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As masculinist politics sweeps across the globe, raising boys to be feminists isn’t merely a good idea. It's a necessity.
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Brett Kavanaugh has settled into his seat on the Supreme Court, Donald Trump has received uproarious applause for using his presidential platform to warn us that “it’s a very scary time for young men in America,” and a man hailed as “Brazil’s Trump,” who told a woman lawmaker in Brazil’s congress that, “I am not going to rape you, because you’re very ugly,” is set to become the president of that nation. In short, despite the thunderous outcries of women and LGBTQ people across the globe, order has been restored and power is back where it has long belonged, with men who pepper their mighty public speeches with misogyny with the ease of a boy going whistling down the street.
And yet, the historic number of women and LGBTQ candidates seeking elected office in this year’s midterm election in the United States has led commentators to hail 2018 as the year of the woman in U.S. politics. True, some women have crushed it at the primaries. If they are victorious in November, however, these women will walk into an overbearing threat—the ascendance and naked celebration of masculine swagger in politics in 2018 across the globe.
So we are faced with the truth that merely urging women to run for office will not help. We need to face the decidedly more daunting and longer-term enterprise of raising men who will move over and make room. We need to roll up our sleeves to raise feminist boys—send forth a league of young men who will push against the patriarch politician for the sake of the women, but also for the sake of men.
To be sure, it’s going to be harder than we think. Before I discuss how, let’s root down into why. Look at the rise of men around us. Somehow, most of the globe seems to have agreed that our leadership should be a chest-thumping, pussy-grabbing, vagina-shooting, nuclear button-pressing haul to the right. Pakistan has just elected as its prime minister former cricket star Imran Khan, seen in the West as a cosmopolitan playboy but in Pakistan as a vocal champion of the Taliban. Barely a month before his victory at the polls, Khan told his country that “feminism is degrading the role of motherhood.” He is now lobbying for regressive blasphemy laws across the world.
In neighboring India, my homeland, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu brigade have launched all sorts of efforts toward a masculine Hindu state—boasting about Modi’s “56-inch chest,” and, as media scholar Sanjay Srivastava has said, presenting Modi-style masculinity as a departure from the “impotent,” “effeminate” masculinity of his predecessor. He has also maintained a deafening silence on recent horrific rape cases involving little girls in India.
Shuffle over to Russia, from where the world has been sent images of a bare-chested Vladimir Putin hunting and horse-riding, to be burned in our brains, images “deeply imbued with implied gender dominance and at times even gender violence,” says scholar Elizabeth Wood in her article “Hypermasculinity as a Scenario of Power.” Amongst other misogynistic and homophobic laws, Putin’s administration legislated the decriminalization of domestic violence in 2017. In July 2018, when Putin and Trump met in Poland, the New York Times called it “a testosterone-fueled face-off.” What we are seeing in world leadership today is a “militarized masculinity,” says Wood, calling for studies of hypermasculinity and militarized masculinity to not be limited to war settings, but extended to questions of political leadership and its “reliance on masculinity as a substitute for genuine political dialogue.” The near-catastrophic nuclear button face-off between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un would merit a remarkable case study.
Let’s go to China, with its growing economic clout, a formidable military, and a strongman president in Xi Jinping. Chinese commentators say Xi has crafted himself as a 21st-century emperor maximizing his power (he abolished presidential term limits so he can rule indefinitely), promoting a muscular, masculine style of leadership, and crushing civil society. Consequently, Zhenjiang College and the All-China Women’s Federation have been teaching female students how to dress, pour tea and sit just so—all in the name of Xi’s “new era.” A new school textbook titled Little Men, urges greater masculinity for China’s boys. Still in Asia, in the Philippines, thousands of women marched in the streets as President Rodrigo Duterte gave his state of the nation speech on July 23. They were protesting his rising misogyny—amongst several examples, Duterte told his nation’s Armed Forces to shoot female rebels in their vaginas.
In Brazil, Marielle Franco, a popular city councilor, lesbian, and activist in Rio de Janeiro, was shot dead in March. Thousands took to the streets to protest what they believe was an execution by a militia that controls most of Rio; Franco was believed to be getting too strong in a country where white men from a traditional elite dominate political life. Not only do her murderers roam free, but Jair Bolsonaro—one of those white men from the traditional elite, who rode to popularity on the echo of his starkly misogynistic and homophobic statements such as “I would prefer a son to die in an accident, (than be homosexual)”—is set to become Brazil’s president despite tens of thousands of women marching in the streets against him.
For those of us who believe this is all just a phase, that these men won’t have their way with us for too long, perhaps it’s best if we don’t look at Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who regularly tells the nation’s women to stick to motherhood unless they want to be “half-persons,” got re-elected with a phenomenal victory in June.
This rapid, not-so-silent, global tide of misogyny in 2018 should terrify us. While we are busy empowering our daughters and telling our women and LGBTQ candidates that they will be tomorrow’s leaders, and while former first lady Michelle Obama has launched the Global Girls Alliance, a generation’s notion of leadership itself is being defined quite definitively in traditionally masculine terms, where demonic weaponry is for real men and diplomacy is, well, for sissies. “A real man acts, a soft man talks and makes nice,” says Jackson Katz in Man Enough? Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and the Politics of Presidential Masculinity. In Trumpland, “diplomacy is femininity and unilateral action is masculine,” he points out.
My son won’t be like these men. Many of us can take some comfort in knowing that we have enough tools, enough vigilance, that our boys won’t foolishly go looking at Trump and say, “I want to grow up to be just like him.”
But, you see, the concern isn’t necessarily that our boys want to be exactly like these men. The concern is that they are seeing these men succeed and find seats in the highest offices in the land. In my land and yours and all over the globe. These men are not my son’s role models, but he knows they are his leaders. He won’t grow up to be like them; he will just have to take orders from them.
These men will make decisions on our boys’ citizenship, on their jobs, on their sexuality and gender and on whom they may love. They will decide on whether and when to send our boys out to fight in wars.
So, how may we turn the tide? How do we rebuild the notion of masculinity from the ground up? How do we raise feminist boys? Here are just a few strategies I have found as I research and write a book about how to raise feminist boys after launching a feminist son of my own:
- We do it together. Speak to parents of other boys and build a community of parents committed to the cause. Meet educators and administrators at their schools. Put “The Feminist Boy Project” on every agenda. Find books, exchange strategies, invite speakers and experts for talks and teach-ins. Use organizational tools to assess from time to time how the project is coming along. Go ahead—make a commitment to the parents of girls.
- Find the good men in your boy’s world. Populate his life with friends, uncles, cousins who could be role-models. Fathers—do the chores, watch your words, read books by women authors and leave them lying around for your son to pick up.
- Clean up after the men. Clearly, I am not referring to a physical clean-up after the men have feasted. The clean-up is for the times when some men—fathers, uncles, brothers, teachers…men who could not escape toxic masculinity…may tell your boy to “man up” or “don’t be a pussy” or “hope you beat him up worse than he beat you.” Step in and shut down the toxic language. Go in and undo their damage—hug and kiss your boy, let him cry, work with him on gentler solutions to playground bullying.
- Stay in communication with other parents; we can all learn from each other. Parents raising LGBTQ children have experiences and strategies that find pathways beyond the threats of toxic masculinity and oppressive femininity that our heteronormative world places on our kids. Take cues from parents raising boys of color because we bring intersectional sensitivities to our boys who are already at somewhat of a disadvantage in a world of white male privilege. Don’t lay the burden on these parents to share their wisdom, but thank them heartily if they do.
- Talk to your boys about sex. As recent events have shown, talking to boys only about curbing their violence is not enough. We need to talk to them about sex and consent. Teach them that sex is not a conquest as some of their friends—especially at college fraternities—may believe. As I argued in an essay after the Aziz Ansari #MeToo account, we need to teach boys how to read cues the way girls have been taught to read cues for generations. We talk to our girls about sex all the time, which is almost entirely just warnings about how not to get raped. We need to talk to boys about how not to rape. All this could also help, as feminist author Jessica Valenti suggests, to end the silence around male victims of sexual violence.
- Raising a feminist boy can be fun. I raised mine at the movies. We cheered on the brilliant and brave Chihiro in Hayayo Miyazaki’s Spirited Away as she rescued her parents from a formidable monster after her a made a wrong turn. My boy watched with me the Indian film Mirch Masala, a rural precursor to today’s global #MeToo movement, in which women in a spice factory come together to beat back a rapist. And, after we watched this summer’s indie favorite, Eighth Grade, my son pointed out how he squirmed when young Kayla was hit on by a high school sexual predator and she decided not to report it.
At that rally where Trump received wild cheers, the frames of the television cameras showed the stony, cheerless face of a young boy standing behind his president as the man told the crowds: “Think of your son.” I think of that boy and yes, I think of my son, Mr. President. It is for the love of my son that I whisper to him the feminist dream of more women in leadership. I cheered him on when he went to enthusiastically work in high school for the political campaign of a socialist woman of color Kshama Sawant, who went on to be elected to the Seattle City Council. It was no coincidence that he chose to go to Swarthmore College, whose President and Provost are African American women educators. Now, my son expects women to be in leadership. Serve the cause of women leaders or you may be called into service to a brutal world, we must tell our sons.
I wish I were exaggerating. A recent Thomson Reuters Foundation global poll of 550 experts on women’s issues rates my homeland, India, as the most dangerous country in the world for women, followed by Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Saudi Arabia. The tenth most dangerous country for women is the United States, my chosen home, the only Western country to make the top 10. When asked where women “were most at risk of sexual violence, harassment and being coerced into sex,” the U.S. tied for third. We cannot separate the results of these polls from the results of polls electing misogynistic men into office. Dangerous male leaders make dangerous countries.
We raise feminist sons to stop the march of toxic masculinity both in politics and in the annihilation of women by the most entrenched reaches of patriarchy and by its newer processes such as the #incelrebellion. We inoculate our boys against the diseases that breed in the swamp of patriarchy. The boys grow strong and smart enough to dislodge their structural privilege because it really is no privilege at all if you end up a lonely or feared man, anywhere on the planet deemed dangerous for even the most empowered women, on a scale of one to ten.
In the end, we must raise feminist sons simply because we love them.
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