The one with the feminists.
In November 2016, I was 7 months pregnant and watched, with absolute disbelief as Trump was named POTUS. Not nearly 12 months later, the accusations against Harvey Weinstein came to light, and the things every woman has known about, felt, or experienced firsthand – at the hands of men – became part of the public discourse. Fast forward another year and it feels we’re still in the same spot: waiting for another poster boy for the patriarchy to fall on his sword with a false apology and retire from the spotlight for some indeterminate (though observably too short) time as they ‘regroup’.
For all the achievements of #metoo, there is still so far to go. And, as the parent of a small man, I can’t help but feel the stakes are higher for me: how can I raise my boy right?
I grew up an only child of a single parent: a pretty ballsy mother. In an exclusively female household, you learn pretty quickly that women are pretty much up to any task that a man can do. My mother is a dab hand with almost any power tool, and can accomplish any physical chore put in front of her. She went back to school when I was little and trained in engineering drafting (an option she was excluded from when she was younger). She won the bread, and she toasted it. I always knew that I didn’t need a man in my life to be happy and successful, and that my livelihood wasn’t dependent on being provided for.
But, now tasked with raising a future man, these things all feel really obvious, and haven’t prepared me for the actual task at hand. It only takes a trip to your nearest department store to understand what the world really thinks: girls are princesses who like sparkly, fickle things, and boys can be concerned with heavy machinery and the occasional motor vehicle. The boys section includes a palette of maybe 5 colours (2 of which will be shades of blue), whereas the girls section will take up three quarters of the floor space, and feature all of the sequins, colours, feathers and tassels combined. I can’t even begin on the toy section. Even on this very basic level, it’s obvious that things aren’t quite even between the sexes.
Working in a field that needs me to understand how to get through to teenagers has equipped me with lots of insights into communicating with them, particularly with the male variety. And, the insight that determines so much of what we do: pitch everything you’re doing at a 16-year-old boy, because if your ad/post/video is feminine, they just won’t engage with it. However, this doesn’t apply to girls: they’ll engage with masculine and feminine posts without bias. When I first heard this, I just assumed that it was a weird sexist thing: boys will be boys, blah blah. But, I now know better: from the day they are born, boys are at the centre of the story. We have conditioned them to be like this.
Take Spot. A cute puppy who loves with its parents. Boy.
The very hungry caterpillar. Boy.
All of the animals in Dear Zoo. Boys.
Pig the Pug. Boy.
Pick up almost any of your childhood favourites and you’ll soon discover a male protagonist. (Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, there will be a female somewhere: though, she’s usually a Mum, a baby sister, or a teacher.)
At the other end of the spectrum, you have Disney. (Now, as a child of the 90s –Disney’s golden days – I have to confess to complete and utter love for Walt’s creations. At any point in the day when I’m feeling in need of perking up, I blast the Gummibears theme into my headphones, and for those two and a half minutes, everything is right with the world.) With that disclaimer out of the way, I can admit to the many problems with Disney and its raft of princesses. A quick Google search of ‘Disney’ ‘gender stereotypes’ and ‘sexism’ will unearth encyclopaedic coverage of this topic. Basically, there’s lots to answer for.
But, ultimately, these are not the things that really worry me. I can find a way around these external things: I can buy him different books, and show him different movies. We can shop in different places. What really has me worried are the little, innocent, everyday things, that happen without thinking. I find myself casually gendering things that really don’t need it: soft toys, dogs on the street, and animal figurines. At daycare, V’s teachers make little jokes about him being a ‘ladies’ man’, or about him ‘treating them mean’. We’re all complicit in these little jabs. And we forget that the little jabs are points on the board in the bigger narrative.
I truly believe that we’ll only have some version of equality and equity when we all come together on this problem. So, while I have this little man-shaped piece of dough in my hands, I’m going to try my best to teach him to respect and value women, and to help him to understand why everything is better when women are allowed a place at the table. I’m going to be super careful with how I use language, so he understands that words have power – and how we use them actually matters. I’m going to look for stories where women are heroes, but also, where they’re ordinary and part of the world in an everyday way. I’m going to encourage him to express himself: to be creative, and to connect with his emotions and identity in ways that work for him, not just how we think boys should be. I will surround him with people who have different backgrounds, and narratives, and opinions, so he can appreciate the beauty of diversity. And I will let him know that I am flawed, that I will make mistakes and not get it all right. And that it’s ok.