Feminism and gender equality are topics we should educate everyone at a young age about. If children are taught growing up that everyone deserves respect and fairness, then these beliefs will stick into adulthood. Soraya Chemaly, author of RAGE BECOMES HER, shares her views on ways parents can raise feminist boys.
For many people “feminist” means “woman” when, in fact, it simply means believing that women are equally human and deserving of human dignity and rights. For girls, feminism is often a lifeline, validating their experiences and allowing them to make sense of the incoherence of sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination. It gives girls and women a sense of their own worth in a world in which we can’t take that worth or other people’s sense of it for granted.
There is nothing about feminism that excludes boys and men, all of whom can similarly believe in girls and women’s humanity at no cost to their own. Feminist fights, for example, for equal pay, fair and accurate media representations, freedom from the threat of violence, control over our own bodies and reproduction, parity in leadership – can be supported by boys and men equally. The problem comes when women’s gains are portrayed as coming at men’s expense. For example, equal pay for women and women’s desire to participate as equals in political life is sometimes interpreted as “taking jobs from,” or “oppressing” men, both expressions of entitlements rooted in the idea that men deserve or have greater need of jobs and leadership, as a function of masculinity and masculine prerogatives.
A major problem facing parents today is raising children in an environment that asserts that feminism represents an assault on boys and men, a message we regularly hear from politicians, educators and media. This is a dangerous distortion of what feminism means and one that simultaneously hurts boys and men by doubling down on rigid norms of masculinity.
Feminism is not a movement against boys and men, but against the toxicity of gender binaries, male dominance, masculine entitlements and privileges. This is an important distinction and one that children, with a highly developed sense of fairness, can easily understand if explained to them.
- Give boys women role models. Our media – entertainment, sports, games, history books – are filled with the feats of men as scientists, athletes, geniuses. Girls and boys are expected and learn to admire and emulate them. Given the state of media a girls’ imagination would be a barren place if she was unable to do this. There are, by comparison, few women and when women are held up as role models they are primarily promoted as role models for girls. Boys are far less likely to have to or be encouraged to cross-gender empathize, which means that they don’t learn to think about what it means to be like girls or women or to think about how our experiences may differ. Many boys are openly mocked for trying and need real support and parents who fight for them.
- Teach children critical media skills, how to debunk stereotypes, and talk openly about sexism, racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. Take, for example the same example of role models. Children see women in books or classrooms, on television or in politics, but the women they see are either often sexualized or portrayed as rare and exceptional. In learning about history or women in STEM, for example, “one woman/first woman” portrayals can be damaging because it is rare to learn that women are few and far between because we have been systemically discriminated against. Instead, in the absence of real discussion about what that means, children often learn that it’s because women’s prowess and genius are not “normal.”
- Let boys know they have the right to their emotions – all of them. It’s often the case that rules about gender are conveyed to children in subtle ways. Kids learn to think of emotions, with the exception of anger, as “belonging” to girls and women. Anger specifically becomes associated with boys, men and masculinity as a marker of masculinity, strength and control. When boys are shamed for expressing sadness, vulnerability or empathy, but subtly encouraged to express anger and be aggressive, it hurts them and the people around them. Allowing boys to cry, to say they are scared or express feelings they often learn, particularly from fathers, that these are signs of weakness and not humanity. The result is, for many boys and men, loneliness and difficulty forming intimate, healthy relationships.
- Teach children to be kind people, not “good” ladies and gentleman. Gendered rules for politeness and civility often institutionalize inequality by teaching children to think about gender in binary, oppositional and hierarchical ways. There is no reason why good manners should be different for girls and boys. Additionally, lessons about chivalry also suggest a trade and specific notions about sex that are unhelpful and even dangerous. “Gentleman” can act differently towards ‘good’ and ‘bad’ girls, for example. “Good” girls are pitted against, “sluts” who “deserve” what they get.
- Challenge traditional “provide and protect” ideals that, traditionally, rely on girls and women being vulnerable – either physically (“Girls and women are weak and vulnerable and so in need of protection”) or financially (“It’s your job to be the primary wage earner.” There are many ways to provide and protect – women are doing this every day by caring for families, cooking food that is safe, managing health care, working for pay. When men’s identities are based in narrow and rigid definitions of masculinity it is easy for them to feel they have failed when women succeed.
To find out other ways to challenge society’s ideas on sex and gender, pick up a copy of RAGE BECOMES HER by Soraya Chemaly.
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