The C Word

“Urduja commanded armies of mixed sexes; men and women fought side by side. She would only marry the person who could best her in a duel. The original self-rescuing princess…Why haven’t I heard of her?” – Anne, from Take Your Daughter to Work Day by Joan Reginaldo

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Long before boys learn the word cunt to maliciously insult women, they learn another C word that isn’t intended as an insult but has effects that are just as devastating.

It’s can’t.

Specifically, in this seemingly innocuous sentence: Girls can’t (insert action here).

It’s an insidious, slow-acting poison that destroys her soul.

I remember the exact moment a boy said the C word to me.

It was math class in middle school. The boy was blond and impish, with an elfin face. In truth, I’d had a bit of a crush on him, which made it all the more poignant. And I’m sure he hadn’t meant it to be taken so literally. Some might even say he was flirting. (Don’t. Don’t ever say that. It excuses this type of behavior with the “boys will be boys, hurting is flirting” travesty.)

Up until then, math had been part of my normal world. I was actually kind of good at it.

Then that afternoon, I’d made a mistake in a calculation.

That boy, laughing, turned to me and said, “Girls can’t do math.”

Then all the other boys around us laughed.

And the teacher, male, smiled a condescending smile and didn’t correct them or stick up for me.

At that moment, I felt something close in my mind. I felt literally cut off from numbers. I could no longer finish thoughts about concepts and theorems I’d understood before.

I tried to hide this but my math grades slipped. No one wondered why my math grades slipped.

And I felt such relief when I found out, when I went to college for the first time, that I would no longer have to take any math because I’d limped through and finished calculus in high school.

I thought I left that all behind and that, in this day and age, I would not encounter such a can’t again.

Then Grimlock said something similar to me: “Girls can’t play Call of Duty.”

I was horrified. He’s five years old. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his tiny body. He truly didn’t mean this to be something that can be taken as an offense. To him, it’s a fact, just like the word “blue” starts with B, and the number 4 follows 3.

“Where did you hear this?” I said.
“I don’t know,” he said, which is what he says to a lot of my questions these days because of the gigantic amount of information he’s being inundated with at school.

I questioned him some more but it was futile. He couldn’t give me a name, and although I’m loath to say this, I suspect it’s something he’s picked up from the playground, like a bad rash we can’t shake off.

This time, though, I was not a helpless child. I had power over the situation.

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“Watch this,” I told Grimlock.
I turned on the PS4, loaded Call of Duty, and ran around, blasting. I hadn’t played in a while, and I was definitely not used to the new maps, but I pulled a decent rank at the end.

I am a gamer. I’ve played all sorts of PC and platform games. The point I made to Grimlock was that I am a girl, and not only can I play Call of Duty, but that I’ve played such games long before he was a gleam in his daddy’s eye.

Expanding the lesson, I told him that anybody: boy, girl, everyone in between and beyond, can do anything they want to.

But how sticky is that idea when, in popular media, in the most marketed movies, men take the lead in vital roles. I thought about his favorite movies: Jurassic World, LOTR, The Hobbit, Avengers. Even when a woman is included in the cast, she gets washed out of the action figures sets and toy scenarios.

If I was a kid, I’d buy the girls can’t thing, hook, line, and sinker!

In the face of all these images and plot lines, it isn’t going to be enough to lecture. There needs to be more visible female role models in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) There needs to be more conversation, at every opportunity, to put the focus on the things we do rather than the things we are, until the distinctions no longer matter.

What can you do right now? Take a moment to appreciate that a woman named Hedy Lamarr is credited with inventing wireless communication, and a woman named Ada Lovelace is known as the original computer programmer. That’s how you’re reading this.

Please share this post and amplify the voices of STEM women in social media.

Have a great weekend!


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