I am exceptionally fortunate to not only work in a profession I love with kids I adore, but also to work with easily some of the most amazing people on earth. One of them was Dana Rosenberg, a powerful figure on our campus for her high standards of teaching and also for living. This was (and is) a woman who not only spoke out for justice, she demanded it. To my professional and personal delight, Dana opened the door of teaching Women’s Studies to high school students for me and every year I teach it I am grateful for her mentorship.
Dana has a son like I do, our oldest born about a year apart. They were in day care together when we taught together; as such we had a natural connection not only as educators but also as mothers. We shared a classroom and an office for one fantastic year and if only those walls could talk. Hours of lessons taught back and forth on the issues of teaching and parenting, I think that was a very powerful year for both of us.
We both moved on to different schools soon after, and with me I took the Women’s Studies course. It’s life changing for students, both boys and girls, not because of me but because of what is simply said out loud that they never knew was possible to talk about before. Interestingly enough, as Friedan (albeit debatably) opened the modern feminist movement by asking the question, “Is this all there is?” a question many women thought but were rarely brave or aware enough to ask, so too do I begin a micro-movement of my own when I pose similar questions to my students in this course.
Women’s Studies is a course about women, with one exception: to open the unit on violence against women, we must talk about men. One of the most powerful resources I got from Dana was the documentary, Tough Guise. In it the narrator, Jackson Katz, describes the front, the mask, the “guise,” our young men often wear to protect themselves. In doing so they protect their sense of manhood and masculinity by staying as far away from feminine qualities as possible. What could be worse, after all, than being associated with something related to women?
While to feminists educated in the ways of oppression misogyny is evident in the perpetual societal nurturing of this sexist social construct, what is obvious to each and every one of us is the fact that we, as a society, are teaching our boys to hate themselves if they are too much like girls. How do you insult a boy? Tell him he’s acting (or crying, or throwing, you name it) like a girl.
Maybe worse than being called a girl, is to be called a fag. After all, girls can’t help that they are girls, poor things, but fags make a choice to be less than real men, to in fact act like girls, don’t they? It’s hard to tell which is worse in this explanation: the sexism or the homophobia (or even the fact such pure ignorance still exists in our modern world)? Each not only justifies but often inspires cruel and tragic incidents of harassment and violence.
Sadly, you don’t need to bear witness to tragedy to see the seeds of it being sown. Just last week I was in Target, thankfully without my children, when I walked by the toy aisle just in time to witness a dad yank a doll out of his son’s hand. “What are you, some kind of pussy?” he shouted. “Dolls are for girls and you ain’t no girl.” The boy couldn’t have been two years old and already he was receiving a clear and powerful lesson: “man” up, or be torn apart. And what worse disdain could he possibly receive than being likened to a girl?
So, what do children do as they grow up with these messages? Like all young minds, they go to the extreme: be a “man” at all costs, even if that means tearing down another in the process. As I watched with deep heartache three different parents on Oprah the other day talk about the suicides of their sons because they had been taunted for years with names like, “fag,” “gay,” “pussy,” and the like, I naturally went to thinking of my own sons. They are strong and cute and funny and liked by their peers, but so were these boys who had to be buried by their grief-stricken parents. In addition to the boys having the taunts and resulting shame and overwhelming sense of defeat in common, they also had something else in common: their bullies.
Different cities, different schools, different kids, and yet, all kids had something in common that no one mentioned: they were boys. Katz also talks about this in Tough Guise: it is so plainly obvious that these perpetrators were boys that no one even needed to say it. Yet, in not saying it, we are not acknowledging the problem. While I know bullying knows no gender, especially these days, this specific kind of bullying—with the taunts about sexuality designed to tear down boys by associating them with girls and people who are gay–isn’t a school problem, or a kids’ problem, it’s a boy problem.
And yet the blame shouldn’t be put on the boys themselves because it belongs squarely on the shoulders of us. Parents, society, the media, educators, all of us.
We don’t need to come from a family with as overt a message as the one I witnessed in Target to contribute to being blameworthy. As an Italian-American woman to say I was raised with gender roles is to put it mildly. Girls did this, boys did that, period. While my girl cousins and I could venture into the boys’ realm (something for which our mothers would’ve been shunned), never, ever did the boys ever come to ours.
You see we raise our boys to be tough and avoid feminine qualities without knowing we can, or even being aware that we should, question the dogma’s value. Even if we are astute enough to know that it really (and scientifically) makes no difference in the athletic future of our boys if they play with dolls instead of baseball bats, the rest of the world still doesn’t seem to get it. We take our kids out for fast food and the clerk asks whether the kids’ meals are for boys or girls (the girls toys are little sunglasses or dolls, the boys’ toys are cars or menacing robots with guns); we shop for clothes and find that the boys section is filled with clothes conducive to play (shorts, t-shirts, sturdy sandals) while the girls section is filled with clothes conducive to little more than looking pretty (skirts, tank tops, flip-flops); we look at advertisements in magazines where the boys are playing sports and the girls are looking in the mirror or talking on the phone.
And for those of us, again the astute I will label us, who buck the societal trends and get our boys dolls and encourage their artistic abilities as well as their athletic abilities, we allow them to play with our make up and wear eight different colors of nail polish on their nails, even for us, we worry. What if my boy is made fun of by the other boys? Am I setting my son up to be bullied by allowing him to explore traditionally feminine things? Sadly, the answer is yes. And yet, he has a strong sense of self and who he is, so maybe he can withstand the social pressure.
And so what do I do, I ask my Women’s Studies kids. Do I tell my son who loves Dora that he can’t get Dora shoes because the other kids will make fun of him, thereby perpetuating the gender roles I abhor? Or do I say, yes, get the Dora shoes, they’re fantastic, and buck the social pressure all together?
At first they overwhelmingly answer, “NO DORA SHOES!” It’s the automatic every time. And then we talk. Why? Why shouldn’t I get him those shoes?
“Because he’s a boy,” they say.
“And so?” I reply.
“Well, I don’t know, it’s just not right,” they retort.
“Why?” I ask.
“Because,” they attempt, “because Dora is for girls. And don’t ask me why, she just is.”
Of course, I ask them why. I do nothing but ask them questions, actually. In the end, their responses are there own and deserve my support if for no other reason than they are my students and whether they agree with me or not makes no difference. What does make a difference, however, is that they think about their own answers. Not society’s answers, not their parents’ answers, their answers. When they do, easily 19 times out of 20, they start to shift from answering questions to asking them. Those questions, their questions, are where my micro-movement begins; a movement away from having to hold up a mask to “survive” is born.
Week by week their voices and senses of self strengthen until at some point they claim them. It happens every time I teach Women’s Studies: when kids are armed with their own voice, their own autonomy, their own sense of self and space in the world, bullies become irrelevant. Girls stand taller because they learn they don’t have to accept what’s been assigned to them; boys stand taller because they know being a man has nothing to do with wearing a “tough guise” and, in fact, is the exact opposite of being a bully, be it toward girls or other boys. Being a man means being strong, indeed, strong enough to stand up for what is right for themselves and others. Not only that, but also to allow others the right to do the same.
When I was blessed with two healthy sons little did I know that the most important lesson I needed to learn about raising them was to be learned from teaching teenagers about women. In liberating my sons from strict gender roles my husband and I are teaching them how to stand strong for who they are and what they want to do, not what others think they should do. Hand in hand with that right is the responsibility to fight for others to be able to do the same. In empowering them with both the right and the responsibility of liberation, we’re raising boys who will grow into men who not only live their own truth but also empower women and other men to do the same. It’s a cycle, this life we lead, and my sons are blessed to come of age in a time we are starting to realize that, in the words of many great thinkers, none of us can be free until all of us are free.
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