A blue-painted drawbridge. A frog pond moat. A two-story clubhouse on its own island deep in the vine-strangled woods, six bear cubs peering out from the wooden slats of windows and a lone green door. A root-beer barrel crow’s nest. Berry bush landscaping. A single yellow flag billowing from the shingles of a turret.
In 1986, Stan and Jan Berenstain published No Girls Allowed, the twenty-seventh book in their Berenstain Bears series. The book’s Library of Congress catalog summary read, “Annoyed that Sister Bear always beats them at baseball and other boy-type activities, her brother and the other male cubs try to exclude her from their new club.” Its primary subject heading: Sex Role – Fiction. The word Gender not even used in subject headings until 1993.
In 1986, I was four years old. No Girls Allowed was my favorite book in the Berenstain Bears series, the boys’ exclusive clubhouse splashed across the cover. Though there was a girls’ version of a clubhouse near the end of the book, the boys’ forested haven was central: it was the epitome of effortless acceptance and belonging. I wanted their blue-painted drawbridge, their frog pond moat.
The story begins: Sister Bear tags along with Brother Bear and his friends as they play. She can’t keep up at first. She straggles behind them as they race down the lane and climb the bare limbs of a tree. But on the next page, she soon outpaces them in reaching the top of the tree, in shooting marbles, in leaving them in a cloud of dust. Papa Bear is proud but Mama Bear is concerned. She says to Papa Bear, “But think back – how would you have liked it when you were cub if some little girl could outrun, outclimb, and outhit you?”
Papa Bear thinks for a moment. “I wouldn’t have liked it.”
Boy-type activities: in 1986, I collected crinoids and rocks in the forest behind our house. I picked up bees by their wings and placed them with care into a bug box. I sent away for an ant farm and watched them burrow through plastic-windowed tunnels on my nightstand.
My mother did not call me some little girl.
But at school, that a girl should never outperform a boy was unquestioned logic. No Girls Allowed was a book I cherished throughout elementary school, its social rules reinforced inside every classroom from kindergarten to sixth grade without my knowing. I cherished the book for the clubhouse. Moat and turret. I sketched blueprints in my school notebooks of my own clubhouse, what it would look like to be accepted for who I was.
I didn’t realize the clubhouse was never meant for me.
Flash cards. Around the World. Spelling bees. Valentine’s Day mailbox decorations. In every mode of competition, I played at least two rounds to show I was competent, that my good grades were in line with my ability to perform. But before final rounds and championships, before blue ribbons for best-decorated mailbox, I bowed out. I flubbed the spelling of elephant. I nixed the correct multiplication of eight and twelve. I returned to my desk relieved that I wouldn’t have look any boy in the eye and feel that I was smarter or more skilled or more competent, even if for just a moment. In elementary school, I was some little girl because I was no longer my parents’ girl outside the walls of our home, and I knew even with clubhouse blueprints scrawled in my notebook that it was better to be liked, better not to outshine.
The story: Brother Bear and his friends don’t like losing, as much as Mama Bear doesn’t like watching them lose. The story reads, “And what made it worse was the way Sister celebrated every time she won. Her victory dance and cartwheels were annoying.”
In 2014, I published my first book. I sent an email out to all my family and friends, my literary colleagues and mentors. Something about this made me pause in pressing send. I hit send anyway but wrote in the email: “I’m hesitant to clog your inboxes, but I’m excited for this book to make its way into the world.” An apology for a victory dance. No cartwheels. One fellow female author wrote back a note of congratulations, adding at the end, “Don’t worry about clogging any inboxes – you need to let everyone know this is happening because this is your baby. Be proud and toot your own horn.”
Her note stuck with me, for its kindness but also for the immediate anxiety I felt reading it: I worried for the rest of the day that my email had sounded any kind of horn.
Sister Bear finds herself abandoned on the climbing tree, the circle of marbles empty. There is no one to play with on the baseball diamond. She finds the boys’ clubhouse only by following the sound of their voices into the forest. On the page where the clubhouse first appears, the one I tried to replicate in my own notebooks, Sister Bear’s face is full of happiness as she pushes aside the thicket’s vines and spies the house for the first time. “It had peepholes, watchtowers, and a little bridge – it was almost like a castle. What a wonderful surprise!” But on the next page, when Sister celebrates and turns cartwheels, the cubs climb inside their clubhouse and stake a planted sign outside the front door. In bright red paint: Bear Country Boys Club.
Then a creaking sound. What Sister realizes isn’t a bridge for her to walk across the moat. What she understands instead is a drawbridge being cranked up and shut.
Frog pond moat. Blue-painted drawbridge. Berry bush bogs and the peaks of turrets. Or else the walls of an office, blank sheets of paper, a notepad for scribbling ideas. The white sheen of a computer screen. The beginnings of a book, the windows open, a spring breeze blowing in.
In 2008, I entered an MFA program. Six months in, after returning to my apartment from a late evening workshop, I received an email from a literary journal congratulating me on my first short story publication. In an age of growing social media, where writers I admired Tweeted their publication acceptances and posted their literary journal inclusions to Facebook and tagged other writers featured in the volume, I did nothing at all but send my family an email. Best not to act out of turn. Best not to celebrate in any way but a lone email shot from the Ohio dark to my family in Missouri, who wouldn’t see the email until morning.
When Sister Bear is heartbroken by being shut out of the Bear Country Boys Club, Mama Bear concedes that the boys are being unfair. She suggests that Sister Bear build her own clubhouse with Bear Country’s girl cubs but advises her against painting a sign that reads No Boys Allowed. There is no mention of Mama Bear or Papa Bear admonishing the boys or making them take down their sign. Instead, Mama Bear tells Sister Bear once she and her girlfriends begin to build their own clubhouse, “There’s such a thing as a bad winner too – someone who makes a big braggy show every time she wins.”
I would learn quickly beyond elementary school what boy-type activities meant.
Boy-type activities: Standing in front of a classroom on a college campus where teaching evaluations still list male professors as brilliant and female professors as nice. Bonus points for a chili pepper on RateMyProfessor.com, that a student has rated your appearance over your skill. Bonus points for a student that claims your leniency, that you let him get away with anything, that he’s not aware of the college-wide attendance policy you’re unable to control. Bonus points for at least one male student each semester telling you that, as a fellow writer, he has advice for how you can write your next book. Bonus points for standing in front of a classroom for ten years and being called brilliant one time to every twenty you’ve been called nice.
Boy-type activities: Overhearing students talk one autumn when a new academic year begins about how your male colleagues run a tight ship in their classrooms and how your female colleagues are such bitches when they call someone out for being ten minutes late, but that it’s quite nice when they bake and bring cookies.
Boy-type activities: Quietly publishing stories until those stories become a book and then publishing a collection and then a novel within a two-year span but the key word is quietly, so very quietly, because you’ve seen the look on so many men’s faces when you mention what you’ve been doing, after they finally ask. When they tell you they’ve been working on a novel for the past three years or they’re editing a volume and when they at last ask about your work you say you’ve written two novels and their smile is thin and they say congratulations and then they stop liking any post you find the courage to put up on social media for the next two years.
Boy-type activities: Finally getting a job you love out of graduate school but not after having to turn down your first tenure-track offer, the only one you’d gotten at that point, because when the dean of this school offers it he tells you on the phone where no one will overhear him, You might think you’re hot stuff with a brand-new PhD and a collection out and a novel on the way, but make no mistake, dear, there are other candidates lined up behind you who will take this job in a second if you don’t take it within the week. As if books weren’t requirements of the job description, as if you’re flaunting them just by checking off criteria. As if dear is an acceptable form of address. He turns down your one attempt to negotiate not a job but just a conversation between the school’s library and your husband, a librarian. He calls you again a day later and tells you your offer will be rescinded if you don’t accept and you want to tell him to go fuck himself but say thank you and hang up the phone and let the offer explode.
Boy-type activities: Learning within the next two months that this dean’s behavior is out of turn but hardly unique. Out of the five job offers you negotiate, all will be with male deans and three of the five will say to you: There is a line behind you, so be quick. What you hear in their words: Be grateful that you even have a seat at this table. You read six articles about negotiation, all of which include specialized sections for women. Advocate for yourself but appear modest. Take this chance to negotiate a fair contract. Recognize you’ll likely be negotiating with men and that they won’t expect you to advocate for yourself, so be firm but do it with a smile.
Boy type activities: Don’t celebrate a moment. Don’t feel proud of anything you’ve done. Keep your eyes on the blue-painted drawbridge, the frog pond moat. Ignore the creaking sound of a drawbridge being pulled up, trying so hard to keep you out.
That Mama Bear doesn’t want Sister Bear to outperform the boys but also doesn’t want her to openly exclude them plays out in the book’s conclusion, one that ends with no consequence at all for boys behaving badly. The girl cubs have been so fucking resourceful: “They had a lot of good ideas. Lizzie made a rope ladder that they could wind up when they didn’t want visitors. Ellen brought a spyglass for keeping watch. And Marsha had the best idea of all – a tin-can phone system.” A wall of women’s work.
The boy cubs don’t recognize this work. They don’t have to recognize it. Mama Bear and Papa Bear facilitate an olive branch between the two clubs by making barbecued honeycomb and salmon for the boys, luring them back from the woods to the girls’ treehouse. They aren’t reprimanded. They don’t have to do anything. Instead, they’re rewarded for their exclusion with a barbecue party. It is the girls who are diplomatic, who take a democratic vote amongst themselves to allow the boys to join them in their clubhouse, Lizzie unfurling the rope ladder. It is only then, once the boys are sitting comfortably in the girls’ treehouse, that they invite the girls back to their clubhouse to pick thicket berries for dessert.
In 2016, when my first novel publishes, I send out no email. It isn’t that I don’t want to appear immodest this time, but that I’m so fucking tired. I stay in my apartment with the curtains drawn. There is no part of putting this book out that feels like a celebration. Based on the demographics of my first collection’s Goodreads reviews and on what my editor has told me, well, women are really the only ones who read books anyway, and despite many male friends’ public Facebook posts about how they’ll dedicate a brand-new year reading as many books by women and people of color as they’d read by men, I am tired of convincing a male audience of my worth, whether its readership or a roomful of students. And I am tired of the guesswork of every public pronouncement, whether it will draw celebration or fragile aggression.
In reading this essay, my librarian husband zeroes in on the Library of Congress subject headings. He’s the one who tells me Gender Roles didn’t appear in book classifications until 1993. He also tells me that Women Authors as a subject heading in 1986 is intermittent at best, despite so many women having won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. The category is problematic, the same as bookstore categorizations of Women’s Fiction and LGBT Fiction and African-American Fiction, as if everything else on the fiction shelf is “standard” – or male – literature. Nonetheless, in 1986 at the age of four in Missouri, I am already formulating a dream before a blueprint exists.
Despite No Girls Allowed’s lackluster ending and the way it permits bad behavior as boys simply being boys, the part that breaks my heart the most is right after Mama and Papa Bear discuss how they wouldn’t have liked a girl outperforming a boy, and right after Brother Bear and his friends find Sister Bear’s celebrations annoying. Just after this section, and right before Sister makes her way to the thicket and discovers the boys’ clubhouse keeping her out, there are four full pages of Sister Bear engaging in activities on her own.
She picks blue flowers. She jumps rope with butterflies. She pours tea for her dolls. She curls up on an armchair with an apple and a book. There are no boys anywhere, nothing to tag along to, no activities to emulate. There are no adults or peers telling her how she should and shouldn’t behave. Maybe this, in the end, is why I loved the book and not for the cover’s splashy clubhouse. Sister Bear is simply being who she is, doing what she wishes. No drawbridge. No moat. No outshining, no outperforming, no comparison at all because there is only her. No question of what is allowed or isn’t allowed because there is only a girl alone, at play.