This is What a Feminist(’s Dad) Looks Like

*Note: I wrote this several months ago but am just publishing it now, two weeks before our daughter is due, because reasons. Hopefully she doesn’t get my time management skills.

When you live in the Midwest, which I have for almost my entire life, blustery fall Saturdays go hand-in-hand with college football. Interest in the outcomes of the games does vary some along predictable gender lines, but it’s a cultural touchstone that involves the whole family, including those who dress up their little boys as players and their little girls as cheerleaders. Perhaps not surprisingly, nuanced conversations about feminism aren’t in abundant supply once tailgate parties, brats, and massive amounts of Bud Light come to define the weekend landscape.

But there I was recently at my alma mater to take in a Saturday faculty lecture titled “Sparkle: Contemporary Girls’ Media Culture”—and then leaving campus several hours before kickoff. If I somehow had to go back in time and explain this decision to college senior me, a play-by-play man for the student radio station, the dead air would be deafening.

What I know now that I didn’t then … well, it’s quite a few things, one of them being that parenthood comes at you in all shapes and forms. For instance, it can be your child toddle-running to hug you from across the room, or toddle-screaming because you had the audacity to say “No, it’s not time to hang out at a dumpster for 20 minutes. And seriously, why do you even want to do this in the first place? Because Elmo needs to see it? Does Elmo realize people are starting to stare at daddy? He does? Well, Elmo can just go to hell, can’t he?”

But those moments that hit you with the thought “Whoa—I’m someone’s mom/dad now” aren’t limited to actual, on-the-ground parenting. They also crop up in the decisions you make when your kids are nowhere to be seen (but hopefully asleep and/or supervised). In the case of feminism and sparkle and where I fit in, it had everything to do with a child I have yet to bargain with, or even meet: my daughter, who is still several months away from being born.

With my wife’s first pregnancy, I spent a lot of time before we found out the gender thinking about my responsibility to a daughter, should we have one, especially since my work schedule—part-time, mostly out of the house—would make me the primary caregiver. I couldn’t give you a precise definition of what I took this responsibility to entail, but wanting to provide her with an environment where she was valued and celebrated for exactly who she is, in and of herself, apart from any sort of patriarchal expectations of girlhood, would be a pretty good summary. It seemed like the least we could do as parents, given all the messages and social cues she would receive later, no matter what we do.

How we would do this, I had no idea. I mean sure, when she got older, we could just feed her a steady diet of red meat, tractor pulls, and Ronda Rousey fights (while hiding the Ronda Rousey Maxim cover?), but where would that get us the first couple of years? Everyone knows infants are next to useless ringside at a mixed martial arts event. Toddlers, too.

Having Mr. Baby, as I dubbed our son in his first weeks on this Earth, didn’t somehow get us “off the hook”; teaching him that girls/women can do anything that boys/men can, and vice versa—except for giving birth, and thank God for that, because I guarantee I would not be as pleasant as my wife after 38 hours of labor—is just as important as if he had been a girl. This is why we will change the genders of characters in his books (Why couldn’t a bulldozer be a girl?), and why I have a not-so-secret dream of him or his sister someday asking a classmate: “What do you mean your dad is the one who goes to work?”

Nevertheless, the stakes are higher with a daughter. We’re talking about the lens through which she will perceive herself and the world around her, and there’s no escaping the reality that society will afford her brother, a white male, privileges it won’t extend to her—unless of course he’s a member of the LGBTQ community, at which point society will find ways to be awful to him, too.

So that’s how I found myself wanting to learn about the widespread use of “sparkle” in media and products targeted at girls, for leading the bye-bye waves to mommy as she leaves in the morning can only carry the patriarchy-eschewing dad so far.

The lecturer, Professor Mary Celeste Kearney, talked about feminist critiques of this sparklification and the problem of teaching girls that “spectacular bodily display” is what makes them special. She talked about how this same sparkle can, on the other hand, get girls thinking about working in media like video and film, almost a grassroots way to address the dearth of women directors and cinematographers. And, while wearing a sparkled blouse herself, she talked about the sense of empowerment both women and members of the LGBTQ community sometimes find in standing out from the backdrop of daily life.

Her final verdict on sparkle and young girls?

“I’m caught in the middle,” she said.

I had gone in prepared to declare war on all things sparkle, Frozen be damned—or, at the very least, to worry I wouldn’t do a good enough job waging said war. But here was a simple reminder of something I know from parenting our son:

There is no one “right way” to raise a child.

My daughter may like sparkled things, and she may not. Either would be OK. Throughout her life, it won’t be as much about what she chooses as it will be getting to know her so well that I understand why she’s choosing it and can help when she needs me.

I can do that. And that just may be the first step to becoming a feminist’s dad.

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