Friday, December 10, 2010

About Katie Goldman

This past Wednesday was the third public screening of Saberfrog, and I plan to report on that soon, but there's something else I want to get to first.

Today was Proud To Be Me Day, at least at one particular grade school in Evanston, Illinois. This came about after 7-year-old Katie Goldman, a big Star Wars fan, got teased by boys for carrying a Star Wars water bottle. You can read the CNN story here, but the upshot is that Katie's mom, Carrie Goldman, blogged about it, and subsequently received a lot of positive and sympathetic attention from many readers – including the cast of the Clone Wars TV show, who sent her some Star Wars merchandise; and the online retailer ThinkGeek, who sent her a toy lightsaber.

Katie's story has received a fair amount of media attention, inspiring her school to celebrate Proud To Be Me Day to “wear something that shows what they're interested in, whether it's princesses, sports, animals and anime”, while Facebook users decided to wear Star Wars gear today in support.

For me, this story raises several issues that I would like to talk about a bit more deeply.

Those who've never been bullied seem to believe that it's the antisocial, misfit kids who do the bullying. Anyone who's actually been bullied knows that it's the complete opposite – bullying is a weapon of the popular and powerful, used to crush anyone who doesn't fit in. Looking back at my own youth, I can't think of many “popular” kids between 12 and 18 who didn't deserve to be fed to piranhas (or at least thrown in jail, where they probably would have ended up anyway).

As a boy who preferred intellectual and creative pursuits over anything athletic, I endured more than my share of crap growing up in a small town where even the girls had mullets. I like to believe that things have changed since then; the digital age and the modern boom in sci-fi and fantasy seem to have made being a geek more acceptable now. But several highly publicized teen suicides in the past year have drawn a lot of media attention to bullying as a continuing problem.

Katie's mom asks, in her blog, “Is this how it starts? Do kids find someone who does something differently and start to beat it out of her, first with words and sneers? Must my daughter conform to be accepted?” To which the sad answer is: yes, yes, and – at least until high school ends – yes.

The CNN story indicates that Katie was already a misfit for being adopted, being Jewish, wearing glasses, and wearing an eyepatch to correct a lazy eye. That her classmates might give her a hard time for being Jewish and/or physically imperfect would seem to speak volumes about her classmates. Let's just say that my classmates had roughly similar values, even though our grandparents had fought a world war specifically to prevent that attitude from catching on.

That's probably too melodramatic of me – neither the CNN story nor Carrie Goldman's blog entry choose to go there. We are talking about little kids here (at least in Katie's case; my classmates were still like that through high school and thus have no excuse). Besides, it seems little Katie usually played happily with these other kids; it was really just the Star Wars water bottle she was getting a hard time about.

Much of the media support for Katie Goldman so far seems based on geek pride. I find myself increasingly ambivalent about this topic, particularly the notion that people who like sci-fi or fantasy are still targets of widespread scorn. “Whole genres of pop culture are devoted to ridiculing them,” claims the author of the CNN article, a statement I find totally baffling. What genres are those, exactly? I've seen far more pop culture in which the nerdy misfit is the hero, while jocks, gym coaches and bullies of every stripe are the villains. Even back in the blow-dried Reagan years, teen comedies encouraged us to root for the embattled nerd, not the high school quarterback trying to pummel him. Besides, how many gazillions of dollars have been made off of Star Wars, Star Trek, Twilight, Harry Potter, Spider-Man, et cetera? How are these things not “popular”?

While I certainly got picked on for nerdy interests as a kid, it wasn't necessarily the interests themselves, but the depth of my obsession, that made me a target. For example, my childhood interest in dinosaurs coincided with the rise of new theories declaring that dinosaurs were warm-blooded, intelligent and agile. I remember an incident back in sixth grade, when a close friend insisted to me that dinosaurs were cold-blooded and stupid, then laughed as I angrily corrected him. Only when I remembered that incident some twenty years later did I realize what should have been obvious – that he knew I was easy to provoke on this subject, and was just having a laugh at my expense.

That combination of over-sensitivity and self-importance is what makes so many nerds a target, and there are many who, regrettably, never outgrow it as adults. Everyone other than nerds has realized this; the stereotypical sci-fi fan is no longer the cheerful enthusiast who wears a Starfleet uniform in public and has a house full of merchandise, but the surly Comic Book Guy who insists on announcing his disapproval in the belief that hostility and negativity are a sign of intelligence and sophistication. (I've had too much interaction with people like that to fully identify with Gen-X fandom ever again.)

Getting back to the main topic, though, it doesn't seem that this was Katie Goldman's problem. Apparently, her classmates weren't mocking her for being a sci-fi geek. Her classmates mocked her for carrying a Star Wars water bottle because, to them, Star Wars was for boys. It wasn't that Star Wars was uncool per se; she was mocked because she was a girl acting like a boy. This was a gender-role issue.

I have to admit that this, too, is a fraught issue with me. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't the most macho kid growing up, so I know how bad it is to be pressured into being something you're not, and to be told that there's something wrong with you for not being like everyone else.

Yet the spontaneous public sympathy for Katie Goldman indicates the other side of the coin. Look how cute she is with her blonde hair, her glasses, and her little toy lightsaber. How could anyone be mean to her?

Now imagine if that was a boy, with those same glasses and that lightsaber. You'd probably be thinking, “Little creep. I hope he dies.” OK, you personally might not think that, but I'm sure there are loads of people online who would. Comparing the Star Wars Girl (as Katie Goldman is becoming known) with the Star Wars Kid says it all.

As kids, we are all vulnerable to insecurities and peer pressure, which potentially makes us targets for bullying. However, the degree and type of sympathy we can expect from our elders depends very much on whether we are male or female.

We can't just blame this on society. I believe we are all hardwired with the idea that men should endure danger while women should be shielded from it, and that we naturally instill this idea in our children.

It's not the healthiest lesson for boys or girls. Boys learn that they should silently endure pain, and that they can expect no sympathy from anyone. Girls learn to expect other people to come to their rescue and solve their problems for them. (Even feminists, who claim to oppose traditional sexism, often seem to embrace its core premise that women are helpless victims, and that they deserve to be protected from the adult world's difficulties, rather than being expected to cope with them as men are.)

I guess what I'm getting at is that whatever ribbing a 7-year-old girl might get for liking Star Wars is as nothing compared to what a boy might face for having an interest in something girly.

And in that event, he wouldn't get much sympathy. Boys who get bullied are told, in effect, that being afraid to go to school builds character. That they should face, on their own, threats that would be a police matter in the adult world.

Katie Goldman's story is heartwarming and seems to have a happy ending. But there are many other kids who are not so fortunate, who tragically destroy themselves or face a lifetime coping with emotional scars. What can we do about this?

Kids need to know that they are loved and supported, and that they have someone to turn to when things are bad. They need to have self-confidence and self-worth instilled in them. As a kid I had the support of my parents, and – because I was a bright and creative student – from my teachers as well. Without that support, things could have been so much worse.

I think kids also need to somehow understand that their dumbass friends are not the whole world, and that there are other, better values besides peer pressure. Once I had my heart set on going to film school, I stopped worrying about high school bullshit because I had a better life to look forward to. I think I somehow realized that if I applied myself, my current classmates would be the dumbest people I would ever have to deal with in my life.

But the most difficult lesson, I think, is how to become a person who can cope with bullying – or better yet, not invite it in the first place. Bullies are like dogs – they smell fear. The hard reality is that, even with all the anti-bullying programs in the world, sometimes respect has to be earned. Think of all those macho action movies where two guys start out hating each other, but by the end have earned each other's respect and become friends.

Kids do have to get socialized to some degree. There are rough guidelines for how you're supposed to talk, walk, act and dress, and even if you disagree with those standards you do have to learn them in order to survive. The trick is to survive long enough to gain confidence and know how to play the game, while still holding onto your identity.

I'm sure Katie Goldman will make it. I hope everyone else does too.

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