Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Rambling: Feminism, Parenting, Equality, and Ripping My Hair Out

Today, blogger Miriam wrote a goodbye post on Feministing announcing that she would be leaving the site to pursue other projects (including her own site Radical Doula). In her announcement, she left a few parting words about the future of feminism:

Feminism has yet to adequately adapt to these changes, and in my humble opinion, the crux of this adaptation is going to be about gender. Feminism needs a more nuanced understanding of gender in order to adequately address the sexism of tomorrow. Our movement can’t be about women versus men anymore. We all serve to benefit from feminism, and we all need to know our place in the movement.
My vision? A feminist movement that works toward a world where no one is limited or defined by their gender identity. This movement takes on a wide range of social justice issues and brings a gender lens to all of them. I think we’re headed in the right direction, but we need to continue to interrogate how gender stereotyping and gender essentialism holds us back from this goal.
I read those words and nodded. Especially resonating was the line "works toward a world where no one is limited or defined by their gender identity." And it doesn't surprise me that Miriam is also very concerned with birth politics and parenting because those issues really informed my own views on gender equality.

As I wrote in a previous post about the importance of dad's voices in the parenting blogosphere:
gender equality is not sustainable if it means only that women get the freedom to take on roles traditionally ascribed to men. In that model, women either have to take on double-duty, or the work traditionally done by women goes undone (and that work is important, so that's really not an option). In order for gender equality to be truly reached, men have to also be free to take on roles traditionally ascribed to women. The ideal is that individuals then take on the duties that make the most sense for their skill sets and interests (and divvy up the work no one wants to do fairly, without concern for gender stereotypes).
Furthermore, gender equality should not mean that women feel forced into traditionally male roles if that's not what they want or where they feel their skills and interests lie. We shouldn't think of men being able to take on "women's work" and women being able to take on "men's work" because--ideally--it would all just be "work."

But we can't get there just by willing it into existence. We are shaped by our cultural norms, and those cultural norms are deeply entrenched in a gender binary that pits breadwinning as a male-dominated role and caregiving as a female-dominated one. Even as individual people continue to illustrate that those rigid divisions don't always get maintained in actual lives, our cultural texts--films, commercials, television shows, songs--maintain them.

After posting about the Huggies campaign that demonstrates fathers to be incompetent and--by extension--pits mothers as locked into primary caregiving roles, I ended up in some conversations on Huggies Facebook page (probably beyond what was productive, but I digress). There, I saw many people (men and women) defending father's competence and expressing disappointment in the campaign. But I also saw many people dismissing these complaints (which is fine, not everyone has to see the world the way I do) and calling the people who were upset about the commercials--especially men--names.

Here's an example:

Over and over again I watched people dismiss the complaints about the commercial, and very few of the dismissals had to do with the actual argument against it in the first place. They tended to fall into a few--all too familiar--camps:

  • I'm not offended, so it's not offensive. Whether or not something is offensive on a social level isn't determined by one individual's reaction; it's determined by a careful analysis of the message sent by the text and the ways that different audiences receive that message. I'm not saying that you have to be offended. Your individual reaction is wholly your own, but that doesn't mean that people who are offended are somehow deficient. 
  • Don't you have something better to worry about? This is deflection. Yes, there are other issues. Yes, many of them are more important than this one. Many of them are less important than this one. This is not a zero sum game. We all take up the causes that resonate with us, and we all operate within our own experiences and abilities. This is an argument that is used to ignore the actual topic at hand. 
  • It's just a commercial! In my view, there is no "just a" text. All texts are fragments of a larger cultural milieu. These ideas did not spring forth from a  vacuum and they will not be heard in a vacuum. This commercial exists as part of the cultural text where movies, television shows, other commercials, etc. all send a similar message about fathers and the way parenting duties should be divided. These things add up. They count. 
Look, I know that I see the world through my own little lens. I don't expect everyone (or really anyone) to see the world in that exact same way. I don't expect everyone to get behind the same campaigns that I do. I don't expect everyone to agree with me all the time. What I do expect (perhaps too optimistically) is to be respected when I am respectful, to have debates over the content of my analyses, and to learn new things by hearing from other points of view.

For me, the issues of oppression, media, and ethical consumption are highly intertwined. The media around us is full of messages, and since those messages are created as part of a culture that is rife with various systems of oppression, many of those messages are going to promote those systems. I feel that it is my responsibility as a consumer and potential consumer of those media to choose wisely based on the messages sent. If an ad campaign promotes a rigid gender binary, I have a right to speak up against the company and spend my dollars elsewhere if they insist on keeping that message. I also have a responsibility to work against dismantling that message if I want to see a more equal world. The same goes for shows that promote racial stereotypes, commercials that exclude women, and toys that promote limited gender roles. 

One of the commenters calling me out on the Huggies page responded that my blog and I were misleading by pointing these things out. She went on to say that I was on a "crusade for equal rights." I don't see myself as effective enough to have a crusade, but if that's the worst thing that's said about me today, I can live with it. 


  1. When my wife took acting classes as an undergraduate, and was working on explaining the subtext behind various characters' thoughts and deeds, the professor banned the word "just" from the room because it's a way of not owning up to your feelings, a way of weakening your position and shifting responsibility away from yourself and your words. It always strikes me that the same applies in life. "Just a commercial" is a way of trying to shift responsibility away from the commercial and into thin air.

    Also just wanted to say thanks, and I'm so glad to see feminism moving to embrace men and women sharing all work as they see fit, without gendered categories to fill. Hooray!

    1. I love that explanation for banning "just," and it's going to make me way more conscious of when I use it now. I think that when I get flustered, I tend to say "It's just that. . ." too often.

  2. Hey, that post was a response to me (et al)! And perfectly highlights the problem with the whole "discussion." Namely that all of the people telling us to "calm down" and "don't get so worked up" were the same people who resorted to name-calling and petty insults as a response to rational, logical posts.

    Thank you so much for this beautifully-written response. As a friend of mine put it recently, there seems to be a group of women who take great pride in the belief that women are and should be better at "caregiving" than men, and any threat to that belief is damaging to their ego. As a result, they reel against the idea that a man could do their "job" just as well as they could. So I especially like the way you said there is no "men's work" and "women's work." It's just work, and in the case of raising children, very important work at that! Why wouldn't we want as many people as possible, male or female, to be excellent at caring for children?

    1. Thanks for reading, and thanks for doing so much work on the Huggies page to make your views heard today. I understand that these roles are pretty heavily engrained in our culture, but it can be so frustrating when people just reject your point of view without engaging it at all.

  3. Thank you for this! You very eloquently expressed what I have been feeling regarding this ad campaign. I'm hardly one to get up in arms over every little thing, but this commercial actually stopped me in my tracks when I saw it. I am especially shocked by those who completely dismiss and insult those who take offense to this.. it is really hard for me to understand how this could be seen as anything but offensive (objectively speaking - like you said, maybe each individual may not be personally offended). That "just a commercial" argument drives me crazy. Right, it's just a commercial, it's just a sitcom, it's just a magazine column. Pretty soon all these "just a"'s add up to the main message we see conveyed - they permeate our culture. I find this offensive to fathers who can never seem to attain equal ground on the parenting front and women who can never expect an equal partnership in the huge undertaking of raising children.

    1. Exactly, Jen! Sure, one commercial isn't going to have any huge impact on cultural norms, but how are we to critique any of those texts if we can't analyze them individually? You have to start somewhere.

  4. Great job on this! We cover a lot of these types of issues over at - giving praise when an advertiser gets it right and dismantling them when they don't. There's a movement growing for dads but it's still overshadowed by mom bloggers on popular "parenting sites" that have limited focus on dads by dads.

    The Walt Disney World "Moms Panel". Why can't it be "Parents Panel"? We talked about an email I received from a Disney rep in Episode 019 -

    Anyways, the louder the voices are in response to campaigns like the Huggies "Dad Test" the better for families. It can't hurt to have real dads be featured as responsible parents instead of as a photogenic lab rat performing a "test" - over time it just might solidify the public's emotional opinion that dads are equally as important as moms in the family unit.

  5. Thanks a lot for bringing this issue to your audience. I'm not only upset that it is a bad depiction of fathers, but it is also a terrible marketing strategy. Any time you isolate a segment of your target market (and fathers SHOULD BE their target market too since more and more fathers are making buying decisions AND doing the shopping) and offend them, it's not good for business. Other than silly form replies from Huggies, I have not seen a response to the negative comments, and that's bad too. Pampers does it so right. It's part of their corporate culture. In addition to having a superior product, they sponsor a lot of fatherhood events and donate to family-related charities that embrace all types of family - dads, grandparents, etc. That's why I buy their brand.

  6. Thank you so much for this. I have been involved in the Facebook discussions on the Huggies page.

    I also wanted to let you know about a petition we have started on a related issue, and that is the way the Census counts child care.

    Thank you again.