Practically Marzipan: Girls, Geeks, Sports.

People who have been reading this blog for a while probably know that I write a fortnightly column of fluff in The New Indian Express titled Practically Marzipan, and have been doing so since early 2008. Most of these columns have not been put on the blog – this is partly because I’m lazy, and partly because the blog and the column are (I think) addressed to different audiences.* But a couple of people who do seem to want to read the columns have asked me to put them up anyway, and so from now on I’m going to try to be more regular.

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Recently a party I was attending descended into chaos when someone brought up the subject of sports. It started with a discussion of the merits and demerits of two particular major tennis stars that nearly led to bloodshed. Luckily, the subject was changed to football, and while things remained tense, the fear of actual physical violence was considerably lessened. The people doing most of the arguing, however, were young women. There were men at the party, but most of them were too busy looking surprised to join in.

I was brought up in a household full of sports-loving women. My mother is the local expert on cricket, and my aunt knows far more about tennis than anyone I’ve ever met. Yet when I went to school I was informed that sports was something that girls knew nothing about. It took a while to convince the people who said this that I did know what I was talking about. After that, however, things got really strange. Now that I had been established as a girl who liked sports, I was constantly told that I was unusual, and special, and superior to the majority of girlkind. With a family like my own, I had no reason to believe that this was true. But I did; everyone wants to think s/he’s special.

I know a lot of women to whom this experience will be familiar. We all grew up with some interests that were not “conventionally” female, and were told by everyone around us that this made us unique. Cars, quizzing, comic books; all of these raised us in some way above other girls. We were placed in a position where it was convenient to think of other girls with mild contempt, for traditionally “girly” activities with scorn. We could, while being female ourselves, make blanket pronouncements about women that (somehow) were not meant to apply to us. It was a weird position to take, but none of us ever really examined it or noticed its inconsistencies.

Adulthood (and a few years in an all-girls college) taught me that no one runs entirely to stereotype, and that “female” activities (as if no man ever engaged in any of these) could be as engaging, and absorbing as those typically considered to be dominated by men. I like sports (though the women at the party put me to shame with their technical knowledge). I like romance novels. I wear a lot of pink. I quiz. I cheerfully admit to being technologically challenged. And I am surrounded by people who, being individuals rather than stereotypes, have eclectic sets of likes and dislikes of their own.

And so I have been known to bite off the heads of people who dare to compliment me now by telling me how unusual I am, or male geeks who whine about a lack of female geeks in their lives. Just last week I mentioned my own geekiness on twitter and a few minutes later received a message asking if I was single from someone who knew nothing else about me. Of course I’m glad if anyone approves of my tastes in things, but surely it’s possible to compliment me without an implied insult to the rest of my gender?
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An edited version appeared here yesterday

*In that if you’re reading this blog you’re probably already into a lot of the stuff that I am into, and I tend to assume you’re familiar with what I’m talking about.

7 Comments to “Practically Marzipan: Girls, Geeks, Sports.”

  1. I didn't know that you wrote a column. :)

    You make a good point there- a proper girl should not do boyish things, but when she does, she is superior to other girls. Um…

    On the other hand, if a boy does girly things, he is much more likely to be mocked for being a sissy!

    I am personally not opposed to gender stereotypes, if we agree that people do find themselves in different places on the sliding scale. Certain things are considered feminine, I think, because most women in a given culture enjoy them while most men of the same culture show no interest, and they are the traits we grow up to see as the gross difference between the sexes.

    Experiences differ, but personally I enjoy knowing that there exists a certain standard which I do not quite fit- I don't ascribe any superiority to this but I like the aforementioned sliding scale to have markers. I like to know I am somewhere on it, and without a point of reference it's just no fun.

    The problems start when, like you described, people think only those points of reference are acceptable positions and refuse to see the point of view of the person most concerned. I don't care if they find my behaviour unusual as long as they don't find it shameful or undesirable. Or, worse, in need of correction. If I had a penny for every time a man practically wrestled a heavy box out of my arms on the basis that I am a woman and should not carry heavy things (or possibly that he is a man and that his duty is to carry all heavy things), I would be a very rich person. "But it's my job to bring this box to the set," I would say, dismayed and angry as the tug-of-war ended in disaster. "I've carried this box all the way across the building," I tried to reason, "why do you think I need help at the very last steps?". I invoked logic: "Do you think I would be physically able to carry a box that is too heavy for me to carry?"

    None of it mattered in the face of the ultimate argument: you're a lady and you shouldn't have to do this. Whether I thought I should or not was completely irrelevant.

    And skies help them, they meant well, but I wanted to punch them to show them just how much of a 'lady' I really was.

  2. Cars, quizzing, comic books
    Not to mention gaming – You like 'Call of Duty 2'…but but it's violeeeeent.

  3. Well, it can work the other way as well. The presence of stereotypical manly virtues in women can open your mind to the possibility that *other* women may also possess said virtues. After that, it becomes a question of whether you're more attached to the stereotype or to the possibility that the stereotype could be wrong.

    This was one of your best columns, BTW. It hit the sweet spot.

  4. "Cars, quizzing, comic books; all of these raised us in some way above other girls."

    You're into cars? I just bought Jeremy Clarkson's Driven to Distraction and it's hilarious. The man represents everything I hate about people (he's a chauvinist, racist and thinks that it's complete bollocks to inconvenience yourself even a little to save the environment from utter destruction) but I can't help but like him, partly because it's impossible to take him seriously and partly because he doesn't take himself very seriously either.

    I completely agree with you about gender stereotypes. For example, I am male, but enjoy watching a good dance performance. This is not very acceptable to other males. When I watch a performance of say contemporary, jazz, hip hop, freestyle or the odd pa de deux and exclaim enthusiastically about how some dancer's lines are perfect or how well s/he executes a pirouette or how well structured the choreography is or how perfect the pops and locks are, I am met with expressions of puzzlement and suspicion. So after a minute of silence I have to say something like "Hey! Let's have a beer and spit at stuff!" and sigh at the collective relief palpable in the room.

  5. I didn't mention this in my comment to you on Twitter, but the sole reason Star Trek TNG is no longer in my list of Facebook interests is because I got too many complete strangers messaging me to tell me how much we had in common and asking if I would be interested in going out with them.

    So I definitely feel your geek-girl pain, and I also agree that there's a fine line between enjoying the things that make geek girls special while recognizing that acting more stereotypically female should not be viewed as such a bad thing.

    Of course, you've put it into words far better than I could! Thanks for writing this :)

  6. i remember a certain quiz and a certain quiz master and the finger wagging while you ducked your head at my reverse sexism. i remember being so indignant at your "of course girls can't quiz, they are stupid". college helped us grow in some ways, didn't it.. even if we constantly resisted the stereotypes peddled inside college as much as we resented the morons who went "oh-lsr=feminist=man-hater".
    but i still loved being called "kick-men's asses types". ;)

  7. Madzia – Yeah, as long as people realise that a)this stuff is cultural (as opposed to biological) and b) that the activities associated with women within a culture are not more frivolous because of the association.

    ??! – Also gaming! Though that is not something that any of my close friends have faced much of.

    Aadisht – it becomes a question of whether you're more attached to the stereotype or to the possibility that the stereotype could be wrong.
    Yes, this. It's rather alarming, the number of mental gymnastics people seem willing to subject themselves to in order to deny the possibility that stereotypes are wrong. Being forced into a nuanced understanding of anything, the horror!
    (And thank you :) )

    Sayak – Not so much into the cars, sadly; I appreciate a good one as much as anyone, but my actual technical knowledge is limited.
    You never invite me to spit at things with you. Is it because I'm a girl?

    KT – *wince*. Well clearly if you like TNG you must be the Ideal Woman.

    pi-pu-xi-xu – I loved how beating people at quizzes was parsed as an act of militant feminism, as opposed to…I don't know, greed for prize money? Competitiveness? The same reasons men quizzed?

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