Snips and Snails and Puppy-Dog Tails

Cathy Young, whose writing I sometimes enjoy, suggests in her Reason Magazine essay that the wildly popular Dangerous Book for Boys is dangerous indeed, because it reinforces traditional sex roles. Why couldn’t it have been titled “The Dangerous Book for Kids”? In service to this question, Young quotes a female friend to great effect: “‘Where is the book for girls who did stuff like make their own chain mail as kids, or cracked rocks with sledgehammers in the driveway both to see what was inside them and to see if you could get sparks?'”

I thought I would ask some chain mail-knitting, sledgehammer-wielding little girls how they feel about the exclusionary effect of the book’s title, but then I realized I don’t know any little girls like that. I’ve also never seen girls drooling over cowboy guns at the hobby shop, or sticking butter knives in their belts and pretending to be pirates. But, as Jeffrey Chamberlain wrote, “In a country as big as the United States, you can find fifty examples of anything.”

So it’s a legitimate question: what to do about the tender feelings of girls who want to make chain mail and use sledgehammers? It’s really a question about curves, isn’t it, and not the kind that some females have been socially constructed to sometimes get, and which in sexist literature some males sometimes pay attention to, though of course we know in the real world we shouldn’t make generalizations like: boys and girls are different. No, I mean curves of the Bell variety, which often capture human realities quite nicely, and which — were we benighted enough to pay attention to data rather than self-serving anecdotes — might disrupt the argument that goes: girls would like wrestling more and boys would like tea parties more, if not for the dominant social paradigm.

And the answer, in light of these curves, is delightfully conservative (in the old-fashioned sense, not the newfangled Republican sense) namely: nothing. If you have a little girl who would rather learn how to make paper airplanes and read about the battle of Thermopylae than do cartwheels and play with dolls, then by all means, buy her the book, and tell her — with conviction, not the self-doubt that seems to plague so many essays like Young’s — Honey, just because the book says it’s for boys, doesn’t mean you can’t do it too. Now let’s read “A Brief History of Artillery” (one of the book’s chapters).

The solution, in other words, is not to reorient nature to suit the self-esteem needs of the minority of girls who want to make chain mail. It’s far better to embrace their difference and impart to them the strength to go against the tide, if that’s how they’re made, to become, as Shaw wrote, “a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” To complain about titles of books, it seems, is to give far too little credit to these brave little girls, wherever they are hiding, who want to blow things up and learn how to spit.

Part of the problem here is the mistaken notion, perhaps due to an overactive sense of grievance, that the title of the book means that the knowledge therein is exclusively for boys. A more generous reading reveals that the authors, Conn and Hal Iggulden, simply wanted to include the stories, games, and skills that a great many boys (and men) want to know. Does that mean no girls should want to know these things? Of course not. But could you sell millions of copies of exactly the same book, had it been titled The Dangerous Book for Girls? Here comes that pesky Bell curve, accompanied by his pernicious friend, Common Sense, to spoil a good feminist lather.

As for the boys Young worries about, the ones “who may be more interested in reading than in catching snails and may prefer art to stories of battles,” I think the answer is simply to get them out of the house. This comes from someone who would far rather curl up with a book than go fishing, mind you (a challenge I describe, often to humiliating effect, in my pamphlet on raising boys). That’s because boys are physical as well as mental creatures, and to let the former atrophy is to do your son a disservice. Yes, of course this goes for girls as well, but as anyone who has had to supervise great numbers of boys and girls will tell you, sometimes the physical activities that girls seek out are distinctly different from those preferred by boys. Yes, they all like to play tag. But no, you don’t often see girls randomly tackle one another. And that’s okay.


  1. David Andersen

    “It’s far better to embrace their difference and impart to them the strength to go against the tide, if that’s how they’re made, to become, as Shaw wrote, “a force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” ”


  2. CEP

    Thanks Tony! I am indeed one of those (former) little girls who split rocks, caught lizards, and set my best friend’s rug on fire playing with flammables in third grade, who never played with dolls (although loved stuffed animals), and knew from age 5 that I loved military history, but I’m not at all offended by that book’s title. It’s much more fun to be an exceptional girl than one for whom standard texts are written.

  3. Julia P

    I had two daughters first (CEP being the first), and they both participated in non-traditional activities, completely on their own, like harnessing frogs and catching lizards. However, when my first son arrived, I was struck by how different he was, almost from birth. I didn’t expect it. But he was radically different as a little male in his interests and attitudes. I had always contended that there was no real difference between the sexes, other than the obvious physical ones, but I was forced by the evidence to change my mind.

  4. john bragg

    CEP anticipated my answer. My guess is that she’d look at you, puzzled, until she figured out what you were talking about, then say “I like boy stuff.”

  5. Bob Farley

    What an amazing complaint! The very idea of an author to pretend that boys and girls are different and might have different patterns and behaviors. There are dramatically different abilities and differences between males and females, even though there are lots of examples of women excelling in a “male” world, and vice versa. Men will always gravitate to the dirty, grimy jobs that are action-oriented–and there never will be very many women climbing power poles, though there are a small percentage. Read about the research of the Hasbro toy company in Simon Baron-Cohen’s Essential Differences…..they just could’t get little boys to play with dolls, unless to tear out the limbs and use them as weapons…..and the girls would be fascinated by dump trucks…..for about 15 seconds.
    Young’s complaint is specious at best, and she will always be frustrated in any cross-gender relationship….as she is execting that man to be a soul mate, just like her twin sister…..IT’S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN!!

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