I always thought it would be worse to have a girl.
Between the sexual assault and the body image issues alone, I’ve been reliving the shitshow of female adolescence on my therapist’s couch long enough to know what it entails. When I became the mother of a son, I thought I’d dodged a bullet. All I had to do, I figured, was make sure he never raped anybody, and I’d be OK.
These days, that seems like a pretty tall order.
It’s a strange moment in the history of gender politics. Triggered by Harvey Weinstein’s decadeslong parade of consequence-free sexual predation, women are speaking up about both the giant tragedies and the daily indignities that accompany their existence. Women’s rage has become a breathing creature with teeth large enough to demand men take notice. The whole system teeters on its edge as we hold our breath, waiting to see whether it will fall or simply settle back into place.
It’s an even stranger moment to be raising a son. Amid all the rage and the pain, society naturally finds a sliver of hope in the next generation. A chorus has risen: “Raise good men.” “We’ll teach our sons to be better.” And then we carefully pick our parenting battles while a gender war rages outside our doors.
My efforts are starting to seem like grains of sand against a steady wave-crash of misogyny and rape culture.
Of course, we all want to raise feminist sons. I wrote an article a few months ago detailing the ways I try to do just that. But my efforts are starting to seem like grains of sand against a steady wave-crash of misogyny and rape culture.
In my previous article, I wrote, “In my sweat-soaked, sit-straight-up-in-bed feminist nightmares, I can imagine a future in which my own spawn makes some woman feel as voiceless as the boys in my high school once did, a world in which he blithely argues against the existence of male privilege and shit-talks the latest all-female remake on Twitter.“ Lately, I can imagine it even more clearly.
My first-grade son is sweet, sensitive and loving. When we talk about the fact that there are people in this world who don’t think women are as good as men, just as there are people who will think he is less valuable because of his brown skin, he angrily denounces those people as “the worst.”
And yet, my son loves Power Rangers, “except the pink and the yellow ones.” He scoffs also at the pink Wonder Woman shirt he used to wear before he started school and began picking up gender stereotypes like a communal cold. He seemed to enjoy a dance he was doing at school, until he found out it was ballet, which, he shouted angrily, he doesn’t like.
These may seem like small or harmless stereotypes, but to me, they’re clear warning shots about who’s doing the teaching around here, and it isn’t me.
It’s the kid who told him that boys don’t kiss boys so convincingly that none of my assurances that yes, honey, they most certainly do can pierce his belief. It’s the sports he sees on TV and the ones that the whole neighborhood cheers for through our too-close and poorly insulated walls. It’s Peppa Pig fat-shaming Daddy Pig. It’s the part in nearly every music video we try to watch where the camera zooms in on bouncing, objectified female body parts.
It’s the fact that he actually really does know the “B-word” — even though I didn’t believe him when he told me he did — because he hears it tossed out in the street like a gum wrapper. It’s which section of the store where we can find the Wonder Woman merchandise. It’s the fact that there are sections at all.
Children never fully belong to their parents. I started losing mine to the world of men years ago. My voice is strong, but what chance does it have against the chorus of voices ready to drown me out every time he steps out the front door or turns on the TV? Being told to “raise a good man” is starting to feel like the devil is telling me to keep cool while steadily raising the thermostat in hell.
Worse, when I look around at the adult men I know, I’m not sure exactly who I’m supposed to be raising him to emulate. Even the men whom I love and trust seem tied up in knots about this gender business ― one gets the impression they are constantly fighting against their instincts, carefully choosing their words while I carefully arrange my face to receive them so that we can all feel good about remaining friends. To be intimate with these men is to always be waiting, a little, for the microaggression that may or may not come.
If we gain anything from the sheer magnitude of horrendous stories to come out in the last few weeks, it’s the knowledge that the problems we are now facing are systemic. Parents alone didn’t create Weinstein and his many, many counterparts, and parents certainly aren’t who shielded them from consequence for so long.
Ultimately, for my son to become a good man, he needs more than a strong, take-no-shit, feminist mother. He needs to see her values reflected in the media, in advertising, in pop culture, among his friends and at school as well as at home.
I’m not giving up ― in fact, I’m this close to having a man-to-man real talk moment with a 6-year-old about how he should never masturbate in front of strangers or co-workers ― but there’s a whole screwed-up culture to fix if we want “raising good men” to look like more than fighting a desperate battle for our boys. Especially if we want to win.