Popaganda Episode: Scouts
Five million American kids are members of Girl Scouts of the USA and Boy Scouts of America. As the Boy Scouts of America's homophobia has become a national issue, we ask: is scouting still relevant? How can scouting be more inclusive? We talk with two young girl scouts, whip-smart troop leader and foreign affairs expert Alisha Bhagat, take a hike with Portland's alternative scouting troop, and discuss "artisinal manliness."
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Bitch Media Popaganda Podcast
June 12, 2013
SARAH MIRK: This is Sarah Mirk and this is Popaganda, Bitch Media's feminist response to pop culture podcast.
Thanks to our sponsor, She Bop, a women-owned sex toy boutique that specializes in body safe products and education. Check them out at sheboptheshop.com.
This week's episode is all about the scouts. I remember the day I signed up for the Girl Scouts. I was in second grade maybe and the very first event was an ice cream social. I had joined because I wanted to go hiking and learn about science and light things on fire. But instead, I knew nobody and all the other girls bonded by doing gymnastics. I couldn't even touch my toes, I didn't talk to anyone, and I never went back. That's right, I quit girl scouts on the very first day. But even if you're like me and you've never earned a merit badge, you can't ignore the reach and impact of scouts on our culture. The two biggest scouting organizations, the Girls Scouts of the USA and the Boy Scouts of America, involve about six million kids a year. These organizations play a major role in how these millions of kids learn about themselves, see the world, and develop role models. And they're pretty different. The Girl Scouts have a "don't ask, don't evangelize" position on sexauality and allows anyone who identifies as female, including transgender kids, to call themselves a girl scout. Meanwhile, after a lot of activism from LGBT advocates and allies and scouts themselves, the Boy Scouts are finally making a change this year to allow gay scouts. But they'll still ban LGBT adults from volunteering.
Amid all this, what does it mean to be a scout these days? How does scouting affect kids? And how can parents and kids find alternatives if they, like me, are just not cut out for being an official scout?
SARAH MIRK: I'm here with Ethan Jewett at the end of the first hike of 55th Cascadia, a co-ed, pro-gay scouting troop parents created in Portland.
ETHAN JEWETT [singing]: Left, left, left, right, left. 55th Cascadia! From sunny Portlandia! Baden-Powell our guiding light! Honor bound to do what's right! Discrimination we will fight! Voodoo Donut, take a bite! A square meal day and night! Left, left, left, right, left.
My name's Ethan Jewett. Jackson is my son, he's 5 and half. He's just getting to the age where he'd be old enough to be a cub scout and I wasn't' going to go that route. Travis Wittwer is a good friend of ours and he has four boys in his house, all of scouting age, and we've been talking for a year about creating our own scouting program, so we'd have an alternative, looking back to Baden-Powell as our guide and formalizing a lot of the family camping trips we've done on our own.
SARAH: Why was it important to you to have an inclusive, co-ed scouting troop?
ETHAN: I think it's two-fold. On the one hand, just as a moral imperative, as a parent, I wasn't willing to have my kid be involved with scouting if that's the way they conduct themselves. I know at 5 or 6 years old, the kids aren't thinking about that stuff and there's pressure for them to join. I had a rich and rewarding scouting experience myself and I really wanted that for my son. It was a push pull, really wanting that for him, but being unable to access it.
SARAH: What's valuable about scouting?
ETHAN: The mark that scouting left on me is indelible. I look back at my ragtag troop and I didn't really understand at the time what was going on with the engraining of a service ethic, the week long backpack trips we took into the High Sierra. I can basically trace my love of the outdoors and the things I love today to that uncomfortable backpack and arduous hikes through the Sierras. What I didn't understand at the time is that scouting is a framework for a lot of important conversations with kids. When Jackson was learning scouting, he was learning the scout promise, the idea of "What does it mean to help others at all times?" It became a big conversation in our house, a sort of multi-day running skit about helping other people. I was struck at his age that we could be talking about what it means to be of service and helping others rather than, like, Power Rangers.
SARAH: How does it change the scouting experience to have a troop be co-ed?
ETHAN: We had our first campout over Easter and the thing that really struck me was that we had a couple Pathfinders, which are the older kids, but we had a lot of Timberwolves, which is the middle group. By virtue of the world we live in today, I would say our most accomplished outdoors person in camp was a 10-year-old girl who's one of our Timberwolves. She strode into camp with a sheath knife on her belt and knew how to use it safely, she was a master fire builder, she was an excellent scout right out of the gate. It was fascinating. My sister's girl scouting experience was arts and crafts and I think they'd go car camping once a year. And her passions and pursuits today are very different than mine, I always wonder why that is. It's neat to see that in today's world, it doesn't have to be that way. What's anti-climactic about this enterprise is there's really nothing to see. We're just scouting, and there's no reason why girls and boys can't scout today.
I'd say the big difference is that one of our pathfinders cracked a gay joke on the trail, which led to a 10-minute conversation about what we're really up to. And I think that would not have happened in 1979 when I was a scout in troop 259.
SARAH: What was the joke?
ETHAN: I didn't really understand the joke. It was like, "How do you tell if someone's gay?" and then a really strange noise that had no relation to anything. But it was more about telling a joke about some other group. I believe that one of our pathfinders has gay parents and he didn't say anything on his own, but I said, "Okay, we're going to stop and talk about this." I thought it might be one of those situations where he's not comfortable speaking up.
SARAH: How did the kids respond? Were they sheepish?
ETHAN: They weren't sheepish, but one part of scouting is they're supposed to take responsibility for their own patrol and this was definitely one of those cases where an adult came in and was leading the conversation. But the hope is that in the future, they'll basically be the ones who are looking out and holding true to that creed of scouting.
[singing: Left, left, left, right left]
EMILLY PRADO: This is Emilly Prado, former editorial intern for Bitch magazine. I'm going to talk with two real-live girl scouts from the same troop about their experiences.
LAREE: Hi. My name is Laree. I'm in an actual girl scout troop.
DYLAN: HI, I'm Dylan, I'm nine years old.
EMILLY: How long have you guys been doing girl scouts for?
LAREE: I've been doing it for about three years now.
DYLAN: I just started last year.
EMILLY: What sort of activities do you guys do?
LAREE: We go on field trips and make art projects, we do experiments, and we do all these things so we can learn about new badges we can earn.
DYLAN: There are main badges on the front and then fun badges on the back. And then you can get badges for going on field trips, like for going to OMSI. You can also earn badges by doing experiments, for a whole project.
LAREE: Another badge we got was a caroling badge. We went to an old folks home and sang caroling songs for them. There's a lot of fun badges, too, like a karaoke badges and a sleepover badge.
EMILLY: What sort of skills do you think you've learned from the girl scouts?
LAREE: I'm learning to be kind, like it says in the girl scout law. I've learned wisdom and how to treat others, how to be everyone's friend no matter how they look, how to take care of myself, and go on hiking trips, how to camp in the wild, most of the basic skills to be alive.
DYLAN: I've learned how to go camping, I've learned how to put up a tent, how to sell girl scout cookies, how to be really kind to my sister.
EMILLY: What are your favorite girl scout cookies?
LAREE: I love Samoas.
DYLAN: I love Samoas and Thin Mints.
EMILLY: Samoas are my favorite, too. What was it like selling girl scout cookies?
LAREE: You feel like, is this the right house? Is this person going to be nice or mean? Should I say this or that? If you get like 100, you want to brag, but if someone else gets more, then you don't feel good. It can feel like a competition sometimes.
DYLAN: One time I was selling cookies and I went to the house of someone I knew and she was like, "I don't want to buy any cookies." But then her husband came running down the stairs and he said, "Yes, we do! We want eight boxes!" and that was my top seller that year.
EMILLY: You guys went camping as a troop?
LAREE: It was fun because we got to learn how to set up a tent, how to make our own foods and then every other hour, we'd ask, "Can we go to the playground?" And they said yes, so we ran all the way up the path to the playground and play around there for an hour. It felt like we were free until dinner and then free until bedtime. It felt like we were just free alone.
EMILLY: What is it like hanging out with a group of only girls, compared to hanging out with boys and girls at school?
LAREE: I think it's good to have some girl time. Boys they sometimes make fun of stuff girls like to do. You can share anything, because you get to know these people for a while. These girls, you're with them and they're just girls. If it's boys, they could share it with other boys and then then those boys couldn't be as nice, they could tease you.
DYLAN: I like being with just girls also, but sometimes I like being with boys, too, I like a mix. I think it's good that they made a girl scouts and a boy scouts.
EMILLY: While you think that it's good to mix, you think that it's
DYLAN: I like doing sports personally, I'm kind of a tomboy and sometimes I like to play with the boys. But sometimes I like to just sit in a room with some girls and take a break from the boys.
LAREE: Like she said, i'm kind of like a tomboy also, but I think it's also good to just play with girls sometimes.
SARAH: Now we're going to talk with a genuine girl scout troop leader. Alicia Bahgat is a foreign policy expert and South Asian specialist in Washington D.C. as well as a girl scout troop leader and trivia queen.
ALICIA: My name is Alicia Bahgat. I work in Washington, D.C. as a foreign policy analyst, and I have been a girl scout for twelve years, from brownies through seniors. For the past 2 years, I've been a girl scout leader in Washington, D.C. and led a troop of fourth and fifth grade girls.
SARAH: And how was it you got back involved with the scouts? What prompted you to become a leader?
ALICIA: I've always had a lot of positive memories about the scouts, and I wanted to get involved, and I was thinking about what I could do to volunteer with the girl scouts. So I contacted the girl scouts of the nation's capitol, and I asked them what I could do, and told them what my experience was. And they said "Well there's actually a troop really close to your house that needs a leader."
SARAH: What role do you think that being a girl scout has played in your life? What's been the impact of being a girl scout growing up?
ALICIA: My parents are Asian immigrants, and they didn't really ever expose me to anything outdoorsy, because they didn't really have experience with it. Girl scouts exposed me to the outdoors, and the world of camping, which was very new for me. Also as a little girl, you're kind of taught that your body is for dressing up, and looking good, and making people happy, and in my case studying. Getting to do things like caving and backpacking for several days, getting out there in the wilderness and getting dirty, gave me a new appreciation for both nature, and how I see myself and my body and what makes me happy.
SARAH: What was it like being in a group of all girls? I was never a girl scout, I couldn't cut it - I quit on the first day! What was it like hanging out with a group of girls all the time, how much of a difference do you think it made?
ALICIA: Girl scouts was the only space that I had growing up to be in an all-female group, and I think it was really empowering. As a leader I can say that the girls really do do everything. As a kid I probably didn't think about it as much, I just thought "well these are my friends, and we're doing all these fun activities", but I felt that you could really let your hair down, you could stop worrying about what other people were thinking and focus on the group. The group of girls bonds together a lot and starts supporting each other. So it's a good experience of learning to rely on women to get things done.
SARAH: Why do you think the girl scouts have stuck around, and why have you stuck with the girl scouts? There's lots of groups that go camping, those things are more accessible these days. Why are the girl scouts still relevant to people?
ALICIA: It's really the only organization that I think is open to all American girls, so I really think it's for all girls. If you're a girl, you can be a member of the girl scouts regardless of your race, your religion, your economic situation, where you live, and in Colorado even transgender girls are joining the girl scouts so they're really an inclusive organization and I think that's great. Girls get exposure to skills that society doesn't often teach them, things like personal finance, outdoor survival. These are things that, if we look at the job market, young boys often have them and have been taught them for generations and girls don't. So whatever's been happening, girl scouts still provides exposure to those skills and to that community of girls.
SARAH: In your own trip, what would you say is your favorite activity that you do with the girls? And is there one that you don't do that other troops do, that you've phased out and said "eh, that's not really something you should focus on."
ALICIA: I'd say one that we don't do is that we don't do a lot of ceremonies. For whatever reason, my troop is not that interested in ceremonies. A lot of scout troops and people like earning the merit badges, and the badges are definitely important, because they represent mastery over a set of skills. With my group it's more about the experiences, so people are less interested in ticking off the merit badge, they're more interested in having fun and doing activities that they normally wouldn't get to do. I'd say my favorite activity is going camping with them, because I have been able to hand over a lot of responsibility to them. They craft their own camping trip, they decide what they're gonna do, they get to do things they wouldn't do at home like learn how to start a fire, and then they just do it. Once they've learned the basics they just kind of run the whole show. So we've had a lot of fun, especially because they're urban girls, getting a couple hours outside the city and looking at the stars has been a really positive activity.
SARAH: The Boy Scouts of America ban gay scouts, and also ban gay adults from volunteering, have that in their history, and the girl scouts have never had that. What is it that's so different about the girl scouts and they boy scouts in their approach to this?
ALICIA: I can't really say much about the boy scouts, because I don't know much about that organization. They're just two separate organizations andI know that they have a focus on different things and we focus on different things. But I think that for better or worse people often overlook the girl scouts. They see the girl scouts as this organization where little girls sell cookies and make crafts, and they don't really look further into what the girl scouts are all about. And I think the boy scouts are given more weight, in terms of the Eagle scout award, and what the boy scouts do, and for whatever reason I think the types of people that have latched onto that type of system with the boy scouts have been more conservative. I think that because the girl scouts often flies under the radar, we're able to be a really inclusive organization and we haven't had those issues.
SARAH: It's interesting what you said about the girl scouts flying under the radar, and not being as much a part of American consciousness of the boy scout, for which there's a lot of iconic images and people take being a boy scout really seriously. And I think the image of girl scout is just some girls having fun and selling cookies. Why do you think that persists, why do people take the Girl Scouts as an organization either less seriously or it's just not as much a part of the national conversation?
ALICIA: I think it's just easy for people to dismiss something when the people doing it are young girls. Nobody dismisses boys' activities in the same way, people don't dismiss Little League teams even though you could say "Oh, it's just some boys playing a silly game." Little League teams get local businesses to sponsor them, whereas women's work and women's activities often get dismissed as "Oh, this is just arts and crafts and cookies." I think those biases brush aside the girl scouts, even though if you look at outdoors activities, community service, a lot of those are similar to what the boy scouts do. Environmental stewardship, issues that the boy scouts work on as well, the girl scouts work on too, but I think because it's young girls doing it people make light of it a little bit. I think flying under the radar a little bit has been somewhat to the girl scouts benefit. I think it's a feminist organization, it's a really positive organization that impacts the lives of young girls in this country and gives girls the opportunity to join an organization for them, that's run by them, that they can play a large part in. Because it doesn't have as hard-line a stance, people don't pay as much attention, and because it's young girls, people don't really take them seriously.
SARAH: It's a double-edged thing. So on the one hand, people aren't taking the young girls seriously, on the other hand, it hasn't become a target, it hasn't been really "Hillary'd" in the media.
ALICIA: That's right. The Girl Scouts do pop in in the news here and there, there's lots of stories, there were people who quit the girl scouts once transgender girls were accepted into a scout troop. You find some article every couple of years about the girl scouts and promoting planned parenthood or birth control. It occasionally gets that criticism, but definitely not to the level of the boy scouts. This is a shout-out for Girl Scout GSCNC Troop 5937, Oyster Adams Juniors. Thanks guys, for a great couple years.
SARAH: Now that we've talked about scouting among kids, we're gonna talk about scouting among adults. Specifically a trend of scouting for fun and profit among several organizations that basically sponsor what we can call "artisanal manliness". Adult groups that do scout-like adventure vacations for a lot of money. I'm gonna read from an article that was up on Gawker in January called "Artisanal Manliness: For fun and profit" just to give some background on what this is in case you haven't heard about it.
From the article:
"Do you have Y chromosomes and also a keenly refined rustic aesthetic? Are you eager to go camping, but hesitant to put yourself in a position where you could ever be out-of-doors? Do you have $40 to blow on a hand-stitched, masculine-yet-understated leather keychain? Sounds like you're in the market for a fastidiously planned adventure. The Wilderness Collective is a company that specializes in curating artisanal manliness by coordinating expeditions that invite robust young gentlemen to find out what they are made of to be measured by the wilderness. For $2,500 you can reclaim masculinity through adventure."
We're gonna play a clip from a video about this artisanal manliness group.
CLIP [male voiceover]: It's almost as if the wild was designed as a proving ground for men. It's a place to face your fears, to wake up wet, cold, shivering, and warm ourselves by a fire the next morning… everyone's cell phones were locked away, because we all committed to be undistracted for the next 72 hours. In an age of eroding masculinity, where men are depicted as weak and blundering or misguided and shallow, men need to be ever-more intentional to carve out time for camaraderie, for adventure and introspection…
[grill sounds, music]…
We've got gin and tonics!…
The sun had set but we moved on. We were dead tired, but our headlights guided the way through these twists and turns all the way to the second camp. When we showed up, there were craft cocktails and artisan food, and there were such welcome friends under this endless, starry sky… It wasn't about who was the fastest, or the slowest, or who had the best gear. We were just all the same.
SARAH: What's going on here? Andi, you found another group too.
ANDI ZEISLER: Yeah. In doing research, I just Google'd "Man Camp", and a couple of things came up, one that was a Christian retreat, and the other was a website that hasn't been updated since 2010 but is called the Aspen Man Camp. Basically it's a very, almost performatively male version of like, a spa retreat. It says "We understand what it means to train like a man, eat like a man, recreate like a man! To be a man!" The trips are serviced by Harley Davidson motorcycles, they offer what they call night-time ninja training, as opposed to I guess daytime ninja training. And it's very focused on the idea, much like the Wilderness Collective, that men in contemporary society have really lost touch through a combination of factors with what it means to be a man. It's functioning with this very stereotypical ideal of masculinity.
SARAH: As our ideas of what's masculine are changing and are becoming less rigid, I think there are a lot of guys who are wondering, what is masculinity these days? And the traditional images call to mind basically the same image as being a boy scout, being independent and being able to take care of yourself in the wilderness, like Swiss Army knives and big boots. And I see that these companies are really springing up to cater to that desire, to say, "You're not really certain what a man is? We'll tell you what a man is! Pay us $2,500 and you can come be a man for a week."
ANDI: It's really interesting because when you think about nature, it's gendered female most of the time. And that may be silly too, but the experience of being out in the wilderness, there's nothing intrinsically male or female about the experience of being outdoors, or camping, or hiking. You're right, this contemporary sort of masculinity salesmanship really involves kind of fetishizing things like axes, and knives, you know, hunting. Although, the Wilderness Collective provides its own chef, so it's not like they're out there killing a boar to eat.
SARAH: Maybe at some point, long before I was alive, the idea of camping was seen as a masculine experience. But now I don't think of camping and hiking as gendered experiences at all! And these camps are selling them as like, you get out in the woods and you do manly things like… set up tents. And I never really thought of that as a gendered experience.
ANDI: Well it's funny too, because this sort of earlier version of the men's movement, like Robert Bly espoused, where men sort of went into the woods to get in touch with their male-ness, was focused on things like talking to each other and playing the drums. It wasn't like, we're gonna show you how to tan your own hides.
SARAH: There's a lot of issues like this that are focused on women, there's a lot of markets aimed at women that are saying, we'll tell you how to be feminine, here's a checklist of items you can purchase and experiences you can purchase and then you'll be feminine. You go to the spa, and you get your nails painted, you get your hair done, you get a facial peel or whatever the kids are doing these days. And then you're feminine at the end of it. And this is sort of the reverse of that for men, saying here's your checklist, you go out in the woods, you do some ninja training, and at the end you come back knowing what your masculinity is.
ANDI: There's a whole market too for female-only adventure packages. Whether it's learning to surf, or going camping, or something like that. And it's funny because the focus of those is becoming more empowered, feeling like you can do this kind of stuff. The focus is on empowerment and feeling free, whereas with men the focus is, it's not necessarily said but it's kind of implied, the focus is on being kind of less womanly, as though that's a bad thing.
SARAH: I guess I have such a strong aversion to this just because the price-tag attached makes it really sad. It seems like if you wanna go explore what you're like, and how you feel about your gender and masculinity, yeah! By all means, go hang out in the woods with your friends and eat some hamburgers and carve wood or something. But the fact that you can buy a package that costs so much to experience what seems to be kind of an artificial version of these things strikes me as sad that people are really seeking that and they have to pay for it. That's one thing that's great about girl scouts and boy scouts, is that it's free and it's about building a community for people who really care about experiencing nature and being together and it becomes a community-oriented experience. Whereas when you're paying for that somehow it just seems crass.
ANDI: I think the lesson here is that people who are maybe in scouts when they're younger grow up to be people who don't need to pay $3,000 to be taken into the wilderness and be cooked for.
SARAH: If you've gotten all your merit badges as a kid, you can tie all the knots yourself and be your own personal chef.
ANDI: Exactly. Your sense of masculinity would not be lost.
SARAH: If you learned something new, please support our work creating and sustaining feminist media—we're a donor-supported nonprofit, so make a donation at bitchmedia.org.
Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Worker. Our producer is Sarah Molner at Pagatim Studios in Portland, OR and our intern Hannah Forman helped put this show together. Our fabulous sponsor is she bop at sheboptheshop.com, and you can read feminist responses to pop culture every day at bitchmedia.org.
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