“Mum, are you a feminist?”
My fourteen-year-old son asked me this important question yesterday as we drove through town. On our way to the record store for a Friday night date, it was just us in the mini-van on a sunshiny evening.
I didn’t miss a beat with my response, turning left through a green traffic light and swerving to avoid the car next to me that felt he could turn into my lane incorrectly.
A simple answer to a complicated question.
He raised his chin a bit, thoughtfully narrowing his eyes out the windshield during a long pause. “Okay. But are you the kind that believes that women should have the same rights as men? Or the kind that hates men?”
Children never ask for more than what they’re ready for. And when they ask the important questions, it’s critical to meet them where they’re at with honesty. And so the door was opened.
“I’m the kind that believes in equal rights for all genders. I’m the kind that believes that our language has to change. And that we, as a society, need to adapt our language and behaviors to foster positive progression.”
It’s a lot to unpack while waiting for traffic to merge. We kept driving.
As I navigated my van through a busy Friday-night Costco parking lot, we continued our discussion through the line-up to get in. Bought our smoothies at the counter, and sat to share a slice of pizza with all of the mothers and fathers, hungry babies, and folks on their way home from work with the week’s groceries in tow. We continued our thoughtful conversation as we ate. A few tough questions. More tough answers.
We spoke about toxic masculinity. Hate speech. Acceptance. The way things used to be, and the way things are now. I told him about what I term “The Hee Haw Generation” – the decades of sexist exposure I grew up with and how women have been objectified as objects of sexual gratification. We talked about how women were called ‘Bitches’ when they wore shoulder pads and went to work in corporate offices in the 80’s. We talked about what it means to be masculine and how, sometimes, men are shamed for displaying behaviors that are, in some eyes, what have been deemed as feminine traits.
We watched elderly folks amble past with their shopping carts and young lovers holding hands, and enjoyed our time just being together in the bustle and energy of the crowd. And as I sat and chewed my food, I watched my boy. His silky blonde hair falling in his eye that he pushes over with thin fingers. His full lips. His eyes, so blue and earnest, smiling at me above his iced coffee. My heart ached. Both for the history that I’ve experienced personally, but also for his hope for the future, as well. It ached for the tough conversations he’d have. For the questions he’d ask himself as he navigated a workplace environment. For the confusing messages that are sent and received through mass media and movie screens. We’re changing, globally, but it’s not easy to change. Two steps forward and one step back. And his generation is going to keep pushing against the walls that were built in decades past.
Our conversation reminded me of a set of images I created recently. And I know that sharing the photographs in this blog post might not seem related, but it is. And it’s related in a very important way. Hear me out…
This is my friend Aaron.
Aaron is a man. And in these photographs, he’s wearing a skirt. And he’s fucking beautiful. I was honored to create a gallery of photographs with him. The water was calm, and he moved so lithely, with quiet and calm, as we navigated the coastline together. These photographs follow my usual MO – water, light & shadow, fabric, energy, LIFE.
Aaron has posted photographs of himself before that share the same aesthetic. And every time he does, I’m deeply moved. I’ve admired his vulnerability to create and share photographs that some might find…I don’t know…different. He’s received comments and jeers about them in the past. Responses that the images are funny. That the photographs are somehow discredited in their beauty and grace because he is a man, and it’s funny to see a man in that way. And that upsets me.
Men are just as entitled to loving themselves as women are. They are just as able to embrace a scene of serenity and compelling grace as women are. It’s not a contest. Women don’t win the ‘beauty’ lottery just as men don’t win the ‘tough’ lottery. The labels that we crudely staple onto genders are unfair, at best. And when we box-in our assumptions of what each gender is entitled to, we do ourselves a disservice.
Yes. I’m a feminist. I believe that my genitals shouldn’t hinder my place on the corporate ladder. I believe that language and action places the onus of suffering on women and implies that our behaviors somehow CAUSE our suffering. And I’m tired of it. But I’m hopeful, because I’m raising children that understand that being masculine doesn’t mean “Boys Don’t Cry” or “Man Up”. That being a female doesn’t mean “Be Pretty” or “Just Be Nice”. That my right to wear a tux to my high school prom doesn’t take away from the men, and my friend Aaron’s right to wear a gorgeous skirt and have a beach-side, sunset session with me doesn’t take away from the women. We are all speaking our truths. And that’s got to be okay.
Yes, I’m a feminist, son. But I will go one step farther to say that I’m a Humanist. And in a world full of labels and primitive standards and false posturing, I’ll encourage empowerment, authenticity, kindness, and ownership for all genders.
I’m proud of the photographs that we created together on the beach that night. And I wanted to share them to others could enjoy them, too. I could have just shared the images on my facebook page, not said anything, and then watched through squinted eyes to see if anybody says that they’re funny, but I thought I’d make a pre-emptive move instead and write my thoughts out. But I’m frustrated that the thoughts even have to be said.
Aaron, I love the photographs we created together. Thank you for sharing that space with me. I can’t wait till next time.