Woodchip Turtles and Bad Beer: Or, Not Much Has Changed Since Elementary School

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Sex and Gender

2005 First Web Papers

On Serendip

Woodchip Turtles and Bad Beer: Or, Not Much Has Changed Since Elementary School

Em Madsen

A group of girls between the ages of eight and ten sits on a corner of the playground playing with woodchips. The smallest girl is forming a mound of dirt and woodchips into the shape of a turtle. It is fall, and the air is crisp, but the sun is bright enough that the girls have removed their jackets. A group of boys are running around on the playing field nearby. Periodically, the boys emit rhythmic shrieks, which the girls are familiar with--this particular group of boys plays a game called "Spies," and the shrieks are a code which they use to communicate with their team members. As recess progresses, the boys tire of running after one another, and their focus drifts towards the nearby playground. The group of girls has begun to build a tent out of sticks to protect the turtle shape. One girl remarks "If we hide the turtle, we can make it even bigger tomorrow." This is not meant to be--the group of boys descends on the group of girls, emitting the same high-pitched shrieks. A few of the girls scatter: the rest remain, for this has happened before. The tent of sticks is destroyed and the turtle is scuffed out. The boys wheel away and a few of the girls give chase, but when the boys cross the kickball field, the girls turn back.

In retrospect, I could ask why this interaction did not escalate into more of a disagreement. Unfortunately, this specific incident was one of many in which similar male intrusions into female space occurred during my childhood. Barrie Thorne points out in her article "Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School" that the majority of disturbances on the playground took place at the instigation of males. She even remarks that some playground aides would not give jump-ropes to boys because they would just want to use them for rope burns. I do not remember preemptory discipline like this on the playground, but I also do not remember the aides chastising boys for perpetrating this kind of intrusion. In fact, the only time I remember the boys being chastised in relation to a playground incident was during the fourth grade. Snowplows had pushed snow up in huge mountains at one end of the basketball courts, far away from the main blacktop and the typical location of the aides and teachers on duty. The entire recess period on this one day consisted of a very violent game of king/queen of the hill. The girls began at the top of the snow heaps at the start of recess, and the boys attempted to invade and take over this space. But we would not let them. I remember wrestling with a boy and kicking him very hard, harder than I've kicked anyone before or since, and feeling the exhilaration of maintaining a space of my own at the top of the pile. All the kids in my class filed back in to the classroom after recess, sweaty and excited, talking about what would happen at the next recess. We sat down and our teacher, a short gray-haired woman with bifocals, fixed us with a look. "I will not even attempt to describe the behavior that was taking place on the playground today, but I will say that it is never to happen again. Is that clear?" Stunned, we nodded our heads. I suppose we thought we were fighting unobserved, but the message was clear: fights between boys and girls were inappropriate. This is one reason why the first memory has such an unsatisfactory ending: since boys typically engaged in destructive and disruptive behavior on the playground, and fighting back only got one in trouble, there was little to do as a female in this situation. Better to rebuild the turtle the next day, rather than risk punishment.

The problem with writing down these memories and analyzing them from an observer's perspective is that they actually did happen to me. And I was a girl at the time and I am a woman now, so the lens through which I view them is influenced by gender. This contributes to the slanted nature of the first and second memories, and also to my analysis of adult reaction (or lack thereof) to these incidents. Today, I imagine trying to recast the first memory from the point of view of someone who is primarily focused on the boys: A group of seven boys is playing "Spies" on a soccer field adjacent to the playground. They wheel and dive towards each other in loosely defined teams. Each team communicates through a complicated set of vocalizations. After a short while, the boys become interested in a group of five girls sitting on the corner of the playground. The girls are constructing something together and the boys are curious. They know these girls from class and think they are interesting and maybe even cool. The boys approach the girls but lack the language and freedom to tell them these things, so they resort to the shrieks that accompany their game of "Spies," and in the throes of their exuberance, they destroy the artwork the girls are creating.

This is still difficult and slippery. However, it is interesting to "hear" from the boys. An ideal retelling would have some mixture of both. In either telling, we are left with a core issue, which is the lack of freedom between boys and girls on the playground--lack of freedom to openly confront and engage in conflict on the girls' side, and lack of freedom to express themselves in the way they'd like to on the boys' side. Who enforces these oppressions? The aides may enforce some of them by coming down more harshly on girls and boys who do engage in conflict, however, the lack of verbal interaction between the groups is also self-policed. Girls say "Oh, boys are so stupid." Boys say, "Ewww, you were talking to a girl."

Thorne suggests that classroom teachers can help students to examine this self-policing behavior by asking rigorous and demanding questions about gender roles. Why, for example, is it not OK for boys and girls to be friends? Why can't they talk and sit and work together? This is a good start, but this activity needs to occur in spaces besides the classroom: on the playground, and in the home as well. This way, interaction patterns between girls and boys do not become entrenched early on in ways that are difficult to disrupt.

For a current example of interaction patterns: Four young women between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one sit on the front steps of a dorm building. It is a Saturday night and they are dressed up. They are attractive and they are aware of this power. Two smoke cigarettes, three have open beers sitting on the steps in front of them. Closer to the doors of the dorm, about 20 feet away, sit four young men in their late twenties. They are also drinking and hanging out.

The young woman who has consumed the most alcohol is talking about the issue of hyphenation in last names ("And, well, if your last name was hyphenated, and then your husband's last name was hyphenated too, your kids would have four last names." "What if some of the names were the same? I mean, you couldn't be the Brown-Smith-Smith-Kelleys, could you?"). Gradually the young men notice the young women and begin speaking more loudly. They begin to tell jokes which begin with sexist themes and move on to racist ones. At one point, the jokes and laughter from the young men are so loud that the young women cannot hear each other. A disdainful glance in the direction reveals of the young men reveals that they are clearly and pointedly observing the young women and taking pleasure in disrupting the conversation, thereby drawing attention to themselves. One young woman stands up and says, "This is ridiculous. We're going inside. Come on," she tugs at her intoxicated friend, "there's a whole power play going on here that you're not aware of." As she pulls her friend through the doors, the friend leans back and shouts "You suck!" The doors slam shut behind her and there is silence from the other side.

Not much ground has been gained here since the playground days, unfortunately. The young women still avoid open conflict, and the young men still engage in behavior which asserts some kind of right to female space and attention. There is still no freedom for open interface between genders unless someone is willing to say more than "You suck!" So why doesn't one of the girls do this? (I'll say girls because as one of the girls, I'm wondering the same thing.) The behavior of the girls is just as set as the behavior of the boys--yet here there are no playground aides. There is nothing stopping open dialogue--the safety of the dorm is mere feet away, and there is safety in numbers as well. Yet dialogue still does not happen.

I'll argue that it still does not happen because of this same self-policing instinct which surfaces on the playground. Young men do not find it appropriate to come straight out and say "Hey, we find you interesting and attractive and we'd like to talk to you," although, if more alcohol had been consumed, this sometimes does happen (that's another study, another day--alcohol as a social force, breaking down our usual filters and allowing us to act in uninhibited ways...). Instead, it is appropriate to engage in behavior which endeavors to draw attention to oneself, thereby ensuring the approach and attention of said females. I don't even know if I can retell this story effectively from the viewpoint of someone watching the males as I did earlier on in this paper, because it makes me too angry. Does my reading of the situation suffer from this anger? It's difficult to say--anger can be a positive force if used wisely, I believe, and if my anger and frustration had pushed me to confront the young men and dialogue with them in a reasonable manner, that might have been beneficial. However, I did not speak up because I was worried that my anger might cause me to confront them in nonproductive ways. I have discovered in my brief time so far on this planet that the use of expletives and raised voices is usually a recipe for disaster, rather than any conclusive new ground gained. But is this just the "female" way of looking at things? Keep your voice steady and get what you want? Leave the violence and anger for the males? No, this is different, and it's not that black and white, male or female. I have got to come to the conclusion that there are no longer playground aides and grown-ups making sure I behave. I am growing up. I am a grown-up. I can misbehave, and I can misbehave in ways that are productive and generative. While I am not going to go kicking boys down snow-piles, I can begin to challenge my self-imposed rules, and that can happen in the classroom, that can happen in relationships I have, and it can also happen on the dorm steps with a lukewarm beer in hand.

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:51:41 CDT