Towards a more fallible father
At the moment I’m terrified by the gender role models and expectations the world has for my son. Over the last couple of months I have grown more and more aware of the terrible influences of our collective notion of manhood. I’m not sure when my anxieties started, but it’s getting serious, I feel panicked.
Having spent the last 10 years raising a girl, I’m properly versed in the duplicitous and broken gender assumptions sold to us by entertainment, advertising, toy and clothing manufacturers. All of Tilly’s parents (her mum, dad, step mum and me) have battled, and continue to battle, the prevailing images of femininity in order to bring up a strong, confident, independent young woman. And to be honest, I’m feeling pretty good about it — Tilly is an amazing young girl with a strong sense of self, justice, equality and individuality.
However, I wasn’t quite prepared, as a father, to question the role of masculinity as I was the role of femininity. Three years ago we had a son, Herbie. It was my own shortcomings that led me to believe that having a boy would be easier. We (the men) are the ones with power, right? The fight against sexism, misogyny and prejudice isn’t there. How stupid am I? The battle and burden of responsibility for changing equality has to be placed on the parents of boys. What follows isn’t a well thought-out critique of gender politics, it’s heart-felt concern from a father rethinking his notion of manhood and masculinity. Here’s a few things that have triggered my growing discomfort:
Herbie is an Alpha male
It feels ridiculous to say this about a three-year old, but all signs point to the fact that he will be one of those aggressive men with iron will, self determination and dogged ambition. He’s physically strong, intellectually determined and a charming little bugger. This scares me. Now, I know it’s my job to guide and advise him in how he tackles the world and manages relationships, but sometimes I feel like King Canute — fighting against a force of nature so strong it will crush me.
Herbie loves fighting, I’ve been told that this is normal ‘boy behaviour’, but I find it quite hard to relate to. I have a vague memory of wrestling with my friends during childhood, but he’s three and relishes rough and tumble with an almost manic delight. Sometimes, I’m woken up by him at the bottom of my bed demanding; “Daddy, FIGHT ME!”. I’m not sure where this physical aggression comes from, be it baked into our genes since the time of the hunter/gatherer or learnt through the continuous exposure of media representations. What I do know is that I’m unsure of how to direct it; how to harness the power towards doing good in the universe.
Power Rangers, Wolverine and the Octonauts
In this brilliant TEDx talk, Colin Stokes gives a great breakdown of the gender roles within film and TV. Although he’s a bit too tough on Princess Leia, he has made me hypersensitive to the role models presented to young boys. I’m aware of these issues, I examine material culture for a living, but I feel that I’ve been so caught up fighting for the ‘underdog’, the oppressed, I’ve forgotten to fight for the re-articulation of the powerful.
In our house we’re BIG comic book, graphic novel and cartoon fans, so nothing has pleased me more than Herbie’s early obsession with Superheroes. However, it has become obvious, that these affect his behaviour. The morning when we found him (aged 2.5) putting forks between his fingers to be Wolverine, we knew that we would have to control and curb his cartoon consumption.
Years ago, in conversation with the wonderful Anne Galloway, I remember her recounting stories of her enjoyment playing with Barbies as a young girl. I was shocked, as a strident feminist I’d expect a different story, maybe some regret or rejection of her younger more foolish self. But she made a brilliant point; it was what she was doing with them where role identity was constructed, the stories she told through them was the important thing.
This has stuck with me. I now try hard to shift the roles and activities that Batman and his peers engage in. It’s a great place for parents to start; the power is in the stories we tell our sons, the games that we play and the adventures that we act out. Stopping Herbie playing with his favourite Batman toys isn’t really a desirable option, I’d prefer to hijack, subvert and add sensitivity to a framework that we both love.
There are some programmes that have more effect than others. At the moment, any exposure to Power Rangers results in an afternoon of fighting and aggression. We’ve decided, that Power Rangers can’t be watched. This is a tough call, I’d always prefer to promote media literacy rather than prohibition, but even us, with our liberal views need to be careful with ‘appropriate exposure’.
We’ve had an on-going argument with Herbie about the sex of Peso Penguin. Peso is a great role model, caring, sensitive and smart. He’s a great team player, and the Octonauts’ medic. However, due to his rather effeminate voice Herbie is convinced Peso is a girl. It quickly became obvious to us, that the characters that go out into the wild to ‘explore, rescue and protect’ are all male. Although Tweak Bunny, the mechanic and inventor of the team, is female — GOOD WORK! — she stays behind looking after the Octopod.
Pink and Blue Kinder Eggs
My recent anxiety has been fanned by the stupid decision to ‘gender’ Kinder Eggs. There has been a healthy backlash about it, so I hope Ferrero withdraw them. But the tragedy comes from Herbie’s perception of it; Herbie’s favourite colour is pink, on seeing the new Kinder Eggs we had the following conversation:
Herbie: Daddy, can I have a Kinder Egg?
Me: Yes son.
Herbie: Can I have a pink one?
Me: Of course you can.
Herbie: But are they for girls?
Me: It doesn’t matter, if you like them, have one.
Herbie: But Daddy, do you want me to have a blue one, because they are for boys?
It’s here that Kinder, and some stupid fucking marketing executive, has made a three year old worried that his father would think less of him if he wanted a pink egg. I was outraged and angry, tweeted a cross reaction, and got this in reply:
It makes me so sad that people can still be blind to the harms of these material and marketing decisions. Each of these thoughtless material acts damage and mould, in however a tiny way, the gender roles of our future generations. We need to ensure that they are progressive and allow the space for a complex identity to be formulated.
On being a rubbish Dad on Holiday
Most of this reflection and anxiety has its roots in my father’s current condition and imminent death. I’m spending a lot of time thinking about my role as a father and son. This was at its height on our recent holiday to Italy. Holidays with children are tough, they’re not really ‘holidays’, they’re a series of inconvenient situations that make normal behaviour and relaxation difficult or impossible. The expectation and anticipation of enjoyment places an almost impossible pressure on the time spent with our families.
This year, within two days of arriving in Italy, I was deaf (due to ‘swimmers ear’), sunburnt (due to British stupidity), with a bad back (due to carrying Herbie for miles down a beach) and I was really grumpy. This grumpiness turned to anger and self loathing for being grumpy on holiday and physically weak. Throughout the holiday, I realised that I was comparing myself to my father. My dad was always brilliant on holiday, he played with us endlessly, he was strong, he never complained and his body never broke. I am a poor comparison.
On return, I discussed this with my Mum, she reminded me that it was only on holiday that my dad played with us. He spent most of our lives working, distant and too tired to engage. He made up for this on holiday. Because of the novelty of his presence, we behaved like angels and relished every minute of his time. It made me realise that I was not comparing like with like. I’m a different kind of dad, more engaged, more there, but because of this also more fallible. Our generation’s idea of fatherhood and masculinity are changing, we are softer, we care more, we listen and we play, all we need now is the culture to reflect this change.