The trending Twitter hashtag this week has been #YesAllWomen, a thread response to #NotAllMen, which is itself a response to reports this weekend of a mass shooting in California by a deranged young man who, in a YouTube testimonial, expressed rage at women for rejecting him. So just to recount that back-track of social media: A crazy misogynist man who feels angry at women for not having sex with him goes on a rampage and kills six people. Men start responding defensively on social media, saying that not all men are psychopathic monsters. Women respond by saying that such reactions are not helpful because misogyny and sexism are everywhere, following with example after example. Men then respond again either with horrified shock (“I had no idea!”) or further defensiveness (“This is reverse sexism!”). This is the crazy twisted world we live in.
I have a four-year-old daughter. In the midst of all this sudden attention to sexism and misogyny, I am given another opportunity to ask myself: Am I raising my daughter with any sexist assumptions, attitudes, or values? Is there anything I might be doing that would instill in her the belief that women are somehow less than men?
The answer is easy: of course I am.
I don’t want to, Lord knows. I’m trying really hard not to. But I can’t help it; it’s everywhere. There’s just no escaping it. I grew up with it. Not that my parents were shockingly sexist or anything; I actually think they were rather progressive. But they grew up with it, and their parents grew up with it. And besides, unless your family comes from an isolated island completely disconnected from the rest of civilization (in which case you would not be reading blogs), then you have been raised in a larger cultural context. Which, by the way, is completely and totally sexism-ridden. (And racism, and classism, and heteronormativity…)
It feels terrible to notice all the ways I participate in the “isms” or our culture. But every single one of us does. You can’t avoid it; if you exist within our society, then you are participating in systems of oppression. That’s just a cold hard fact. Have you watched an episode of The Bachelor or Toddlers and Tiaras? Then you’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever made a joke about women with PMS or men not asking for directions? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever critiqued the looks of Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever referred to something as a “boys’ toy” or a “girls’ toy”? You’ve participated in sexism. Have you ever remained silent while other people did these things? Congratulations, you’ve participated in sexism.
There’s simply no escaping it, and anyone who says, “Hey, I’m not like that,” is renouncing their responsibility and tacitly participating in the perpetuation of systems of oppression. I know, it sucks. I assure you, I’m no less guilty than you or anyone else. And it’s often a guilt by forced association. I work for a corporation where women make up 80% of the workforce, but only 40% of executive leadership. What should I do, quit my job? Go work for a more progressive company? Because 40% female executive leadership is probably ahead of the curve.
It sucks, I know. It’s painful to realize that you are participating in the problem, even if you don’t want to or are trying really hard not to. Think of it in terms of the following illustration (apologies to the Apostle Paul).
You are a healthy stomach in the body of a person with lung cancer. Now, perhaps your functioning is unaffected by the cancer in the lungs. But you can’t exactly say to the lungs, “This is not my problem; I don’t have cancer.” Cancer in the lungs will eventually affect the stomach, if only by eventually killing the whole body. Likewise, the stomach can’t say, “I’m not doing chemo; I don’t have cancer.” Does it suck for the otherwise healthy stomach that it has to endure the ravages of chemo because of tumors in the lungs? Yes, it does. Is it fair? No, it isn’t. But if the whole body elects not to receive treatment because most of the cells are healthy, then the eventual outcome is going to be disastrous.
Misogyny – and racism, classism, heteronormativity, and every other metric of oppression – is a cancer in our society. It is a cancer that our society was born with. You may not be actively oppressing women; you may not have a deep-seated belief that women are inferior objects; you may not be a violent rapist. But misogyny is woven into the fabric of our culture just as surely as democracy. (And who were the first people in America to enjoy the democratic process? Hmm…) Every single one of us participates in sexism just as every part of a body participates in cancer. But in this case, those of us who have the luxury to ignore that there is sexism because we don’t directly suffer from it – or, as we are often called, “men” – participate more readily because it’s easy for us to remain blind and ignorant. Women can be sexist, too; I remember the woman who told me when we were expecting our daughter that I should want a boy because boys were better children. It’s men, however, who participate more fully in the patterns of sexism, either by actively perpetuating their own privilege and dominance, or by choosing to remain clueless and uninvolved. It’s a luxury to be capable of detachment from the suffering of others; and even if done naively, detachment from suffering allows that suffering to continue.
So how on earth am I to be a father and raise a daughter? I’ve processed this before in other posts (like here and here). As much as I want to raise a child immune to the ugly realities of sexism and misogyny, it is impossible. I mean, I can’t even buy her clothes without perpetuating stereotypes. She’s only four, and she’s already gotten healthy doses of it. Just this week, she saw a line of children’s bicycles. I asked her if she wanted a bike and which ones she liked.
“I like all the girls’ bikes,” she answered.
My first thought was What the hell? Who taught her that? My second thought was, That can’t be true – one of these bikes is a Spiderman bike, and she loves Spiderman. So I said, “What about the Spiderman bike?”
Then I thought Wait – I just this second taught her that the Spiderman bike wasn’t a girls’ bike.
She glanced at the Spiderman bike and then, looking down at her feet, she said sheepishly, “I like them all.” As if she should be ashamed for liking boys’ bikes. And then I wanted to cry. (I didn’t, of course, because I learned how to be masculine.)
There it was, folks: sexism shining through the very fabric of our existence. Mostly a benign and harmless interaction, maybe. But those little moments add up. So what am I supposed to do? How do I raise a child in this mess?
My child, by nature of being something other than a heterosexual male, is not going to have the luxury to ignore this stuff the same way I have. My goal, however, is to continue to raise a child who pays attention with sensitivity and responsibility. What makes me – or anyone – culpable for participating in a system of oppression is the choice made in response to the recognition that such a system exists. Men (or women) who respond to misogyny by saying, “I’m not like that,” are making a choice to disassociate themselves from the responsibility to act. I know it feels safe and comforting to make that choice, but it’s complicity. My child will have less privilege in ignoring these systems of oppression than I did simply because she was born with a vagina. But she’ll still be raised in a middle-class Euro-American family with tons of unquestioned privilege. I want her to learn to question them, to shoulder the personal responsibility to look for injustice and reflect critically on the ways that she participates in those systems. Even – God help me – to critically examine the ways that I have unwittingly perpetuated sexist attitudes and handed down oppressive beliefs.
I want her to be better than this world. That starts by raising her to be better than me. In the meantime, I want to raise the bar for what that looks like as much as I can. That means constantly examining the ways I am sexist, classist, racist, heteronormative, or otherwise blind to the privilege I wield without a second thought. Does it matter to me what all men are like? Not really. It matters what I am like, because it matters to me what kind of world my child will inherit.