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    Entries in feminism (8)


    On Goldie Blox and The Benefit of the Doubt

    The new commercial for Kickstarter darling Goldie Blox is making the rounds on social media, thanks in no small part to its parent-friendly reworking of the Beastie Boys' song Girls. And... I'm not as impressed as everyone else seems to be.

    As the parent of two fairly gender stereotypical children -- a baseball loving, monster truck obsessed boy and a baby-toting, tutu wearing girl -- I'm always on the lookout for ways to mess with their natural dispositions. I'm an agitator like that, and as a result, my son will still often choose pastel or sparkly over the alternative, and my daughter plays unquestioningly with k'nex, Lego and other age-appropriate building toys. They have no real bias, yet, and all they require of their building materials is that they be sturdy and workable. My daughter is not confused by the lack of a plot, nor is she drawn to any particular color of blocks. But, okay, we are not your average STEM-disadvantaged family. 

    the faces of revolutionLet's talk for a minute about those families. Maybe mom works outside of the home. Maybe she doesn't. But whether she does or not, we'll assume that a family in need of a STEM-centered boost for its girls is not headed up by a STEM-employed mother. What's the likelihood that she's a stay at home mom? Doll play -- something singled out by the Goldie Blox commercial as an alternative to "us[ing] our brains" -- closely resembles the activities of a caregiver, doesn't it? And oh, Goldie Blox, I know you aren't disparaging those infamous non-intellectual pursuits we brainless moms busy ourselves with... like raising everyone. Okay, okay. Just a misunderstanding. Empowerment doesn't have to come at others' expense, and when I saw pink-swathed "girly girls" on the receiving end of three death stares in that commercial, it wasn't personal. It was a death stare pointed at the institution the pink-lovers represent, right? I'm sure the kids will pick up on that nuance, and not perpetuate the age-old "tomboy vs. princess girl" dynamic. Whew. 

    Moving on to the ways Goldie Blox is smashing stereotypes: the subject matter of the accompanying book for the first engineering set. A beauty pageant! Do I need to elaborate? At least the character loses? But don't worry; her friends use their engineering skills to build her a float so she can ride in the parade just like the actual reigning princess. The quality of the story is abysmal -- somewhere between a glorified instruction booklet and uninspired rhyming exercise -- as though the makers of Goldie Blox aren't even fully invested in the (arguably flawed) idea that girls require verbal engagement. 

    Do I buy the idea that, given our culture and the dearth of resources for engaging girls in the "hard" sciences, we need some kind of hail mary, and that the likelihood is high of that hail mary coming in a pink package? YES. Do I think we all need to celebrate the first product that capitalizes on that fact as a victory for tiny mainstream feminists and their princess averse parents? No. We can be discerning on behalf of our daughters. On behalf of all our children! We can ask that companies not play into the trope of smart girls versus pretty girls and insult the less mechanically inclined among us in their commercials, while their actual products glorify the worst of the beauty industrial complex. We can stop giving for-profit companies the benefit of the doubt, or credit for a deeply flawed "small step" or a "good try." We can and should demand high quality, not just a shiny feel-good gimmick wrapped up in a catchy piece of our own childhood.

    I can hear the same old gaslit refrain starting up: some people will complain about anything. Doesn't it get old, being the cynic? And, yeah, you know: sometimes it does. But what gets older is seeing money made by companies that perpetuate the same old hurtful stereotypes with a side serving of education. They are savvy, hip -- they know their demographic, they pay the appropriate lipservice, and they earn widespread backing by people who rightly put their faith in the girls the product purports to uplift. But what our girls need is engagement. Real engagement, not the kind that comes in a poorly written storybook. No gimmicks. Role models. Support. Trust. The freedom to explore, and fail. The freedom to like pink or not, to love babies or not, to be a physicist or a housekeeper, instilled with the knowledge that nary a person alive does a job without using her brain, and empowerment is, and always has been, free for the giving or taking. 


    ay papi(s)

    I belong to a few discussion circles and online groups that are either parenthood-focused or in which the conversation often turns to parenting and family life. Every once in awhile, the topic of labor division comes up, and I'm always surprised at the abundance of mothers who face the same problem: how to do all the housework, tend to the kid(s), and find an iota of personal fulfillment while not resenting the spouse that insists he's off the hook for the whole shebang because he brings home a paycheck. They all hedge their complaints with admissions that "he is tired when he gets home" or "that's just how he was raised." 

    If this is you, and you like doing all the chores while you also do all the childrearing, then cool, but over and over again I hear about feeling dismissed, unappreciated, like a maid (respectable job, but -- ahem -- traditionally a for pay position), and always exhausted. Falling short. Because, you know why? These things add up to more than one full-time job. 

    I was lucky enough to find a partner who believes in the importance of present parenting, who values happy kids over a clean house, who understands the exhaustion that comes with the "always on" state of nurturing small children. Someone who gets that, after cooking, loading plates, clearing plates, cleaning tables, wiping faces, stripping off dirty clothes and putting on clean ones several times a day, I don't want to do dishes or laundry at night. Someone who crams in every minute of quality time he can from the moment he walks in the door after work until bedtime, and double on the weekends. 

    I'm grateful that there are so many papas in my life that hold it down on the fatherhood front. I love that my partner can serve as an example for those tired, stressed mamas that not every dad is unwilling to pitch in and, in fact, some defy their upbringing to show the mothers of their children they know exactly how valuable an investment in their family can be.

    Happy Fathers' Day to the guy that does the wash, changes the litter, takes out the garbage, slings the babies to sleep, plays soccer, plays the guitar, cleans up the barf, tends to night cries, starts the morning coffee and so much more, without suggesting that any of it is a favor. Go forth and multiply. The women of the internet need you. 



    (don't) smile: not your holla back kid

    I used to walk, ride my bike, or take the bus almost everywhere.

    Hey, give me a smile!

    That was before I had kids -- before I traded in urban life for a garden, a library with a nice children’s section, and a marginally reliable car.

    Aw, come on. You’re hurting my feelings!

    Men would often try to pry my gaze from my book or the scenes of the blurry city as I waited for my stop. Their lines were always the same: didactic, packaged in a toothy grin, with palms upturned as if to ask if I was really gonna leave ‘em hangin’. And I was. I did, every time.

    You’re being rude. Why are you being rude? All I asked for was a smile.

    My interest (or lack thereof) and my feelings were irrelevant. I was shirking what they considered my responsibility to be hospitable, entertaining, approachable, when I should’ve been thanking them for noticing me, putting on my most winsome smile and sitting, rapt, until they were finished with me. Instead, I refused their demands that I pretend to be happy to see them, flattered at their attention. The receiving end of the frequently ensuing ire is not pleasant, as anyone who’s met “let’s have a smile” with a stone-faced, simple “no” can attest. And so, when someone first let fly the above statements not at me, but at one of my children, I could feel the fight or flight response begin to bubble up.

    The smile-demander got to their accusations of rudeness before I had fully processed what was happening. My toddler was being accosted, made to feel guilty for not performing as requested, in the exact same way I’d experienced. A recognizable, affronted tone was peeking out from the previously jokey demeanor. That bridge of sub-humanity was not a place where I wanted, or expected, to meet my children, but there we were. And I realized that, to many people, children and women are primarily for show.

    “He doesn’t have to smile,” I said. “If he wanted to smile, he’d be smiling.” The smile-demander insisted that they were just playing around. Ah, I’d heard that one before.

    This isn’t the only line that’s used on kids and women. You’re just tired is bandied about a crying child just as often as it is their stressed mother, with no further delving. No questioning. Are you tired? How can I help? What’s bothering you? Of course, those are questions reserved for people we hold in higher esteem. People whose ability to reason we value, whose feelings we consider valid, not overwrought and silly.

    The systematic devaluing of women’s feelings serves to infantilize, which wouldn’t be such a bad gig if said infants didn’t have it even worse. Made out to be a burden, held to impossibly high standards, required to self soothe and obey without question often for fear of physical punishment, kids’ humanity doesn’t seem to be fully legitimized until they reach the age of majority, with several caveats for gender, race and sexual orientation. They aren't allowed to feel things we find unpleasant, act in ways that make us uncomfortable, or express emotions in ways we find unpalatable, much like their mothers, who by most of society's estimation aren't allowed to look unpolished, unwilling, or uninterested. Don't believe me? Enter a debate about leggings as pants and you'll hear fifty different ways that women owe it to the world at large to be attractive in a particular way, to put in some effort, to not embarrass themselves, to not gross out onlookers. 

    Thankfully, purposefully, I have surrounded my family with people who don’t participate in this craziness, which makes contrasts all the more stark when they happen. The odd sing-songy directive What do we say?, for example, is jarring, confusing to my children, and is met with my curt reply: “we” don’t encourage forced gratitude. I'm proud to say that I kept my wits about me when that smile demander accosted my kid. Though, as their joviality gave way to impatience, I could almost feel the stickiness of the old bus seat naugahyde against the backs of my knees, remembering the times I quickly stood to relocate as someone spat insults or insisted that I come back. I stood up for him the way I wish someone would have stood up for me, and I can rest a little easier in the knowledge that, on my watch, he won't be a smile demander, a you're-just-tired-er, a dismisser of women and children and people his culture deems dismissable.  



    an open letter to jessica valenti

    This post could be subtitled: Wherein I Refer Not To Your Book (which I haven't read) But To The Interview I Heard On The Radio The Other Morning. 

    Jessica Valenti founded a website I like a lot and has recently written a book: Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. She is mother to a toddler (I gather) and has been making the rounds as a "young feminist" who is tackling "the issues" or, diving headlong into the profitable and ridiculous "Mommy Wars" which is a phrase I already regret typing despite that last thing I said being (subjectively) true. I was disappointed at many points during her interview in ways that I frequently feel disappointed with my contemporaries in the feminist community. 

    Dear Ms. Valenti,


    I realize that mine is a difficult undertaking, given that I haven't read your book. To be honest, my reading wish list is long, and includes many things I plan to read for reasons other than providing thorough refutations of Internet Personalities' views on parenting. So, please cut me some slack in that department and I'll stick to what I heard you say in this interview on NPR to which I would link if I could find it. 

    You seem to be taking the position that I've read and heard so often in the past few years: that parenthood is too hard on women. That attachment parenting is demeaning and demanding in unreasonable ways, particularly to women. That "problems" with these newfangled methods are, then, a feminist issue. I heard you smugly chuckle at the idea that some parents choose to watch their babies for elimination cues and take them to the toilet rather than change diapers. You scoffed, audibly, at the recommendation that parents wear their children as much as possible; at co-sleeping. You implied that these choices -- made by adults, generally after doing some research -- are making women unhappy, and that if it were more widely publicized that parenthood sucked so bad, if there were more affordable avenues for leaving your kids with someone else while you get on with your life, maybe fewer people would respond so negatively to the experience of raising children. 

    I'd like to talk a little about this, personally. While obviously not the case for everyone, my children were my liberation. After years of working jobs I didn't like to make ends meet, putting off the possibility of seeking out work I found fulfilling because I couldn't afford to fail, I got pregnant. There was nothing noble or progressive about the job I had when I got pregnant, but quitting it to raise my children has easily been the most controversial parenting choice I've made. Politically active, feminist-identified friends have given me figurative head pats, pep talks about re-entering the workforce someday, and treated me like a twee relic because I choose not to work outside the home. They have congratulated me on being self-sacrificing enough to take on things like cloth diapering because, while they'd really love to, they just can't imagine having the time. Like many people, I've had lifelong struggles with my body image. It wasn't until having children -- birthing them, unapologetically feeding them in public, witnessing their guileless exploration of my flabby upper arms, acne scars, and stretched belly -- that I began to accept and eventually appreciate my body for what it was and expect that others do the same. I found myself hoping for my kids to find meaning and joy in their days and, in trying to engineer that for my children, I've learned to search for and value the same for myself, whether it's a paid, intellectual pursuit or not. Because it almost never is.

    When asked the perfunctory question (why have kids?), you said there were two answers, a real one and a jokey one: you came from a large Italian family, and (basically) because kids say the darndest things. I realize that this was oversimplified but it still gave me pause. I had kids because I wanted to create a family with my partner, because I thoroughly enjoy children and because I knew I'd be good at it. Familial expectations didn't play into my decision, and similarly, I didn't have another child just to give my son a sibling. People should be parents because and only because they want to be, and believe they would be good at it. I agree that parental unhappiness stems in part from the lack of resources, but cheap daycare is not on my list of ways to make parents generally happier (It is, however, on my list of things we should do because it makes sense.). Instead, I take issue with a society that throws weddings to which children are not invited or relegated to a "childcare room" (because 200 adults can't just redirect a kid sticking his fingers in the wedding cake? Or, god forbid, hang out with some children?). I blame a country wherein breastfeeding in public is a debatable issue, and 30-something year old friends meeting my daughter for the first time say they've never held a baby before. We are setting up parents to fail by treating children like burdens we need to escape from, rather than welcoming them into the communities they'll inherit. We keep kids' normal behaviors a secret until those often confusing traits are foisted upon underslept, stressed parents focused on maintaining their "normal lives" and wondering why nobody told them that newborns actually eat every 3 hours...for 2 and a half hours. Including our children in our lives in both meaningful and mundane ways, incorporating them into everyday life so that they become as much a fixture as our phones, exposing others to the normality of childhood so that they know what to expect of young people: that's a way to make people enjoy parenting. Realistic expectations breed success. Attachment parenting, allowing a place for children in our everyday lives, enables that.

    The question: are you mom enough? is not a question posed by well-meaning fellow mothers or even sympathetic feminists. It's yet another shitty patriarchal device used to pit us against one another, and it, along with all the other trappings of misogyny, are what's making women unhappy. Just as I don't allow the patriarchy to dictate where my value begins and ends, I don't want to teach people that their value will begin when they can make themselves useful (by my standards), or that I will put up with their difficult nature as long as it doesn't hinder my own pursuits. I had kids to teach, to love, to pay attention to and nurture in whatever way they need. I hope to have many years of watching my independent offspring fend mostly for themselves, but that just isn't the deal when they're little and I knew that when I signed up for this gig. If it were a more widely known fact about parenting, perhaps that would make for happier parents. 

    Attachment parenting isn't making women unhappy. Following others' whims rather than deciding what works for your family? Sure, that'll do it. Uncertainty makes judgment feel harsher, hurt worse. Trying to squeeze your child into a philosophy that doesn't resonate with her? Failure: that'll make everyone unhappy. But don't blame women who believe fervently in and advocate for a more responsive way of parenting. Don't chuckle about parents who make educated choices that differ from yours. Then you're just throwing fuel on Time Magazine's beach bonfire. Some people find liberation in raising babies and chickens and the freedom to go to the library at 11am any damn day of the week, and nobody gets to tell me that isn't a part of my feminism.






    for girls

    On Sunday, as we meandered Goodwill waiting for the baby to fall asleep so we could go eat Mothers' Day lunch, I asked George if he was in the market for anything in particular. He said he wanted a new baby, so to the baby section we headed. Lest you think he was trying to trade in his sister, he did mean a doll; Baby Tony, his little vanilla-smelly Corolle doll, needed a friend, he told me. On the way to the toys we stopped off at the shoe section, because once I spotted a thrashed pair of Wall-E sneakers there and hope to someday find another, wearable pair because I believe in dreaming impossible dreams. I picked up a pair of sandals -- teva-ish numbers in brown and hot pink -- and asked George what he thought. 

    "Those for girls." 

    What?! "Silly mama, those for girls!" he repeated. 

    Okay. I can say with absolute certainty that neither I nor Nathan have ever told him that something was "for girls" or anyone of any gender, for that matter. He owns and regularly chooses to wear hot pink (and purple, and sparkly unicorn-emblazoned) clothes. He doesn't even have a great grasp of who in his life IS a girl (according to him, everyone but his sister is a "guy"). And yet, there he was, poo-pooing the pink sandals. 

    There have been a few moments in recent times where I've felt like a contestant on some sort of mean-spirited game show: one where your kid does something, asks a question, makes a comment that requires you to be the perfect parent in response. In this game show, you make the right call and life goes on sort of tenuously as you wait for the next terrifying opportunity to turn your child into a sexist, racist homophobe who eats only simple carbs. An incorrect response, however, is met with a flash forward to your derelict 40 year old son catcalling women on the bus or something. This was one of those moments. I had to stop and suppress the urge to be like what in the hell? I took a deep breath and said, 

    "There are no boy or girl shoes, just different shoes that different people like for different reasons." Yes, that ought to do it, I thought. I may have even peered around to see if anyone heard me pull off that expert move. George looked satisfied, even appeared to rethink his dismissal of the hot pink shoes (until he spied a pair of black and red crocs). Feeling like I'd dodged a bullet, or even like I stood my ground and dirty-looked the bullet until it turned around in disgrace, I steered us down the toy aisle in search of a baby doll. Before we made it to the sad pile of naked dolls with one eye permanently stuck open and sharpie stained heads, George got distracted by cars. Something Batmobile-esque caught his eye, but an oversized purple VW Bug with working seatbelts seemed more his speed. I held it up. Then. 

    "Mama, this car for GIRLS! I want to hold that one! The scary one!" Good lord. What the crap? I thought we had just settled this! 

    "George." I said, "This car is for boys or girls! It's purple; you like purple. Papa has a purple shirt, right?" He looked at me warily. "The black car is for bigger kids." "For bigger GUYS," he insisted. "No," I told him, "bigger kids. Any kids. Any bigger kids." Things were taking a...less articulate turn. I scanned the microfiche in my mind for some relevant article or text on feminism or gender studies and how not to reinforce stereotypical expectations of gender presentation and allow for free expression while supporting your child's own gender identity and and and...

    "I want to hold THAT." Huh? "That baby! Oh, so cute! I want to hold that baby! I love it." He was shoving the purple car back at me and pointing excitedly at a half-lidded, cloth bodied doll with limbs akimbo. I took it off the shelf and he snatched it up, cooing at and rocking it like he sees me do with Zelda. He planted a big kiss on its plastic hair. "Is that the toy you choose?" I asked him, and he nodded emphatically. At the cash register, he tried to garner compliments for his new baby by repeating to the cashier, "so cute! Aww, so cute!"

    He didn't notice that the woman behind us was buying a black and metallic blue remote control car, and I didn't point it out. It seemed that, despite all my reading, despite my anxiety over the right way to correct him -- gently, factually, without overloading or shaming him -- he figured it out. You know, I'm sure some real a-holes wear pink shoes, but it takes a pretty nice "guy" to fawn over a lazy-eyed, misshapen baby.