But girls are also not like girls, and boys are also not like boys.
We are all born different, but school and parents and friends and advertisers want us all to conform to certain expectations ... and in the main, we do, whether we realize it or not. Even nonconformists have models for their rebellion. And so, almost immediately, we become less and less different and more and more alike because that's what we're taught.
We are born, and one of the first things we learn is that we are a "girl" or a "boy" (and if you're not clearly one or the other, the nice doctor will very likely encourage your family to pick a defined gender forthwith, and start the first in a possibly long line of surgeries to make your body look "normal").
We quickly learn that our sex is the most important thing about us -- it dictates what kinds of clothes we can wear and which restroom we're supposed to use. After all, what is the first or second question people ask about a newborn child? Is it a boy or a girl?
But this boy and girl stuff is complicated. What does it mean to be a boy? Or a girl? The newborn doesn't know.
Sure, he or she has a lot of built-in preferences: one hand seems more useful than the other, vanilla tastes good, bitter stuff like broccoli is bad, major-key music sounds nicer than minor key, and mama is better than anyone else in the whole wide world. But past that -- I hazard to say most of us are flexible once we get past satisfying basic needs. There's a whole lot to this world of ours, and a multitude of reasons to like, or dislike, any given thing, and our liking or disliking the color purple or Mozart or DOOM or When Harry Met Sally is all inextricably grounded in our own emotional landscape, which develops as we age and learn and grow.
But the very young child hasn't got that complicated, mucked-up emotional landscape yet, and he or she is trying to figure it all out; ambiguity is more than most little heads can handle. Hell, ambiguity is more than many adults want to handle; life is a lot easier without gray areas. And almost every kid I've met goes through a period -- hopefully a brief one, though some will carry it to their graves -- where they try to sort the "boy" from the "girl" with crudely drawn gender roles copied from the behavior of their parents, their extended family, characters in TV shows, commercials, etc. And then they start mirroring the behaviors they've observed in their models.
Girls become mommies, and wear dresses, a young child might tell you, while boys become daddies and smoke pipes and watch NASCAR. And during this phase a given little boy might get quite upset if you suggest boys might wear dresses, too, because he's trying very, very hard to put things in the right category and your information doesn't match. That same little boy might likewise be taken aback if you called his wrestling action figures "dolls", even if in a general sense that's what they really are.
And thus begins the long process of self-definition and self-discovery in which we struggle with trying to express ourselves and our individuality and meet our needs while trying to conform to our expected social roles so that we don't get ostracized as a weirdo.
Kids learn by copying what other people are doing. If they copy well, and get praise or attention for it, they keep it up. If the copying gets them ridicule from their peers, they usually try something else, unless the thing they're getting negative feedback on is so internally satisfying or compelling to them that they decide they don't give a damn what anyone else thinks and keep doing it.
We humans are social animals. We all of us to some degree want to be liked and accepted, and the moment we get to school, our focus is on being liked and accepted by other kids, because there's no hell quite so complete as being branded a "freak" and being cast out of the social circles entirely. Children can be brutal in their teasing and bullying, so there can be incredible pressure on kids to conform to what the other kids like and do.
It doesn't just take a hell of a lot of gumption to do things that are radically different from what everyone else is doing -- it takes more imagination and energy than most people have.
I know a male scientist who tried to get his daughters to play with traditionally-male toys; when they refused, he confidently declared it was because they were girls. I do wonder if his daughters really refused to play with his toy trucks and go launch rockets with him because they inherently didn't want to do such things out of some inner girlishness.
Might they have refused instead because they'd gotten old enough to know from their older sisters, friends, cartoons, TV ads, etc. that, as girls, they were not supposed to play with trucks and rockets? I suspect his gals are just as savvy as the old scientist himself, and they knew (instinctively or consciously) that it wouldn't serve them well socially to play with uncool toys.
I learned to love toy rockets and trucks at an early age. But I also spent my formative years in something of a vacuum. We didn't have TV until I was 5, and I didn't have much exposure to other children until I entered kindergarten. "Play dates" were a foreign concept to my parents, and so most of what I was exposed to in my early years was courtesy of my science-minded stay-at-home father.
When I got to school -- boy, was I ever a freak. I knew how to talk to adults, because I'd spent my entire life thus far around them -- but other kids baffled me. I wanted to be liked and accepted, but my socialization (or lack thereof) was so far out of line that I was immediately rejected by the girls as being "weird" and so I mostly tried to play with the boys, since I knew the language of toy cars and space movies. But since I was never brought into the girly fold, I never developed a love of makeup and My Little Ponies. In fact, I developed a dislike of overtly girly toys because I associated them with their owners.
And so, as an adult, I still love computers and science fiction and movies with lots of explosions. I'm the only female in a group of 12 guys in my workplace at a computer help desk. I seldom wear makeup or dresses. I'm heterosexual, and as far as I can tell biologically normal when it comes to the girly parts.
But I wonder, if I'd been around other girls before I was five, if I'd had older sisters or a girly mom to model off of, if my likes and dislikes might have turned out rather differently.
Likewise, I identify myself as a writer. What if I'd been born into a culture that saw no value in teaching girls to read and write? What kind of a person would I be now?
We are born the people we are, but every one of us is inevitably shaped in deep and fundamental ways by the culture we're exposed to from Day One. And it's culture that dictates that driving a truck is "masculine" and wearing lipstick is "feminine". It's culture that tells us that being able to accurately throw a football 100 yards is more praiseworthy than being able to accurately type 100 words per minute. It's culture that tells us that fixing 100 leaky toilets should earn you more money than teaching 100 six-year-olds how to read.
It's culture at work when a parent sends a rambunctious son outside to play football, but tells a rambunctious daughter to sit down and play quietly. It's culture at work when a girl with a skinned knee is comforted, while a boy is told "Aw, it's just a scrape -- suck it up and get back out there!"
I don't think gender issues are easily separated out from all that, and I think the people who insist that "all boys do Y, and all girls do X, and they are hardwired by genes and hormones to behave as they do (and therefore any boy who doesn't do Y and any girl who doesn't do X is a freak and doesn't count)" aren't taking early acculturation into account.
If you are a parent, and disagree with what I've written, ask yourself how often you've used the phrases "Be a good girl", "Be a good boy", "That's not ladylike," "Boys don't cry" etc. Ask yourself what expectations you have of your child, and how those expectations are tied to their gender. Ask yourself what the TV -- especially toy and cereal commercials -- might be teaching your child about sex and gender roles.