Ever since I re-embraced the warm, sometimes sweaty arms of singlehood a few months ago, my roommate Margaret and I have talked a lot about boys. Guys. Men. Everything in-between. Last year, these conversations wouldn’t have been very interesting, and probably would have centered on “30 Rock,” pizza, spooning or a combination of the three. Now, it seems every other day or so, I’m giving ol’ Marge some sort of an update as I navigate through singlehood. But since these conversations are not to be discussed outside of the walls of room eight of Minnie’s Cooperative House, I’ll just sum up what we share with two words — girl talk.
The funny thing about girl talk is that it usually centers on … not girls. A quick look in the trusty Urban Dictionary defines “girltalk” — not to be confused with the mash-up artist — as, “Deep conversation between members of the female sex. Contrary to popular believe, it is not always about boys.”
But if you have to say “it is not always about boys,” it’s probably going to be about boys for the vast majority of the time. Like, 90 percent of the time, with the other 10 percent being talking about how your period has synched up with your roommate’s. Or something.
Anyway, this newfound bonding over guys colloquially known as girl talk got me thinking: If my life were a movie — hah — and Marge were in it, too, we would totally fail the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test requires that a movie has at least two women in it and these women talk to each other about stuff beside men. It also got me thinking about a conversation I had last summer in the humid, crowded kitchen of a Michigan House summer party. “What makes you feel like a man,” I had asked a friend for who knows what reason. He thought about it for a second, then referenced a summer hiking trip he took that involved all kinds of manliness — not shaving, not showering, using muscles, drinking beer, farting… After he answered, my friend asked in response, “What makes you feel like a woman?”
“Umm… ” I thought of various forms of activity that can be placed under the umbrella term of hanky-panky. “Uhh?” I really had no idea.
While my friend was reminiscing upon hiking up north, inhaling and farting into fresh Midwestern air like a true man, the only thing I could think of in terms of defining my womanhood … required a man?
Recently, I decided to throw this question around some more. To my friends and housemates who identify as male, I asked, “What makes you feel like a man?”
“Barbecuing. Bacon,” “Working on the car,” “Sports,” “Definitely everything sexual,” “Whenever I drive,” “Being outside,” “Drinking two fingers of whiskey, pints at the pub” — the pub? Some were a little more general — “I feel like a man when I’m around women because I’m strong,” “If a situation needed someone to take control of it, I should be the default,” “When I need to act rationally.” As one of my housemates said, “A lot of things that make me feel like a man also make me feel like an adult.”
To my housemates who identify as female, I asked, “What makes you feel like a woman?” Like before, the question could be interpreted in different ways, but the results were pretty similar: “Putting on lipstick,” “Wearing heels,” “Lacy, fun underwear,” “When I go on a date. When a boy pays for me.” Others were fairly straightforward — “My boobs.” “When I get my period.”
The generalizations I’m about to make with this small, not randomized sample of responses is by no means applicable to everyone. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the majority of the answers I received were based off of stereotypes and socially constructed ways that we’re raised to think about our gender, our sexuality and ourselves.
The first magazine I ever subscribed to was “Girls’ Life,” or “GL.” My much cooler neighbor who was a year older than me had convinced me that it was necessary to my ability to survive middle school — which was admittedly a little bit true, looking back. Within two months of being a “GL” subscriber, I gained lots of important knowledge like how to apply liquid eyeliner and what foods to eat at lunch in order to attract hott — with two t’s — guys. For the record, finger foods are highly recommended, especially grapes — cute and healthy.
It appears “GL” hasn’t changed much since. A quick skimming of the magazine’s website shows that it’s all still there — fashion, makeup, gossip, adorable cupcakes — presented in an array of pinks, purples and baby blues. And what’s the first tab at the top of the “Girls’ Life” website? “Guys,” which includes sections like “Get a BF,” “Ask Bill and Dave” and “What Guys Think.” On a website specifically devoted to the lives of girls, we have a whole section focused on dudes. Hmm.
I headed over to the website for “Boys’ Life,” a magazine created by the Boy Scouts of America. Its homepage was jam-packed with things like “make a pingpong ball launcher,” “weird science projects,” a guide to buying just about any outdoorsy piece of gear you can imagine, “hobbies, projects, and other fun stuff you can do,” and absolutely nothing about girls. In other words, while we’re learning how to eat grapes cutely over at “GL,” the “Boys’ Life” boys are actually doing things! Hobbies! Projects! Experiences! Stuff that’s a hell of a lot more fun than putting on lip-gloss.
Of course, “Boys’ Life” is just as guilty of pushing boys into fulfilling the stereotypical expectations of being a male — science, outdoorsy stuff, physical activity. And I suppose that’s expected given that the magazine is run by Boy Scouts people. But damn it, at least the boys are encouraged to do things instead of just shop and worry about how to attract a significant other.
And these expectations and stereotypes persist into adulthood, even if we recognize the stupidity or untruthfulness of them. According to the responses of my housemates, “being a man” means doing things, while women are supposed to care about appearance and guys. Sigh.
I’m not saying that my housemates’ responses to my questions affirm that they follow the expected gender roles. And I’m not trying to tell people of any gender to not buy makeup or talk about guys or whatever else is “GL”-certified. I am trying to remind everyone that gender roles exist, and are perpetuated by what we read and watch and listen to and click on, and that they begin at a young age.
Katie Steen can be reached at email@example.com.