Where the Boys Are by Marissa Korbel

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Editor's Choice, April 18th, 2016

"Stop competing with other women, and start holding them up."

feminist essay by Marissa Korbel NAILED Magazine Where the Boys Are, with art by Anna McKay


In the small, progressive elementary school I attended, years went by that I was the only girl in my class. All my classmates, and most of my friends from the years I was 6–10, were boys. This experience altered my early understanding of what it meant to be a girl. For me, it meant being outnumbered, and it also meant being special. Early on, say around second grade, being a girl meant I was the only one wearing dresses, but with that came the restriction of not being able to turn cartwheels or tumble, lest the boys see my underwear. It meant that I could play football at recess, but it had to be touch, and I had to play quarterback. In fifth grade, being a girl meant having to deal with a period, boobs, and the uncomfortable realization that if we played “spin the bottle” behind the shed at recess, the way Ben suggested, I would be expected to kiss every one of my classmates.

In sixth grade, I went to the public intermediate school, where I was no longer the only girl. This was a relief, but also a loss. On the upside, I finally had the opportunity to make girl friends. But I wasn’t the Queen Bee; nobody wanted to kiss me. I was just another pimply, chunky pre-teen who flashed awkward smiles at the boys I liked. It was here, as just one of hundreds of girls in my class, that I realized we girls were ranked on a spectrum against each other. The girls who were the least liked were at a severe disadvantage, socially. I knew a couple of girls from my neighborhood when I started, but I quickly realized that they were unpopular. Even my slight, neighborly association with them was keeping me back. Determined to move up on the status spectrum, I stopped saying even so much as a hello to them if anyone was around. When that wasn’t enough, I made fun of them like everyone else. I felt bad about it, but I also didn’t see a choice. It was every girl for herself.

I studied the popular girls in my class. I noticed their effortless cool at our Girl Scout meetings, and sat eagerly through their stories at weekend sleepovers. They all liked the right kind of things — football and StarWars, things the boys liked. They were not into babyish girl things, like Barbie, anymore. Over time, I began to change things about myself to be more desirable, to emulate what I saw. Some of it was easy — different clothes, shoes, headbands. StarWars and football were fun enough. I began sucking parts of my body in, and learned to emphasize other parts. I stopped raising my hand first, and played down my intelligence whenever possible. I made myself smaller, less. And when I managed to deliver the perfect combination of interesting/talented alongside unintimidating/worshipful, I moved up the invisible line and felt, for the first time, the power of being desired. I couldn’t see how limited this power was; I could only feel the rush of it.

This new, weaponized sexuality was my calling card for the rest of middle school, all of high school, and most of college. All told, I spent a solid 12 years using it to compete with the girls and women around me. Since it wasn’t always possible to be the prettiest girl in the room — beauty, as we all know, is in the eye of the beholder — I broadened my scope. I was a gifted singer, and had loved performing since I was a very young child. When I couldn’t be the prettiest girl in the room, I vied for most talented. Wittiest. Best sense of humor. I rarely went after Smart because I got the distinct impression that being smart was off-putting. Witty was alright though, and funny too. I can’t tell you the number of times I used my ice cold wit and humor to take the prettiest girl down a notch or two in the eyes of the boys. And yes, for many of those years, you would find me with the boys. I had always had an easy time making male friends, and I usually chalked that up to my experience as a kid. I was the only girl in my class for years, I used to say. Girls don’t like me, and I don’t understand them; they’re too crazy.

I had some girl friends in high school and college. I even managed to keep a handful of them, despite my tendency to toss them and their feelings under the nearest bus to earn myself points. I loved my high school best friend to pieces. Then I hooked up with a boy that she’d said she was only friends with, but it turned out, she actually liked. He wouldn’t leave me alone at this party at my house that she brought him to. He followed me all night, ultimately letting himself into the bathroom while I was in the shower and refusing to leave. Rather than telling my best friend that I wasn’t comfortable with this boy, and asking him to leave, I gave in to his assholery. I felt moderately crappy for hooking up with him while my best friend was asleep downstairs, but I told myself she wouldn’t care. When it turned out she cared, I didn’t know how to fix it. I’m sure I apologized, but things never healed.

The first time a guy uttered the phrase, “bros before hos,” in front of me, I nodded my head and slapped him a high five. I thought then, and for many years afterward, that the phrase was a sort of rallying cry for women to be one of the boys, not one of the whiny hos. The casual, stunning misogyny of the phrase didn’t register until I was in my 30’s. It wasn’t about women’s priorities; it wasn’t even directed at women. It was a simple, straightforward statement about a woman’s value, relative to a man’s.

My memories from my first year of law school consist primarily endless reading and outlining, study groups, long nights, and stacks of hundreds of handwritten flashcards. But one personal conversation has always stayed with me. It was a sunny afternoon, and my friend Lisa and I were sitting in the courtyard. I repeated my line that I’d always just gotten along better with men, that women didn’t like me, that girl friends weren’t usually my thing. Lisa called me out on it. It wasn’t confrontational, but it was passionate, genuine. It wasn’t that famous Madeline Albright quote, exactly, but her words contained the same idea. However she phrased it, she managed to convey to me how the invisible, competitive lineup of women wasn’t real, and it was keeping women from winning the larger war for equality by distracting me with petty battles over almost nothing. Stop competing with other women, and start holding them up. How are we ever going to get someplace without supporting each other? This was the first time I really got sisterhood. This was the first time I saw that by working to beat each other, women were reinforcing the system that put us in second class to begin with. We were our own police.

Of course it took more than one conversation to change what was, by then, a deeply ingrained, habitual way of thinking about, and treating, other women. But over time, I began to accept that the women on either side of me are my allies, not my enemies. I still struggle not to compare myself to the women around me, particularly physically. This is a deep, personal, persistent dialogue that I’m going to have and keep having with myself, probably for years. One small change I’ve made is to continuously and consciously choose other women, when given the chance.

This year, I stopped reading books by men. I choose to read books and essays written by women. I’m deeply aware of the gender bias in publishing, and since I can’t force all the publishing houses and magazines to commit to gender equality in publishing now, I do what I can. I buy books by women, and I read their essays, and I imagine that if all the women did the same thing (and the cool men did, too) we’d eventually get a more even playing field.

I have a woman therapist. I work in an all-female workplace, reporting to a female boss. My writing mentors are all women, and most of my writing groups have been all, or mostly, women. I went to a women’s college. I have a lot of close female friends. I really love women; I love the way they see the world, and I appreciate their company. No, not all women. Certainly, there are women that annoy me, or worse. Yes, I’ve known asshole women, too.

What does it mean to choose to support women because they’re women? Is it unfair? Should I feel ashamed?

I don’t believe in hell. Raised agnostic and culturally Jewish, hell only exists for me as a metaphor. I’m not sure what sort of hell Secretary Albright had in mind when she first said “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women,” over 20 years ago. But I look around me, right now, and I see crushingly smart, feminist women tearing into other crushingly smart, feminist women over two crushingly smart, feminist-identified presidential candidates. I can feel the heat of those metaphoric flames. We are creating our own hell right here, standing in line, yelling at each others’ backs, trampling over each other.

I have a vision in my head, a dreamlike, gorgeous picture that I’ve been carrying around. It reminds me how powerful women would be if we stopped competing. It reminds me of the transformative power of sisterhood. What if we stopped pushing and cutting and jumping ahead of each other? What if we stopped facing forward, and didn’t see the line as a line at all? What if we refused to rank ourselves on those imaginary spectrum? What if instead, we turned sideways and linked arms? I can see it so clearly, this wall of women’s bodies. Fierce, bodies, no longer preoccupied with our status in relationship to each other, but finally focused, and seeing for the first time, where the real fight lies.

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Header image courtesy of Anna McKay. To view a gallery of her art on NAILED, go here.

Marissa Korbel feminist writer NAILED Magazine Where the Boys Are essayMarissa Korbel has San Francisco blood and a feminist heart. Her creative nonfiction has been published by The Rumpus, Under the Gum Tree, Unmanned Press, and other fierce publications. She is currently seeking an agent or publisher for her first book, an experimental memoir.


Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.