Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons

May 12, 2007 at 1:18 pm (education, nonfiction, parenting, psychology, sociology, women's studies)

In Odd Girl Out Rachel Simmons attempts to contextualize and explain the many indirect ways school aged girls express anger. Simmons spent a year interviewing women and girls about their experiences with bullying, and what Simmons calls alternative aggressions; the gossiping, rumor spreading, alliance building and silent treatments girls use to express negative feelings toward one another.

Simmons posits that our society does not allow girls direct access to conflict. From a young age they are taught to be “good.” Unlike boys who are allowed to be openly rough, rowdy, and competitive, “good girls” learn to be passive, Odd Girl OUt by Rachel Simmonsaccommodating, nice to everyone, and to never ever get into fights if any description. They also learn that they are defined by their relationships. These potential wives, mothers, and teachers realize early on that their proximity to specific people is what gives them their value and identity. In our younger years our friends make up our world. This is particularly true of girls who often view social isolation as the worst form of punishment. Without friends to define them they are nothing.  The desire to be “good” combined with the desire to maintain perfect friendships leads girls to express their feelings of anger and hurt in the covert and often cruel form of alternative aggressions.

This book offers so much food for thought. I found Simmons discussion of abusive friendships particularly compelling. Girls on the whole are more likely to bully close friends than strangers or acquaintances. Over night best friends can become worst enemies, one friend relentlessly bullying the other for reasons unknown to the victim. However, the victim often tries to preserve the abusive friendship even at the cost of her own confidence and self-esteem. She is willing to make those sacrifices in order to avoid social isolation. Reading accounts of girls trapped in these friendships, I was shocked at how much the bullied girls sound like battered women. Their justifications for remaining in these obviously dangerous relationships echo those given by victims of spousal abuse: (s)he apologized and said it would never happen again, (s)he didn’t mean what (s)he said, (s)he’s nice to me sometimes. They blame themselves, assuming they must have done something awful to warrant such abuse. Simmons recognizes this parallel and worries that by teaching girls to care more about what other people think of them than how they feel about themselves makes them more susceptible to violence.

In the final chapter Simmons offers suggestions on how teachers, parents, and schools in general can support victims of alternative aggressions. Parents are encouraged to listen and soothe children rather than blame them or offer advice. Teachers are asked to learn how to identify alternative aggressions and to make sure the children in their classroom know that such behavior will not be tolerated. She implores schools to write specific policy concerning alternative aggressions and to be consistent in enforcing it. While I have my doubts about how effective the aforementioned plan of attack would be in practice, Simmons ideas are certainly worth considering.

As a victim of relentless childhood bullying myself I found comfort and understanding in Simmons words. Her research gave me a social context in which to view my days of junior high school torment and would highly recommend it to anyone who is dealing or has dealt with bullying.

Bullying should not have to be an unavoidable part of growing up. Alternative aggressions can destroy a young girl’s confidence, self-esteem, and even shatter her identity. Once you’re done with Odd Girl Out you will feel just as strongly as the author that we must do something to stem the tide of girl bullying before all our daughters suffer permanant damage.


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Transparent by Cris Beam

April 4, 2007 at 8:23 pm (cultural studies, education, memoir, nonfiction, parenting, queer interest, queer studies, sociology)

Though we often think of sexual orientation as being all about the type of people we are attracted to, who we are in relation to the people we are attracted to is just as important. Not everyone who is attracted to women is a Lesbian, only women who are attracted to other women exclusively. In order to define our sexuality in a socially understood way first we must possess a stable gender identity.

The process of identity building that takes place during the teenage years is hard for everyone and twice as difficult for individuals coming into a socially unacceptable sexual identity. But the struggle to build identity is harder still when a teen figures out he or she is actually a different gender than the one they were brought up as.

In Transparent, journalist Cris Beam tells the stories of Transparent by Cris Beamseveral male to female transgendered and transsexual teens living on the streets of Los Angeles. The book is divided into two parts, each written in a slightly different tone. The first part is pure social science. Beam explains how she came up with the idea of writing the book while teaching at Eagles, a high school for gay and trans kids. She follows the lives of some of her favorite students, each chapter focusing on a particular aspect of their lives: school, family, body image, and love. Part two turns into a memoir when Beam and her girlfriend agree to become the legal guardians of one of her former students from Eagles. She explores the many unique challenges presented to parents of trans teenagers.

This was another one of those awesome books that made me feel as though my brain were physically expanding as I read. One aspect of trans life that Beam highlights throughout the book is the astounding amount of sexism and trans-phobia her subjects deal with not just from friends and strangers, but from public institutions like schools, hospitals, and courts. She notes there are currently no laws protecting trans workers leaving them vulnerable to discriminatory hiring and firing practices, not to mention on the job harassment, sexual and otherwise. One woman tells of being forced to use the bathroom on a floor of her office building that was being remodelled when the men and women she worked with told management they were uncomfortable with a trans woman using either the men’s or women’s bathrooms on the populated floors.

When one of Beam’s former students, Domenique, is incarcerated she looks at the many ways the penal system short changes trans folk. Transgendered individuals are housed according to genitalia and male to female transsexuals placed in all male wards are often harassed and assaulted.  Domenique is housed in the Sensitive Needs Yard, a unit for inmates who require special protection. But even there she isn’t safe, reporting instances of harassment by other inmates as well as guards. She fears for her safety so much that she avoids socializing or engaging in any recreational activities. The only way to protect herself is to stay isolated. Domenique’s story depicts a truth that Beam highlights early on, that the system simply hasn’t been set up to deal with people whose gender identity falls outside the binary.

Beam is a deft storyteller who effortlessly weaves queer and gender theory, history, and sociology into her personal recollections. The memoir aspect is what gives the narrative real bite. Without it the book would be purely informative, providing statistics and ruminations on people and situations far removed from the reader’s safety zone. But by including her own trials and tribulations as the parent of a transgendered teenager she engages the reader through the ever relatable experience of motherhood. Beam’s daughter is a typical teenager in so many ways,  from her stubborness to her rebellious streak. But the normal butting of heads that occurs during those years is magnified by the unique challenges of trying to raise a healthy and happy trans child.

Transparent is a beautifully constructed introduction to the social and emotional hurdles of growing up trans in America. By exploring the world of ambiguities that exist between male and female, Beam highlights the one thing we all know but are often unable to accept, that we’re all human.

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College Girls by Lynn Peril

December 15, 2006 at 12:36 pm (cultural studies, education, history, nonfiction, pop-culture, women's studies)

Lynn Peril has put together an eye opening overview of College Girls by Lynn Periladvice, advertising and stereotypes aimed at and associated with college girls in the United States from the early nineteenth century to the present.

Don’t look too closely for the “present” in this book. Though the title does promise a look at Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Co-eds, Then and Now the “now” of it is only touched upon briefly in the final chapter. Most of the book focuses on the image and experience of the college girl who attended school between the late 1830’s and the late 1950’s.

This book is overflowing with facts, something I found slightly intimidating as I started reading. Peril doesn’t offer much in the way of reflection or analysis. Fortunately the facts are so engaging the book rarely reads like a stuffy history text. A lot of that is due to Peril’s writing style which is both sleek, punchy, and fast paced. She never gives the reader the opportunity to become mired down with information. She keeps you moving seamlessly forward from one topic to the next in a manner that allows one to take her swift style for granted.

Some of the assumptions examined in this volume are a scream. Take for instance my personal favorite, the assertion put forth by Dr. Edward H. Clarke in his 1873 book Sex in Education, or, A Fair Chance for the Girls that college girls needed to take a few days off from studying every four weeks while on their periods. His reasoning was that studying diverted physical focus away from the reproductive organs and prevented them from fully developing. These girls “graduated from school or college excellent scholars, but with undeveloped ovaries. Later they married and were sterile.” It really makes you wonder what map of logic this guy and a host of other “experts” were following.

It’s the stories of how such absurd ideas rose to acceptance and fell to hogwash that makes this book so stimulating. In taking one small aspect of the female experience Peril succeeds in showing the reader how far women have truly come in American society and how far we have yet to go.

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Reversals by Eileen Simpson

November 16, 2006 at 10:10 pm (education, memoir, nonfiction)

The title of this well crafted memoir refers not only to theReversals author’s dyslexia, a learning disability that causes sufferers to transpose letters and numbers, but to her great turnaround from frustrated non-reader to eloquent writer.

The book itself serves as one of the biggest incentives to start and continue reading. Opening on a fourth grade classroom where her new teacher is ridiculing her in front of the class for not being able to read aloud, eventually reducing the eight year old Simpson to tears,  the images are so strong and so heart breaking the reader automatically wants to find out how that scared little girl came to write such an engaging memoir.

Simpson’s trials as a dyslexic during the time when dyslexia was just starting to be recognized range from the damaging to the devious. There is the aforementioned classroom ridicule, learning to recite text from memory while looking at an open book in order to appear as though she was reading, and her reliance on cheating and buying term papers off of others in order to pass her classes in high school. Her struggles mirror those of the closeted homosexual or the light skinned African-American wrestling with the question of whether the benefits of passing as “normal” are worth the constant fear of exposure?

Her journey into literacy is remarkable in that it was almost entirely self-motivated and taught. Young Simpson learned to enjoy reading in college despite the frequent challenges of being unable to understand what she had read or keep names and situations straight. All that reading defintely paid off. Simpson has quite a way with words. She sprinkles the text with  images and metaphors so memorable, so concrete they seem effortless.

Simpson’s continuing thirst for knowledge lead her to pursue a masters degree in psychology, and she eventually became a practicing therapist. Not long after, she began writing and publishing articles. She admits writing never is and never will be easy for her, but her desire to communicate has driven her to constantly battle a disability that attempts, and continually fails, to hold her back.  Her story is not a simple or easy one, but it is gripping and will hold your attention till the final page.

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