Rule No. 1: Everyone is invited. Including guys. But this feminist writer—whose experience with gender inclusion yielded a lot of #notallmen mansplaining—is not sure how she feels about that.
This summer, my 15-year-old daughter and her best friend decided they wanted to start a YouTube channel, where they would post videos of themselves talking about feminism.
Teen girls talking about feminism, misogyny, and sexism on video? They would be the easiest targets imaginable for trolls, misogynists, YouTube commenters, and bored Redditors. Even though they’ve grown up online, and are aware of how their presence as girls makes their existence more precarious in some parts of the web; even though they’ve been following the events of this past year or so, with women being sent death and rape threats via social media merely for existing as women with opinions; even though they’ve already experienced first-hand the casual sexism of everyday life, with its cat-calls and unsolicited comments from strangers and other uncomfortable incidents they are absolutely incensed to find themselves having to navigate: Still they don’t really know how bad it can be.
“What about something else?” I suggested. “What about if it was, like, a book club kind of thing—like, you guys read a book about feminism or the history of feminism, and then you discuss it together on YouTube. With comments disabled.”
I wanted to protect them and preserve their safe space a little longer. I wanted to protect their future selves, who might cringe at the thought of having their teenage process of coming to understand a subject as complicated and volatile as feminism preserved in video for all to see. And as much as I wanted to protect them from vicious attacks from men, I also wanted to protect them from being called out, in however well-intentioned a manner, by women farther along in their own process of understanding feminism telling them they were doing it wrong.
Of course, I realized even as I nudged them away from the potential line of fire, that it had already started. They already had a woman telling them that they were doing it wrong: Me.
“Eh,” my daughter said. “You know what would be really cool? If there was like a class on feminism or gender politics or whatever in school, because that would be so much more relevant than European history or whatever.”
And then the idea crystallized: They would start a Feminism Club.
They planned it out eagerly, discussing what kinds of concepts they’d want to cover, speakers they’d want to have, what small but tangible goals they could set to actually take action in their school and community, so the club wouldn’t just be a place to vent (although of course it could also be a place to vent). There were a few moments of doubt along the way—would this make them social pariahs at school? Would they alienate people? Her friend hesitated as their idea came closer to reality: Maybe feminism was too strong a word, too threatening a concept. But in the end, they decided these questions and fears were the very reason the club should exist.
My daughter brought the idea to the teachers at her school and found eager faculty support. She gathered video clips from Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, Emma Watson’s UN speech, Beyoncé at the VMAs. She collected GIFs and tweets and Tumblr posts; she assembled links to articles and interviews. She interviewed students and teachers, asking them what they thought the word feminism meant and whether they considered themselves feminists, and put together a short video that was eventually screened for the entire school during club week. When club sign-ups were over, Feminism Club turned out to be one of the most popular ones. What’s really great, they told me, is that some of the club members are boys. In fact, they’d made a point of inviting them.
So much of parenting is allowing your kids to attempt things independently: stifling criticism, holding yourself back from helping, resisting the urge to jump in and do it all yourself, take care of everything, save them from bumps and bruises and sadness and failure. This is true whether it’s watching a toddler navigate stairs for the first time or watching your tenth-grader try to start a school-wide feminist movement. So I nodded and smiled as she told me about the boys that were interested in Feminism Club. I was encouraging as she talked excitedly about how awesome it was that Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign called for men and boys to take part (and that Harry Styles from 1D supported it). I laughed with her as we watched the clip of Aziz Ansari, on David Letterman talking openly about how crazy it is for anyone not to be a feminist. I kept my conflicted feelings to myself, trying to be open, trying to be flexible, trying not to rain on her parade, trying hard not to be a person telling her she was doing it wrong.
Yet all I could think was: Boys? Really?
My experience with men in feminism has largely been of the #notallmen defensive mansplaining variety. Of having to spend time and energy convincing, proving, educating men about stuff we already know. Of fighting to make room for ourselves. Of claiming some kind of safe space where women’s voices could be heard and valued, not shouted down or prettied up to make whatever we need to say easier for men to hear. So it caught me short, this push for inclusiveness. Here she and her friends were embracing something they didn’t know all that much about yet, inspired by the fact that at their young ages they’ve already had to contend with casual misogyny both online and off, and their first consciousness-raising kind of group wasn’t going to be a female-only space? Shouldn’t they have the chance to learn and work out their own complicated feelings in a safe space without having to take male feelings into consideration? Couldn’t they see how annoying it is that feminism is always trying to be made more palatable, that it shouldn’t have to take slick celebrity PR campaigns for people to accept women as full-on human beings worthy of the same rights as men? Couldn’t they see the inherent injustice of Aziz Ansari being able to freely joke about how it’s ridiculous for any man NOT to be a feminist, while someone like Anita Sarkeesian receives death threats and vicious organized online campaigns of harassment for merely pointing out that some video games might be sexist? Had these girls already internalized the idea that these kinds of things carry more weight when there are men involved?
But here’s the thing: I don’t only have a 15-year-old daughter. I also have a 12-year-old son. And as we all watched the clip of Aziz on Letterman together, I realized that my daughter and her friends were absolutely right. Of course we need to include boys.
My daughter and I had chills watching Beyoncé stand up there on stage with the word FEMINIST emblazoned behind her in the clearest claiming of that label either of us had ever seen. But where is that kind of moment for my son? Already, at 12, he feels lonely in the midst of the male mind-set he encounters in his daily life online in the world of Minecraft and other video games, in the YouTube “let’s play”s and TV shows he streams, even in the middle school of the gentlest, most inclusive community-oriented Quaker school ever. He and I have already had countless conversations about how difficult it can be to be the one who says “hey, not cool” when someone says something sexist, who calls people out on their gendered assumptions, especially when those people are friends—young friends—who aren’t bad people and may not even realize the toxicity of what they’re saying. He is a thoughtful and intelligent critiquer of the media he consumes. (When his dad suggested buying Grand Theft Auto V, he pointed out that I might have some concerns about it, and when his dad asked why, he said, “Well, for one thing, because of the misogyny!”) (For the record: The game was bought and both kids play it, mostly for the fun of hijacking buses and driving them off the sides of mountains.) And he’s a thoughtful and intelligent person who already grapples with trying to wrap his brain around injustice and unfairness and the big questions about culture and society that begin to confound middle-school-aged deep thinkers.
So it is just as important—perhaps even MORE important—for him to be a part of these things, to hear men he looks up to—celebrities, comedians, people with cultural influence—saying “Of course I’m a feminist. No big deal.”
Watching that clip and recognizing himself in what that man was saying—that was his moment. Watching Emma Watson, someone inseparable to him from the most important literature of his childhood, speak about the things he believes and welcome him to her cause—that was his moment. He needs more of those moments, more of those “slick celebrity PR campaigns,” more of those moments of recognition, of cultural inclusiveness. Because as much as he sees it modeled within our family, something communicated by the culture at large carries more weight than hearing it from your mom. (Especially when you’re at an age where “your mom” rejoinders are the highest form of repartee, and the word “mom” itself is an insult.) He proudly identifies himself as a feminist. And he needs to see examples of boys and men behaving the way he sees himself: As part of the solution, not the problem.
Last week was the club’s first meeting. My daughter decided to start things off by sharing the clip of Aziz Ansari talking about being a feminist—something she felt would resonate with both the boys and the girls there.
The generational divide is clear to me, in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. When I talk to my daughter and her friends about feminism, the way it was when I was growing up, how I can remember a time in my life when it was a big deal for a woman to have her own credit card, how I was called a feminazi once by a boss who overheard a conversation about how I didn’t think a woman needed to get married and have kids to be validated as a person; when I point out to them the tiresome responses that pop up whenever feminism is discussed online, show them the brilliant and sadly quite useful Womansplainer site and explain to them why it even needs to exist—they get it, but they smile at me in the vague way I probably smiled at them when they first proposed a YouTube channel. Maybe they just haven’t been exhausted yet, or maybe they’re bolstered by this new wave of pop feminism they feel an integral part of—they have more tools at their disposal, more widespread cultural awareness, more social groups online to connect with and learn from, more models for how to be a feminist in the world. “Boys aren’t the enemy, sexist jerks are the enemy,” my daughter said. “Boys have to be a part of Feminism Club. Otherwise, how are things ever going to be different?”
I’m still a little impatient with the idea of having to educate men about feminism. But the girls are right: It’s crucial that we take the time to educate boys. Because boys who grow up thinking it’s no big deal to be a feminist aren’t threatened by women who are. Because boys who grow up learning how to spot misogyny grow up to become men who no longer perpetuate it. Because boys who grow up seeing men and women they respect and admire speaking about feminism as if it’s the most natural thing in the world become men who think feminism is the most natural thing in the world. Because boys who are a part of Feminism Club become men who understand that it’s not an exclusive thing, that Feminism Club is something you’re a born member of by virtue of having being born in the first place, since it’s about including everyone in the experience of being human.
Because the first rule about Feminism Club? Is that everyone is invited to Feminism Club.
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