Tuesday, April 27, 2010

I Hate Patriarchy, Junior Edition

I got a call yesterday from a girl I know. I'm apparently the radical feminist go-to for moms. The girl was upset because something happened at school and she wished she'd known what to say, and so her mom suggested she call me.

A little boy had evidently informed her that she wasn't gender-norming appropriately. Of course, he didn't say that; he made some slur about how she wasn't acting like a girl or something.

I didn't know what to say. What do you say?

I said that some people really like to impose rules, but that a lot of the time the rules are stupid, and the people are just imposing them without good reason. And I said the two rules I think are really important are important for girls and boys. The first rule is that we treat people with respect. Girls need to treat people with respect, and so do boys. And the second rule is that we take care of ourselves. And boys need to do that, and so do girls.

And, I said, I wish I knew a witty comeback, but I wasn't good at that. And while it would be nice to call him a slug or something, that wouldn't be respectful to slugs out there who aren't jerks.

And I blathered on a bit, and I think I helped her see that she was fine and that stupid gender roles are stupid more than anything.

I hate that girls need to learn how to deal with the patriarchy, and that they're subject to patriarchal oppression.

How do you start a 12 year old on Feminism 101?


  1. My girl is three and a half--and she's getting gender-normed indirectly by another girl's mother. Of course, I like both the other girl and her mother, but little Savannah (let's call her) is one of the oldest kids in the class, and she's referred to as the "queen" by her teacher. My kid (Lily, let's call her) now insists on going to school in a dress because Savannah won't let people play with her unless they're in a dress.

    Today, Lily was spinning for her class aide and asking, "Do you like my dress? I got it from Target." Meanwhile, Savannah's very nice mom asked if Lily could come over for a "playdate" since Savannah likes her and since "They spend so much time talking about dresses and clothes. [Beat] *Of course.*"

    After Lily's impromptu modeling, I felt compelled to remind her how much she likes pirates, bugs, and her toy tools. I'm reducing her school schedule this summer, and I'll be able to spend some time doing some deprogramming.

    And, to me, in this case, there's no "retort" or "comeback" that would work or is even appropriate--it's just the thickness of culture operating, not an individual child or her mother. And again, I like both of them very much.

  2. You did a great job! Treat people with respect and take care of yourself = awesome rules.

  3. To mangle Simone de Beauvoir, that kid called her out for not being a girl because she was being a person.

    For little boys, their own gender identities are predicated on being "not girls" so if a girl, through her behaviour, appears very much like them, it is personally threatening. (As in, some of the other boys will start picking on him with quips like "She's more of a man than you are!")

    It was at about eleven that I introduced eldest to Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I A Woman?" speech and situation which resonates both as a feminist issue and with regards to any kind of discrimination such as the virulent racism Sojourner Truth experienced as a black woman before the Civil War. I don't know if that might appeal but you might look through the feminist.com "Girls and Young Women" section for other resources: http://feminist.com/resources/girlsyoungwomen/

  4. What COULD she say that would shut that kid up and make his expectation for her to conform to gender norms go away? Nothing, probably.

    So in thinking about how to respond to situations like this, I think that she (we) would do best to figure out what kind of response makes it easier for us to continue being true to ourselves. Whether that's, "This is who I am, and I don't care if you like it or not," or just plain "buzz off," or something completely different - I don't think it matters. The goal is for us to live our lives and not be afraid to take up space, not to convert some slug to our way of thinking.

    Sounds to me like you did just fine, but it sure is a tough question.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This is just about the age where I read Jane Eyre for the first time, and I feel like your young friend could do a lot worse than maybe picking up a copy. As much as it's all Victorian, etc., I remember reading that novel at 12 years old and feeling very empowered by it.

    As for what I would have said (or, actually, DID say, when a boy said something similar to me around the same age) is something along the lines of, "Um, are you dumb? I'm obviously female. Am I supposed to be upset because you're too clueless to see what's in front of you?" Maybe not the most respectful response, but I humiliated the boy and everybody made fun of him and he never bothered me again. Tra la.

  7. i think your response was great! and also that it was great she could call you and talk.

  8. for what it is worth -- boys bully other boys, too. there were a few times when i pulled the car over and delivered lectures about why gay jokes were Not OK, during my tenure as a parent of young-middling teens -- and i learned after the fact, also, that my own boy was bullied in HS because he was small and quiet. and girls can be really cruel, as well, to those who don't conform to their boy-craziness or fashion choices.

    all of that pretty much falls under the patriarchy, though. dignity, standing firm, and fairness are the messages we all need to share.

  9. When one of my 14-year-old kazoo students was getting teased at school, I taught her to do look really puzzled at the bully and say, "Why would you SAY something like that?"

    Generally the bully responds with another teasing and hurtful sentence. To which I told my young kazooist to repeat, with an even more puzzled look, "I still don't understand why you'd want to SAY something like that. It's a mean thing to say, and it doesn't make sense. Why would you want to be mean?"

    If the kid is willing to repeat this as long as it takes, the bully will eventually lose interest (unless, I suppose, the bully is a total sociopath, which is another issue entirely).

    Then my young kazooist and I practiced it, with me repeating what the bully had told her, and her responding with the puzzled look. (You really DO have to role-play this one with kids so they have a pattern to follow.) She caught on FAST.

    Sure enough, she reported the next week that the crappy comments had stopped entirely.

    I think it works so well because the questions work as a mirror, reflecting the cruelty back on the bully.

  10. Peter, You make an absolutely important point; it's not just the individual child who's causing the problem.

    Ink, Thanks :)

    Janice, Oh, that's a GREAT idea, thank you!

    Human, Good point.

    Dr. C, LOL, I detest Jane Eyre. I mean, seriously, we're supposed to be glad she's married this abusive man just because he's a little less powerful? But your response suggestion is brilliant. Thank you.

    Kathy A., thank you. That's a really important point, too. Patriarchy oppressive boys as well.

    Terminal, Oh, thank you! I love that. Between you and Dr. C, I'm getting great strategies!

  11. Terminal, that's so great. I'm going to adopt instantly! Maybe even for my own use... ;)

  12. Oh, here's the thing re: Jane Eyre. Just don't think about how the novel ends. The things I loved when I was 12 about that book were, as follows:

    1) Her rebelling against her stupid cousin who threw the book at her head.

    2) Her finding a way out of stupid Gateshead with the help of the pharmacist dude.

    3) Her last and final speech to her horrifying aunt.

    4) Her rebellion at Lowood against Mr. Brockhurst, and also the fact that the school was ultimately taken over by new management.

    5) The fact that she did not just simper at Rochester when she first met him, and the fact that she told him to suck it (well, in other language, but that was the basic message) when he wanted her to run off with him after it was revealed that he was already married.

    6) that she basically told St. John to suck it when he told her that she was not "made for love" and that she should just marry him to be his helper in India.

    In other words, throughout 90% of the novel Jane is a girl/woman who's standing up for herself and who refuses to take the easiest path. Sure, she ends up with Rochester at the end, but he's not "good" enough for her until he's maimed and chastised. The end of that book, at 12 years old, was SO not the point of it for me. Seriously. My favorite part was when she told Aunt Reed off. I didn't even realize that ending really existed until I read Gilbert and Gubar in college.

    I may have been weird in that I wasn't very into the Rochester-Jane love story, but I think that was a pretty natural response for a 12-year-old reading the book, which was why I suggested it :)

  13. Not a Jane Eyre fan either.

    But seriously, thinking back to that age, the best antidote is a lot of better stuff - more empowering stuff.

    When I was little, there's a picture of me in a She-Ra costume waving a shield and sword rather than playing with dolls. When I was 12-ish age, my father got me sailing lessons (very cheap through the local university athletic dept). Books about Grania the Pirate Queen, the better TV action shows with good female protagonists (NOT the ones that are Barbies with kung fu).

    How about Whale Rider? Or Fly Away Home for movies?

    If she's more spiritually/psychologically inclined, why not introduce her to some Wicca or Jean Shinoda Bolen books?

    For me, the biggest problem was lack of alternatives - I gladly grasped whatever was available. It just was...limited.

    Damn, when I was more motivated, I had written an outline for a book of good entertainment for girls. Wrote a couple chapters and medical skool killed it.

  14. Oooo ooo! Maiden Voyage! Girl comes of age via adventure!