When I told my husband about the title of this post, he raised a skeptical eyebrow. Really? Feminist? What did I mean by that, exactly? I think he envisioned me forcing our eight-month old son, Tiago, to wear pink leggings, read Betty Friedan before bed, and sing along to Ani DiFranco in the car. Was I proposing that we raise Tiago to feel guilty about his masculinity, or to resist patriarchy at the playground? Not that my husband isn't a big supporter of women, but couldn't we just let the baby learn how to chew first? Have I been in Northern California too long?
I did have to think about my intentions carefully. The F-word carries a lot of baggage, and I've tended to shy away from it since my undergraduate days when I was taking women's studies classes and playing rugby. But I have decided to just go ahead and own it, since I've yet to hear a better word to describe a person who believes that women and girls are equal to men and boys and deserve the same opportunities in life. And I definitely want my son to be that kind of person. And there are plenty of forces around him from day one that make that harder than it sounds.
Since I work in media, and I'm a fervent believer in media literacy, that is where I'll focus here. Let's start with cartoons and kiddie entertainment. Even though women make up around 50 percent of the population, in G-rated movies there are 2.42 males to every female. Which is not that surprising, since only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers, and 20 percent of producers are female. The females who do appear in kid movies tend to be young, beautiful, with anatomically impossible thin waists, and are scantily clad — in fact, nearly a quarter of them. Inevitably, if they are on a quest, it is for a prince, and love. And of course all of this just gets reinforced as movies go from G to PG to PG-13 and possibly the worst fictional place to be a feminist, R.
Older women don't show up much in kid movies, unless they are witches of course. Certainly not a lot of women making decisions, taking action, much less ruling the kingdom. Sesame Street and Tiago's beloved Elmo are an oasis of equity in the media landscape — but overall children's media feels a lot like training wheels for the bigger, badder kind of sexism that awaits. I'm sorry Beyoncé, but Girls most certainly do not Rule the World, no matter how much money you spent on post-apocalyptic dominatrix costumes in your latest video. Not that the picture is all that great for boys, either. Sure, they arguably get to have more fun onscreen...blowing things up, driving fast, seducing all those pretty girls with tiny waists. But like with most binaries, the scope of cool guy behavior is limited and creates an artificial set of choices that leaves very little room for complexity or imagination.
In fact, statistics around achievement in life show that boys today are in serious trouble — there are far more of them than girls in jail, in the military, in special ed classes and far fewer of them in college and earning bachelor's degrees. The good news is that public media exists and dares to suggest that young people don't have to fit themselves into that narrow binary of gender roles. With initiatives like Women and Girls Lead showcasing strong women and girls around the globe making waves, there is actually something good on TV (and more than ever before, the internet).
Boys and girls alike will be inspired by these stories of ordinary women doing extraordinary things — if only there is an adult around to encourage them to watch. So why worry so much about the media? I know my husband and I will be good role models, and Tiago comes from a long line of strong women who never let culture stand in their way. It's not that I want to lock down the TV, or forbid him from seeing the latest Pixar flick. I just want to equip him with the facts, and let him decide what seems fair. I want to expose him to movies made by women, so that he knows gender has nothing to do with telling a good story. I want him to see media that features girls and women of all ages doing cool things to change their world — not just waiting passively for a kiss to transform them. And if he's not seeing that stuff, I hope he might ask why.
So no pink leggings or Bedtime Betty Friedan, unless he wants them. But I may slip in an Ani DiFranco song now and then, and point out that she owns her own record company ... in case he wonders.
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