Most weekday mornings, I get my daughter up. It’s a frenzied ritual of brushing teeth, combing hair, trying to persuade her that wool sweaters aren’t the greatest choice for the middle of summer (even in Michigan), and finally—after a series of delicate and sometimes tense negotiations—helping her get dressed in her chosen outfit. Then I make my way to my basement office and start my day.
Weekends are a different story. The two of us head downstairs together—usually before her mom and baby brother get up. We eat cereal and she picks something for us to watch on TV. Some mornings it’s Pingu. Sometimes she asks for “something on Hulu.” (I think she mostly just likes saying the word Hulu.) Sometimes it’s Phineas and Ferb. (Which, I’ll be honest… I have mixed feelings about, mostly because of how the older sister is portrayed, reinforcing the popular caricature of sisters as bossy, controlling, and otherwise inept. Not the picture of sisterhood that I want to paint for Elizabeth, who, as a new big sister, already has the makings of being a wonderful teacher and mentor to her younger brother.)
A few weekends ago, we were well into our Saturday ritual. She was about to choose something to watch when a look of apprehension came over her not-quite-four-year-old face.
“Daddy,” she asked, “is this show for boys?”
I was totally caught off guard. Where did my daughter get the idea that certain shows are “for boys”—and that she can’t watch them? It certainly wasn’t from us. My wife and I are intentional about teaching her that girls and boys are equal, that nothing is off limits to her because of her gender.
We go to a church where women can serve equally alongside men. Our current priest happens to be a man, but women hold a number of visible leadership roles—on staff, on the vestry (think: elder board), and at almost every level of ministry.
When we watch sports (which isn’t that often), we try to watch a balance of men’s and women’s events. We’ve even talked about taking Elizabeth to Canada next year to see the Women’s World Cup, if we can swing it.
When it comes to TV shows, we look for ones with strong female characters. But we don’t push our daughter toward stereotypically “girly” shows. Nor do we discourage her from watching shows that are supposedly “for boys.”
So where did she get this notion? What gave my daughter the idea that she can’t watch some shows because they’re for boys only? Maybe she got it from TV itself.
Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans shared 35 compelling reasons why we all need feminism. Many of them are sobering, like the fact that 1 in 4 American women experience some form of domestic violence. Or the fact that 80% of 10 year-old girls say they’ve gone on a diet.
Ten year-old girls, already being told their bodies are the only thing of value they have—and even then, only if they’re the “right” size.
Rachel shared another reason which, at first glance, may seem a bit more trivial by comparison. That is, until you consider the impact it has on a young girl’s perspective. In 2011, only 11% of the protagonists in films were female. This figure is only slightly better for children’s TV shows. Yes, there’s Dora and Kai-Lan. But there’s also Bob the Builder, Daniel Tiger, Super Why, Elmo, Phineas and Ferb, and a host of other lead characters who are male.
One study found that only 30% of the characters in children’s shows are female. And female characters are far more likely to be sexualized and/or presented in a way that glamorizes a narrow and unhealthy notion of beauty—even in children’s shows. (Case in point: Sofia the First.) To quote the study, “Females, when they are on screen, are still there to provide eye candy to even the youngest viewers.”
Even in 2014, the overwhelming message of children’s entertainment is that girls like my daughter are little more than props in a man’s world.
(So much for feminism being a capitulation to the dominant culture.)
That Saturday, I told my daughter she didn’t have to worry about whether the show she wanted to watch was “for boys” or not. If she wanted to watch it (and as long as there wasn’t any legitimate reason not to—e.g. violence), then it was for her.
The thing is, I shouldn’t have to tell her this.
Patriarchy is not natural. Our daughters are not born into this world thinking they’re inferior or subordinate to men. They get that idea because that’s what the dominant culture tells them.
It’s what we tell them in our movies and TV shows.
It’s what we tell them when we objectify their bodies to sell everything from hamburgers to sex.
It’s what we tell them when we tolerate a 23% wage gap for a woman doing the same job as man.
It’s what we tell them when we trivialize and dismiss the reality of sexual assault—something a quarter of all female college students face.
Patriarchy isn’t natural. It’s learned. And it’s time we start telling our daughters a better story.
Photo credit: Aaron Escobar