The Alex P. Keaton Effect: or how, by trying to teach equality, it appears I’m accidentally raising an anti-feminist

Here's a thing for you to mull over on this Monday afternoon… the 12 yo boy and I are having a disagreement about Beyonce. He *loathes* her song, Run the World (girls). When it comes on, he rolls his eyes, makes heaving sighing noises, and shows a really discouraging amount of simmering grouchiness. And it's not because he's hit his Smiths phase (he hasn't, but I know it's coming). It's because the lyrics make him crazy.

He says if the song had the same lyrics, but was about boys, everyone would say it's sexist. My answer? "You are correct, sir." And so begins the argument. He doesn't understand why girl power songs are OK. Ultimately, I think he doesn't understand why girl power itself is OK. He is truly, honestly, offended. 

This is a kid who has been to more than one protest at the Texas Capitol. He and I engage in women's rights-centered political discussions all the time. He enjoyed several detentions this past school year for opening his big mouth to talk about Big Things in a variety of classrooms where it was not the time or place for opening one's big mouth. He stayed up with me, watching Wendy Davis and Leticia van de Putte eviscerate hypocritical politicians.

And yet, he thinks girl power is kind of bullshit. It makes him angry. He thinks it's unfair. He completely doesn't understand Title IX and why it's important. I know he's only 12, but I can't help feel I'm about to have my Progressive Parent Card revoked unequivocally. 

I've been trying to explain glass ceilings, and elbowing your way out of second class citizenry, and hidden patriarchal norms, and #yesallwomen, and various feminist viewpoints, but he is He sees his best friends going off to schools that are only for girls. He is not allowed in girls-only book clubs. He had a huge misunderstanding with his school about lacrosse and why only the girls had a team (that turned out to not be true, but he was livid for a few weeks). He is getting this perception that girls get special treatment, while boys are left to sink or swim. I've tried explaining that really everyone is left to sink or swim, and that, while some things have changed and are still changing, it's still a man's world, and it's OK for females to rise up against this so that they can have an equivalent shot at success*. 

I've been trying to explain to him it's not that girls don't get a fair shake (though they often don't), it's that girls get a different shake. A lot of times (in fact, I could argue the majority of the time) that unfairness, that differentness, isn't even ON PURPOSE. It's built into society. So, giving girls a safe place is not unfair, it's not anti-male, it's a way to build them up so that when the world starts to knock them down they have more airspace for falling and righting themselves. It's equivocating the shake.

He doesn't see it, though. He is a white, middle-class male, who is growing up feeling slighted and undervalued when his mom and sister shout Beyonce lyrics in the car.

This is when I start to wonder, is he feeling this way because he has been brought up to believe the sexes are equal? Does he not understand girl power because to him, girls and boys have equal rights and opportunities? When I argue my own point, am I actually, in a horribly ironic, 180-degree flip trick, teaching him that women are second class citizens?

Obviously, I don't want him to start thinking that women really are second class citizens and THAT'S why Beyonce and Sara Bareilles and Katy Perry sing the songs they do (side note: GOD, don't get me started on the confusing conversations I have with my 8-year-daughter about the words in these songs versus the perception of mainstream beauty, jesus christ). 

But also, if my 12-year-old accepts the status quo, he'll never realize he's been swallowed up by the social norms that dictate so much of women's lives (in obvious ways and in ways we, ourselves, don't even realize sometimes**). I'm damned if I do, I'm damned if I don't, and I'm afraid I've damned myself for even trying. 

What's a mama to do? I don't want to be raising the anti-feminist version of Alex P. Keaton. I don't want to discount the progress made by the feminist movement. I don't want to downplay all the maddening anti-woman bullshit that is still out there, and frankly, getting worse everyday. But most of all, I don't want my son to grow into a man who resents women because he thinks they have had unfair advantages. I want him to understand he is part of a generation that can work to change all of this, but that nothing will change if he resents Beyonce and girls-only book clubs.

I fully admit to him that nothing is fair, for anyone. But how can I make him see that even this unfairness is unequal?

It's hard out here for a mom, y'all. And it's even harder out here for a kid. Or maybe just for my kid. Sigh.



* The argument that it's unfair for boys to be expected to just drift about and figure shit out on their own is valid and definitely worthy of a blog post/discussion of its own.

** For example: the term "middle-aged". This was a mini-rant I had on Facebook. For me, this term is one more thing that gets slung around at women like locks in socks. It is pervasive. It's used by women and men. It is almost always meant in a disparaging way, or if not disparaging, then dismissive. "Middle-age" is presented as something we have to overcome. "Wow! She's 45 and she looks amazing. You'd never guess she's middle-aged!" BARF, y'all.

Now, I'm willing to entertain the idea that women can embrace the term, turn it into something they own, but, honestly, that still makes me feel squicky. "Middle-age" as a descriptor – particularly when referring to women – is almost always used as a negative assessment or backhanded compliment. And it's bullshit. Grown-ass women are fucking owning their shit. They give zero fucks. So I guess maybe they don't care about the term, and I am just being over sensitive.

BUT ANYWAY, my larger argument is that girls who are in their teens and early 20s*** (can I have an asterisk within an asterisk? I JUST DID), who loudly proclaim their feminism, they are the worst culprits when it comes to calling women middle-aged. I hate it. I really do. They don't even know they're buying into bullshit patriarchal language, and that steams me even more — not at them, but at The Way Things Are.

This can clearly be an argument that goes a variety of ways, and I'm not saying my opinion is right, I'm just saying, to me, teenagers fawning over how beautiful and smart "middle-aged" women can be is one of those examples of how certain kinds of sexist notions are embedded within our society, and thus become an unquestioned social norm. 

*** This could spawn a huge rant about Tumblr, but it would spiral into some kind of tornadic rantsplosion and I would have a stroke. We'll save that for another day.

3 thoughts on “The Alex P. Keaton Effect: or how, by trying to teach equality, it appears I’m accidentally raising an anti-feminist

  1. Teaching both equality and the effect of the patriarchy to kids is definitely confusing – my biggest little dude is only 3, so I’m not there yet, but in know it’s coming – and good on you for engaging!
    I don’t know if this sort of analogy might help. John Scalzi (an author) wrote a blog post comparing being a straight white male to playing a video game on the lowest difficulty setting. The language may not be age-appropriate for your kid, but the idea might help you explain how the concepts fit together:


  2. Okay, I guess this is what happens when your blog is linked to from Reason, but honestly, is he wrong? If it’s unjust for the tables to be unbalanced in favor of men, isn’t it equally unjust to then turn around and unbalance some of them in favor of women? Are we striving toward equality, or toward equivalent amounts of inequality? Aren’t you trying to teach him that two wrongs do indeed make a right?
    As a father of two wonderful girls, I can say that if feminism is about giving special privileges to women, I am an anti-feminist.


  3. I can empathize easily with your son. The world he lives in is not the one you grew up in or the one you live in now, and if your contextualizations don’t ring true for him, maybe it’s because for him they aren’t true, and aren’t going get much truer as he grows up in the world of tomorrow. That sounds harsher than I mean it to, but I guess it is what it is, and I hope you don’t mind the comment.


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