Lisa Hickey explores the intersectionality of issues on The Good Men Project: race, gender, fatherhood, language, prejudices, sexuality
My daughter Shannon hates the way I am always comparing The Good Men Project to real life.
“Hey Shannon, can I ask you a question?”
She rolls her eyes as only a teenager can, knowing what’s coming. “What now, mom?” I had just picked her up from a friend’s house, who had curled Shannon’s hair into golden ringlets. Tonight is prom night.
“So, at the Good Men Project today, we’ve been discussing gender, lgbt stuff, sexuality. And I was just about to send the people I work with an email that said, ‘I’ll get back to your question about heteronormativity the minute after I drive my daughter to her very heteronormative prom.'”
Shannon laughs. “Hah hah hah, funny one, Mom.”
“But before I send it…is that true? Are the people going to the prom all straight couples?”
“Well, actually…there has been at least one gay couple each year that has gone to the prom since I’ve been at the high school. But…also, you know, don’t you, that the number of transgendered kids in my school that is really quite high? There’s that home for transgendered kids right next to our school. It’s for kids who have been kicked out by their families. They’re…you know…not completely changed. They are all in different stages.” She pauses. “It used to kind of gross me out but now I think it’s cool”
“It used to kind of gross me out but now I think it’s cool.”
As I type that sentence, I worry that it’s the “wrong” thing to for me to say in public. That it “used to kind of gross me out” – while still a completely honest thing for a 16-year-old to say – is still “wrong” somehow. That it’s perpetuating stereotypes. That by merely mentioning the word gross in the same paragraph as transsexuals it will somehow make it ok for people to actually say that they, too, think it is “gross”.
But then, “now I think it’s kind of cool” isn’t much better, is it? That makes it seem as if changing one’s gender is the trend of the day – not much different than dying ones hair or getting a tattoo. Or that becoming friends with someone transgendered is a form of tokenism: “Hey look at me, I have a transgendered friend. I’m open-minded, I’m cool.”
More than anything else at The Good Men Project lately we’ve been talking about whether there’s a right way or a wrong way to talk about these very difficult, provocative topics. The issues of gender, and race, and men’s rights, and domestic violence. Guns and war and homophobia and bullying. Gay marriages and the changing roles of dads and the objectification of women.
I think back to that moment when I was totally naïve, when Tom Matlack said he wanted to start an international conversation about what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. Did I really sit at that table with him, over lunch and Diet Cokes, and think it would be easy? Somehow, in my mind, I thought that getting the 4 million people who have come to the website since we started would be the hard part. That part of it ended up being relatively easy.
It’s the actual talking about all of those issues that are hard. As I said on a conference call the other day, “I don’t know what I was thinking. How did I not know that when we set out to talk about men and masculinity and goodness that I would have to do a whole lot of talking? And that it’s actually unbelievably difficult.”
Joanna Schroeder wrote a post recently “Can Hipsters Be Racists, Too?” In it, she argues over the importance of language.
It was that post that I was talking to Shannon about earlier in the day, in between picking her up from school and driving her to a friend’s house to get her hair done. Joanna mentioned how using the word “ghetto” is racist. Shannon uses the word “ghetto” to describe a host of things. We had been in Target the other day picking out shaving cream. She didn’t want the unbranded kind that was on sale because it “looked kind of ghetto.”
So when she explains her choice of words to me in the car now, she’s explaining it to me patiently, like she would to a child. “The shampoo looked cheap, mom.” That’s what I meant by “ghetto.” In fact, I use the word “ghetto” as an exact synonym for “cheap”. Race doesn’t occur to me. I think you are racist if you think “cheap” is a racial slur.”
Shannon is less sure of herself about the “n-word.” “Here’s what confuses me, mom. Don’t black people use that word all the time? With themselves? As a positive word? They are the oppressed class, and they are leading the way with the language by using it themselves. That’s what confuses me. Don’t worry, I never use it. But it confuses me.”
When I was growing up, I didn’t talk. Some people are shy, I was more like non-existent. I was afraid to say anything. I was afraid to swear because that was wrong. I was afraid to talk about politics because I couldn’t say with any certainty which of the sides I thought was right. I was afraid to say things that sounded dumb. I was afraid to sound too smart. I was not only afraid to use a word like the n-word, I was afraid to talk about race at all. Surely I would offend someone. Surely I would say the wrong thing. I didn’t know people had different sexual orientations until my twenties because it never came up in conversation. And when you can’t say a word like “rape” out loud, guess what happens when it happens to you? Nothing. You simply don’t talk about it, the same way you didn’t talk about anything else.
The victims of sexual violence on The Good Men Project — victims of violence, sexual assault, domestic violence are, for the most part men. And they feel just as marginalized talking about these issues as I did growing up. It’s difficult for them to talk about these issues. It’s not easy to be heard.
Part of what’s so rewarding with seeing this project grow is to seeing what happens when people are heard. Watching as people find their voice. Listening to them start out with superficial generalizations of the topics and get deeper into them. Seeing guys start groups or join with others who share their values. Watching connections take place.
And seeing how the actions of our community can create change. One of the things Tom Matlack set out to accomplish with the project was to change the perception of men in the media. Particularly dads. How often are dads portrayed – whether it’s in Hollywood or Madison Avenue — as bumbling, incompetent, absent, deadbeat or unengaged? And yet, we can see what happens first hand when we challenge these stereotypes. Forty-eight hours after a commercial by Huggies showed dads as the parent who weren’t paying attention to their kids because they were watching sports, we had posts up on our site, the commercials was pulled and Huggies representatives flew down to the Dad 2.0 conference that our writers were attending. Dads had a voice in how they were portrayed, and mainstream media and advertisers were listening.
I wanted to talk with Jackie Summers about what I see the as prejudices against people who are black and the intersection with the objectification of beautiful women in our society. I talk with Jackie about race whenever we can grab a quick five minutes on g-chat. He is a black male who has written about race for GMP a lot. I have written about beauty. I want to find the overlap. To me – if Jackie and I walked into a room together, the first thing someone would notice about Jackie is that he is black, and the first thing they would notice about me is that I am not beautiful. It’s that moment of prejudice – what happens when you first walk in a room. It’s the reason I believe a kid like Trayvon Martin was shot. It’s the reason we took such flack for an article, “In praise of small-breasted women.” It’s ok to physically desire a woman with small breasts *as an individual* (the article also got shared and liked on Facebook over 2,000 times). But it’s not ok (said some very vocal members of our audience) to generalize personality traits from those physical attributes. It’s not ok to “pre-judge” what that women will be like, in any way shape or form, from the size of her breasts. Jackie doesn’t want to make the comparison between a woman’s beauty and race because, as he puts it “the pressure put on women to be beautiful is real and can’t be minimized. But there have never been laws against governing the treatment of people based on their attractiveness. As painful as it can be emotionally, there never was a civil rights battle for attractiveness, because there wasn’t systematic disenfranchisement.”
And so I drop it. Letting people NOT talk about issues they don’t want to is every bit as important to me as allowing them the space TO talk about the really difficult issues.
But I still wonder. The conversations I hear from men about women “I like beautiful women. I’m a man. And I want it to be ok for me to like beautiful women. I want to like what I like and not feel guilty for it.” is strikingly similar to the conversations I have with men who others call out for being racists and bigots, “But I want to be able to talk about how I feel honestly about race. I want it to be ok to talk about race without being called a bigot. I want it to be ok that I have a very real fear of walking into a ghetto.”
I didn’t want to tell her she looked beautiful. I wanted to tell her “Don’t go to the dark side.” I wanted to tell her that all those things she saw as the outward trappings – the manicured nails, the curls, the lip liner perfectly applied – the hours and hours and hours of time it took to get there – shouldn’t have been as important as they were. That it’s not what will matter most when you get older. That what you spend your time on is what becomes you. And intelligence, grace, open-mindedness should be way more important that beauty. I want to tell her it’s hard to work on a complex financial spreadsheet when you are waiting for your nail polish to dry.
But I don’t say any of those things. I chicken out.
I tell her she looks beautiful.
This is not a post about beauty. This is a post about intersectionality – the point where heteronormativity and racism and men’s issues and women’s issues and sexual violence and gay marriage and the changing roles of dads – and yes, beauty – collide.
I hope that Shannon grows up in a world where there are no black actors or female presidents or stay-at-home dads or gay marriages or transgendered people – only actors and presidents and dads and marriages and people. And I hope that she realizes that she – just like all of the people here at The Good Men Project – can be the ones to help create a world that is that way.
main photo: stopbits / flickr