I notice that whenever there is an article about helping girls break free of stereotypes, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of adults waiting in the comment wings to insinuate or flat-out state that girls should get back in line and just be girls. Here's the thing about girls, and all children, actually: They see no limits to their potential until adults point them out. Congrats to all of the "adults" on the Internet -- and presumably also in real life -- suggesting girls should not be uppity and should hop back into their gender boxes. They should embrace their inner divas. You all make me so sad.
Two recent articles grabbed my attention and allowed me to crystallize my thinking on why so many people, maddeningly, do this -- and why, precisely, they shouldn't.
"Seeking Gender Equality in LEGO World" by Melissa Atkins Wardy on CNN and "GoldieBlox 'We Are The Champions' Video Features Girls Who Crush Gender Stereotypes" by Robin Wilkey here on The Huffington Post both got tremendous readership, and both attracted torrents of comments that confirmed my most cynical views on the vileness of Internet commenting (and trust me, the bar these fools limboed under was very low). Lewis's Law is alive and well: "The comments on any article about feminism justify feminism." Hoo boy, do they ever.
Why do articles written by women about improving the lives of girls or women always get attacked? Why are they viewed as somehow anti-boy or anti-man or even anti-princess-girl simply because they seek to address some of the problems facing girls and women? This is of course nothing new, but simply pointing it out activates the trolls like a hunk of filet mignon dropped into a lions' den. And at the risk of stumbling into some crooked corridor of funhouse mirrors, what happens when you write an article about writing an article about girls and women? It will not take long to find out.
People are obviously hurting. Some have very sad and empty lives. Some are quite broken. Some probably mean well, but haven't thought about the issue critically. Some absolutely believe girls and women should be kept in their place. Here is a sampling of comment screengrabs, with names blacked out to protect the guilty. They were taken from the two articles mentioned above. Behold the thought patterns of everyone from religious nutjobs to perfectly sane misogynists, as well as the truly clueless:
Not represented among the mashup above are the hundreds of comments that fall into the category of "Don't you have something better to do with your time?" I want to respond directly to comments of that ilk, because they deserve to be addressed.
That is my answer. No, I do not have something better to do with my time than try to make the world a better place for girls and women. In fact, there are many people like me who are now joining together to try to change girlhood for the better. We are all sorts of girl empowerment experts like psychologists, authors, teachers, media analysts, nonprofits, small businesses and regular moms and dads who have created an alliance called Brave Girls Want. Our mission is to advocate for healthier media and product options for girls.
I'm going to show you why we are doing this. We're going to play a game of connect-the-dots in ten easy steps, but it flows backwards. Stay with me now!
10. Women have not yet achieved full gender equality. (If you disagree with this statement, feel free to stop reading, proceed directly to the comment section and get an early start).
9. It takes being in a position of power to create the conditions that support equality, but men hold the vast majority of positions of power in politics and industry.
8. Groups in power tend to hold onto it for themselves, not to go out of their way to share it.
7. The only way for disenfranchised groups to gain equality is to fight for it. It does not magically come to them if they are patient.
6. Women need to fight for equality by obtaining the power necessary to secure their own rights.
5. The seeds of adult female leadership must be sown in girlhood.
4. To become leaders, girls need to see females in leadership roles, to see their gender equally represented -- and positively represented -- in their childhood world of movies/books/toys/music/television, etc., and to be encouraged by adults to transcend gender stereotypes rather than perpetuate them.
3. If girlhood involves greater gender equality and exposure to positive, non-stereotyped depictions of femininity in media and products, more girls will believe they can become leaders as children and later as adults. (And yes, if girls sometimes play with Barbies or dress as princesses, their futures as leaders are not dashed).
2. When more girls believe they can become leaders, more will become leaders, and there will one day be a lot more women in positions of power.
1. When women have enough power, #10 can be achieved.
Therefore, #4 is important and very, very worth my time as an activist. The world will be a better and a more just place for both males and females when power and leadership are equitably shared, and that all begins in childhood. When grownups actively or passively sabotage #4, they are undermining girls in a real and serious way. Some of this undermining feels to me like it is misguided and unintended, and some of it feels deliberate and strategic.
Consider a vexing but less inflammatory comment like, "Girls and boys are just different. Girls like pink and princesses; boys like adventure and building." Why are generalizations like this problematic?
1. Some girls innately like very traditionally feminine toys, movies and so forth, but...
2. Other girls only "like" those things because they've been spoon-fed them since birth, and...
3. Still other girls like what has been recategorized within the past ten years or so as being only "for boys," and of course...
4. Assumptions are also being made about boys. They, too, are being stereotyped.
My questions for all the negative commenters on the topic of girl empowerment are:
1. How will it hurt you or your child if girls are given more options?
2. Why is this controversial?
3. Why is it so important to you that girls not be given more options?
4. What do you gain by arguing for the status quo of keeping girlhood hyper-feminine and limiting in the ways that it is today?
5. Finally, why are you so angry and vicious on the Internet?
Regardless of why it is objectionable to so many people that others are trying to give girls healthier messages than the ones they are currently bombarded with by society, we will continue advocating for girls. We will not be silenced and we will not go away. Our girls deserve a childhood free of stereotyping and sexualization, the encouragement to reach their full potential as human beings, and the joy of knowing that there are many ways to be a girl.