Girl Politics: Power relationships between girls and boys

I have said before that I try to write things on this blog that will make people proud of me, and the other day, I received one of the most amazing compliments I have ever received.  One of my former students e-mailed me to let me know she’s been keeping up with this blog, and that she really likes what I’ve been writing.  She also brought a situation to my attention that I think fits into the Girl Politics series.  (This is not a cross-post, but something NEW that came out of them; I love the conversation!) Even though this situation is about the power relationships between girls and boys (not girls and other girls), it is imperative to look at these relationships as well.

Here is an excerpt from the e-mail I received:
I’ve noticed something though which, as a feminist, I thought you might be able to shed some light on: When it comes to humor, boys can dish it out, but they can’t take it. Maybe you already know what I’m talking about, but if not, I’ll try to explain. Throughout my high school career, I have constantly watched boys tease girls. Usually, it’s pretty good-natured humor which everyone can laugh at; however, when a girl teases a boy in the same manner, they treat her like she is rude or stupid. Why is it that boys can go so far as being rude in the name of humor while girls are not allowed to be genuinely funny? Or why is a girl a witch when she can’t take a joke but she’s also a witch when she joins in the joking? And obviously, I’m doing a lot of generalizing here, but in a high school classroom, though I never felt victimized, I observe such cocky teenage boy behavior daily. I avoided personal persecution by laughing at myself and not attempting to be humorous with certain males. BUT I FIND IT FRUSTRATING THAT GIRL’S ARE EXPECTED TO LAUGH WITH MEN AT THEMSELVES, BUT NEVER AT MEN. Have you noticed this too as a teacher, and is it a teenage boy thing that gets better with maturity or is this a dynamic which I will find in the college classroom and beyond in the workplace? (Yea, my former students are amazingly articulate and smart.)

Here are my thoughts on the matter:
I don’t think this young woman is alone in feeling this way.  Of course, this situation is very wrapped-up societal constructs of men and women.  In my experience (both as a teacher and as a woman), I’ve found that boys/men do not like feeling threatened and if a girl/woman pokes fun at him, she is, in essence, threatening him.  From my understanding, this is the premise behind The Rules – girls must act a certain way to pique a boy’s interest without making him feel threatened in order to keep him around.  As unfortunate as it is, a girl poking fun at a boy, no matter how mature or funny the comment may be, is seen by them as a threat.   Girls, on the other hand, are expected to laugh along with boys in order to make them feel funny and empowered.

The advice I gave her: I wouldn’t stop calling guys out and poking fun at them, especially if it’s deserved. They’ll either get over it or they won’t, and the ones that do will be good friends to you and the ones that don’t… well, they will eventually.

Maybe this sounds spiteful, but I didn’t mean it that way.  I meant it more in the sense that if we are ever going to rethink gender roles, it needs to start with one girl telling one boy that she isn’t trying to threaten him, she’s just trying to add to the conversation.

What do you think?  Feel free to leave some advice for this young girl (and young girls everywhere) in the comments.

The Girl Politics Series (click to read them all) is a series of posts that first appeared over at my personal blog, and it was actually the response I received over there that made me think that keeping a feminist-leaning blog might be my calling.  It also partially inspired my tweeting and Good Wife paper.  I thought these posts might be breathed to new life and new conversation over here, and so here they are.

10 thoughts on “Girl Politics: Power relationships between girls and boys

  1. That’s a very intuitive thought shared by your student. My husband is gifted comedically. The man knows how to tease but not so good at “taking it.” As a cartoonist, I’m always trying to find the humor. Comediennes (female comics) such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Ellen DeGeneres, Kathy Griffin and Tina Fey, to name a few. overcome this “girls shouldn’t be funny” obstacle all the time. How? By simply being funny. If we, women weren’t always trying to make sure everything is perfect, maybe we’d be more apt to take a pie in the face. Make mine chocolat meringue!

  2. Wow, I never really noticed that. I always just assumed that I pushed too hard or was insensitive, but thinking about it, you really are right.

    I didn’t do anything that they didn’t do themselves. It’s hypocrisy from them and a power dynamic. What a nasty power dynamic too. x_x Well I’m really glad that I’ve never backed down from my humor. I’m a funny girl and it’s definitely a part of the way I self conceptualize, so I don’t think I could ever back down from joking and teasing, whether it’s guys or not.

    (Btw, I know one of the guys who did your theme. Chris specifically. Small world after all? XD)

  3. Boys, generally, have a need to one-up each other, to put themselves on top at the expense of the other guy. Girls, on the other hand, feel the need to “even the playing field” and put themselves down to make the other person feel better. These subconscious impulses have created the scenario your student described: girls take the joking/bullying and laugh at themselves; guys build themselves up by taking down the others around them (these girls). [Not ALL boys and ALL girls act this way, but this is the way society has conditioned us to act: men must be strong and The Best, women must be sweet, submissive, demure. We need to change this!!!]

    I think your advice was perfect: KEEP JOKING AND DISHING IT OUT. If the guy can’t take it, then he’s not someone you need around you, because he’s going to continue the pattern of putting you down to make himself feel better (even if it’s just a little joke; remember, this is how they are acting in high school… I’ve seen these guys in their late 20’s/early 30’s… it’s not a pretty sight). If he can deal with it, then he appreciates your sense of humor and he’s one you want to keep in your circle of friends.

    The third option might be that the guys pick up on the fact that their “jokes” might not always be funny, and they’ll quit poking fun at you and others around them.

  4. I used to work as the sole female on a sales team, as well as being the youngest (at 22) member of said team. Humor was used as a form of hazing – if you couldn’t hang with the boys, you couldn’t play with the boys, so to speak. Being able to not only take everything they served out but to dish it back allowed me to be seen as an equal, respected, and valuable member of the team. Furthermore, it ended up being crucial in terms of allowing me to use them as resources when working with clients or discussing the best way to handle certain accounts.

    I will say though, that gaining access through humor to the “boys club” does come with its downfalls. I often felt that some of the “humorous” conversations that I was party to did not always align with my feminist beliefs, and I had many evenings where I came home drained and exhausted from holding back my true thoughts and reactions to some of their statements. At times, I compromised my own integrity by not standing up to each misogynistic or homophobic remark I witnessed, and I am not proud of it, but I do see it as a very valuable learning experience having been “one of the guys.” I do believe that while humor can be a valuable tool for gaining respect from those dishing it out, making sure that you do so while staying true to your own values is the most important lesson.

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