[World, October 23, 1993]
I arrived a little early to pick up my 11-year-old son at church camp. It was dinnertime in the long wooden hall, 263 kids noisily banging the cups and wolfing down cherry cobbler. Suddenly a table of boys burst into incoherent song—the words a blur, but the tone tauntingly playful. It was greeted with a mixture of applause and boos. “That’s Cabin 44,” Stephen grinned. “Every night they have a battle with Cabin 5. They make up rhymes about each other.”
When a few minutes had lapsed another song struck up, this one all in girls’ voices. “That’s Cabin 5,” Stephen told me. When they finished, I joined the yays (Go, team!) while Stephen went “Boo!” “I had to go ‘boo,’” he explained to me, sincerely. “I knew they were making fun of men. I knew it was a sexist joke.”
Where did this come from? Playful sparring between boys and girls is sexist? What next? The war between the sexes is probably the first conflict we encounter in life. I recalled the day my daughter had come home from first grade, her face red with fury. A boy had said something very bad to her; she was so angry she couldn’t bear to repeat it. With my coaxing, it eventually came forth. What the boy had said was,
“Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider.
Boys go to Mars to get more candy bars.”
Now, this does not impress me as a specimen of high-flown devastating rhetoric, but it had its desired effect on my daughter. The war was on.
It is a given that, in this vast and lonely world, people enjoy finding a place by identifying with a group, and highlighting differences with those outside the group. But why is the first such group-division we encounter that of girls versus boys? As I looked across that dining hall I saw lots of ways the children could have divided up against each other. As it was an Orthodox Church camp, I could see children with Lebanese, Syrian, Greek, and Slavic features, in addition to Oriental- and African-Americans and blue-eyed Anglo-Saxons like my son. It would have been easy to choose sides according to ancient ethnic feuding lines. Alternatively, we were just a stone’s throw from the Mason-Dixon line; all these now-American children could have squared off as Northerners versus Southerners. Or the older adolescents could have tormented and abused the younger kids. Any number of conflicts could have been chosen.
But it was Cabin 44 versus Cabin 5, and I think this is because the difference between boys and girls is one that is ultimately good news. That boys and girls are different is a fact for rejoicing, a truth that leads quite literally to life, lots more of it, for generations to come. Girls versus boys is the division-by-groups that is therefore the most fun to play at.
We enjoy exaggerating these differences all our lives, long after we stop sending each other to Jupiter. For example, the bare truth is that men’s and women’s bodies are as alike as Rome and MacIntosh apples; there is far more that is in common (eyes, hands, appendixes) than there is that is unique. So it is those unique characteristics that get the most emphasis: women wear waist-cinching outfits that allude to the hourglass shape (no matter what shape the lady inside), while men’s suits boast brawny, padded shoulders. A woman’s skin is really only slightly softer than a man’s, but she will work diligently to heighten that difference, while declining to develop biceps like Schwarznegger. We exaggerate the differences, while tacitly ignoring the 98% we hold in common; I don’t see anyone trying to enlarge their ears.
We enjoy, as well, finding personality differences between men and women, though again we are probably much more alike than different. Still, some distinctions regularly prove true. Although there are clear exceptions, scientists can usually pinpoint a subject’s gender by observing the reaction to three hours’ exposure to a combative AM Radio talk-show host. The ones whooping with joy are usually the males, while the ones wincing with pained and offended expressions are typically the females. Mark that these females may actually agree with the radio voice’s opinions—it’s not what he says, it’s the way he says it (words calculated to make any male heart sink in confusion.) My husband charges that the reason I don’t enjoy these shows is because I suffer from the condition known to medical science as “being a wimp.” I think, rather, that the shouting radio voice, if correctly analyzed, would reveal that its owner bears the malady technically known as “being a jerk.”
All across the clamorous dining hall, kids were ignoring other divisions of color, age, region, or ethnicity. The marker each had chosen to highlight was the most benign, most joyful one of all—the good news of being boys and girls. Much has been written in recent decades about this eternal war between the sexes, and too much of it has been bitter and sour. Where women have been unjustly prevented from the opportunity to rise to the level their talent deserves, justice is not served, and such wrongs must be righted. But the deeper, mischievous war is too much fun to end. As the old saw goes, there will never be a victory in the war between the sexes; there’s too much fraternizing with the enemy. And I don’t think we’d have it any other way.