I’ve been thinking about the capriciousness of life lately. Of my three children, one has Mister Soandso’s brown eyes; the other two have versions of my own hazel. They played no role in determining their own eye color, and yet it is part of what makes them who they are. Each of us is made of similar lists: hair, skin, and eye color; the shape of our features; the length of our bones; the effectiveness of our body’s organs and systems. Each of those check marks that come together to make us, were simply handed to us via chromosomes and genetics. However, they become who we are because they are what people see when they look at us.
We are to some extent only what people see. And we are also what people believe us to be, even if it is a lie.
Last October we realized that Middlest’s trajectory into adulthood is going faster than average. Of course, the average age of puberty for girls is from 10 – 14 so she isn’t really going to be outside the realm of average. Perhaps it would be more honest to say that she is maturing faster than I had hoped. And because Biggest is 3.5 years older than Middlest, he is going through the early stages of puberty right now as well.
Suddenly, two of my children are leaving the “safety” of early childhood and entering the next stage. Frankly, I’m terrified.
It isn’t the specter of hormonal angst or dating that has me worried. It is the process of helping my children navigate society’s poorly charted waters of gender and sexuality, and especially equality in relation to those terms.
When babies are tiny, there is window of time when they are virtually alike except for the ways society interacts with them. Boy babies are bounced more roughly and allowed to cry longer than the babies dressed in pink. We might not think it happens, but it does. It starts nearly when they do and simply grows right along with them.
I’m not distraught over this societal norm even if I think it a peculiarity of our species. I figure it must have evolved right along with the rest of us. But in today’s world, it leads to something that we know isn’t right: our physical strength equals our emotional and mental strength as well.
For me personally, not being a boy meant that for many years I tried to be more than boys. I tried to prove that being a girl meant I wasn’t automatically slower at running or weaker at climbing or less smart than my male peers simply because I wasn’t male.
It may not have scarred my psyche but it did become part of my psyche. And it has had a role in my parenting of children, especially after I became a parent to children of both genders. I haven’t avoided gender specific role-playing or clothing options. Instead, I intentionally provided a variety of options for all expressions, even if the boys rarely picked the dolls and the girl liked pink and frilly over plain and blue or green. Our family negotiated the roles of gender without extreme concern. We treated others via the “Golden Rule” and we were able to focus more on people’s actions than their beings. Whether a person was a boy or a girl didn’t seem to matter as much.
And then this fall happened. Both my oldest children began the early stages of sexual maturation at the same time the political climate became more polar and vocal. This spring, both have continued.
Every four years the political climate in the United States becomes louder, beating the drums to a fevered pitch. Why? To distract the population from the bigger questions of political leadership for all Americans. Why? Because it works, every time. By dragging something to the forefront of the political scene, the US citizenry’s attention is distracted.
And this election is all about women’s rights. All eyes have been pulled to how the show-down will play out, while the oil industry (as one example) has continued to quietly pocket their record profits while wrecking more and more of our environment. This cycle repeats locally and nationally in connection to our political structures. We all know it and yet we ignore the effect: it rips the fabric of what this nation is supposedly founded on – equality.
But this year, I have a dog in the fight. I have three of them, in fact. Three little people who didn’t ask for brown hair or short parents or USA passports. But that’s what they have. And they will have lives impacted by a political climate that sets precedent, both legal and societal, on women’s reproductive lives which will, of course, affect their relationships with partners as well as their children. In other words, my daughter’s access to health care and her reproductive rights are being politicized again. My sons may not have to worry about their own pap-smears and access to drugs to keep them from getting pregnant after being raped, but they will know women who will, possibly even their sister.
Am I being an alarmist? I could forgive you for thinking yes if it weren’t for the historical proof that we all should be alarmed.
This isn’t an “American” problem. This is a human problem. The Americans are simply very good at it. The people who have power manipulate the populace that affords them that power, in order to maintain that power. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to pit our boys and girls against one another. After all, it seems to be human nature.
We see this in every part of the globe, in every era of our history. Armies kill their fellow soldiers. It is the “work” of war. But when they rape the women, they leave behind the biggest collateral damage of war: the women are forever unworthy of relationships with their men and any children these women have are forever second-class citizens as well. There is no true equality for women, especially the brutalized.
When I was a middle schooler, trying to make sense of my changing body and the changing relationships between my classmates, the jokes we all heard and told began to have a personal feel to them. We’d all laugh but some felt some a level of discomfort. By 1997 when Aaron Eckhart delivered his misogynist line, “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for a week and doesn’t die” in the movie In The Company of Men, it spawned a redoux in South Park and tee-shirts or bumper stickers all over the nation.
Neil LaBute tapped into the insidious misogyny of humans when he penned that line. He didn’t invent the mind-set that depicts vaginas as bad or untrustworthy, he merely utilized it to develop the character. LaBute tapped into the seemingly human notion that vaginas and those who have them are something to be feared or mistrusted.
I bring this up because I will be talking again to my children about vaginas soon. Yes, Biggest already knows about them and their function. Middlest knows what is appropriate for her, at this age. I’m not worried about their questions regarding body parts and functions. What I am worried about are their questions regarding news stories that depict women as stupid or angry or hysterical simply because they said the word “vagina” in public and the word makes some men uncomfortable. The message is that vaginas are bad and need to be kept from polite conversation. Or is it?
Is what makes some people uncomfortable about vaginas is their interest in them? Is that the true elephant in the room? That some people cannot stop thinking about vaginas? And if some people cannot stop thinking about vaginas, who’s fault is it? The person with the vagina or the person who cannot exercise mental control? I think that is what makes some people uncomfortable and when people are uncomfortable they react. They create situations where they can control what makes them uncomfortable rather than controlling themselves.
Comedians exploit what makes us uncomfortable by making us laugh. We make jokes to illicit laughs and the best material is that to which we all can relate. Sheng Wang (and not Betty White) has been getting the laughs for years by talking about vaginas versus testicles. People laugh over the juxtaposition between word choice and physical function. It is what makes that joke funny.
But it wouldn’t be as funny if part of our social fabric wasn’t woven from the deeply held believe that vaginas are somehow able to control others. The cultural practice of separating menstruating women from men is not one currently held in this country. The mysticism of menstruation has been reduced via scientific understanding. However, how many jokes do we still make that equate vaginas to weakness and menstruation to mental-illness? Enough to know that such thinking is still part of us.
I don’t want my sons to think that women are weak simply because women have vaginas. And I don’t want my daughter to think that her vagina is bad or something to be ashamed of. Her vagina is ultimately no more interesting that her brother’s penis: a functional body part she didn’t ask for but that which defines her.
And that is the biggest lie. We are more than our body parts. It isn’t our body parts that make us good or bad. Who we are is how we conduct ourselves, for better or for worse.