Monday, April 09, 2012

Everyone is born feminist...I mean, everyone-ist

I just remembered that I'd been called a slut before. [And those of you with whom I did Mad Forest, no, I'm not referring to that.]

I was 17 years old, and was crying on the phone - my then-boyfriend had stood me up for a date, which I was obviously not happy about, and he was not happy about the fact that I was unhappy with him. Yes, I know, makes perfect sense. That led to an argument on the phone - not a heated one, mind you, but a pleading one where I tried to make him understand why I was unhappy. Among other choice phrases he used during that conversation, like "spoiled brat", this was the one he used that I almost didn't even catch amidst the rush of words: "Why are you acting like such a slut?"

I remember a very brief pause as I thought, "What? Slut? How does that..." before dismissing the thought to continue grappling with other issues, like why someone who regularly told me he loved me didn't act like he did.

Interesting choice of words he had. That 18-year-old boy obviously hadn't stopped to consider what he would actually perceive a "slut" to be and how one would behave. I doubt that mattered - he used it purely to inflict hurt and emotional bullying, and "slut" is one of the most hurtful names one can use on a female.

I won't go into the whole analysis of using words like that on women - SlutWalk is still fresh in our heads. What this memory made me think about is when gender politics start to take root in a person's life.

Everyone grows up hyper aware of their gender differences and perceptions of how they are expected to behave, what they're supposed to like, how they're supposed to dress. And, of course, what sort of behaviour they're expected to accept and tolerate.

Baby girls wake up to pink bed linen. Baby boys wake up to blue. Little girls get dolls and want to be princesses. Little boys get trains and want to be ninjas. Young girls use verbal sparring to get their way. Young boys use their elbows. Teenage girls go to school in skirts or pinafores. Teenage boys go to school in pants. Women do the laundry. Men change the light bulbs.

On the surface, it looks like this kind of gender differentiation has a hold on people right from the beginning. However, when I thought about it, I realise this isn't what I'm actually observing in kids, and it's my opinion that gender differentiation doesn't really take hold for the first few years.

Watching a class of preschoolers, I realise that while the girls and boys may have different tastes, there isn't a big difference in how they react to things and situations. Both the boys and girls essentially want the same things: the same attention, the same food, climb the same structures, see the same pictures. They want to be treated fairly, they want the same affection.

When my niece was born, I was thinking that since she was born into a family of strong women, she might not subscribe to the whole stereotype of girly girl who'd like pink and purple, want to play princess dress-up, ask mummy to put nail polish on her, be motivated by the promise of being "pretty", and want to be Tinkerbell every other Halloween.

Caitlyn is now 5 years old. And she is all of the above. I'd rail to my sister against the proliferation of pink and purple in her wardrobe, the stash of shiny 'jewels' and plastic tiaras, the collection of Disney princess jelly shoes, and, of course, the Tinkerbell costume. Meanwhile, Caitlyn would sashay around the house in her purple princess dress, decked out in all her plastic jewellery, and ask us if she looked pretty. For heaven's sake, we caught her trying on a bikini top and checking out her own ass when we had her in our fitting room during a shopping trip when she was 3.

But after a while, I stopped objecting to her girly ways and preferences, because I realised this is the same girl who can NEVER be bested by her big brother who's 4 years older, who climbs any surface she thinks she can get away with, who asserts herself in ways that puts boys to shame, who wants light sabres and trains too, and who can learn yoga poses in a heartbeat. In other words, her girly ways do not get in the way of her firm belief that she deserves the same things as others, and has no notion that anything different would be expected of her just because she's a girl.

Her brother Sean will be 9 soon. He still likes cuddling, burying his face in mummy's (and grandma's and Yee Yee's) chest, and being carried...though hardly anyone's strong enough to carry him any more. Very soon, he will stop wanting these things as puberty starts to change him into a man with its own set of taboos.

In the eyes of all these young children, they're all equal even though they're different. They hardly care what's 'expected' of them based on gender - they just want to have fun and affection. They were born thinking we are all equal. We are the ones who tell them otherwise.

We are the ones who tell them to "behave like a girl", and "act like a man." We're the ones who expose them to gender name-calling. Slut. Tramp. Whore. We're the ones who taunt boys for doing 'girly things'. We're the ones who tell them, "Your brother can do that but not you because he's a boy." (And I don't mean peeing standing up.)

I'd say that everyone is born feminist, which in my own definition is 'everyone-ist', because to me, being feminist is about acknowledging that males and females are equal and working towards living with our differences in a mutually respectful way, neither being superior to the other. I think it's just called "feminism" because females have had the short end of the stick in patriarchal societies, and there's a need to elevate women's standing so we are shoulder-to-shoulder with our equals, the guys.

What kind of people do you want your children to grow up to be? What they were born to be? Or subject to a set of prejudices that they will in turn perpetuate?


enwee said...

Wa, you still remember stuff from 1717! Its a mist to me. And for the record, others who might read, i m not that boy, haha.

Daphne said...

Everyone's memory is long for heartbreak.