author – activist – faculty – mom
Last Monday, as my six-year-old daughter and I were driving back from a wonderful camping trip in the redwoods, we passed the billboard for X-Men Apocalypse on the freeway.
I live in the Oakland Bay Area, and hadn’t seen that ad here in the East Bay. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it depicts a menacing male character holding a much smaller female character’s neck in his giant fist. I was furious. The first thing I said to my daughter was: “Did you see that? That’s not what really happened. They were fighting and at the end she wins the fight and kills him.” I had no idea whether or not this was true, but I wasn’t about to let that image have the final word. I know a bit about X-Men, having read the comics for a while in my teens, but I haven’t seen any of the films. I have, of course, seen tons of advertisements for the blockbuster films over the years.
In light of this outrage, I really appreciated Jennifer Pozner’s piece, “Everything Wrong With Fox’s ‘X-Men’ Billboard And The Media’s Response To It,” in The Establishment. Pozner calls out the casual use of violence against women, and the intentionally disingenuous use of a shocking graphic to create controversy to stoke the studio’s PR for the film. But for my family, this graphic wasn’t about controversy, it was a direct harm. This is a damaging image for my six-year-old, who is learning slowly that there’s a war on her gender. I was furious.
After assuring her that the female character would triumph based on her own skill (maybe it’s not true, but she won’t be seeing the movie any time soon) I backed up to attend to the emotional dimension of the damage. “That was a scary picture, huh?” I said. “It scared me, too. I don’t think it’s fair to show pictures of men being mean to women. That’s part of sexism.” I talk openly with my daughter about sexism when we encounter it. She has a subtle enough grasp of it that she can joke about it. Recently I tweeted something she said (with her permission). See embedded tweet above.
How do you talk to girls about violence against women? This past weekend, at the Bay Area Book Fest, I attended a fabulous panel with Peggy Orenstein and Mona Eltahawy about “Girls and Sex.” Both of them were brilliant, and I would have live tweeted the whole thing, but there’s lousy phone reception inside the Goldman Theater at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. I did, however, tweet the highlights. I bought both of their books after the panel: Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Rvolution and Orenstein’s Girls & Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape.
At the end of the Q&A, I asked the question: how do I break the news to my daughter about violence against women? At what age? What are the resources out there to support or supplement the conversation? Unfortunately, the panel ran out of time. I got a partial answer from Peggy and Mona didn’t get a chance to answer. Peggy did give me these two gems: 1) by the time kids are in middle school, they have enough information that they can understand it and are ready to discuss it openly, and 2) be sure to balance the fear and danger of sexual violence with the potential joy and pleasure of sex. One of her stories on the panel was about a study that compared US and Dutch sex ed strategies. She said that the US conversation focused on risk and danger, while the Dutch conversation focused on balancing responsibility and joy. In spite of similar rates of awkwardness when discussing sex in both cultures, the Dutch girls fared better.
I think I will add yet a third ingredient to the mix of raising a healthy girl in this area: ass-kicking. I’ll be taking my daughter to self-defense classes, where she will learn, in detail, with full-force blows, and in her muscle memory, how to set boundaries, and if they are violated, how to kick the ass of any man who tries some shit with her. I’m not talking about martial arts (which are awesome, but not originally designed for this purpose) but women’s self defense, which teaches specifically how to address sexual assault situations. It’s not a guarantee that my daughter will be able to protect herself from violence, but it’s a start.
And until we dismantle the institutions of male domination in our societies, I will be busy engaging media literacy, finding ways to expose rape culture that are age-appropriate and as sex positive as possible, and encouraging self-defense. But through it all, I will continue to hold the vision of ending sexism in my lifetime. Whether or not we actually do it, I want to raise a daughter whose mother believes that we should and that we can.