Cassandra Keenan

Young girls: from prim and proper to primordial

Filed By Cassandra Keenan | May 11, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: childhood development

There are these three little girls who live across the way from me. Looks like they range in age from maybe 7-10. I get a kick out of watching their behavior as a group whenever they're outside playing. A couple of days ago, they were romping around the large parking lot at my apartment complex, looking intimidating as all hell, carrying tree branches and waving them around menacingly.

Most recently, I saw them descend their stairs while on their way somewhere with their mom. Two of the girls were holding flowers. It looked so storybook-like, but when they were waiting for their mom to pull out the car, their unbridled side (yet to be fully tamed by the rules of "proper" girlish behavior) took over, and they started jumping up and down and beating on this tree by whipping it with fallen branches. It was a definite primordial behavioral departure.

It just struck me as something that the average person might expect a group of rowdy boys to do. Speaking of which, I'm wondering if boys of similar age are as open and free as far as jettisoning the code of stereotypical masculinity.

Regardless, the girls made me smile because it drove home the message that girls are trained to behave in certain ways, but their nongendered personalities still can shine through, particularly when they are young and still being indoctrinated into the binary gender system. The sad thing is this side of themselves gets increasingly hard to unbury, let alone develop and allow to thrive.


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Hormones are wonky at that age. Some behaviors are taught and don't have much to do with gender. But hormones affect behavior too. There's an expectation that once girls start having their period and produce estrogen regularly the tomboy phase will end. And for most it does. There's more leeway given to girls up to that point because the indicator that the point that it has happened is so...radical. For me, it was somewhat traumatic.

Paige Listerud | May 11, 2010 4:51 PM

The issues you bring up are no joke, especially when it comes to the influence of gender conformity on young girls and adolescent women in their pursuit of career and academic success.

I'm sure you're already aware of "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls" by Mary Bray Pipher. Girls who thought nothing of bringing in high test scores and grades in math and science dropped those academic achievements in adolescence--out of fear they'd look too brainy for boys to find them attractive.

It's great when girls can switch so easily between gender conforming and non-conforming behavior in youth. But adolescence is that scary time when peer pressure, sexism, lesbophobia, and yearning to belong can lead a young woman to compromise herself, her wits and her self-sufficiency.

I hope the girls you saw have mothers who will guide them through that treacherous territory, so they can come out the other side bold, strong, and independent.

As someone who has a daughter (a little over your age group) and has taught 2nd and 3rd grade, I both agree and disagree about your essay.

Yes, there is tremendous social pressure to behave, to act responsible, to be a little adult (and in this case, a little lady) However, I would say that for a lot of girls I've known, how they behaved had more to do with them from a very young age (I mean 18 mos or less) than what happened as they were more formally socialized. I do think some 'tom boys' and wild gurrlz get intimidated out of that behavior, but it happens more between 10-14 where it gets focused into other behaviors (and pier pressure takes over).

On the other hand, there are a lot of very little girls who are incredibly prissy, particular (yes, and controlling) when they're toddlers and stay that way... and these are even kids who have very non-femme moms. I have a number of mom friends who are dying for their overly well-behaved daughters to get some more spitfire and tomboy in them. While I think social norms play a strong role in how people behave, I absolutely do not subscribe to the "start as a blank slate" ideas of behavior.

I do think some 'tom boys' and wild gurrlz get intimidated out of that behavior, but it happens more between 10-14 where it gets focused into other behaviors (and pier pressure takes over).

12 is the average menarche age.

This is the age group I work with. Yeah, this sounds like them.

I have to admit, I find this a bit disturbing. Not because I have issue with the "reassignment of gender roles as proscribed by modern society", but the simple fact that it proves, once again, that we are becoming more and more a violent society.

Whacking a tree with branches? What's next, when that no longer suits their needs? Whacking a small animal? Then moving on to whacking a classmate?

Dont misunderstand: I have as much issue with boys doing it as girls. I just dont think this kind of behavior should be hailed as some kind of victory over gender repression.

I don't know, Sean. I actually find the "hit a tree" thing okay. I'd rather they smack a tree than each other.

In fact, in a lot of therapies you do the whole "hit something with a soft bat to get out aggression and anger", etc.

Yeah, I've seen that -- and came close to experiencing it, actually, when my therapist told me I should hit this pillow for all the terrible thing done to me as a child. I couldnt do it -- it was like he was giving permission to be needlessly violent.

Insofar as smacking a tree, what does that teach? That it's okay to hit something you know wont hit back? Not much of a lesson, sorry.

Or maybe I'm just too out of touch with all this. :-)