A friend of mine on Facebook linked to this article from the Guardian about the sexualization of girls below the age of twelve that has somehow become mainstream in our culture.
Despite having deep admiration of and friendships with women over the course of my life, I have not always risen above certain cultural ideas about how women are perceived. Even now, there are many instances where I cannot see the inequalities between genders in our culture. There are times when the dynamics of “women as decoration” are invisible to me.
But, now I have a daughter. And shit has gotten real, as they say.
It is perhaps telling of our culture and about how far we’ve come (or not far) where women and girls are concerned that I am forced to confront this so early in the life of The Girl. With all of the mainstream forces aimed directly at her about how she should appear rather than how she should think or achieve, I feel like I’m not just engaged in the rigours of parenthood (which I am), but also up against the forces of a term I understood intellectually before I became a father – Patriarchy.
Where raising my daughter in the face of that is concerned, this isn’t about that stupid cliché about the overprotective Dad who insists on her daughter being locked away in a tower, guarded with the help of some kind of firearm. As a matter of fact, I think that whole thing plays right into what we’re up against. And I do mean we, as a culture. Because, this isn’t just about fathers and daughters, or even just about women and girls. It’s about everyone. It’s about boys and men, too.
For instance, what is it that we really want as men when it comes to relationships with women and girls in our lives? When it comes to intimacy with a woman, do we want a prize to keep, like some fishing trophy? Is the “hotness” of our partner meant to be some extension of our own competitive edge as a man? Or do we want someone in our lives who understands herself, and therefore has the capacity to understand us as well, all the while provoking our admiration as much as our libido?
And where this article points to places where girls can pledge, as Disney princesses, to be gentle and kind, why is it that those same attributes are often derided in boys, and later as men? What are we doing to boys when we reinforce this kind of stuff? Will they be better men if they resist these attributes in themselves? Or will the demand for that resistance against gentleness and kindness in a man be something they must overcome, or be crushed by?
Let’s forget for a minute about how all those cultural forces affects us as men. What about the ramifications of how every woman in our lives that we care about is forced to confront the idea that her mind is secondary to her appearance, and that other girls and women are to be viewed as hostile competition for the attentions of men, even in childhood? In a culture where everything is a commodity, I suppose this dynamic stands to reason. But, that doesn’t make it less dehumanizing. And it doesn’t mean that it can’t lead to some very dark places that a father fears to even write about, let alone say out loud. The fear is this. When a girl or a woman is reduced to the status of an object, she can be owned. She can be dominated. Or she can be resented for not being attainable as a thing to own and dominate. Countless tragedies have sprung from this.
When I think of the Girl growing up in a culture where sexy makeovers before puberty are a thing, the fact is that even if she doesn’t buy into this stuff, she will still be judged on her looks, perhaps more so than she would if she were born a boy. A part of her self-esteem is more in danger of being based on the visual judgements of other people; boys, men, and even other girls and women. There is no getting around that in the historical short-term, it seems. This thing we’re up against in terms of how women and girls are perceived in our culture has deep roots.
What can we do, as her family, her friends, people who care about her?
Well, tell her she’s beautiful, sure. Beauty is good, and a worthy thing to celebrate, coming as it does in many forms. It is important to be able to appreciate and accept one’s outward beauty, and even to indulge it. I’m not down on beauty by any stretch, personally speaking.
But, let’s encourage her to feed her mind, too. Let’s teach her what it means to be a critical thinker, and to see the sometimes hurtful flaws in our culture for what they are. Let’s encourage her to develop and pursue her passions, and trust her own instincts. Let’s teach her about the importance of building her own character, of having empathy for others, as well as being able to judge the character of others so as to choose the right people to surround herself with, and to put her trust in as she grows up. Let’s show her that true friends and worthy partners are those people who understand that appearances change over the years, but love and respect remains the same. Let’s create a space for her that allows that her interests and passions should not necessarily rely on the approval of others external to her, including that of her father, or any other person in her life. Her own sense of self should dictate her direction, with our influence as a set of tools in her belt.
It’s a tall order.
When I read the article above, I realized that I not only want to help to raise a confident, empathetic, and passionate person. I also have to speak out against a system that is teaching little girls to believe that getting a boyfriend (or a husband), and gearing everything in her life to keeping him even at the expense of her own sense of self, is the most important thing she can do. Those ideas are insidious. They are the enemies of happiness, and self-worth.
To fight them as a father of a daughter, I’m going to need some help. And I’m lucky that I have it, with friends and family around her to help her make her way, even if the shape of that journey is ultimately up to her, which is as it should be.