Back when I was in grammar school, I was your standard cis gendered female child with plenty of female friends. We played Barbie dolls together, wore lots of pink and sparkles, and agreed that boys had cooties and were “icky.” It was a simpler time.
Once adolescence hit, we became inured to the notion that boys may, in fact, be human beings and not booger-picking extra terrestrials. (Well, at least not exclusively.) It no longer was considered uncool to hang around boys or have male friends. By the time high school rolled around, my formerly female friend circle had initiated at least a few menfolk into our ranks.
However, some of us went further. I myself became one of those teenage girls who makes the decision to shun female company and keep company solely with male companions. I told myself that I hated hanging out with girls because they were “so catty and judgemental,” and that “they only cared about material things,” whereas with my male friends I could “be myself.” I would tell anyone who would listen that I “just connect better” with boys. I carefully cultivated a tough-girl, devil-may-care demeanor, the attitude of a woman who spent her time around men – despite the fact that when I really had a problem or was sad about something, my old best friend from middle school was the one I ran to, and she always welcomed me with open arms and chocolate. A lot of teen girls (and women as well) take this attitude as a result of the natural feelings that were first described in depth by Simone de Beauvoir – the feeling of woman as “other.”
De Beauvoir says that society has always functioned as though women have no identity of their own, stemming from the story of Genesis and how Eve was created from Adam’s rib. In her groundbreaking work The Second Sex, de Beauvoir states, “Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being.” Without man, says de Beauvoir, woman would not even have a name. She draws on Aristotle’s notion of the female’s “lack of qualities,” as well as St. Thomas’ pronunciation of “woman as an imperfect man” to make her point.
Especially during adolescence, women are made to feel “other” in many ways – we are being told we need bras, we are getting our first menstrual periods, we are becoming taller than every boy in the class. By aligning ourselves with our male compatriots, we are like remora eels attaching ourselves to a handy passing tuna. The company that we keep prevents us from drowning in a sea of other-ness.
Yet such an attitude is innately harmful to feminism. By making these blanket statements about other girls – “they’re so catty” – we are maligning women as a whole. We are saying, “I’m not like those OTHER girls, that’s why you should be friends with me,” and thereby we are putting “those other girls” into another category, that of women who are inferior. When we make generalizations like this, we are ignoring the fact that every woman is an individual, and categorizing all women as having certain qualities by virtue of the fact that she identifies as a woman.
If you have a teenage daughter especially, or have a young girl in your life, encourage her to make friends regardless of gender. You wouldn’t encourage her to make friends based on race or religion – so why gender? We should be making connections by happenstance – someone says something we agree with and we smile at them across the classroom. Someone sits next to us at lunch and we offer a bite of our sandwich. This interweaving of backgrounds and identities is empowering to all those involved, and also will prevent your kid from wearing dirty coveralls until she is sixteen years old. Just saying.*
*DISCLAIMER: THIS IS A JOKE. IT IS NOT MEANT TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY AS A DICTUM ON WHAT A PERSON OF FEMALE IDENTITY SHOULD BE WEARING. HA-HA! SEE? FUNNY. JOKE.