It makes me sad when I hear young women say they don’t consider themselves feminists. The word has gotten some bad PR, but the concepts have benefited most women living in the United States and the Westernized world. If you believe in equal pay and a workplace safe from sexual harassment, you’re a feminist. If you believe in marital rape laws, protection for domestic abuse victims and the rights of women to own property, you’re a feminist, even if you want to call yourself a unicorn.
But this is a big fight to win at large, so I have focused mostly on promoting discussion and observation of gender norms at home. With a daughter it hasn’t been particularly hard, because it’s easy to show a girl where the world is unfair to girls. One need only suggest that she count the times boys in her class get called on vs. girls and she can see for herself (and, hopefully learn that it’s not about her, but about entrenched attitudes people don’t even realize they have).
My concern has always been a bit more for my son, as it has been for all the men in my life. I’ve always worried that there’s less motivation to notice an unfairness when it benefits you than when it doesn’t. It’s still good to be a white man (although not as good as it was in the 1950s and before). Why rock that boat?
Still, I have tried. I have pointed things out. I’ve said things like, “Did you know that if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination, she will be the first woman to be the presidential nominee of a major party in our country’s 239-year history?” Or, “Did you know that of the 100 senators currently serving, only 20 are women?” In movies, I point out when the female character is a prop rather than an active participant, or when she is unnecessarily scantily dressed. I have wondered if any of this was making a difference.
A few nights ago, my son wanted to watch something vaguely Halloween-y, so we opted for the cult classic, The Blob, made in 1958. (I love me some Steve McQueen). Early on, it was clear that the movie would be fun to watch not just for its campy plot and as a tool for seeing how movie-making techniques have changed, but also as a cultural artifact from another time. He laughed at how tame the bullies seemed (one actually opens the car door for McQueen before mildly ribbing him). He noted the outfits, the men’s pants nearly clear up to their armpits and the big, poofy yellow dress of McQueens’ girlfriend character (the only female with a speaking part).
But as we watched it became evident that the girlfriend character was problematic on several levels. She made few decisions and drove none of the action. She followed McQueen around, doe-eyed. She freaked out and needed consoling. Once, when she tripped over her own feet, she just sat on the ground screaming as the blob approached. McQueen had to scoop her up and carry her away while she whimpered. I’m not arguing that female characters in today’s horror movies are much better, but this one was laughable. I didn’t linger on it but I did mention it and it became something we giggled at as the movie went on. (We also noted that there was not a single person of color with a speaking part in the entire movie).
Last night, my son had some friends over for Halloween. They chose to watch a succession of bad horror flicks. (One, apparently, was about a killer tire). I hung out upstairs and wrote, but could hear the boys downstairs when I left my room occasionally. On one such foray, I heard my son say, “I mean, have no noticed how she’s the only woman on the whole squad?” My heart did a little dance. All the drip-drip-drip of pointing those things out has made some impression. All I want is for him to walk through life noticing.
It goes without saying that it’s crucial to raise daughters to stand up for their rights. But it’s just as important to raise sons to do the same for the rights of others (as well as their own, of course). He’s already a son and a brother but one day, hopefully, he’ll be a husband and a father, a co-worker and maybe a boss. I want him to be the kind that believes in equality for all humans, not just the ones that look like him. And hopefully that’s how we bring down the patriarchy, one compassionate son at a time.