Yes, Mom, it’s ALSO Your Fault
To set the scene, I was recently at a kid’s gym with my son. It’s a gym with a few bouncy houses, little jungle gyms, and other toys for children up to age six. Parents walk around the space to supervise their children (well, they are supposed to). Some parents read the sign that says, “Please supervise your children at all times,” as an invitation to sit on the side and be on their phones.
While my son was playing in a bouncy house, I saw a young boy, probably around six years old, with a t-shirt that read, “Sorry girls, I ONLY date models.” Obviously, I figuratively rolled my eyes when I saw the t-shirt (edit: I rolled them literally). I happened to be standing next to the mother of the boy and another woman watching her own child. The friend said to the mother, “OMG, that shirt is adorable,” to which the mother replied, “I know, I love it.” There was nothing else they said about the t-shirt.
Now, before I go any further, I think it is important to note that I don’t have all the facts. It could be that five minutes later the friend said, “I was joking, that shirt is sexist and piggish and you should be ashamed as a mom to put it on your six-year old” to which the mom replied, “I know— I was kidding, it was a gift from a sexist aunt and I didn’t have time to do laundry and I haven’t had time to burn the t-shirt yet!” Based on my knowledge of how the world works, I have my doubts that is how the conversation went.
I would be remiss not to, at least briefly, touch on the problems with the t-shirt. The shirt is obviously, among other things, sexist.** Without diving into feminist theory, the shirt sexualizes children, sends a message that girls are only worth what they look like and imparts a message of boys “conquering” whatever type of girl they deem acceptable. Ok — that’s enough of that.
It would be unproductive to label these women as anti-feminist or sexist. Mostly because I don’t know them and the use-case I have in front of me doesn’t really prove anything. The most likely scenario is the mom thought that the t-shirt was cute and put it on her son. I don’t know these women and I don’t know how they are raising their children, other than the small interaction described above. What I do know, however, is that this proves that we have to start also blaming women and holding them accountable for our children being sexist (or continue blaming women if you have already jumped on that bandwagon).
That sentiment may sound harsh, but we have to hold women to the same standard as men when it comes to how we impart knowledge on the future generation. Oftentimes, we are quick to blame men for the sexist characteristics of our society. By no means do I think we should stop doing that; I just think we should be equal-opportunity “blamers”. To ignore the influence of women’s sexism does nothing to help fix societal sexism.
One of the challenges in assigning blame to women as well as men is that one woman’s sexism is another woman’s ideal Friday night. Although it seems to defy logic, sexism isn’t always so objective; there can be gray areas. Are we supposed to police ourselves so that a man never opens a door for a woman if a child is near for fear that the boy will then open doors for girls and girls will expect to have doors opened for them? Of course not. Daily heteronormativity, whether we like it or not, has a place in our society. Furthermore, some women (and this is their full prerogative) enjoy it that way. They should enjoy it — it is their choice and we are lucky that we have options. However, we must remain vigilant that in light of the choices we make, we aren’t allowing our children to see obvious sexism. There is a huge leap between a straight couple allowing themselves to participate in gender-conforming behavior and putting your child in a t-shirt that demeans girls.
Women are in an awkward position when it comes to fighting the good fight against sexism. It is easy to berate a man for failing to adhere to a certain standard of “modeling good feminist behavior.” They don’t have the lived experience of a woman so the criticism is never self-inflicted. Women, on the other hand, if acting outside the realm of good feminist ideals, have their own self-criticism to deal with. On top of that, there is peer-criticism in the form of other women. Well, it is time to look that awkward turtle in the face, tell that woman that her son’s shirt is inappropriate and hope that the damage done isn’t irreversible.
It is great and promising that we are slowly evolving as a society where women can choose whether to go to the workplace or stay at home. It is just as great that more and more men are starting to realize that this is a choice for them to make as well. That being said, the subtle and slow advancement of women does not negate the need for women to be careful of the messages they are sending to their children.
Our children mimic us. If we want the next generation to be fair to women, then all parents need to be aware of the messages they are sending to their kids.
**As a side note, when I googled the t-shirt, it is advertised as “give your kid some personality!” Apparently, Forever21 came out with the shirt a couple years ago and after backlash took it off the market. I assume other retailers are still selling it because they think it’s fine.