My Road to Becoming a Feminist
I hated it all the way
My first memory of Christmas is when, in 1991, my mother gifted me a toy truck at my pre-school's Christmas party. I was three years old, and I hated that truck with all my being.
"I asked for a Barbie!" I screamed, tears streaming from my eyes.
All around me, the other girls at the school party tore through pink wrapping paper to unveil dolls (Barbie being the most popular) and princess attire (dresses, shoes, tiaras). I'd never gotten either of those.
I threw myself belly down on the shiny linoleum floor, pounding my fists to show I meant business. I was hoping to cause my mom maximum embarrassment in front of the other parents, guilting her into giving me what I wanted.
"But this is so cool," my mom said, who was an engineer herself. She took the red and yellow truck and showed it to me from all angles — as if that made any difference to me. "See, it has a crane that moves."
"I don't care! I don't like it. It's a boy toy. I want a Barbie."
I can't imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to see her thoughtful gift ripped to shreds by a 3-year-old. Yet, she resisted the easy way out of buying me what I wanted. That damned truck was my only gift that Christmas, so I had to suck it up and play with it.
The following year, my mom finally bought me my first Barbie. As I started unwrapping the gift under the Christmas tree, I spotted the pink box with the Barbie logo, and my heart raced. But then I looked at the doll. It was a black Barbie in a sparkly red business suit. Around the Christmas tree, the entirely white family looked just as baffled as me.
"Mom!" I shouted, incredulous. "I wanted the blonde one with the big princess dress! You know, THE Barbie. Everyone else has blonde Barbies!"
How can my mom be so incompetent at buying me gifts? I thought.
I was too young to appreciate that my mom wasn't like the other moms. She was giving me toys that expanded my horizons. Toys that pushed against the bias of society's messages were filling my head.
I, however, was a firm supporter of the patriarchy. My dream was to be a princess. I wanted to be rescued by prince charming. I wanted to fall in love at first sight and immediately get married and have kids.
I don't know if it was the toys, but as I grew into my teenage years, I started to despise pink and princesses. I saw myself as a prime example of the I'm not like the other girls' trope. My favorite color was dark blue. I didn't like makeup or showing off my body. I enjoyed playing video games instead of taking selfies. I wanted punk rock instead of pop. I liked reading sci-fi books instead of fashion magazines. Note that I also knew plenty of girls like this, yet I still thought that what I saw on TV was the standard girl.
At the end of high school, I decided to study Physics. Again, not sure if it had anything to do with the toys, or maybe seeing my very smart engineer mom making more than my dad, or perhaps both. In my Bachelor's degree, there were 30 men and two other women (one of whom dropped out in the first year). In my Master's degree program, there were 20 men, and I was the only woman. After my degree, I continued to be the only woman in many testosterone-filled meeting rooms.
I noticed the gender imbalance, of course. It didn't bother me. In my mind, women avoided science simply because they didn't like it, but I wasn't like other girls, so that was fine with me. At the time, I knew about the Women in STEM debate, but I didn't really see it as a problem to fix. If women didn't want to go to science and tech, so what?
I also didn't see any point in Feminism. I felt like I'd always had as many chances as my male peers. I was always top of the class and felt confident in my abilities. I believed I could become a president or an astronaut or anything I set my mind to. Compared to my grandmother's times, the world was already pretty good for women, so why should I complain?
In 2016, at the age of 27, I started to identify as a feminist. I'd love to tell you it happened because of reading studies on the gender pay gap, but no. It was because of YouTuber Anita Sarkeesian and her channel Feminist Frequency. When I discovered her Youtube series Tropes vs. Women and Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, my head exploded. I started to see all the millions of fucking ways in which women, people of color, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, and any marginalized group, are othered by the media. These were not just one or two cases — these were generalized patterns. Like the fact that most video games have zero female playable characters, and when they do, they are sticks with an ass and boobs. Like the fact that a big portion of major movies released does not pass the Bechdel Test (which is really not that difficult to pass!). Like the fact that women of color are continuously portrayed as primitive, sex-hungry fantasies.
Before, I'd just say, "Well, video games and movies are fictional. They don't really matter." But the more I saw about the pervasiveness of the patterns, the angrier I became. It was like a veil had been lifted from my eyes, even though everything had been right in front of me all this time. These movies and games had been telling me, my entire life, "We don't acknowledge these groups of people as being an equal part of society."
Every time I saw a female character being the only one with eyelashes and/or lips, I cringed. I cringed every time I saw a scantily dressed female fighter next to her regularly-dressed male counterparts. Every time I saw the camera slowly panning over a woman's butt for no good reason, I cringed. I couldn't stop thinking about these things anymore.
I felt so enlightened that I decided to share one of Feminist Frequency's videos on Facebook. One guy, who I thought was my friend, replied, "In movies, there aren't so many women, maybe because to show manipulating, always unsatisfied, easily offended people would be very boring for the viewers." Another guy, who I thought was my friend, sent me an article explaining why feminists are terrible people and then a GIF of two women in bikinis jumping on a trampoline, the camera focused on their bouncing breasts. And again, these were "friends" I can't imagine what would have happened if my post had been public. I experienced a tiny sliver of the bullying that outspoken feminists receive online. Anita Sarkeesian herself has been heavily harassed online for years by men who claim there is no sexism in video games and then proceed to threaten to rape or kill her. Yeah, no sexism there!
The feminist rabbit hole eventually led me to the Women in STEM issue. And it also started with a YouTube video. This time, Debbie Sterling gave a TED talk about her experience being othered during her engineering degree. And again, the veil lifted from my eyes.
I didn't realize that boys tend to get a head start in programming from playing with computers and robots.
I didn't realize that in the early days of computing, it was predominantly done by women. The highest percentage of women with computer science degrees in the US was in the 1980s, and then it started to fall. Coincidentally, that's around the time the first kids who grew up with the strong "boy vs. girl" division in the toy aisles, which started in the 1970s, started University. Around the time that personal computers were introduced in homes and marketed almost exclusively to men and boys.
I didn't realize how lucky I was that my mom gave me boy toys.