Before he pulled on his waterproof mittens and brushed the foot of snow off his car to go to work yesterday, Owen said to Littlest, “Will you oversee the sidewalk shoveling for me today?” Littlest turns five in less than a week. The sidewalk is along a distance of almost 100 feet, and is naturally right next to the road, where he isn’t allowed to play. Littlest looked up from his Legos to give Owen a blank look.
“Are you telling him to oversee me when I shovel the sidewalk?” I asked.
“No,” Owen said, quickly.
I might not normally over-analyze a tidbit of conversation like this. But that utterance was reiterated, almost word-for-word, in multiple interviews I conducted for my latest article in Chronogram Magazine on redefining masculinity. Suddenly, I was curious what Owen meant by “overseeing” the shoveling and how Littlest might be doing that overseeing “for him.”
What I learned in researching the story is how we tell our little boys to be “the man of the house,” both directly and indirectly. And while it seems like an innocent remark at the time, or funny, the repercussions can add up to an overall message about the genders.
If Littlest is capable of overseeing his mother, what does that mean about my authority and ability to care for him and keep him safe?
Now, knowing Owen for more than twenty years, I know that he was just trying not to play the authoritarian husband by telling me to shovel the sidewalk. When I showed him this essay before posting it, he said it was more a matter of which kid was in the room at the time - it could have been any one of them, and he thought they might find it fun to be in charge of the shoveling.
I’m not innocent in the messaging that I send either. What about when I tell Middlest, who is just seven, to take care of her little brother (ie. to feel responsible for his feelings and for the fairness of the world) when they play together? Owen thinks we do that because she's older, not because she's a girl.
But I wonder if both scenarios have to do with gender in some unconscious way? Would I be different with either of them if they were another gender?
The other day, Littlest and I were at the store picking out supplies for his birthday party. We chose some party favors for his guests, and there were four color options for the goody bags. I’ll admit I thought about omitting one of the options for a split second. The train of thought was, “He’s not going to want that one, anyway.” And then I said, “Do you want pink, blue, yellow, or black,” deliberately saying the word “pink” with the same weight as the other choices.
But Littlest already knows that certain things are “for girls” and other things are “for boys,” and is at the age where he's religious about those distinctions. He chose blue.
As I found while researching the article, even if not actively discouraging, when we encourage certain preferences over others, we’re sending messages about who it is acceptable for our kids to be.
Feminism has accomplished a lot in terms of giving girls and women leeway to appreciate and prefer traditionally masculine things. We’ve got boyfriend jeans, tomboys, and female superheroes. But we still encourage our boys to disregard traditionally female things. So we have chick lit, the color pink, and “shaking it off” in terms of emotional and physical pain.
It distances boys from the female experience, which disenfranchises women and creates a society where masculine is the norm.
While writing the article, I thought of my dad's generation. Born in Brooklyn in 1939, Pop came of age in the 1950s, when everything was a love song but sexual harassment was considered flirting. He told me about riding the subway at the age of 12 with his dad. He said, “Look at the ass on her!” And my dad thought, “What about it?” But in the course of his upbringing, and as he hung out on the corner with his friends, the message became, when you look at a woman, you look at her ass.
The danger is that when we distance ourselves from the experience of an entire population of people based on a physical characteristic, it leads to violence and oppression and domination.
What if we considered sports a frivolous pastime? Or what if chick lit and chick flicks weren’t inherently derogatory terms? What if when Littlest says, “That’s for girls,” and it sounds like he feels better than that, I don’t just smile but, instead, get more curious about whether he’s really drawn to it or not?
Tony Porter is an educator and social justice activist who started the violence prevention organization, A Call to Men, which promotes ideas of healthy, respectful manhood. I heard him speak at an Omega workshop on parenting years ago, and found his TED Talk to be so enlightening. In his book, Porter writes, “An assault on men won’t end an assault on women.”
Maybe the liberation of women can help lead to the liberation of men.
What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!