Carrie Goldman writes a regular blog about her experience with the adoption process and raising adopted children, but earlier this week she took on the subject of bullying, and shared a story about her daughter Katie.
This summer, Katie proudly chose a Star Wars water bottle to go with her Star Wars backpack. But Goldman found that only a few months into the school year, Katie didn’t want to take it with her anymore. From Goldman’s post:
I kept pushing the issue, because it didn’t make sense to me. Suddenly, Katie burst into tears.
She wailed, “The first grade boys are teasing me at lunch because I have a Star Wars water bottle. They say it’s only for boys. Every day they make fun of me for drinking out of it. I want them to stop, so I’ll just bring a pink water bottle…”
(Okay, we don’t actually know if Katie had an R2-D2 bottle, but it sure is cool, isn’t it?)
“Katie, it is okay to be different. Not all girls need to drink out of pink water bottles,” I told her.
“I don’t want to be too different,” Katie lamented. “I’m already different. Nobody else in my class wears glasses or a patch, and nobody else was adopted. Now I’m even more different, because of my Star Wars water bottle.”
I’m going to cut the suspense now and let you know that there is a happy ending to this story. At the end of her post, Goldman asked for any female Star Wars fans in her audience to leave a comment for Katie, to let her know she wasn’t the only girl who likes Star Wars, and they responded. On the post, on Epbot, on the Official Star Wars Blog, and on Felicia Day‘s Facebook post about it.
Goldman was understandably floored:
Wow! Katie is overjoyed by the comments coming in!!! My sweet first grade daughter has been sitting with me at the computer, reading aloud all the wonderful, supportive notes from readers, and her face is shining. Each night after dinner, we are going to sit together, and she is going to read several comments to me and her daddy. We are going to print the comments out and make a book for her to read whenever she feels the need. Today she wore a Star Wars shirt to school and said to me, “Tell the people about it!!!!” This is really restoring her self confidence. She did a jaunty little pirouette in her Star Wars shirt before school. Thank you, Carrie
So, hooray for the internet! But now back to the serious business that Goldman covers in the rest of her post: even gender normative bullying starts early.
Bullying, teasing, name calling, and even a simple “honest” statement like “you’re weird” or “you like that?” are enough to clearly enunciate to a kid that they’re on the edges of the bell curve, when they just want to be in the middle.
And let’s be clear, we all want to be in the middle. It’s just that when we grow up, we tend to find a new spot to be our middle, as we develop thicker skins and nurture those interests that we consider to be worth striking out from the norm for. (Sometimes finding acceptance in this new, smaller bell curve can be just as difficult, but that’s another post for another day.) But for most people that sense of rebellion and independence doesn’t develop until your teenage years, and even then the price of moving your middle can seem very high. It is because this sense hasn’t developed yet that elementary and middle schoolers are so likely to both say mean things and to take mean statements very seriously.
This is the stuff that keeps the population of nerdy girls low and keeps women from joining the sciences despite the sciences (and nerds) really wanting them there. It is subtle, and it is pervasive. I couldn’t tell you if elementary-school-me liked fantasy books because they were more friendly than the world around me, or if I found the world around me to be less friendly because I refused to hide the fact that I liked to read. But I can tell you that I had read Mariel of Redwall eleven times by the third grade, my favorite Muppet was Gonzo because everybody thought he was weird, and that I had very few friends. Sure, I’d seen 9 million “very special episodes” about peer pressure, but it wasn’t until the end of middle school that I finally realized that the “peer” in peer pressure can actually refer to people that you like, not the skirt-and-platform-shoe-wearing girls that you ignore.
But hey! I didn’t even really perceive myself as bullied at the time, and now I’m a well rounded socially functioning adult! It’s the people who didn’t get teased as kids who are unusual. The biggest regret I can say I have about rigid gender roles in my childhood is that I never learned to play Magic: The Gathering and that I didn’t start reading Batman comics until I was eleven (I couldn’t tell you exactly how I knew, but I knew, even in the third grade, that girls weren’t supposed to like superheroes.)
But if you still know somebody who thinks that a teasing word here or there isn’t that serious, point out to them that this little girl was teased into being ashamed of liking Star Wars. The idea that you could be ashamed of liking a series of blockbuster movies by a few words is ridiculous from any kind of adult perspective. For a kid, it’s all too real, and Katie was willing to give up her attachment to the series for acceptance. Then, point out that changing your outward interests is relatively simple: if a kid learns to associate their interest with teasing, they’re likely to stop being interested in it, and the world loses, in this case, a Star Wars fan. Compare this kind of change to, for example, changing what race you are, or what gender you’re into, or whether you have a physical disability. The shame is still there, the choice is not.
So where do we start fixing this? That’s a simple solution with tough execution: we’ve got to change our culture first. This far down in a post I’m probably preaching to the choir, but this is why minorities in the geek community constantly clamor for better or less stereotypical representation. As long as our culture as a whole sends outdated gender normative messages, young kids are going to absorb the simplest messages, like “dinosaurs are for boys” and “ponies are for girls.”* They’re going to try to embody those messages themselves, and they’re going to question those who don’t.
But until that happens, decades down the line, we can throw some comments Katie’s way, welcome her into the awesomely diverse geek community, and make sure to do it for every other struggling geek kid we come across.
*I had Jurassic Park figurines and Breyer ponies, thank you very much.
More Internet Awesomeness Update: The badasses over at ThinkGeek have talked to Katie’s mom and are sending her a Tauntaun Sleeping bag, a Wampa rug, and Yoda’s Lightsaber (that’s the $120 collectible replica, not the plastic Walmart ones that don’t even retract all the way into the hilt). In their own words: “GO GEEKS!”