Confession: I had qualms about putting “Book Review” in the title of this post. Anyone who knows me could guess that if a book titled We Should All Be Feminists exists, and it has less than 50 pages (meaning I could possibly read it in one sitting, without being interrupted by someone coloring on the wall or wiping boogers on a library book), I’m going to read it. Because the book is so short and so very powerful, if I reviewed it as in-depth as I have other books that really spoke to me, I would eventually quote the entire thing within the text of my review. So, instead, I’m using a few favorite passages as a springboard to discuss feminist issues as they apply to my life as a mom. If you don’t want to read about my feminist critique of Paw Patrol merchandising (if you don’t know what Paw Patrol is, you probably don’t), I’ll just leave you with this: read the book, even if you’re already a feminist. If it’s not going to change your worldview, it will make you feel empowered that you can do something to change the world, even if your influence on the world is mostly contained to your children at the moment (as mine is).
I have been a feminist longer than I have known the word “feminist.” Feminism, in its purest form, is the belief that men and women should be treated equally. That’s all. It’s not radical. If I do the same job at the same level for the same length of time as a man, I should get the same pay. If a man wants to stay home and take care of his children, no one should disparage him. Yet, some people value “traditional” gender roles more than equality. To those people (and everyone else), I challenge you to read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Vintage, 7.95 USD). The text is 48 small pages; the font is large. The language is admirably accessible; you can easily read it on a lunch break and still have plenty of time to mull it over.
Adichie pulls no punches, and yet everything she says is simple common sense. She calls out double standards so prevalent in society that even feminists such as myself are sometimes guilty of accepting them as normal because, as she says herself,
“If we do something over and over again, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over again, it becomes normal. If only boys are made class monitor, then at some point we will all think, even if unconsciously, that the class monitor has to be a boy.”
Experiencing sexism in my life, even little things like being told to smile by men, has made me more conscious of how my husband and I raise our boys, but sexism is so pervasive that it is easy to forget . I constantly have to remind myself, when picking out picture books for them at the library, when deciding what movies they can watch, even when drawing with them, that they need to see women in a wide variety of professional tasks – not just “traditionally” female roles like mother, secretary, teacher. They need stories about girls playing in the dirt, about women flying planes, about girls using their brains. They also need stories about men being fathers, about boys being sad, about boys playing with dolls. Feminism isn’t just telling girls they can do anything. It’s also about teaching boys that girls aren’t somehow inferior because they have slightly different anatomy. As Adichie says,
“We must also raise our sons differently.”
A lengthy aside about the specific example of women flying planes: my older son (and, therefore, my younger son) is a little obsessed with the Nickelodeon preschool cartoon “Paw Patrol.” Because of his interest, I bought him a Paw Patrol shirt for Christmas the year before last without really looking at it. When he unwrapped it, he was excited to have an article of clothing featuring his favorite characters – except one. “Where’s Skye?” is a question he asked about the shirt. I felt like a bad feminist for not realizing that every single PP character – even the 8-year-old boy who leads the rescue team and somehow doesn’t have to go to school – was featured on the shirt, except for the token female. I say token because Skye was, at the time, the only female member of the team, yet she is of critical importance to it – she is the only character with a vehicle that can fly.
Apparently, the sexist imbecile in charge of marketing licensed products to children thought that boys wouldn’t want to wear a shirt with the female character who (of course) wears pink on it. That imbecile was wrong. After Chase (the police dog who wears blue, my first born’s favorite color), Skye is his favorite member of the Paw Patrol. I myself took to social media to criticize this decision. The only reason boys think that girls are inferior, or can’t do certain things, is because older generations have supplanted that idea in their minds through subtle sexism like leaving the female character(s) off of t-shirts or out of action figure collections (see: #wheresrey).
I was not alone in speaking out. Friends on social media shared similar accounts of frustration in purchasing PP apparel for their young fans. If a girl liked Skye, she could choose from any number of pink, frilly shirts featuring Skye and possibly some of her male pup friends. If a boy liked Skye, however, he was out of luck. I checked Kohl’s, Target, Walmart – any department store I happened to be at – and all the boy shirts had only boy characters. An article on The Mary Sue called out “Paw Patrol” (and all the other “rubbish” preschool shows my son likes, plus Frozen) for not making shirts that feature the female characters for boys.
Fast forward to last week. My cousin-in-law, who has “Paw Patrol” fans of his own, messaged me a picture of a Paw Patrol shirt from the Target toddler boys’ section featuring Skye. Another cousin also sent me a heads-up about the same shirt. I thanked them both exuberantly and planned a Target run for the weekend. So overjoyed was I to find said shirt in both a 5T and 18 month sizes that I purchased one for each kid. I’ll be the first to admit that my first born’s interest is waning, but this was a watershed moment in a fight I had taken to social media. So, hell yes, I was buying the shirt. Twice.
And then a funny thing happened. Target has ridiculous prices on our cat food brand, so we went to Walmart, and I browsed through the baby/toddler section for a few minutes debating what (sob) booster seat we should get for our growing 4-year-old since the 2-year-old is quickly outgrowing the oversized infant seat and it’s time to play musical car seats. I glanced at the toddler clothing and – there was Skye. Surfing with Chase, Marshall, and Rubble. On a shirt in the boys’ section.
I was not surprised that Target was the first place I found more gender-inclusive PP clothing for boys. This is the store that listened to complaints on social media that dolls and action figures are housed in separate, color-coded aisles, which seems to uphold the ridiculous notions that boys shouldn’t play with dolls and girls shouldn’t like Superman, and proceeded to degender the entire toy department. But Walmart? This is progress. We are slowly, one stupid toddler t-shirt at a time, making progress. We are learning to raise our sons differently by showing them that they can do, and like, whatever they want – and so can girls.
What so many people don’t realize is that gender roles hurt boys, too. Adichie observes that
“Masculinity is a hard, small cage, and we put boys inside this cage.”
I may be repeating an anecdote, but at a family holiday party at a cousin’s house, my son started playing with a pink shopping cart that had a doll in the basket. An aunt asked me, her voice dripping with sarcasm, “Are you going to have to buy your son a pink shopping cart now?” “If he likes it, yes,” I replied. I could have told her (rather, I should have told her) that he plays with dolls, that he learned how to change his doll’s diaper when we were preparing for the birth of his little brother, that he “takes good care of” his stuffed elephant and stuffed (pink!) unicorn by tucking them in for naps and whatnot – but I simply turned my attention elsewhere to avoid making a scene.
The world tells boys what they can and cannot play with, and it also tells them what girls can and cannot do, and vice versa. At some point over a year ago, my older son told me that “only boys can drive trucks.” I don’t know if this statement was inspired by his own observation that most pickup trucks/semi trucks/construction vehicles are operated by men or if a classmate in his day care told him this (though I suspect the latter), but I was naively taken aback by the proclamation. While I hadn’t, at this point, gone out of my way to tell him that “girls” can do traditionally “male” jobs, I certainly hadn’t done anything to consciously support that idea. I told him that, actually, girls can and do drive trucks, and that his own mother had driven his grandfather’s pickup truck on at least one occasion and had driven his father’s Durango several times. I told my husband about this exchange and he, too, made sure our son understood that just because we don’t see women driving trucks all the time doesn’t mean they don’t (or can’t) do it.
More recently, our older son asked me for a bowl of cereal while I was busy with something else and his father was sitting next to him and obviously less busy. My husband questioned why he hadn’t asked him for cereal when I was obviously busy. Our son retorted, “You don’t know how to make cereal.” To be clear: our older son eats Cheerios (or their generic equivalent) with milk about 360 days a year. “Yes, I do,” my husband retorted. “You do? How do you make cereal?” my suspicious son asked. “You pour some cereal into a bowl, and then you pour some milk over it,” replied my husband. “And you get a spoon.” Our son was incredulous. “Mommy! Daddy knows how to make cereal, too!”
We laughed quite a bit about this, but it is telling: for most of a year at that point, our boys had seen me, the prominent woman in their lives, do most of the domestic tasks around the house. Because of his demanding work schedule, it’s possible that my husband had not poured cereal for either of them in all that time – which is fine. This is the division of labor that makes sense for our family right now – but it is important, too, that we allow our boys to see masculinity that exists outside that “hard, small cage.” Thank you, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, for the reminder.