Friday, October 14, 2011

The Girl Scouts are about more than just cookies

When I think of the Girl Scouts, two things come to mind: colorful boxes filled with delicious cookies and brown sashes filled with merit badges. So when I heard that the Girl Scouts are releasing new badges for modern times, I confess I initially started craving Samoas and Trefoils. My heart sunk when I learned I would have to wait another 91 days, 19 hours, and 23 minutes before cookie season comes to central California. In the meantime, I can take a moment to reflect on the Girl Scouts’ big news while holding myself over with Oreos.

The mission of the Girl Scouts of the USA is to build “girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.” Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low hoped to accomplish this mission by removing girls from isolated home lives and exposing them to community service and the outdoors. She held the first Girl Scouts meeting in 1912 with 18 girls. Since then, the Girl Scouts have grown to 3.2 million members, 2.3 million girls and 880,000 adults.

To record a girl’s accomplishments in the organization, the Girl Scouts award insignia—“the official items that girls . . . can wear on their uniforms”—including badges. Among the new badges are Digital Movie Maker, Website Designer, and Geocacher (a person that searches for hidden objects using GPS). The Girl Scouts have divided the badges into different categories such as Legacy, Skill Building, Financial Literacy and Cookie Business. Kathy Cloninger, the chief executive officer of Girl Scouts says the badges encourage “the critical thinking, creativity and entrepreneurship that the next generation of leaders will need to make the world a better place.” I agree with her.

Yet, I could not help but think that even with the new badges, many of the badges still retain feminine stereotypes. Some of the badges appeared to have relabeled old badges, for example the new Science of Style badge. This badge replaces the old badge for Fashion, Fitness, and Makeup. The new badge’s purpose is to look deeper into the science of fashion and makeup, like the chemistry of sunscreen and perfume or the nanotechnology of fabrics. Despite overlaying the activity with science, the badge is still steering girls into a traditionally feminine arena.
Some of the new badges are simply an intervening step to a more traditional feminine role. The new Locavore badge (a person that eats locally produced food) is in the cooking category of badges. After a girl scout earns the Locavore badge, the next step is Dinner Party. After making the girl aware of local foods and encouraging her to make healthy choices, the Girl Scouts teach her how to serve as a hostess.

Last spring, Kathleen Denny, a sociology graduate student at the University of Maryland, published a study that analyzed distribution of activities between the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Her results show that the Girl Scouts offered significantly more art activities and communal activities. The Boys Scouts offered more science activities and self-oriented activities. Denny’s study even noted gendered differences in the naming of the badges. For example, the Boy Scouts offered badges named after careers: Mechanic, Astronomer, and Geologist. The Girl Scouts offered corresponding badges named more descriptively: Car Care, Sky, and Rocks Rock (Rocks Rock is no longer offered).

When the story came on the radio, I was initially encouraged, yet I was ultimately disappointed. The Girl Scouts are taking strides in educating girls in a new age. But, I question how much these changes will go further in empowering girls. These changes are the first in 25 years. As recently as 6 months ago, a study criticized the Girl Scouts for perpetuating gender stereotypes. Nonetheless, the Girl Scouts failed to use this badge “overhaul” to eliminate its contribution to these stereotypes. The Girl Scouts missed a great opportunity to show 2.3 million girls that they can not only make the world a better place, but they can take their place in it as equals.


hanestagless said...

Last night, I watched the sitcom Parks and Recreation as I regularly do. I'm a huge fan. I was amazed to find that coincidentally this week's episode was something of a satire of the gender differences between Boy Scout troops and Girl Scout troops. Obviously, the show exaggerates the situation for comedic effect, and I laughed a lot. But, because I happened to be simultaneously analyzing the same gender stereotypes, the episode was also unintentionally poignant.

I could only find a clip of the episode from the NBC website, but I believe the full episode will be available later. I wanted to share this because it is relevant, but I did not want to include it directly in my post as a plug. I hope you get something out of it, or if nothing else, at least a laugh.

Rose Sawyer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rose Sawyer said...

I became curious after reading this post, and went on to the Girl Scouts official web site [2] to look at all the badges offered. I must confess, I was distraught to see that for "Girl Scout Juniors," which seems to be Level III, the so-called financial literacy badges are business owner (okay) and savvy shopper (huh?). Apparently, financial literacy for cadettes, level IV, includes budgeting (good), financing my dreams (good), and comparison shopping. Why the emphasis on shopping? More than anything else, the insignia sound silly.

Merit badges for boy scouts [2], by contrast, are both more interesting and more diverse. Boys can earn badges in "architecture," "dentistry," "horsemanship," "nuclear science," "textiles," and more.

Ironically, if you want a breakdown of modern-day gender roles, the girl and boy scouts' web sites epitomize modern stereotypes.

This seems wrong to me, and I echo hanestagless: updating the badges was a chance to promote women's issues. The girl scouts missed an opportunity, but it's not too late. They can, and should, revise again.



AMA said...

Wow, this takes me back! I remember being in Girl Scouts and being horribly disappointed when I caught a glimpse at what the Boy Scouts got to do. I actually remember begging my mom to let me try to be a Boy Scout (as I recall, the Boy Scouts were going to let me!). I remember being particularly envious when it came to camp. Boy Scout camp entailed throwing hatchets, snow camping, boating, and backpacking, while all I remember doing at Girl Scout camp was lanyards, singing, and swimming.

Aside from the badges, which are clearly highly gendered, stereotypical, and almost insulting this day and age, Boy Scouts offer another award that Girl Scouts do not - Eagle Scout. The "end of the rainbow" for Boy Scouts is a nationally recognized honor, and there is no such equivalent for Girl Scouts, what's up with that?

KayZee said...

Great post Hanestagless and a second to AMA's comment. I too remember quite well when it was time to sign up for boy scouts and girl scouts back in elementary school. Being quite the tomboy, I had many male friends, most of whom were involved with the boys scouts. When I found out that they got to whittle wood cars for racing (and were given a pocket knife with which to do it) I was really excited to go join the girl scouts. I was quickly disappointed when I realized that not only did the girl scouts NOT get to make cars, or whittle wood with pocket knifes, but also, that the girl scouts in my local troop all had to wear skirts as part of their uniform. I was at a stage where skirts and dresses were not part of my wardrobe. I was NOT going to wear a skirt and the girl scouts certainly could not make me. Looking back, I think it's funny (perhaps a little sad) that what turned me away from the organization was clothing choices and lack of knifes. Regardless, I'm happy to see a new era of girl scouts. I'd like to think that the new badges are a step in the right direction.

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Like KayZee, I too am happy to see a new era of Girl Scouts. It is interesting to see the direction that this organization is taking. While you are right, hanestagless, that the Girl Scouts could have done so much more to move their organization into the modern age and break down gender stereotypes, there must be something said for having the courage to make any change at all.

Sometimes, organizations can too easily become entrenched in tradition, resisting changes that could benefit them in the long term. I am glad to see one of our nation's largest organizations for girls was able to overcome those challenges.

Playing the devil's advocate, however, is it entirely wrong that some of these badges recognize achievements in areas such as shopping? At some point in their lives, these young women will begin shopping. Learning the benefits of savvy and comparative shopping could be a very good thing. My problem is that the Boy Scouts DO NOT teach these skills. In other words, just because the boys aren't learning a skill doesn't mean that girls should not. Perhaps we should be chastising the Boy Scouts of America for not joining the 21st Century and teaching boys how to better keep watch over their financial habits. With much of the nation in debt, these are important skills for members of both sexes to learn. Thoughts?

That said, I am happy the Girl Scouts will continue to sell their cookies.

S said...

There seems to be a general consensus (and disappointment in the fact) that the Girl Scouts do not encourage the same activities as the Boy Scouts, but instead promotes activities that are highly gendered. I agree.

hanestagless, when I began reading about the new patches, I too was initially excited about the prospect of young women gaining relevant expediences at such a young age. I shared your disappointment when, upon closer examination, these new badges do nothing to displace traditional notions of gender. This disappointment reaffirmed my belief that oppression evolves into more sophisticated forms over time in response to eradication efforts. The struggle for non-White people to vote is a good example. We are all familiar with the struggle of non-White male populations to secure the right to vote. First, many were denied the right. Over time the federal government has recognized to the large extent everyone's right to vote (except prisoners). In response, literacy tests and poll taxes were instituted, effectively disenfranchising the very people granted suffrage. Once these issues were removed, gerrymandering filled their void. New and improved tools of oppression replace worn-out ones. Your blog post, hanestagless, reminded me that tools of gendered stereotypes are no exception.