Joanna Schroeder thinks there was a time when Girl Power was necessary, but believes now we should be promoting Kid Power.
As a mom of two little boys, I’ve been bothered by the notion of “Girl Power” for some time now.
I know where Girl Power came from, from a place where young women growing up had very little power, very little voice. Many of us felt passed-by, we felt hopeless about our dreams, we felt dismissed because we wanted to grow up to be something different than what was expected of us.
Let me say, first, that I deeply admire mothers and teachers. Teachers are, in my mind, among the most important members of our society. They are shaping young minds. They should be receiving high six-figure salaries alongside that of the most talented surgeons, inventors, and scientists.
But when I was a girl, in the Midwest, there were only three kosher answers to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”: Teacher, nurse, or mommy.
So when I told everyone in second grade that I wanted to write books, a group of kids started calling me “stuck up”. It’s weird. I still don’t quite get it. But that same thing set me apart all the way through high school. I wanted something different, and how dare I be different? A much worse punishment befell boys who were different, and so I teamed up with those boys. The ones who were gay, or perceived to be gay. Or the ones who were nerdy, or gentle, or straight-edge skate punks, or whom otherwise set themselves apart from the fratboy-jock mainstream.
The U.S. has changed dramatically since then (in most places). A little girl who wants to be a doctor, an astronaut, or a construction worker is praised, encouraged and given tools to get there. And much of that change is due to Girl Power. For that, I love Girl Power and wish that phrase has been around when I was small.
But it could very well be that Girl Power comes at an expense to boys. My sons, 7 and 4 years old, were not a part of the oppressive patriarchy. Those two sweet little squishy faces don’t have any understanding of race or gender, aside from the obvious facts that everyone’s skin color is a little different and that there are boys and there are girls.
I am smart enough and educated enough to understand the privileges my boys were born to: whiteness, maleness, their parents’ education and class… And I hope they always understand that by the nature of their European decent, they will most likely (God willing) never meet the horrific fate of Trayvon Martin. It isn’t something to be ashamed of, but it is something to be aware of.
But that doesn’t mean that they don’t face struggles. They are a part of a generation of boys who are being marginalized because of their sex. My oldest is one of those squirmy boys, the types that can’t seem to be still. He stands next to his desk instead of sitting, he wanders around the classroom, he reads books when he should be listening, he wants to talk about bugs and soccer and Ninjago with his friends when he should be doing his sums.
In other words… He’s a 7 year-old boy. The girls are very different at this age, they tend to be more studious, more focused and they keep their bodies still. While there are outliers even in his classroom: two boys who are incredibly quiet and focused and two or three girls who are fidgety and chattery, at this age they are very different.
If we start to turn these natural traits into pathology, as we’ve been doing, we are shaming our boys into thinking they aren’t smart. Or worse… into thinking they aren’t good.
This week, an article in The Guardian keyed into many of the feelings I’ve had while volunteering in my son’s classroom:
There’s a lot of really inspiring work going on with girls, and there’s good reason to focus on their empowerment. But I’m disturbed about the promotion of Girl Power as the development panacea. There’s something dangerously retributive about an approach that simply flips an inequity around and approaches power as a zero-sum game.
Exactly. There’s something dangerously retributive about an approach that simply flops an inequity around…
That doesn’t mean that we now need Boy Power. It means we need a new system of empowerment that isn’t binary. Each kid has his or own unique traits and skills, and if we try to squish them into the narrow and uniform box that our educational system currently offers, we’re damaging everyone.
The Guardian article also goes on to address men in the women’s movement.The author and I agree that men belong in the women’s movement, but I go another step further: Women belong in the men’s movement.
We need to stand by our brothers, our husbands, and our friends and say, “You know what? There need to be more resources devoted to helping male victims of abuse of all types, there needs to be a revolution in our education system to stop marginalizing boys, particularly boys of color. There needs to be a change in the criminal justice system to stop the cycle of punishing men of color significantly more harshly than anyone else and then tossing them into a violent and rape-filled prison system, where the only way to survive is to associate with gangs. We need rape-crises counselors in jails and prisons, for both men and women. We need to stop simply expecting our young men to sacrifice their lives in war, and let them know that they are valued. Fathers need more parental rights, and in turn more parental roles should be expected from them.”
Gender equality is not about stepping on one sex to climb your way up to the top. It’s not a zero-sum game. There are feminists who think that men should not be involved in the women’s movement. I cannot even begin to address those women, and I keep my distance from them. They don’t represent me. But I also get the sense that some feminists think men should be involved in the gender-equality movement simply to help women. This excerpt from The Guardian piece points out what I think is problematic:
Around the world, we’re seeing work that’s inspired by an agenda for change that doesn’t leave boys and men out of the equation – mobilising men to stop violence against women, and challenging and changing men’s attitudes to intimate relationships and fatherhood. By tackling deadly ideals of masculinity and opening up alternative ways of being a man, these initiatives are transforming boys’ and men’s intimate and interpersonal relationships and creating the basis for greater equality.
While I agree to the idea that our changing expectations of what a man should be is freeing to men, this paragraph sounds a lot like saying, “We want you to join us, so that you can help us make the world better for us women. Oh, and it might be good for you, too!”
Instead, let’s include boys and men in the fight for gender equality because it is the right thing to do. Because boys have value, because men are important.
I implore both men and women, Feminists and Men’s Rights Activists, to understand that this is not a zero-sum game where I will crush you down to get on top, and you will in turn crush me back to have your needs met.
The time for Girl Power on the playground is coming to an end, and instead it’s time for Kid Power to take over. We all still have that kid inside us who wants to feel powerful, we all still want a mantra to chant to make us feel we can make it through the day and be better than we were before. Girl Power isn’t enough, and neither is Boy Power.
Imagine each kid (and each grown-up in turn), as an individual: the fidgety little boy, the little girl who loves soccer, the boy who wants to dance ballet, the girl who loves pink and sparkles, the boy who would rather play violin than basketball, the girl who wants to write novels… all having equal access to resources, while still being seen as our unique selves, all feeling acceptance and empowerment simply because of who we are.
In order for that to happen, we have to stop climbing on top of one another to get ahead.
Photo courtesy of Tammy McGary