I was in kindergarten the first time a boy pursued me. His name was Georgie, and he was obsessed with me. At the age of 5, he had decided he was in love with me and would not stop bothering me until I gave him the attention he sought. Our mothers thought it was cute how he wouldn’t leave me alone. Whether it was kicking me under the desk or pushing me on the playground, my indifference only motivated him.
Georgie would ask me every day to marry him, ultimately buying me a matching ring and bracelet. My father was so furious he confiscated both. Of course, we were 5 years old, and my father may have been overreacting a little. What lingers was Georgie’s persistence despite my disregard for his advances.
A common phrase I heard growing up was “boys will be boys.” It was used to excuse the physical harassment I received from them. Boys are socialized to hurt girls they like and the “boys will be boys” mentality is used to make it acceptable.
As a little girl, I was often referred to as a “firecracker,” “feisty,” or even “bossy.” Though the connotation of those words was often negative, I always considered these words empowering. I was a “firecracker” because I spoke my mind. I was “feisty” because I did not let people take advantage of me. I was “bossy” because I was a leader.
By contrast, boys with similar character traits were referred to as “outspoken,” “leaders” and even “level-headed.” As I grew older, I began to recognize the negative connotation of the words often used to describe me as opposed to the positive connotation of the words used to describe the boys around me.
I was a 'firecracker' because I spoke my mind. I was 'feisty' because I did not let people take advantage of me. I was 'bossy' because I was a leader.
Just a few months back, an older man was asking me about my career goals. I expressed my passion for politics and my desire to attend law school and eventually run for office. He looked at me in awe as if I had said something ludicrous. After I finished talking, he took a deep breath, raised his eyebrows, and nudged one of my male companions and said: “Wooh! This one’s a firecracker isn’t she?” I suppose that’s how a man describes a woman with ambition.
In addition to securing a political internship this summer, I recently took a job at a restaurant. Amidst all of the chaos of my first day, the servers greeted me with lingering stares and frequent requests for my name, with no offer of an introduction in return.
Worse still, my female coworkers referred to me as “fresh meat” and dismissed ongoing inappropriate behavior. It was perplexing that I did not have these women’s support. The stares and comments continued. By the third day, the tension increased significantly as one server asked my name for the fourth time in two hours in front of clients. I would have excused this simple question if not for the twinkle in his eye as he looked me up and down. I glared at him and told him tersely to get back to his work. This comment lead to his slamming menus onto the table, out of what I assumed to be an attempt to reclaim his shattered masculinity. It took me by surprise that a man in his 30s would act in such a way toward a young woman with no reprimand following such behavior.
The same day, another server approached me asking my name but did not return the introduction. He did, however, feel comfortable in requesting to take a selfie with me. I refused, stating I did not take selfies with strangers and suggesting that he get back to work. He let out an exasperated sigh as he complained about having lost 10 dollars on a bet. I told him again to go back to work and to leave me alone, but he told me to calm down and faked an apology with a grin of amusement.
These men’s inability to recognize they are at fault, that a woman clearly stating indifference and demanding distance means exactly that—and not the opposite—is baffling. A show of anger and frustration should be a sign to back off, not fuel to motivate them to pursue a woman any further. I have always assumed that showing my strength of character would protect me, but instead these men assume I am playing games.
I told him again to go back to work and to leave me alone, but he told me to calm down and faked an apology with a grin of amusement.
There needs to be a cultural change. Though I was raised to be confident, society continues to encourage behaviors in men that see confidence in women as something to be attacked. It is not about professionalism in the workplace or respect at school. It is about breaking the mold of the patriarchal socialization we have all become accustomed to. Along with this cultivated hyper-masculine attitude often comes a superiority complex which causes men to fear the idea that femininity could be just as empowering as masculinity. This hinders men’s ability to see women as equals, no matter the environment nor situation. Active re-socialization must involve the recognition of toxic masculinity as a problem. The aim instead should be to foster confident masculinity that encourages the acceptance of females as beings with equal strength of will and character, and not as active threats.
As a woman who has been personally affected by toxic masculine behavior, I have made it my goal to actively educate men who are unaware of their socialization. It is important that others begin doing the same. So don’t call me a “firecracker.” I am not a fleeting, explosive spectacle.