Thursday, 17 September 2009

My "humourous" feminist mother

Second Update: I woke up in the middle of the night last night and started to feel really guilty about this post. I don't think that it was fair of me to be so critical of Mel's post. Blogging isn't like writing a journal article or even an Op Ed in a newspaper. You often jot down a post in a short space of time and there isn't always the time to ensure that every nuance is clarified etc... I have often seen another post (or media article) that I thought was interesting, linked to it and then used it as a jumping off point to quickly explore an issue that popped into my head. I never give these kinds of post a lot of thought and I don't generally expect other people to either.

Mel's post was really very reasonable. She simply mentioned that she has noticed some feminist mothers being concerned about raunch culture etc and responding by banning Barbies or pink and then she brings up her own concerns about whether or not this is the most productive response. I think that I just over-reacted to the deliberately provocative title and to the last paragraph, which seemed to come a little bit out of the blue to me.

However, it was a reasonable post and I realised last night that my response might easily been read as a bit of an attack on Mel and that wasn't my intention. I think that I was really just responding to the bigger debate that this seems to reflect - and to my generally frustration with the characterisation of feminists as "angry".

So, apologies for any implications that I was attacking Mel's position. And please read the post below (which I think I'll edit a touch to tone down anything that might seem overly personal) as more of a response to that broader social debate.

: Oops, probably should have also said: "Happy birthday Mum!"
The other day I read Mel Campbell's post on the Dawn Chorus entitled "How Can Feminist Mums Avoid Being Humourless Childhood-Ruiners?" I have only recently started reading the Dawn Chorus, but I've been enjoying its high level of analysis from a feminist angle.

Mel starts off the post by referring to Jo Case's review of 'Getting Real - Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls' over at Kill Your Darlings, and then segues into her ambiguous feelings about the response of some feminist mothers to the problems of raising girls in a world of raunch culture and the commercial sexualisation of girls.

Mel summarises these responses as including: "ban[ning] Barbies and pink things, ... refus[ing] to buy slutty pre-teen clothes and ... stand[ing] up to schools and organisations who condone sexualised behaviour and attitudes." Mel argues that "this is the most confronting aspect of parenting – especially of girls." And asks,
Are you going to be the kind of humourless, daggy mum who interferes in everything that’s cool and is a source of mortification to your children (”You just don’t GET it, Mum!”), or are you going to be a hip mum who helps your kids navigate pop culture rather than trying to restrict their access to it?
Fair enough question, I think, but then she goes on to conclude,
One of my main worries as a feminist is that feminism is so often about being angry and disapproving; it rarely seems hip unless it concedes something to raunch culture. Just last week I was thinking, “No wonder people say feminists are unattractive; nobody likes hanging out with angry people.” Perhaps we should also consider what we’re teaching children about feminism if their main experience of it is telling them what they’re not allowed to do.
And I must admit that this conclusion made me feel a little uncomfortable. (I should also acknowledge that it would have been good blog etiquette for me to have actually commented on Mel's post. However, I was excited to hear about Jo's new blog venture and clicked over immediately to see what it was all about - or rather googled it because it was oddly not linked to in the post. And by the time I had finished having a bit of a look around and had commented on Jo's post, Lily woke up from her nap and it was really all over for me and the internet...)

My initial reaction would be to say, well 'people' often say that feminists are "unattractive" because those same people believe that the most important quality for a woman is her physical attractiveness and, therefore, that calling someone unattractive is a particularly powerful put-down. The truth of the put-down is completely irrelevant, because its purpose is merely to silence those uppity women who are daring to question the status quo.

Secondly, in relation to the broader debate over banning Barbie etc. (which comes out in the comments of a number of the threads that have popped up about this issue), I don't really understand the focus on stuff. It is hardly the sole domain of feminist parents to refuse to buy copious amounts of useless stuff for their children and I am utterly confused by any criticism of parents for doing so. But that is probably a discussion for another day.

Thirdly, why on earth would parents want to be 'hip'? I certainly never wanted my parents to be hip. How tragic. From the perspective of a teenager "hip" is the exclusive domain of the young (and those who market to them and remain, somehow, in a state of permanent teenagehood - like rock stars). A parent who tries to be 'hip' is often the most embarrassing thing in the world. Besides, there are just more important things for parents to do that worry about being 'hip'. They need to actually focus on nurturing their children and helping them to navigate the world while they are still too immature to be able to do so on their own. For that, it is important to have principles and to actually adhere to them even when it might be unpopular to do so. At the end of the day, children respect people with the confidence to stick to their principles so much more than they respect someone who is just trying to 'fit it'.

To be fair, Mel may have been referring to parents being aware of and permissive of popular culture and willing to allow their children to engage with it. However, I guess I just don't agree that feminist parenting would be any less aware or permissive of popular culture. I think that there is still a lot more to popular culture than 'raunch culture' - although it is becoming frightening pervasive - and I also think that a feminist response to this culture is to engage with it and to empower our children to critically engage with it.

Again, Mel does seem to be suggesting this approach in the conclusion of her post. However, I guess I would add that perhaps the complicating factor is in the decision about when your child is old enough to engage critically with 'raunch culture' and when they are still young enough to need your protection in the form of active avoidance. To me that isn't really about being "daggy," but more about making a careful judgement about your child's development.

But that brings me to my final response. I, like a few other people, have decided to use Mel's post as the start of a conversation about what "positive" feminist parenting actually looks like. (And, by the by, I'd like to actually acknowledge that the vast majority of feminist parents are, in fact, incredibly positive parents. It comes with the territory.) And that, in a very long winded manner, brings me to the actual subject matter of my post: What positive feminist parenting looks like.

My mother is a feminist (and was throughout my childhood).
  • For me this meant that I grew up believing that my gender had nothing to do with my capabilities or my right to do whatever I wanted with my life and my body.
I remember Mum telling me about some research for her book (about gender construction in the primary school) and how she had asked a group of primary-schooled aged boys and girls what they wanted to be when they grew up. The answers were predictably varied: a doctor, an astronaut, a journalist, a teacher, a mother, a jockey, a lawyer, etc... However, then she asked them what they thought they would actually be when they grew up. The answers were depressing. Most of the boys thought that they would grow up to become exactly what they hoped to, or at least something fairly close (the astronaut thought he'd probably be a pilot). However, most of the girls thought that their ambitions were unrealistic. The girl who wanted to be a doctor thought that she would become a nurse, while many a journalist or lawyer thought that they would actually grow up to be a secretary or a housewife.

Me? I wanted to be an actor, but thought that I would probably become a lawyer. My reasoning was that the way that female actors were judged by their appearance would bother me too much and I would end up wanting a job that would give me the power to challenge all of this bloody discrimination and injustice.
  • For me it meant that I grew up with the learned capacity (at a very early age) to critically analyse media and reject the messages that it contained about what being a "good" woman meant.
I remember Mum asking me what I thought about the fact that the mother in the Meadow Lea commercial didn't sit down to dinner with the family, but instead just stood there and served them. I thought that it was odd, really, and then, once she explained the significance of it, I thought that it was crap.

I still can't look at a container of Meadow Lea without feeling annoyed.

  • For me it meant that someone was on my side when I was confronted with the myriad of sexist messages that permeated my childhood.
I remember coming home from Brownies (mini-Girl Guides) one evening with a stack of pancakes. We had been instructed to cook one for every member of our family except ourselves in order to learn the value of being selfless and serving others.


Mum was furious and insisted that I eat all of them myself. In front of my brother. (Although, I think I probably ended up sharing them with him, since it wasn't his fault). Then she pulled me out of Brownies and I got to join Cubs (mini-Boy Scouts). Cubs was way more fun. There were only about 4 or 5 of us girls, but we had a ball learning to canoe and playing cops and robbers in the pitch black Canberra pine forests.

Mum also suggested that I note down how often my teachers paid attention to boys or girls in my class and what it was that got their attention. I found it so interestinh to see that girls almost always got attention for being "good" (i.e. quiet, still, attentive, sitting up straight...), while boys almost always got attention for being "disruptive" (calling out, hitting or pinching the girls, talking to each other, etc.).

Another time Mum attended a parent-teacher night and my (Year 2) teacher told her that I had a tendency to "dob" too much. Mum knew that she was referring to my issue with a boy that used to hit, kick and punch me and to spit on my head in the stairwells at every opportunity. She told my teacher that she was extremely disappointed in her blame the victim mentality in relation to bullying, particularly since she thought that she had taught her more than that at teacher's college. (It just so happened that Mum had been my teacher's lecturer at Uni.)
  • For me it meant that someone was always giving me positive body image messages.
Mum always told me that I looked great and should have the confidence to wear what ever I wanted, even when others started to suggest that (since I was 11) maybe I should be on a diet (in order not to get fat) or that I should hold my stomach in while wearing a swim suit so as not to look unattractive!
  • For me it meant that pink and Barbies held little interest.
Finally, while Mum never banned pink or Barbies from the house, I found it hard to find them very interesting for long. Once you saw Barbies as disgusting caricatures of what a completely objectified woman should look like, it was hard to find them very fun to play with. And pink? Well, I've just never been a fan.

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