The same week that Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, helped start a campaign to ban the word “bossy,” so as not to discourage women from being assertive, the “Princeton Mom,” Susan Patton, who penned a widely condemned letter about why young women should focus on marriage in The Daily Princetonian, went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to flog her new book. This is what she told a group of young women working in the studio’s newsroom:
“You’re going to start looking for a husband in your mid-30’s? You’re going to be competing with girls who are 10 years younger than you. And not only can you not compete for men with women 10 years younger than you, because they are 10 years younger than you: they’re dewy-eyed, they’re fresh, they’re adorable.”
Dewy-eyed, fresh and adorable? What an anachronistic message to send to young working women — that desirable men, who presumably have their druthers, are so superficial and libido-driven that professional women can’t hold a candle to perky ones, that a woman who wishes to marry must submit herself to being chosen by the most superficial of men before the wick of her beauty burns low. This, according to Patton, apparently happens in her 30s, which could be only the first third of a woman’s life. This reinforces the most destructive gender stereotype.
Undoubtedly there’s some evolutionary-biological drive among many men and women to choose mates who are fertile and capable of protecting and caring for children, but those are only base instincts. Much of the youth-fetishizing, particularly as it relates to women, is culturally constructed and reinforced. We hyper-sexualize little girls and juvenilize grown women. Both genuine youth and seasoned maturity are sacrificed to that altar.
This is a societal disease.
And it’s no better for little boys, who are constantly admonished to suck it up, toughen up, don’t cry, be a man, and don’t run, hit or kick like a girl. We plant seeds of misogyny, often without being aware of it, while our boys are still sprouts. And then we wonder why so many men are emotionally suppressed and stunted. It’s because we’ve been telling them all their lives that emotions were effeminate and femininity was a curse.
We build zombie men and lament the dearth of “real” ones.
Yet some still bemoan our current atmosphere as “feminized” — a rhetorical construction that in and of itself is misogynistic because it establishes femininity as a lesser, undesirable expression — rather than understanding that femininity and masculinity aren’t strictly gendered and their expressions not rigidly conveyed.
Our current turn toward tolerance for sexual identities and gender expressions isn’t about more people being less of a man or woman, but about more people feeling safe to be more wholly human. And it’s about freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of self-determination and freedom of fluidity.
And still some see any acknowledgment of and respect for sexual and gender differences as an attack on nature and culture at the expense of procreative couples and traditional families.
Let’s be very clear about something: There is no shortage of hetero-normative behavior in this country, or heterosexual pairings and heterosexual sex, or pregnancies or births.
“Girls must be given safe space to be assertive…”
If there is an issue on which we can mostly agree it is that there are too many children born to single mothers. But there is a smart way to address this problem: increase comprehensive sex education, teach young people to better value their bodies and protect their futures, hold male behavior more fully accountable, make contraception readily available and easily affordable and make sure that all women have a full range of reproduction options, including access to abortion.
But on some of these we are just treading water and on others we’re backpedaling.
As the Guttmacher Institute has pointed out, “more abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011-2013 than in the entire previous decade.”
Instead of seriously addressing this issue from a policy perspective, people like Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly would rather harp on pop culture and blame Beyoncé. O’Reilly, slammed her for her song “Partition,” in which she sings about having sex with her husband, and father of her child, calling it “exploitive garbage” that did harm to the teenage girls, “particularly girls of color,” when she knows “the devastation” of unwanted pregnancies and fractured families.
First, some facts: the phenomenon of single motherhood is becoming much more an adult issue than a teen one. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teenage pregnancy rates have declined to historic lows, and the rate of decline in birthrates for women age 15 to 19 since 1990 was even greater among blacks than among whites and Hispanics. The numbers are still too high among teenagers, but the dimensions of the problem are contracting, not growing.
That said, whether one likes or agrees with the message of a music video is irrelevant here. Condemning artists for being provocative when politicians have proven either impotent or regressive is a tired sleight of hand. Instead of protesting a song in which Beyoncé asks her driver to close the partition, O’Reilly would be better served protesting the Republican laws forcing the closings of abortion clinics.
And in O’Reilly’s chastising, there is an undercurrent of shaming women for being too sexually expressive and not sufficiently chaste. Women shouldn’t be sexually liberated beings. Women and girls, particularly those of lesser means, must be taught to demur, resist and abstain lest they entice a wily man and suffer an unwanted pregnancy. As Ann Coulter told a crowd at CPAC last week, poor people should be told to “keep your knees together before you’re married.”
We have to see our girls and boys as more than skirts and pants, damsels and squires, child-bearers and breadwinners. We must see them as — and encourage them to express themselves as — fully realized beings. Girls must be given safe space to be assertive and boys to be vulnerable without feeling that they have failed a test of gender normativity. We must teach everyone to honor themselves fully — including their sexual selves — so that unwanted pregnancies fall in proportion to a rising sense of self.
We must allow girls and boys, men and women, to be fully free.