I don’t much follow celebrity news, but Ashley Judd recently wrote a beautiful essay discussing the harm done by the objectification of women. Harm done not just to women, but by women as well as men, and the harm done to men as well. This essay keeps being labeled “feminist.” [Side note: as I was finding the link for the essay, I noticed the title. “Ashley Judd Slaps Media in the Face for Speculation Over Her ‘Puffy’ Appearance.” “Slaps Media in the Face” – really? The editors at the Daily Beast couldn’t find words to headline an essay about the dangers of stereotyping and objectification that didn’t involve a metaphor that conjures the most stereotypical image of female celebrity? Shame.]
My own relationship with feminism is an uneasy one. I don’t even like the word, not because I’m somehow opposed to the philosophical ideal of female strength and equality, but because it is a word that divides. I don’t believe that men and women are the same. I like feeling feminine, and I like doing many of the things that are considered “masculine.” I prefer to exist beyond the labeling of my reproductive organs. Can I be a humanist instead, please?
Misogyny, sexism, chivalry, feminine oppression, patriarchy, gender-bias – it doesn’t matter what terms are used. There is an ugly undercurrent to each, a thread that says “We are different members of humanity, our differences and complexities scare the hell out of us, and we can only resolve them by assigning roles and expectations.” In a world where physical strength conferred a distinct survival advantage, these labels may have made sense. However, as technology and education have leveled the career (survival) playing field, our expectations around gender serve only to confuse, to enhance conflict and distrust, and to prevent us from celebrating – yes, celebrating – the very real differences that exist between us.
We all contribute to the problem of separation and expectation. Daily. The strident feminist who shuns makeup, refuses to buy guns or trucks for her son or dolls for her daughter is as guilty as the middle-aged man who states outright that no woman “can do that job as well as a man.” And, the mother who pushes makeup on her adolescent daughter “just to cover up that blemish” is as guilty as the father who tells his son to “toughen up; don’t cry.” We all do it. Don’t pretend you can’t see yourself here.
What about the mothers whose default is to call the other mom to set up a playdate, even though the father is picking the child up from school? What about that time you looked at a woman and thought (or said), “There is no way she should be wearing that.” When was the last time you had an opinion, really any opinion, about a man’s attire? How often do we excuse a man lashing out in anger when we know that he is really frightened or hurt? Why do we make the excuse? Oh, well, because that’s just how men handle these things. Why aren’t we angry at a society that refuses to allow men emotional expression beyond anger or fucking? Why aren’t we angry that we set separate parenting standards for men and women? We do. Don’t deny it. A man can be a good father just by showing up. What about the mother who lets her son go off for an overnighter without clean socks or underwear?
Yet, we run around claiming that all is equality and fairness. We tell our daughters “You can do anything a boy can do.” Yet, we raise our sons with the expectation that they need to somehow treat women differently than they do other men. We tell them, “Don’t hit girls. Well, don’t hit anyone, but especially don’t hit girls.” We train them to hold the door open for women. Are they supposed to let it slam shut in the face of the guy behind them? We tell our daughters, “You can have any career you want.” But we don’t give them the tools for that career.
A man is expected to state his needs and expectations in the workplace. A man is expected to speak up when he sees someone underperforming. A woman who speaks her mind professionally risks being classified as a bitch. Yes, this phenomenon is real. I have heard male colleagues yell and curse at clients with dangerous horses. I have had those same clients call the office to complain about how rude I was when I suggested that the horse was dangerous and needed some training.
This isn’t an example of the poor, oppressed woman. This sort of gender divide harms everyone. Women lose (obviously) in terms of self-esteem, performance, and career advancement. Men lose the input and experience of half of their colleagues. And they lose the opportunity to put their own egos to the side and hear an alternate view. Whenever we are allowed to entrench deeply within our own experience and self-expectation, we lose.
It starts so early. Walk onto an elementary school playground and look at the first grade. In kindergarten, those same children mingled, irrespective of gender. The active children rolled around in the grass and mud like puppies on caffeine while the more sedate children built castles of blocks and dreams. By first grade, though, the lines begin to be drawn. Girls clump together, trying on tiaras and cloaks, while the boys wield sticks and charge across the yard. They still blend their games, but often the cross-over is gender-specific: the girls need a groom for the wedding or a king for the kingdom; the boys need someone to rescue.
Earlier this year, I had an odd experience. I was picking Sierra up from school, and as my whirlwind child tore through the classroom and out into the yard with a pack of boys, a mother of one of the other girls smiled and said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but Sierra reminds me a bit of Ramona (from the Beverly Cleary books) – I mean in terms of her…of her physicality.” The other mother trailed off as though she wasn’t certain that she hadn’t said something inappropriate. She didn’t look critical; she looked almost half-envious, as though she wished that she had been that exuberant child. But, that physicality wasn’t, and still isn’t, considered quite the norm for girls. Sierra is Ramona in many ways. Thirty years ago, she would have been branded a “tomboy.” It isn’t unusual to see her, resplendent in princess gown and tiara, chasing her brother through the neighborhood armed to the teeth with Nerf gun and sword.
I hope that she will maintain this balance. But, I’ve already seen the pressures of society begin to bend her older siblings. Aidan, by default a sweet, sensitive, cuddly people-pleaser, has begun working on his “cool” act. He’s always had an affinity for sports, guns, and cars, but he is less and less willing to let any side of him other than the sport/gun/car/class clown face be seen around his peers. Caitlin struggles socially as she and her peers enter their teens. “Most of the girls just want to talk about makeup and hair and clothes and music,” she complains. Caitlin loves to shop, will play with makeup a bit because she likes things that are pretty, even herself, but she doesn’t see the point in talking about these things. She’d rather hold lengthy discussion about the merits of Marvel vs DC comics, or the more subtle points of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or compare and contrast Star Trek and Star Wars, but already, those conversations are the purview of the boys. When we separate, sort, and label, everyone loses.
I don’t have a fix. I wish I did. I think that the only solutions to the big problems are the small ones. What if each of us stopped, paused before allowing a judgmental thought on a woman’s body to be fully articulated? What if we stopped before saying, “Don’t cry” to our sons? What if we took a breath before leaping to the “bitch” label for a woman stating her case, or before brushing off the rudeness of an angry man? What if we gave each other small spaces in which to move beyond the labels? What if we quit blaming clothing, makeup, beer commercials, or politicians for our societal woes?
What if we ditched words like misogyny and feminism and moved toward one label? I’d like to be a humanist, please.