When I speak up about gender inequality, sexism, and media bias through a feminist lens, it’s natural to frame this as “for my daughter.” After all, things that have irked or bothered me throughout my own life are now influencing my daughter. She is growing older and, as I witness their increased potential to influence her life, “irked” transforms to “angered” and “bothered” becomes “scared.” Body image issues, unrealistic definitions of femininity, sexist work policies, pink-washing, and damaging modesty rhetoric have obvious potential to damage my daughter’s self-image and and effect her life choices. Passionate advocacy is my natural response.
In reality, however, this same sexism, modesty rhetoric, “boys will be boys” attitude, “real men” definition, and outdated gender boxes are as damaging to my sons as they are to my daughter. Feminism is not just for or about women and girls. Equality issues matter for everyone because they effect everyone. I am a feminist because I am a mother of a daughter and of sons. When I advocate for equality, I advocate for my sons as much as I do for my daughter.
I openly acknowledge that my sons have some distinct advantages of privilege; they are white, middle-class, males. This can create a sort of immunity to many problems of equality. Perhaps the biggest threat to my sons is a comfortable apathy that will allow them to push down resistance to damaging messages and perpetuate benevolent sexism. This may lead them to dismiss the legitimate concerns of inequality and excuse sexist policies that benefit them at the expense of others. And, while this may not sound too bad for the boys, I contend that it is damaging. It diminishes their potential for empathy, an expanded understanding of gender definitions, and opportunity to participate in a society that is better for all.
Messaging around gender and sexuality swirl around my children. Some are positive, but many are full of stereotypes and rigid expectations. Plus, they often come in such pretty packaging and sound so darn nice.
- Similar products are made for boys and girls, but with different pictures and phrases. Boys are represented by ties, trucks, pirates, and trains in a range of primary colors. Girls are princesses, fairies, or “Daddy’s Girl,” almost exclusively in pink.
- Girls are naturally nurturing and boys are providers.
- “Domestic” toys are almost always found in the “girls” section of a toy store in pastel colors.
- “Parenting” toys are almost always found in the “girls” section of the toy store in pastel colors and dolls are predominantly female.
- The “traditional” family is still idealized, with women as caretakers and men as providers.
- People still call fathers “babysitters” when they care for children alone.
- Men are portrayed as inept fathers and incapable of simple tasks, such as changing a diaper.
- Family sitcoms often feature an overweight/sexist/less attractive male/underachieving husband with a more attractive, smarter wife – almost never in the reverse.
- Women are often described as more spiritual than men in many religious traditions.
- Women are naturally more loving/caring/kind than men.
- “Bossy” is applied to girls and “leadership” or “initiative” to boys.
- Men should sacrifice interests or dreams to be caretakers of families.
- Women face shame and discrimination for parenting and professional choices, no matter what they choose.
- Men play “sports” and women play “women’s sports.”
- World religions are still dominated by male ecclesiastical leaders.
- Society has numerous rules about modesty for women, but few for men. Modesty is almost exclusively associated with dress.
- Birth control is a “woman’s issue.”
- We still try to separate rape into “date” and “stranger” rape, despite the fact that most victims know their perpetrator.
- Governments, religious, and educational institutions do not consistently and fairly handle assault, domestic violence, and abuse.
- It’s a compliment to criticize a man to build a woman up.
- Photoshopping creates unrealistic expectations of self and others.
- Many children’s shows have one girl and multiple boys in shows for both genders. “Girls” shows feature primarily female characters. Children are discouraged from liking or choosing to “be” a character of the opposite gender.
- We define ways of dressing, speaking, and acting, as well as interests and pursuits as “gay,” with a negative connotation.
- Boys and girls are often separated for classes and activities at puberty, with different messages and activities by gender.
- Society perpetuates “rules” for raising boys and girls.
- Any book or movie is for a girl. Boys are consistently directed to books and movies featuring boys.
- We still use the phrase “like a girl” as an insult.
And these are just some of the issues that concern me related to gender as a feminist – just the beginning of a conversation. Does this make me a Negative Nelly, seeking all of the bad in the world? Do I deny gender differences? Do I think equal means same? Do I hate pink? Not at all.
I actually view myself as an optimist, although my rose colored glasses have slid down quite a bit. I am continually surprised by how early children hear, feel, and potentially internalize these messages. I can’t change or provide alternate messages for what I refuse to acknowledge or see. The trick is to avoiding pessimism, for me, is to embrace advocacy.
In actuality, I would not pick a different time to raise my children. I see so much progress and good in the world. My children are beautiful people with great potential to contribute positively now and in the future. I want them to be critical thinkers; confident in themselves, compassionate, and aware of the world around them.
Recognizing, re-thinking, reworking, and re-imagining damaging messages are important skills for both my daughter and my sons. This is why I am a feminist. This is why I advocate: for all of my children.