is a lot to look forward to. Keep working on it. Keep working on yourself. There’s no need to be conventional. Find the people you fit with. Write your own story.