I went out with a few friends tonight, who brought their significant others who are now new friends. I love my cohort at CUNY and feel very close to them even though we’ve only been studying together for about 2 ½ months. It’s a blessing considering how lonely doing a PhD can be.
One of my friends’ husbands and I were chatting about their kids. He told me about the kids from oldest to youngest, the oldest son in his 20s down to their daughter, who just turned eight. “She’s doing well,” he said, “full of sense. Too much sense.” He chuckled, then sobered. “But we’re a little worried about the future.” “Why?” I asked, concerned that the kid had health problems or some other issues were coming up. “She’s developing early,” he replied, lowering his voice and glancing away with fatherly concern. “We’re going to have to watch out for her – her older brothers and me!”
The conversation continued on but I was troubled. I’ve heard comments like this before, almost exclusively from fathers about their daughters. And these “concerns” start when the girls are young; I have another friend who is a father to an 18-month-old girl who has told me with knit brows that his daughter “has long legs and is going to be a problem.”
Holy hell. When did it become a liability to have a daughter? Well, let me back up and say that in many countries, this is quite literally the case (whether it be an economic one and/or a sociocultural one). Daughters the world over have historically been seen on the whole as less desirable than boys, and it is only in modern times that women – in some parts of the world – are achieving what would be considered equal opportunity and potential, if not actual social and political standing.
But in a country like ours, it’s frankly upsetting, at least to someone like me who is a feminist* (the state of society permits me no choice), that these comments be considered commonsense or “normal.” Why is it that we’re seeing our female children as needing protection while boys are seen as able to defend against the evils of the world on their own? Internet-based abuse of children, a terrible modern crime that frightens parents and non’s alike, takes place in the lives of both girls and boys; both sexes can be violated and hurt physically and emotionally. So why do girls draw the fire, or rather, the protection against this imagined fire?
What is especially troubling is that it is girls’ physical development that caused these two fathers – and no doubt many other parents (see the many articles like this one about girls’ development during puberty versus boys’) – anxiety. I get that girls are going through puberty earlier, developing breasts and getting their periods earlier than in years past. However, this conversation is not about the time at which such development starts; it is rather about the fact of girls’ bodies becoming potentially sexualized, desirable to men (or gay women, but the hetero gaze is what I think defines this conversation).
Why is it that girls should be punished for this in murmurs, clucking fathers with fists-at-the-ready commentary, the sense that their becoming women is a danger to themselves? If these parents are so concerned about their daughters being objectified, oppressed as women, shouldn’t these folks consider the source of this power as the focus of their concern? Rather than making girls’ natural development a liability, maybe seeing patriarchal society as not only a place where women exist in a subordinate relationship to the ideology of the dominance of men, but also a place where there is potential for political and social change, where media representations, education, domestic dynamics, and other loci of social norms are interrogated, reflected upon, and altered in communal social practice.
This change can start with the fathers, if they want. I’m ready to listen.
* Click here to see the submission by Time Magazine that the term “feminism” be banned in 2015.