For most of my life I’ve found Mormon-girl and Mormon-woman culture infuriating and alienating. I despise passive-aggressive triangulation and insincere niceness and gossipy backstabbing, in others and especially in myself. I’m all for greater assertiveness and directness and less apology for one’s existence and neurotic hand-wringing over one’s perceived sins, chief among them the sin for which no woman can be forgiven in this life or in the life to come, failure to be nice.
But a recent comment on Ziff’s old scouting thread by someone who was forced to hike through a canyon naked by Scoutmasters/priesthood leaders really horrified me. Since I have mostly sisters, I grew up with little knowledge of or interaction with boy culture. The MTC was my first real encounter, and I found the fart jokes, leering at girls, and general adolescent giggling over bodily functions and parodies of the temple ceremony a bracing and educational experience, to say the least. But I was more struck by the often harsh rhetoric of some (certainly not all) of our MTC leaders. Our first branch president was ex-military, and he treated the elders with extraordinary brusqeness. When our ZL failed to quash the other elders’ juvenile dorm antics, he was publicly, summarily rebuked. There was no opportunity for explanation. There was no his side of the story. There was no discussion. He was simply interrogated and then immediately, publicly smacked down for the acts of others in the district (fascinating psychological technique, to punish him in front of them for their misdeeds!), and on we went.
This kind of demanding, no-whining-no-excuses boot-camp culture evidently works well for some boys, and for some girls, particularly for the thick-skinned, if I might venture a guess. We have mythic stories about how the military makes boys into men, and in the church missions perform a similar mythic function. But for some boys, such emotional roughness can be devastating. And it can clearly go way too far. In the same way that courtesy, kindness, and consideration for others are feminine virtues that can be twisted into passive-aggressive backstabbing nastiness, the masculine virtues of directness, assertiveness, and refusal to indulge whining can be twisted into brutality, emotional and physical bullying, and downright abuse.
I simply cannot imagine an LDS girls’ camp that would force girls to hike naked; if such practices exist, they’re far, far outside any norms I’m familiar with. (Part of this, as Kiskilili pointed out to me, is an issue of modesty and our intense taboos around the female body that don’t obtain with the same intensity when the body in question is male.) If such a thing ever happened, endless recriminations would ensue–as they should. But when we inflict such practices on boys, it’s too often excused as part of “toughening them up” and “making them men.” Similarly, it’s far more culturally acceptable to ridicule boys publicly for their failures, weaknesses or physical unloveliness than it is to ridicule girls. Girls target each other, of course, often with devastating accuracy, but I find it very difficult to imagine a YW leader making fun of a girl in front of her peers. It’s the hierarchically sanctioned ridicule, in which the leaders themselves inflict sometimes downright emotional abuse, that seems peculiar to boy culture.
I hear more than I’d like to at church about the evils of The World as if The World were some monolithic and wholly external entity laying siege the stake center, ready to pour diet Coke down all our virginal throats and cackle with horrifying glee at our collective corruption. But it’s far more useful, though far more difficult, to consider the ways we as Mormons and as fallible human beings all, to varying degrees, embrace the ways of the world instead of the ways of Christ. Over the course of my life I’ve thought a lot about the real evil that can slide around under the guise of femininity, the cruelty of women to women and girls to girls, and more recently, the indignities women inflict on children that we’d never dream of inflicting on other adults. The kind of cruelty to boys this commenter endured is, in a sense, yet another way we as a people have heeded the voices emanating from the great and spacious building instead of honoring our covenants to Christ in the ways we treat each other.
- 19 September 2008