May 05 2014

A Child’s Garden of Feminism

Since it doesn’t seem to exist, I thought I might try my hand at writing the elusive feminist primer aimed at a tween audience. Lard knows I’m no kid’s writer, but there’s a hole in the canon there, and nobody else seems to be stepping up, so damn the torpedoes, I’m goin’ in.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

Chapter 1: Dudes Invent the Sex Class

A long, long time ago, human civilization was founded on the belief that women are toilets for male incontinence. Dudes thought being in charge was awesome, so over the centuries, they invented a system of behaviors called “femininity” to make it easier for them to rap —

Ah. It turns out that nobody has written A Child’s Garden of Feminism because women’s reality is an X-rated horror story of untold suffering and senseless tragedy. Rape culture, racism, femininity, Stockholm syndrome, Spanx, blow jobs, pervs, Boko Haram, plastic surgery, abortion, porn, harassment, forced marriage et al are the stuff of nightmares. The antithesis, in fact, of anything I would want my 10-year-old niece to read. The Global Accords Governing Fair Use of Women are just too gruesome to foist on little kids.

But surely someone can think up a way to sort of counteract the indoctrination a bit?

What got me onto this was this, the announcement that Girl Talk, a popular UK tween magazine, was “going feminist.” The photo is all pink with pastel swirly stars and hearts. The copy is full of empty platitudes à la “I will love myself the way I am” and “By working hard I know I can achieve great things” and, of course, “#GIRLS ARE AMAZING!”

Quoth the editor, Bea Appleby:

We’re bringing feminist ideas onto the pages; putting empowerment, positive role models and broader ambitions on the agenda. A bit less about popstrels and telly stars, a bit more about sportswomen, writers, scientists and businesswomen.

But seriously. Do kids even buy this crap? At age 10, you’d think any kid with even modest observational skills would know full well that boys never have to be singled out and explicitly informed as to their amazingness. Wouldn’t the kid smell a rat? Wouldn’t she grasp on some subliminal level that if girls really are so goddam amazing, we wouldn’t really need all the extra other-y pink-ass fuss? Why not just quietly integrate the acknowledgement of girls’ humanity into the product the way you would for any other autonomous being?

Here’s why, according to Bea Appleby, explaining why Girl Talk is giving away nail stickers to promote their new, pink “feminist” direction:

“[W]e’re a commercial magazine and having a “SMASH PATRIACHY!” stationery set as a free gift, or Marie Curie as a cover girl, might freak out the readers. The fact is, we have to sell magazines and compete on the newstand [sic], otherwise we won’t exist.”

Yeah? Well, if those are the terms, maybe they shouldn’t exist. If acknowledging your audience’s humanity will kill sales, your product is seriously fucking flawed, lady.

Too harsh? Give Girl Talk an A for Effort? Appleby thinks so, because at least they’re “trying to do something.” But heck, if Marie Curie would “freak out” her readers, and giving out pink nail stickers is considered an act of feminist rebellion, this is a pretty terrible state of affairs.

Someone’s just gotta hip the tweens that feminism isn’t a lifestyle, it’s a human rights movement. So here goes.

Chapter 2: Female Genital Mutilation

It’s gonna be a classic!


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  1. emilybites

    Maybe if we told girls straight-up when they were little that a lot of people regard women as sub-human then they wouldn’t put up with so much misogynist shit. They’d recognise rape or the refusal to allow them access to contraception for what it is: a manifestation of the belief that women don’t have human rights in the way that men do.

  2. Kay

    What the hell do you even do with kids, though. Just plop ’em in front of a couple Miyazaki movies and curl up in the fetal position for a bit is what I do, but that seems like it’s probably not an optimal solution overall.

  3. pandechion

    emilybites, that’s how I play it with my five-year-old. It helps to be divorced, so I can just straight-up say it without being hemmed and hawed into saying that it’s not really so bad anymore. We were watching Pride and Prejudice the other night and she drew a line between the Bennett girls marrying for money and women not being allowed to vote. The best I can do is help her build a conceptual model that will allow her to feel the righteous rage that ought to come naturally, when she finds out the really evil stuff.

    (Also! She and I just went to our local cherry blossom festival as Chihiro and No-Face.)

  4. Rachel

    My kid is 6 and she’s very interested in these what-girls-are-like vs. what-boys-are-like messages. And she’s really interested in lying. So when a well-meaning teaching assistant tells her that “girls like pink” she worries that an adult might be lying to her. And this is an earth-shattering possibility. So my response is “she just made a mistake, sweetheart.” I plan to keep using this line. The whole virgin/whore thing? They made a mistake. The whole girls should be teachers or nurses or stay at home moms thing? They made a mistake. Etc. I think it should cover all the bases.

  5. Cyberwulf

    Marie Curie would frighten readers? WTF. Seriously, it would be awesome if magazines aimed at little girls ran stories about famous women through history and the various patriarchal obstacles they overcame – or didn’t.

    Per the mothers I work with, the school sex ed for eleven and twelve year olds here is to tell them sex is illegal until they’re seventeen. There’s certainly no way that could ever be harmful.

  6. gingerest

    It’s well-established that the incidence of depression is higher in women than men, and that the sex difference in incidence begins right around puberty. There’s a lot of theorizing about hormone changes, but I think it’s just that it’s right around that time that girls become aware they are trapped in the big P, and no matter what they do, they can’t win. Admittedly, some girls might not know that’s why they’re feeling down, but ultimately, that feeling of being totally inadequate to what society expects, so continuing to breathe in and out is sort of an act of will? Yeah. That’s the delight of being conscripted into the Sex Class.

  7. blue stocking

    Wow, Cyberwulf, I would read a magazine like that any day of the week!

    You really have to listen to find out what is influencing your kids. When my older son was in elementary school, we sent him to a parochial school because the local public school had gangs (yes, 10-year-olds) and the drug dealers hung out right outside the school where the buses picked the kids up every day. We have two parochial schools in town, both based on religion. So one day, my sweet son said, “Daddy is the boss of the house because he’s the man.” I felt like one of those cartoon characters whose jaws hit the floor in shock — I swear I could feel my jaw falling toward the floor. I looked blankly at Nigel, who, bless his heart, jumped up off the couch, pointed at our precious son, and said, “I never told him that!” I had to pick up my jaw and explain to our son that although in biblical times a man could buy a wife by trading a goat for her and then feel that he was entitled to boss her around all the time, it was no longer like that. His daddy and I had a marriage certificate, which indicated that we had decided TOGETHER that we would live together and make a family. His daddy did not have a property license for me such as we had for the dog. That was the day that I decided I had to question our kids every day to find out what they had been told at school so that I could set them straight if needed. Good grief. Remember when we were kids and thought that everything the teacher said had to be true? Not in my house!

    Sorry for the long anecdote, but this chaps my hide. We try to live as good examples and teach our boys how to properly treat the girls and women and everyone else in their lives, and then some stupid institution comes along and negates everything with a smug, cavalier attitude that harms both our girls and our boys, albeit in different ways, and we can’t relax for a single day if we want our kids to grow up to treat everyone like human beings. This shouldn’t be such a hard concept to impart, but every time we turn around, there’s some major stupidity in the school or media or on the playground or ANYWHERE we go, and we have to explain it and then try to reinforce the whole “everyone is a human being” thing. It’s almost as if there was some huge, overbearing social structure in place that didn’t want my kids to know that females are human beings!

  8. Ellesar

    gingerest – I absolutely agree with you. That is why I started identifying as feminist at 13. I was VERY aware of how my freedoms were increasingly curtailed – not through any parental control, but from the way I was treated by men and boys.

    It didn’t stop a lot of the crap of course – I was starving and body hating at 14 – not knowing that it was part of the same thing because that particular poison came to me through the girls magazines. I don’t know what they are like now, but certainly on the subject of weight it was always assumed that you would want/ need to diet. There was absolutely no option for body acceptance. Still, at least I didn’t think I needed make up in order to leave the house!

  9. emilybites

    gingerest, you’re so right. It’s important to recognise that these hugely prevalent trends in female behaviour (eating disorders, self-harm, depression) could be a manifestation of feelings of powerlessness and injustice.

    We’ve talked before on IBTP about how women are living under a perennial psychological assault. We’re harassed and raped but told simultaneously that this rapey behaviour is aberrant and unacceptable, while at the same time being forced to endure it constantly because it’s no big deal and we’ve misunderstood. It makes no sense! Why wouldn’t a class of people constantly treated like they’re subhuman but told that everything is awesome (so no change is coming anytime soon) go NUTS?? We could better handle the shitty deal if denying its unfairness wasn’t the shit sauce on the crap sundae.

    We’ll be paid less and told that’s coincidence; raped and told it’s not rape; stared at and told it’s a compliment; pressured to be thin but eat ‘normally’; be super-feminine but not shallow (showing no visible effort of maintaining this highly unnatural state); be ruled by a male government and judiciary and told it’s a meritocracy; trapped by motherhood and a sexist system of childcare; forced to endure romantic and familial relationships with men who enjoy watching women be abused on film (because the exceptions are depressingly rare); and live in a world where men’s right to rent women’s bodies to spunk in is a fact of life.

    Yup, can feel myself going a little crazy here…thinking about the full horror of it (and this is my cushy Western experience: Misogyny Lite). I need lunch.

  10. emilybites

    Also, pandechion and Rachel, I’m sure you are doing your damnedest and it must be horrifying to see other people warping your kids with sexism! All we can do is try to counteract the prevailing culture by planting little seeds of doubt about ‘that’s just how things are’.

  11. pandechion

    Oh yes. Near and far. My ex-husband remarried a woman who is a famous performance artist, and her schtick is, in essence, pornographing herself without a middleman. Subversive! My daughter’s stepmother. I keep saying it over and over.

  12. someofparts

    Coming to this website feels like being able to breathe again.
    It also makes me feel human, which appears to be the point.
    Goddess bless you fearless one.

  13. someofparts

    Ages ago in some diary I decided to make a list of the damaging, sexist things that had been said to me personally. The more I wrote the more I remembered. Stupidly, I expected the list to be brief, but before I knew it I had three pages. I could have gone on for goddess knows how many more pages, but just seeing how fast I filled up the first three drove the point home.

  14. quixote

    This wins the internet for me:

    We’re harassed and raped but told simultaneously that this rapey behaviour is aberrant and unacceptable, while at the same time being forced to endure it constantly because it’s no big deal and we’ve misunderstood. It makes no sense! Why wouldn’t a class of people constantly treated like they’re subhuman but told that everything is awesome (so no change is coming anytime soon) go NUTS??

  15. Bushfire

    The children’s book is possible. Some of us had a strong feeling that we were fully human beginning right in childhood and we can explore the reasons why and try to turn that into lessons for kids. Anecdote alert! I remember being a kid and discovering the concept of property and ownership. I thought that none of my toys and things were really mine, because my parents paid for them, not me, so they technically belonged to my parents. But with that thought came another thought, which was that I did own myself and that my body was something that no one else could own. Of course, I discovered eventually that people’s bodies can be bought and not everybody can own themselves, and the second I heard of this I knew it was wrong. So the point of the anecdote: the stuff kids are exposed to should include the idea that they are people in charge of themselves and that no one can control their bodies for them. I think this includes things like letting kids choose their own clothes and hairstyle, respecting their “no” if they don’t want to give relatives a hug, and specifically telling them that they have the right to refuse any touch that doesn’t feel good. There was a sexual abuse prevention video in our public library that I remember watching, and it said basically that hugs feel good but if something doesn’t feel good then tell an adult you trust. It didn’t scare me with details but it let me know that I had rights and that no one should hurt me. Maybe that’s what the book you’re trying to write should sound like: a simple message that my body is mine, it’s for me to use to climb and play, it’s not for other people’s use or entertainment.
    By the way, if anyone is not familiar with the things Google can do these days, you can open a word processing document in your own personal account and “share” it with other people whose emails you have, and then everybody can access and edit, but it’s not open to the public, it’s only open to those people you shared it with. So we blamers could collaborate writing a book together if we want, it would be quite easy.

  16. Alexicographer

    @Twisty, I’m reading this (and commenting on it!) while in a meeting, and scanning it quickly I thought the editor’s name was Bea Apology. Which would bea so — perfect.

    @Bushfire I am totally with you at a macro level on the “people in charge of themselves and that no one can control their bodies for them…” bit, and yet at a micro level I discover that if I really embraced this, my son would not brush his teeth until he turns … 15 (?). A good many years off. What to do?

  17. K

    Alexicographer, I know what you mean about teeth brushing. My son is 10. I make a specific exception for health and safety. So he is required to brush his teeth, but he is not required to wear orthodontia, which I am not convinced is anything more than a cosmetic procedure. Also I can grab him if he’s about to do something potentially dangerous to himself or others, but I ask for hugs and kisses and respect his refusals.

    Still trying to get my in-laws to stop complaining when he doesn’t want to hug them.

  18. Rachel

    @emilybites, and on the upside it makes them really good little critical thinkers. By the time our kids are in college they’re questioning everything and thinking it through before accepting it. Now there’s a life skill.

    @Alexicographer and K, agreed – my kid would venture out in the freezing Wyoming winter with no coat if allowed to. But I think explaining why they have to wear a coat (and letting them head out there without one on a moderately cold day so they can learn about that firsthand) is a happy medium. The old “I’ll do things your way if you can give me good reasons to do them your way” dynamic. Rational, non-coercive consensus building – this is also a good adult life skill, I think.

  19. forp

    For tweens or teens, I’d suggest things like this, pointing out that this famous popstar grew up in what some people call a “feminist” country, and asking what they think about the performance, even up to whether she looks like she’s dancing for herself or others (unless that sounds like homework):


    Skip to about 1:20, and stick with it. Robyn’s “Who’s That Girl” is also a pretty good teen feminist anthem.

  20. Mooska

    Top rants emilybites!

    The elder of my two girls is only two and still unaware of the planet-sized load of shite coming her way. *suppresses sad-face emoticon for Twisty’s sake* I have no idea whether I’ll be able to help her navigate it or if I’ll just lecture too much and at the wrong time and totally put her off feminism. How do I communicate to her what an abject, self-denying, external-validation-dependent waste of fucking time femininity is without making her feel bad for just wanting to do what all her friends are doing? I’m not even sure I’m doing the discipline thing right and this is supposed to be the time when everything is simple.

    Bushfire, I would love to contribute to a book.

  21. Lab Rat

    Marie Curie would freak people out? WTF? You know what’s really freaky? Highlights For Children.

  22. Twisty

    Highlights! Is that thing still around? I haven’t seen one in 45 years.

  23. Michele

    You start while they are in the womb and you don’t stop talking and working on it- ever. You refuse to buy all pink or blue, return the shit in colors you hate and go with the colors you love. You buy dolls and trains and onesies that have “Future feminist” in bold letters on the front. As soon as they start talking you refute assertions that something is a “boy” or “girl” thing by asking which part of that thing requires a penis or vagina to operate. You have open, honest discussions about discrimination of all kinds and how history and television and movies and books are all biased in favor of the people who wrote those words and individual stories are lost, so don’t believe everything you read/hear. You refuse to buy magazines that have advertising. You teach them to question everything (which makes it super hard to parent, but suck it up!). You change tires yourself, fix leaky faucets on your own, bake, cook, crochet or whatever brings YOU joy, not what’s expected for your gender. Then one day, your bright, inquisitive, challenging 9 year old asks you a question about why, on a sinking ship, it’s women and children first and you get to talk about chivalry and how it cripples. And out of her smart and sassy mouth comes the words, “How could anyone think women aren’t as strong as men? That’s ridiculous!” And you sob just a little because, she fucking gets it!!

  24. Twisty

    “You start while they are in the womb […] you sob just a little because, she fucking gets it!!”

    All I can say is, it shouldn’t have to be so hard.

  25. Cyberwulf

    There’s a fifteen year age gap between my baby sister and me. She and her friends are a lot more aware of gendered/sexist bullshit at age 17-18 than I was, and are happy to sit and dissect it with me. Slowly, very slowly, the word is getting out there.

  26. Val

    Cyberwulf, I hope you’re right. I feel things have gone backwards in my lifetime in some ways. I look at photos of my daughters as little kids 30 years ago, and I see what little girls are wearing now, and it’s far more gendered and pinkified and frilly and feminine now. I mean, I was always a feminist, but what my kids wore wasn’t unusual in those days.

    We have more female leaders and more women in parliament now, to a degree, but there has been almost no improvement in the wage gap (in fact here in Australia I think it has gone slightly backwards in the last few years). So it seems like there may have been some slight incursions by women into the patriarchal structures, but at the same time women and girls are pressured to conform more closely to “feminine” identity.

    I also notice in my research that a lot of the really important feminist theory seems to date from the 1990s and before – I don’t see so much in recent years. I just fear that feminism has lost its way, or rather,been suppressed by the backlash of neo-liberalism (which is really about asserting a dominant adult male identity disguised as a ‘normal’ person making ‘free’ choices).

    Anyway enough rant, I hope you’re right about your younger sister and her friends.

  27. Cyberwulf

    Social media, especially tumblr, seems to be responsible for increased awareness of feminist issues among younger women. Idk if you’ve noticed, but more and more actresses, singers, writers etc. are starting to publicly challenge sexism within their industries, in big ways and little ways. It’s a snowball effect – the more women do it, the more women feel like they can do it (in that, this is a thing other women do, I’m not a freak for doing it). Of course, then you start seeing backlash. And the backlash gets worse the more vocal women get.

    It does depress me when I go to buy clothes for my two-year-old niece and all the girls’ clothes are piiiiiiiiiink (and most of the boys’ clothes look like somebody mixed grey with every colour dye before applying it, ugh). But it’s important to distinguish between disliking pink for its own sake, or the fact that we’re so quick to stuff kids into gender-binary boxes, or that pink is used to tell little girls and little boys This Is What You’re Supposed To Like And If You Don’t You’re Weird, and deriding everything that’s aimed at little (and teenage!) girls as unworthy and frivolous. I remember years ago having to pull my baby sister aside and explain to her why using “girly” as a pejorative is wrong. I’m gonna be watching for that in my niece, when it’s time.

  28. Murasaki

    Not exactly for tweens – more like 12+ (depending on how worldly the kids is? though believing that 12year olds don’t know what blow jobs are in this culture might be a squidge naive) – Jessica Valenti’s stuff is okay. As snooty as it sounds I think a lot of adults would get a lot out of her work too. C’mon 50 Shades sold a trillion copies and it reads like a Sweet Valley High.

    Theres a magazine in Straya that some women with older kids I know talk about – I think its called New Moon Girls – oh look, google tells me they have a website! I don’t think its exactly an introduction to women’s studies but its at least material that tells girls they are more than their looks.

  29. B.Kitty

    I grew up in a religious household, and I really wish someone had given me a book like you described.

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