A Conversation on Feminism with my Teenage Son
Background: A few nights prior to the following conversation, during dinner, my husband mentioned a news headline he read regarding backlash against Emma Thompson after her UN speech on feminism. I didn’t know anything about it at the time, and my husband had just read the headline. My son K had heard something about it at school, and our conversation was brief and expressed our disgust with anyone who would disparage equality between women and men. (This was before I knew how misogynistic and threatening the backlash was, and before I had watched the speech. I brought this issue back to the table once I had more facts, but that’s another story.)
A couple days after the initial conversation, during our nightly dog-walk, K brought up the subject of feminism again, in the typical roundabout way of teens.
Me: So, you still don’t want to go to the Homecoming game on Friday?
K: No. I don’t have a date. I don’t really like anyone right now.
Me: Well, maybe you can just go with friends?
K: No, all my friends that are going have a date.
Me: Maybe you could ask a girl friend to go with, just as friends?
K: Naw, people don’t really do that. Plus, it’d be way too expensive.
Me: What do you mean? For the tickets and some food?
K: Yah, and the mum. Girls want expensive mums . . . (We keep walking and he’s quiet for a moment.) You know, some of my friends think about feminism in a way that I don’t agree with, but I can kinda see where they’re coming from.
Me: Like what?
K: Like you know how it’s supposed to be equal between men and women? Well, they say it’s not equal. Guys have to ask girls out, not the other way around. Guys have to buy dinner and pay for everything. The girls at my school expect gifts and stuff from their boyfriends. My guy friends say that if it’s supposed to be equal, equal pay and equal treatment, the girls need to step it up. They need to ask guys out, they need to pay for things, they need to buy their own food or tickets or whatever, or sometimes buy both . . . I don’t really agree with them, but I can see where they’re coming from.
Me: Hmmm . . .
We walk on, and I am lost in thought. I think about how it was when I was in eighth grade – just like this, nothing’s changed (shocking!). I think about how it’s all chivalry and princesses, and waiting for prince charming for many girls in middle school, and how difficult, frustrating and confusing it must be for boys to be expected to play that role. Then I think about the other side of the coin, that girls are just as smart or smarter than many of the boys in their classes, how they take leadership roles as readily (as I’ve seen as a substitute teacher), and how they’re just as capable as their male peers when it comes to any of the everyday tasks of middle school. I think about what a mixed message that must be for boys, girls who seem to be powerful and capable, but who simultaneously seem to want to appear helpless or in need of ‘rescue’. All this is jumbled up in my head, but I try to (simply) put this into words for K.
Me: Yeah, I can sort of see where they’re coming from, too. That’s not really equal. You know, it’s all chivalry and knights of the round table in middle school, and girls romanticize that. But when they get older, it’ll be different. They’ll want to pay half, they won’t want to be coddled and rescued. They’ll find their independence and their power, and want to be an equal contributor in the relationship. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t buy a girl dinner and pamper her every so often – it’s just that it shouldn’t be the expectation. (In my head is the line: “nor should you expect anything from her, no matter how much money you spend on her!” but I decide to save that talk for another time.) As you get into high school, some girls will become more independent. And one of these days, a girl will ask you out and may even want to pay for your dinner.
K: Ha ha. That would be nice. You know that video game Destiny that I was telling you about . . .
Thinking back on this conversation, I realize what mixed messages we send to these kids about feminism and male/female ‘roles’.
A Facebook conversation pops into my mind. A friend posts, in exasperation: “Please, people, stop calling your daughters Princesses! You’re not doing them any favors!” At the time, I was pregnant with my daughter (and reading a lot of Phillipa Gregory), and I thought, The notion of a princess as a damsel in distress is all wrong. Being a princess is a terrible job with very high expectations, and it’s hard work!
I hope that by the time my daughter is in eighth grade, she will feel empowered to ask a boy out if she wants to, and that she wouldn’t tolerate being coddled. I’m going to teach her to change a tire, and her dad will teach her to cook. I’m going to teach her that being pampered by the one you love is a sweet treat, not the norm, and that both partners need to do the pampering. She’ll know that her man can think of her as his princess, and she may be her daddy’s and my princess, but princesses are powerful, highly educated, empathetic leaders with courage. Princesses kick ass.