We’re expecting again. This time, a boy!
Having younger brothers before our girls arrived, to me, babies were boys. Instead, we dived into the first seven years of parenthood embracing two strong-minded, passionate girls filled with all the feminine and feminist vigour imaginable. Of course their father and I had a hand in this. And all my own feminist beliefs and frustrations grew more finely attuned, seeing the world through the eyes of the next generation of women, blank slates only until they walk into their first toy shop and see half the shelves lined in pink.
Thus, we have read them the wonderful Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, we have talked about how ridiculously passive are the early Disney princesses, we have encouraged tree climbing and muddy knees, they have science kits alongside their My Little Ponies, we make sure they know that they own their own bodies… onto which, they also apply nail polish and sparkly hair accessories, which is fine too. We want only for them never to feel limited or foretold by their gender.
The #MeToo movement has highlighted important reasons why. So many of the insidious ways in which girls and women have been belittled, controlled, and abused, even since supposed ‘equality’, have for too long eluded the consciousness of men. I say here that of course one never means all men or all women; but far more salient than the surfacing of how many women have been abused, has been the revelation that countless men, and in fact women, didn’t recognise these actions as abuse at all. They couldn’t see it.
How many women have had their bum pinched in a club, or had sexual obscenities shouted at them on the street, or listened to their friends or employers make sexist jokes? And how many of us have accepted those things as par for the course? Normal? How many men that we know - and respect - have even been perpetrators of these small acts?
The prolific was invisible.
Yet suddenly, there has been a shift in the paradigm. Finally, it is ok not only to see these ‘tiny’, ‘harmless’ interactions, and to voice them, but to brand them as what they are: unacceptable, wrong.
Recent artistic contributions have helped our new vision. Notably, the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and also Naomi Alderman’s Women’s Prize winning novel The Power. In the extremities Atwood depicts through her enslavement of women, we see nuggets of truth and reality that are terrifying. (This comes as Saudi Arabia triumphantly lifts its driving ban on women, amidst a persisting system of male guardianship in which women still have little power.) In Alderman’s reversal of this, in which women gain power over men, she cleverly illustrates inequalities and abuses that for many women remain an every-day reality, illuminating them as ridiculous simply by changing a pronoun, switching the gender of the victim to male. This is a book that all those intelligent men still mumbling about the spectrum of behaviour and the harmlessness of small acts should read, because through these opposite eyes, they too might learn to see.
In the meantime, it’s a boy! And into my consciousness have slipped new questions. Since #MeToo began, parent friends of boys have confided concerns they have: how do they stop their sons from being accused of abuse, how do they protect their boys from this turning of the tide? The insinuation is that we’ve gone too far, that men are now the victims.
It’s true that there have at times been notes of the puritanical, and real equality doesn’t mean a suppression of either sexuality or the expression of sexual desire - we must be alert to the dangers of imposing this. But there remains a vital difference between our expressions: that is, the imbalance of power and the abuse of consent behind them. Even if women were to use the kind of terms with which men sometimes talk - “I’d do her,” as a polite example - there is little real threat behind it. Not so when spoken by a man. And during this phase of initial societal awakening, that is what we are reacting to, and realigning.
But this does leave some men grappling. And what is becoming clearer is that as much as we need to focus on empowering women, we also need to pay attention to our boys.
Even in the charity sector, for a number of years now, the focus has been on women and girls, something I have whole-heartedly supported because across the world, women usually do bear the worst of every poverty, every human rights abuse, every hardship. They also can affect huge change within a family and within a community. But what about the boys? While we are redefining femininity and equality amongst ourselves, while we are teaching consent and empowerment, we need boys to understand it too. To be on board with it, support it, champion it. And while we are doing that, how about we throw masculinity under the microscope?
In the UK, suicide is the most common cause of death for men between the ages of 20-49. This is not the most glowing depiction of male mental health. Yet we insist on telling our boys not to cry, to ‘man up’, we discourage toys that develop empathy and nurturing, we mock them for liking ballet shoes and pink, we mould them into superheroes who hide their true selves, removing from them all the tools by which they could develop emotional intelligence and mental health. And then we expect them to grow into respectful, balanced individuals.
The arts are thankfully coming through again. Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different will shortly be added to our shelf for Rebel Girls. But one of the many ideas my unborn child has been slipping into my consciousness, is that as well as reading each of these stories to their corresponding genders, we should also be reading them to the opposite. Boys should learn about brilliant, strong, daring women. Girls should learn about thoughtful, sensitive, wonderful men. Our children should expect these things from each other. And respect each other. And together work towards an equality that is real.
Because after all, the things I want for my son are no different than those I want for my daughters. Beyond health and happiness, it is to be free to choose their passions, to have the opportunities to pursue them, and to never feel limited or foretold.