Feminism is a word that represents such a vast (and often conflicting) array of meanings, that, no matter how much you’ve read, it’s hard to know what you’re thinking and talking about when you’re thinking and talking about Feminism. And I should say it straight up in the first paragraph that I’m certainly no expert in terms of the many and varied nuances of feminist theory. I mean, hey, I like to think of myself as open-minded (who doesn’t?) but it’s often made clear to me that, as a result of my lifelong vision of the world from the perspective of white male privilege, I suffer from blind spots that make it either impossible or extremely difficult for me to imagine or understand the phenomenology of being a woman and/or any other victim of systematic social oppression. Now that insight doesn’t always occur to me as easily as I just typed it. When confronted by new insights, I get defensive, I resist, I stew, and I grimace until I’m finally able to see that I can’t see, that dwelling in privilege necessarily occurs on a foundation of blindness that is never magically cured by good intentions.
With that said, I have good intentions. I have a son and a daughter and a responsibility to wonder: How can I raise these kids with an eye toward a world that is kinder to women? Some of my kneejerk responses are that I should instill within my son a conscious respect for women, based in the awareness that being a woman entails experiences and struggles to which boys and men are never subjected and scarcely aware, and to teach my daughter that she’s beautiful no matter what, that how she looks need not be measured against unrealistic cultural constructs of beauty. Good starts, maybe, but there is further to go.
Being a man with a son, certainly, I’d like to raise him in such a way that he is sensitive to women’s issues and willing to play a part in the creation of a world in which women are confronted by less and less hostility. However, I’d also like to see the inverse of his kindness toward women manifest itself as outright activism when it comes to other men and our attitudes toward women. Above and beyond a revolution in our own sensibilities regarding women, men must up the ante by demanding the same in other men and by raising sons who are willing to make the same demands. This might mean something as simple as informing a friend that it’s totally not cool to call a woman a bitch. It could also mean the willingness to risk the use of force to put a stop to a sexual assault in progress. What I’m talking about is the exact opposite of the longstanding male tradition of looking away from misogyny and getting right up in its face. The logical extension of our “enlightened” views and good intentions is to risk our good standing among our fellows and demand some changes.
But what could possibly be wrong with celebrating my daughter’s beauty with no regard for its proximity to our culture’s twisted ideal of beauty? Well, what’s wrong with emphasizing our daughters as beautiful (no matter what) is that it overlooks and blocks us off from a pressing question about how we’re inclined to see women in the first place. Why is it that, as we nobly hope to revise what beautiful means, beauty remains, entrenched and unquestioned, the lens through which we apprehend women? Imagine the freedom we could reveal for our daughters if, instead of building more expansive prisons of beauty (“Everyone’s beautiful!”; “We’re beautiful in our own way!”; “We’re pretty on the inside!”), we knocked down the walls and granted them escape entirely from the shackles of this torturous adjective.
Our daughters deserve better adjectives. This is to say that we need nothing short of a revolution in consciousness in terms of the way we see and understand women. Think not? Observe for yourself for a single day what constitutes the first, the highest, and most frequent form of compliment doled out to women (indeed, from men and women alike) on television, in print, social media, and your day to day life. You’re beautiful. So pretty. Radiant. Gorgeous. Hottie. Love that dress. OMG your hair! Etc. Our damn near singular relationship to women as such is via their appearance and how their appearance shores up with beauty.
Our daughters deserve better adjectives. New modes from which to appear. Feminism as that which frees the female from a primarily seen and assessed object. But then what would she be? Sure, intelligent, funny, yeah, okay. But, further, adjectives personal to her, individual, that articulate her singular coming forth to girl in the world, not measured with scales of beauty, but apprehended as an expression of the unique explosion of forces that she was called to announce.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.