For two summers during college I was a camp counselor for a Christian sports day camp in my city. Mostly this camp consisted of teaching city-kids how to fire a bow and arrow and to do the backstroke, encouraging them to just try the high jump please, singing silly songs, and putting out the thousand little fires that fifty elementary school kids can start in one day. And this was done in 90 degree heat. Most days were exhausting. But one day for every two week camp there was the dreaded, and exceptionally exhausting, overnight trip. You take all those same elementary school kids, stuff them with hot dogs and marshmallows, exhaust them with capture the flag, and just hope that no smart alec decides to tell scary stories so that you’re up comforting a scared-witless nine year-old at three in the morning.
But how can you roast those hot dogs and marshmallows without a bonfire? Overnight trips would be really, really boring without a bonfire. Oh, and did I mention that even though we are dealing with elementary aged children that the trips are gendered segregated? The boys and girls go on different days, which while ridiculously and rather insultingly over-cautious from a “purity” point of view, does have the practical benefit of relieving half the counseling staff to bring coffee and collegial encouragement to their co-workers. Once, when I, along with the other female counselors, showed up for moral support at the boys overnight, I noticed that their bonfire was in pretty sad shape. The counselors had obviously had pretty big hopes, the pit was piled high, teepee fashion, with all kinds of branches, but the fire was too small to reach them. It was pretty obviously not going to be the fire they wanted. The campers were downcast. Their marshmallows were not going to get toasted.
I am a good counselor. I do not like to see downcast campers. I am also an excellent bonfire builder. So I set to work. I removed all the extraneous wood (lots of it green anyway) and reworked the basic structure of the fire into a lean-to, getting the biggest logs situated as a base to create coals and reflect heat back into the center of the stack. I hand-fed it kindling and blew the coals up into flame. Once that was going I restacked the acceptable branches back into the traditional bonfire shape. Soon it was big and blazing and the campers were no longer downcast. Toasted marshmallows after all! Success!
Apparently, not everyone felt that I had been such a big success. The very next day at our counselor’s meeting the director pulled me aside. He said that the male counselors had felt very put out by my “rescuing” of the bonfire. That they had felt shamed in front of their campers.
I asked if the boys were still trying to make the fire work when I came by, if I hadn’t given them enough time to finish.
No, the director said, they had pretty much given up.
Had some of the campers overheard what I said to the counselors – the friendly teasing, “Not one of you is a Boy Scout?” or, “What would you do without us girls around?”
No, the campers hadn’t overheard anything they might have misunderstood.
I didn’t understand. Didn’t they want the fire? Isn’t that why they started building it in the first place? Why did finishing it upset them? A lot of the wood they had to work with was wet or green, it was raining that very evening. It was a tough night to build a fire, but I’m really, really good at bonfires. There’s no shame in being less good at something than someone who’s really gifted.
Yeah, you’re obviously good at building bonfires, the director hesitated a bit, but you’re still a girl.*
But. You’re. Still. A. Girl.
Because I was a girl, the fact that I was better at something that is traditionally read as male gendered I had shamed the male counselors by besting them at it. Apparently it’s really only a question of, “Does the person who just bested me have a uterus or a prostate?” that really matters when you’re asking yourself how ashamed you should be.
This is stupid. This is mightily and appallingly stupid. Don’t be like these guys and let someone’s gender force you into feeling threatened by their abilities. Don’t be like my director who let these counselor’s personal insecurities convince him into shaming me for being great at my job and for having the nerve to parlay a skill at an entirely appropriate time and place.
Guys, I am really good at catching things on fire. Please don’t be intimidated by that. Don’t decide you don’t ever want to hang out with me. Instead, why don’t we catch stuff on fire together? Doesn’t that sound like a lot more fun? That is what feminism is all about, catching stuff on fire together! I’ve got matches and plenty of junk mail to burn, so let’s go.
*That, by the way, was from a director who was otherwise a really cool guy. Seriously. I’d be his friend today if we ran in the same circles. It really goes to show how incredibly pernicious patriarchal attitudes can be. If he’d thought about it, thought about how stupid and mean a thing it really was to say, he never in a million years would have said it. But saying stupid and mean things to women has become so rote and normal that it doesn’t even jar us.