I was struggling a bit with post ideas this week. In spite of International Women’s Day, and my loose subject here of ‘raising a daughter’, I was feeling out of inspiration. Talking about it with my husband, he immediately came up with a subject. “What has been seen, cannot be unseen!” he declared, and then went on to tell me about an example where he’d been doing some work laying out a corporate brochure, and all the representatives were male, and where there was a blank space for an unconfirmed individual, the nonsense stand-in text still referred to “he, he, he”. His fingers itched to change it to “she”.
How many of us – perhaps those who would call ourselves feminists, or at least consider doing so – have a constantly running diversity audit in our heads? While watching a film, we do the Bechdel Test. When flipping through the channels, or turning the pages of even the more respectable newspapers we see constant female flesh on display, subtly or not. We start counting, noticing, observing.
Working in the charity sector until recently, I was regularly in rooms where women outnumbered men, and there was a higher level of female CEOs than virtually any other sector. But in my head I’d be noting how there were more men in senior positions – a bit like when I worked in schools, another female-heavy environment, where the occasional man is invariably the head or deputy head, but no-one ever talks about being patronising or quotas or merit there. (Except for that one time when this virtually seven foot Jarvis Cocker lookalike with a booming voice turned out to the Reception teacher and everyone was taken aback.) I would notice how, often, men took up more of the time speaking, how no one had a visible disability, or really talked about mental illness. And then I would gradually notice more things, as my privilege was revealed to me, such as how we can only seem to concentrate on one oppression at a time; once, reading an article that claimed Alison Janney was almost overlooked for the part of CJ Cregg because the existing cast was “too white”, I expostulated to the empty room “what about too bloody male?!”, frustrated at the thought that if a woman of colour had got the part she might have been seen as a token twice over.
And here’s the thing. I think it’s great that my husband notices this stuff, without me having to point it out anymore, because it means he’s seeing the problem – in raising our daughter together, I need him to do that. And we’re going to be big on media literacy in this house. We’re going to be big on pointing out the homogeny of so many media, and celebrating those times when it is disrupted. And we’re going to think intersectionally, as much as that’s possible for anyone, with their own prejudices, but damn it, we’re going to try.
But it makes me really sad. I hate to think of our daughter navigating through life, constantly calculating negativity. Oh, I know that’s not the point. I’m aware of how much I sound like one of those people harking back to the good old days when you could use hilariously offensive words without the political correctness police getting on your back – as if their golden age basically amounted to publicly being a bit of a turd with impunity, with all the world view and empathy of a hermetically sealed pistachio nut. I really would rather a better world in which my daughter faced up to the realities of inequality, and both appreciated her advantages and did her best to be sure she wasn’t abusing them. Awareness is indeed better than ignorance, which is certain only to be blissful for the few. Still, I can’t help feeling sorry that it’s even necessary.
There’s also the issue that I sometimes, grumpily, feel like this is the penalty for having a daughter. Recently, I’ve come across several discussions where men claimed things were as bad for men as they were for women – if not worse. One was convinced that Page 3, for example, was equally bad for both, and I had to grit my teeth and walk away because I simply couldn’t think of a way to say no, it really bloody isn’t without being aggressive, condescending or just pitiful. Another claimed that supporting girls meant denigrating boys – the traditional warped girl power / zero sum argument. I fought that one, and held out a virtual handshake, because I felt he might be listening; I guess I’ll never really know.
Now, I don’t like to get too far into the game of raising a daughter versus raising a son. For one thing, I only have experience of the former, and for another, there are obviously some issues the press on men and boys more – like the fact that everyone was clearly faintly suspicious of a male teacher of young children, though that’s as much about homophobia as being anti-male. Those need to be addressed too if we are ever to appreciate a playing field that is anywhere near level (and yes, here I’m rolling out an old argument myself: feminism is good for men, too). Then I can only be incredibly grateful for mothers like our editor, Keris, whose boys have clearly been invited to notice the inequalities around them; and, here’s another thing that cannot be unseen: when you start to look for it, you see more and more mothers of boys addressing this. And then I feel glad, if a little guilty about feeling glad, that there is a growing generation of boys out there who are going to be listening to the same narratives in their heads – to rehabilitate a phrase that’s been used in all sorts of uncomfortable ways in the last few years: we’re all in this together.
And so I will continue on the path of stripping scales from my daughter’s eyes, remembering that this can only be for the greater good. When she points at a box of Play-Doh and announces – just two years old – “boys and girls play with this”, I will instantly explain that boys and girls can play with anything, whatever the box says. I will have a little celebration in my head when I’m in a meeting and the room is a properly mixed bag of genders, appearances, races, classes, abilities. I will teach my daughter not to settle for anything less. Not because women are gentler, or for the appearance of things, or even because diversity is more effective than homogeny (though it is), but because that is what’s right. And surely teaching right from wrong is the one and only job I really have as a parent?