Let’s talk about gender.
This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a while, but for some reason I really struggle to articulate my thoughts on this topic and I’ve never felt that I had the right words for it. Let’s see how I do now.
When I said “Let’s talk about gender”, just now, what did you think of? Women, probably. Feminism? Empowering girls? The new “Ban Bossy” campaign?
I am a woman. I am also a feminist and honestly if you are reading this blog I can almost guarantee that you are, too. I don’t even ask about feminism anymore, I assume it. Who isn’t a feminist? Feminism is nothing more than the radical notion that women are people – equal people– and should be afforded the same opportunities, rights, and responsibilites as men. There’s really nothing controversial there.
But when I said, “Let’s talk about gender”, I didn’t mean feminism. Or women, or the Ban Bossy movement, either. Don’t get me wrong – the movement is fantastic and long overdue. As the mother of a loudmouth little girl who has absolutely no problem telling people what she wants (and telling them loudly) I fully support it. I’d love for Olive to grow up being called bold, decisive, and a natural-born leader rather than that simpering, paternalistic word bossy.
I think we’re doing well, all things considered, at this aspect of gender relations. I feel as though we’ve reached the tipping point and have finally realized that girls can be physical, loud, and strong, and even more importantly, that this side of them needs to be seen, valued, and supported.
But we are missing half the equation. It’s not enough to encourage little girls to feel free to express qualities that have typically been the realm of little boys. Gender equality isn’t about creating a nation of men. It’s not enough to nourish the strong authoritative side of our girls without also acknowledging the opposite. Where’s the “Ban wimp” movement? The “Ban Pussy” movement? Let’s also ban the insults hurled at any boy or man who displays weakness, vulnerabilites, or a desire to nurture.
It’s about options, and THIS is where I struggle to articulate myself sometimes. When I was pregnant we didn’t find out the sex of the baby, because it didn’t matter to us. More than that, the sex wasn’t the important part, the child was.
The sex of our child wasn’t going to determine how we decorated his or her room, how we felt about his or her arrival, and we hoped (despite the fact that my Sociology background taught me the contrary) that it wouldn’t affect how we raised him or her.
Throughout Olive’s life I have struggled with how to dress her. It’s not that I don’t like pink – I love pink! (Hot) Pink is one of my favourite colours. Coral, blush, fuchsia – these are my jam! – it’s the fact that pink is often the only option. It drives me nuts.
If you ever feel like watching me rant for twenty minutes straight while gesticulating wildly, accompany me on a walk through a children’s clothing store. I would say that almost 100% of the time, clothing choices for little girls involve at least one of the following: the colour pink, bows, flowers, glitter, sparkles or hearts. And again these things are great! Who the hell doesn’t love fucking sparkles? But why is this the ONLY choice? Why does every single item of her clothing – from her rainboots to her diapers – have to scream “I AM A GIRL!”?
The only reason I can think of is that it tells people how to treat her. Whether to complement her looks or her abilities. Whether to comfort her when she falls down, or sternly tell her to stop crying.
Do you see why this is frustrating? Eventually Olive will learn that she can say “No!” and I will lose all control over what she puts on her body. At this point she might decide that she is totally into princesses and tutus and sparkles. And I honestly don’t know how I feel about, because more than the actual content of her choices, I will wonder if they are actually hers. Does she genuinely like pink? Or has she absorbed the pink-princess mentality pushed on little girls, and gradually come to understand that there aren’t many other socially acceptable choices?
She’s really into trucks lately. This isn’t because she has a crazy feminist mom, by the way. It’s because when we go to the library each week I get her books with male main characters and female main characters. Books about puppies and books about airplanes. We just grab a little bit of everything, and if she happens to like something – birds, cats and dogs are her favourites – we get more about that subject next time. In Edmonton she fell in love with a ridiculously simple book about trucks, and she wanted us to read this silly five sentence book over and over and over and over. She was just totally enamoured of it. So we got another truck book after we returned that one, and the next time, too. And on our way to a local playgroup today we walked down the sidewalk of a main road and she lost her shit at every single pickup truck or semi that passed. It was the best day ever!
She also likes her babies, and Naked Ken, and stuffed animals and other typical “girl” toys, but this truck fascination makes me wonder how many other girls would also lose their minds when a truck driver waved at them, and how many little boys would instinctively pick up and cradle a baby doll, if they were ever offered the opportunity.
It’s not enough to create strong girls. It is essential, but it’s not enough.
The point of gender equality can’t be to create a nation of men. We are losing something incredibly valualble when we do this. Girls can be incredibly strong, and boys can be incredibly caring. And as much as we nurture ambition in girls, we also need to be nurturing softness in little boys, wamth in grown men.
Here’s why. When we think about talking to our children about sexual assault, what do we picture? A mother speaking to her daughter about how to keep safe? “Carry your keys between your fingers. Don’t walk alone at night. Always have a buddy.”
We need to be talking to our sons, too. “What does consent look like? Can a drunk person agree to sex? Have you watched porn? Do you think it’s realistic? What does it mean to you when your sex partner says no?”
We can not ignore the other half, but we usually do. Men are not the problem and they are not the enemy. They are losing as much as women are when we view each sex as a uniform series of stereotyped characteristics. We are all suffering by sticking ourselves in these rigid little gender boxes and policing each other viciously, and often publicly, when we dare to step out.
Girls are incredibly lucky to have high-profile personalities like Beyoncé and Sheryl Sandberg to stand up and defend their right to lead, to speak, to make themselves heard. We need men to stand up and do the same for boys. We need men to stand up and show little boys how to be soft, how to take care of someone else – and that it’s good to take care of other people. We need to show boys that kindness, compassion, and emotional intelligence are traits that we value.
Here’s why I finally sat down and tried to wade through my feelings on this in a somewhat coherent (I hope) manner:
Today while we were at the play group – after the out-of-this-world, truck-filled walk – Olive was sitting down and I was trying to show her how to play a little game where you hammered golf tees into a fabric-covered styrofoam block.
Motor skills, hands-on learning, blah blabbity blah. I was all over it and she was pretty uninterested in the whole thing, and I remarked as much to a nearby woman whose little boy wanted a turn. “Aww” she sympathised, “Yeah, better leave the hammering to the boys, hey?”
What do you say to that? I’ll tell you what I said: nothing. I said nothing and then pondered that statement during our whole walk home (Ooh! More trucks!), and then I put Olive down for a nap and then I sat down to spill these thoughts into a million word blog post.
I was surprised, and I honestly didn’t know how to react. She genuinely didn’t mean anything by the remark, it wasn’t meant to dissuade my daughter from a lifetime of pursuing hands-on professions, or to reaffirm her status as a helpless woman. It was a line tossed out to make conversation with a stranger and I’m not sure it would have been appropriate to launch into a “SHE CAN DO ANYTHING A BOY CAN DO!” rant. I’m not telling this story to blame or shame, I am sure I have said similar things, tossed similar words out without thinking.
We all have. And THAT’s the problem. It’s so ingrained that we don’t notice, we don’t question.
Boys wear blue. Girls wear pink. Boys play with trucks. Girls play with dolls. Why? Because they like to! But WHY do they like to? Is it possibly because we have gently, perhaps unconsciously, steered them towards those socially acceptable choices since the day they were born? For some it was even before that- their rooms were decorated with princesses or baseballs while they were still busily growing fingernails.
I think confronting gender inequality isn’t really about confronting huge, in-your-face issues. It’s about addressing the subtleties. The things so small we don’t even notice. It’s a huge component of why I don’t let Olive watch TV or movies – especially Disney movies. Why do I want her watching a movie where the cast is 99% male? Ora movie where the main character, a girl, decides to literally give up her voice in order to win a man? Or where, in the first five seconds of a movie aimed at CHILDREN, one plane taunts another that he ‘flies like a girl”?
It’s a huge world out there. I don’t want Olive to have access to only half of it. I truly don’t care whether she likes pink or blue. I’ll be happy whether she’s a doctor or a nurse – or eschews conventional career paths altogether. The only thing I will fight for, tooth and nail, is her ability to CHOOSE. To have open access to each of those choices. To not be policed – to her face or behind her back – if or when she doesn’t conform to gender norms.
She is eighteen months old and she understands me when I ask her to put a bottle in the recycling bin. She understands me when I say we’re going to call Papa after lunch. She points at herself as an answer when I ask, “Who’s my big girl?”.
Did she understand that woman today? If she didn’t, it’s just a matter of time before she does. It’s a matter of months before she begins to absorb those remarks. Will she stop shouting so loudly? Will she lose interest in trucks? Will she squash parts of herself because she intuits (perhaps correctly) that they aren’t valued in women?
I hope to have a son someday, and if or when I do, I will fight this same battle for him. He will spend his whole life hearing people say how strong he is and I will try to show him that it’s ok to be soft, too. I will wander around clothing stores being bludgeoned with sports paraphernalia and diggers. I will try to cuddle him as much as I cuddled Olive. I will try not to tell him not to cry. We will go to the library and we will get books about trucks and hockey sticks, puppies and princesses. He will have Olive’s old baby dolls hanging around and if he shows an interest in them, instinctively picks them up and hugs them, we will take out books about babies. We will read about daddies who cuddle and rock, men who hug and talk.
We are losing so much by ignoring little boys.
Gender equality isn’t about creating a world of men, it’s about creating a world of whole people.
We can’t do that by ignoring our other halves.