Boys Will Be Boys and Girls Will Be Punished
By Shelby Grimm
Photo by Tracy Grimm, from the author's personal collection
A group of girls and boys gather in a classroom while the teacher exits to get various materials. When the teacher returns, her favorite glass apple figurine has been shattered. Who is to blame? Well, if it was determined that a boy broke the figurine, some would defend him and say that rowdiness is built into his nature. On the other hand, if the teacher found out that a girl broke the apple, the teacher would likely scold said girl, because she is expected to be the more responsible and mature student when compared to her male peers. The issue of unequal gender-based behavior expectations is a relevant topic in numerous areas of life. As mentioned by Robert W. Blum, MD and professor at Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, "Because of adult concerns about their sexual vulnerability, girls are repeatedly told to stay away from boys and there are sanctions if they do not—punishment, social isolation, sexual rumor, and innuendo" (53). It is frustrating that girls suffer from their association with boys in adolescence due to gendered double standards. Moreover, I have personally endured gender-based behavior expectation discrepancies in the realm of sports. Although the differences between female and male behavior expectations may seem insignificant, these expectations and the consequences for violating them play a role in the unequal treatment of males and females in our culture and ought to be eliminated.
Growing up in a small town, I often had the opportunity to interact with my male peers. We both filled classrooms, occupied clubs, and formed teams; we were essentially equal, except in terms of how we were treated. Boys always had the luxury of getting away with any misdoings, because our rural Indiana community believed in the idea of boys being rough, tough, and rowdy. Interestingly enough, the boys I grew up with never once questioned why they lacked punishment. In part, it could have been that these boys did not fear punishment, since they were never in proximity to it; whereas, girls walked on eggshells knowing that any small infraction could result in severe punishment. It was infuriating to witness girls being disproportionately blamed and suffering unpleasant outcomes.
One event in particular from high school expresses the discrepancy in gender expectations; even just thinking about this situation angers me. Having been a member of the Chesterton High School softball team, I was often required to share practice facilities, attend events, and bond with our brother baseball team. However, the relationship between our two groups rapidly dissolved when it became evident that the male team had significantly lowered behavioral expectations compared to those of the softball team.
It was a scorching summer afternoon; the smell of fresh cut grass hung in the air. The baseball and softball teams gathered on their respective fields to partake in their daily practices. All seemed well until the softball coaches strutted up to the field for instruction; much like a herd of bulls, they approached us with stern and threatening expressions. Terror came over us as we sat on the bench. Each player was anxious to hear an explanation as to why all the coaches were radiating anger. Next, the tsunami of rage hit us like a bus. The coaches stated that our team was a disgrace to the Chesterton name because of our behavior; they were referring to the night prior when we had participated in a baseball-softball team outing that involved TPing. Little to the coaches' knowledge, the baseball team had just as much involvement in the event as we did; it was a group endeavor.
The two teams had met up in our high school's parking lot near the hour of 10:00 p.m. the night before. From there, everyone hopped in an available car and headed to Jewel-Osco to get some toilet paper. After making our necessary purchases, we traveled to our desired location. At that point, we all exited our cars, grabbed rolls of toilet paper, and began tossing them into trees and other visible locations. Without harming anyone or anything, we completed our task by midnight. As naïve teenagers, we believed that this harmless activity would increase team camaraderie; however, our coaches perceived the action to be an indication of a moral failing on the part of the girls' softball team.
As a result of their position on the situation, our coaches decided to assign us various punishments ranging in intensity. The first of our punishments happened to be a practice filled with intense running drills, every athlete's nightmare. We assembled on the line for a set of suicides; I could already hear my heart pounding before the "go" whistle even blew. Frustration grew in me because I could not understand why the coaches were punishing us in this way. As we continued with our ten sets of suicides, I peered over to the nearby baseball field and noticed that they were having a fun-filled practice; their music was blaring and they were laughing. The baseball players scattered across the field without even the smallest indication that they were being punished. It appeared as if they were playing a point game in which each player got to hit for a certain amount of time, and depending on the hit, he tallied up a certain number of points. A few of the players peered over to our field to point and laugh at our punishment, because they knew nothing of the sort would be required of them. Even so, their enjoyable activity seemed odd, since we—the softball team—were suffering from our previous night's activity that we performed with the baseball team. It was as if they were numb to the situation; they did not care that we were being punished for something that they took part in too. Nevertheless, as I gasped for air, I could not help but sulk at the thought of having to endure the remaining two hours of hell during practice because my coaches wanted the girls' team to learn a lesson from our toilet papering prank.
The boys continued with their fun while we transitioned into a new form of punishment; we were to clean up the field under time constraints, which obviously meant that we would need to sprint to complete the job. Each player was given a garbage bag and instructed to pick up every leaf, weed, and piece of garbage on and near the field within fifteen minutes. With that in mind, we were essentially tasked with completing a week's worth of work in under fifteen minutes. However, angry thoughts about the double standard the softball team was experiencing were not the only thing taking a toll on me. The heat and rigorous activity combined caused my morning oats to rise in my throat; I was on the verge of vomiting. Despite the fact that I proceeded with my efforts around the field, I made sure to express my feelings about the situation by discreetly spitting out a few swear words when out of earshot from the coaches.
In spite of the struggles, we were able to finish the punishment within the specified time frame, and once finished, we returned to the dugout panting and scrambling for water. I again took a glance at the baseball field and noticed that punishment was still missing. At that point, I noticed that the baseball team started taking rounds of batting practice. I felt my blood start to boil, because I was still not able to determine a valid reason for the baseball team's lack of punishment. Regardless, my three hours of physical hell eventually concluded; however, my sense of justice and fairness had reached a point where I couldn't silence it. I chose to directly approach the head coach, so I could notify her of the event's true details. She listened to me speak and then said: "There's no need to be a tattle-tale. You're just going to be a pain in the ass to everyone if you keep complaining about this." She went on to explain that the baseball team's actions were not her problem and that she was not going to "tattle" on them to their coach. I sulked away in disbelief at the coach's reaction, my head hung low for being accused of snitching on the boys by my coach.
It is my coach's reaction that exemplifies the existence of gendered biases for male and female behavior. Rather than standing up for her group of girls, our coach chose to ignore the situation and simply focus on what was easiest for her to control: us. In many cases, it is easier for adults, coaches, teachers, rectors, professors, and others to just focus on the enforcement of unequal behavioral expectations toward females, because society regards females as more understanding and respectful individuals who accept their lot in life. However, I feel that the disproportionate punishment meted out to females needs to change.
The TPing event could be seen as an isolated example of one group being held to higher standards than another group. There were no further incidents or collective pranks undertaken because the softball team, as a group, decided to sever most social ties with the baseball team. Our coaches quickly returned to their regular practice routines, and we continued with our sport as usual without ever discussing the incident again.
Analyzing the situation in retrospect and accepting responsibility for the fact that the toilet papering prank was wasteful and stupid, it still strikes me as unfair that female coaches subjected us to punishment while the boys looked on, despite knowing that the boys too had participated in the behavior that was deemed worthy of punishment. On the other hand, I am not shocked because this incident is a microcosm of a larger macrocosm in our culture. We have built an entire society around assumptions of preferential treatment for males. Gendered-based behavioral discrepancies are evident in youth sports and also noticeable in the adult workforce. For example, journalist and author Susan Antilla observed that on Wall Street "although the average male financial advisor engages in three times more misconduct than female advisors, females are punished more severely and are less likely to find employment if they lose their jobs." This fact is astonishing and I believe we must begin the task of eliminating biased expectations for male and female behavior during childhood. If we equalize punishment for misconduct among youth, perhaps our society will become accustomed to equal gender expectations by adulthood. We should condition our boys to be more sensitive to the kinds of behaviors they get away with on a daily basis—for example, male athletes routinely get away with sleeping during class and male undergraduate students get away with having parties in their dorm rooms—and we should inform our girls that they should speak up when they see males getting away with behaviors for which girls are punished. In doing this, we are causing boys to be more fearful of punishment while allowing girls to act and speak more freely without fear of punishment; we are essentially developing a society that expects the same comportment out of everyone.
Dissimilar gender expectations are also evident in terms of what jobs males and females are likely to pursue. Many times, females are expected to take the less strenuous, less powerful and less remunerated jobs compared to their male counterparts; it is these biases that need to be removed from our culture. A woman should be able to perform any job she excels at whether it be a firefighter, a CEO, a professional athlete, or a coach. Women should not be critiqued due to biased gender-based expectations. In society, I have seen how women are expected to present themselves as dainty, humble, polite, and feminine; whereas, men are able to display themselves in informal, expansive, bold, and confident ways without suffering any form of criticism.
It is my position that differing gender-based expectations are unfair and detrimental to society because they result in the formation of tense environments that enforce the status quo. Within these tense environments, individuals are unable to cultivate a more unified society for all because the communities that are supposed to nurture us are built on a foundation of fundamental inequality. To rectify this universal issue, it is imperative that we hold all genders to the same standards of behavior, which requires the distribution of equal punishment as well. It is my belief that everyone should be treated equally, but the occurrence of equal treatment should not only be presented in positive forms; negative equality should be apparent too. We should prioritize that boys be as familiar with punishment as girls are when they act in ways that are known to be unacceptable. We should make sure that the stereotype that boys are inherently different due to some assumed aspects of their nature is not an excuse for bad conduct. We should make behavioral expectations equal for all. With all of this said and returning to my felt sense of injustice on the softball field one hot summer in rural Indiana, I hope future Chesterton softball players do not have to struggle through a punishment practice while their brother baseball team basks in the glory of the privileged assumption that boys will be boys.