Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Gender Issues, part 1

(This is the first post in a multi-part series about gender issues in the modern/digital age. Part 1 introduces the topic by looking at the media, and what our children are currently exposed to, bombarded with, saturated in, whether they know it or not. Part 2 will look at the impact on our culture and the many ways in which this plays out for our children online or via electronic communication. We'll add more, because as we discuss, write, shape our thoughts, more topics keep getting added to the pile!)

So I'm just going to start by making it very clear (in case it wasn't already) that Sam and I are women. As such, we care about women's issues. Now you know.
Gender Symbols is in the Public Domain

This is not to say that we care about female issues more than male issues. Well, maybe we do, but in point of fact, we care about men's/boys' issues quite deeply, and we hope to educate all of the young people in our charge to think critically about matters of gender that affect our society. But our perspective will be different--or might even come across as biased--because we are, truth be told, female. We have actual real-life experience on the girls' side of things. We can't help it.

Further, as a mother of two daughters, I personally feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to raise my girls to be aware of women's issues, and to pay attention to gender messaging--overt or unintentional--they see or hear in the media. There's a lot at stake here if I let the media, or society, or our culture tell them how to be girls/women without taking a critically active role in providing a clear and balanced message.

---Disclaimer over---

A little over a year ago, I watched the documentary Miss Representation (trailer below) and started following the buzz around this film. I signed up on the website, took the pledge, followed the organization on Facebook and Twitter...the whole nine yards. By the way, I also made a point to watch other education-minded documentaries like Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, but Miss Representation struck a deeper chord as it relates to this blog and the topics Sam and I cover with parents and kids. Miss Representation isn't exactly aimed at middle school students, in fact even the trailer is quite graphic. But its messages about media consumption, and the impact on our girls (and, of course, our boys!), are important to consider.  

Heap onto this my attendance at multiple conferences where I heard an amazing speaker address bias, bullying, and gender identity. I noticed on shopping trips to buy birthday gifts for friends that all the "girl" aisles at the store were pink and all the "boy" aisles were blue, and there was a growing movement online questioning how we had drifted so far from "toys are for kids." [When Lego launched their new "Friends" line just for girls, I visited The Gendered Advertising Remixer, a website where you can "remix" the ads aimed at kids, putting the girl-audio to the boy-video, and vice-versa. Try it and you'll see what I mean.]  I watched television and listened to music with my daughters and paid attention to what they saw/heard and how they reacted to it (or didn't). I observed their inability to look away from tabloid articles lining the checkout at the grocery store, with blaring headlines about the latest ridiculous celebrity, "27 Ways to Keep Your Man," or "How to Lose That Belly." I became much more critical of the media I was consuming and started analyzing the things toward which I gravitated and why. In addition to the female writers I admired, I began reading and following online a young author lending his voice to women's issues, as one of his articles landed in the Top 20 of all things "shared" on Facebook in 2011. 

In short, I started paying more attention to the "messages" our family was getting from the media.

Sam and I wrote and spoke as often as we could about bullying and cyberbullying, and the unsavory behavior that abounds online where people somehow feel okay to unleash their inner snark-monster.
We were careful not to "normalize" bullying online by sharing inflated statistics that make kids think "this happens to everyone." It doesn't...and when it does, it's a big deal. We even addressed sexting--not just the obvious embarrassment and shame young people (mostly girls) feel when these situations go bad, or the long-term consequences that cannot be predicted in the moment of the snapshot, but the legal ramifications of sending graphic pictures or messages via technology.

But I don't feel it's been nearly enough.

Most recently, a colleague shared with me an NPR story about a form of cyberbullying known as "Slut Shaming," which is defined as "using photos and videos to turn a girl's private life inside out." Girls lives are ruined and they are publicly shamed for behavior that elevates the boys involved to "cool" status. UGH! Combined with stories of the media objectifying women, as seen here in tech industry advertising at the Consumer Electronics Show (don't miss the brilliant feminist response). and the more recent hoopla over Super Bowl ads--I'm a huge fan of the #notbuyingit campaign--I have hit my own tipping point, if you will. I want this conversation at the forefront of all our digital discussions, not moved down the list because we are uncomfortable talking about sex. We can't afford to not GET COMFORTABLE. We need to get it out in the open. We need to talk to our girls. We need to talk to our boys. We need to let them know that if anything, ANYTHING, happens to them that makes them feel uncomfortable, they can turn to us as a trusted adult for help and guidance. We need to educate them in ways that empower them and engender confidence, respect, and empathy. When the independence they so crave throws up its first challenge about the kind of person they are going to become, we want their moral compass to be strong enough to steer them in the right direction.

The formation of our gender identity begins early, and in addition to how we feel on the inside, it can be heavily influenced by the norms of our society on the outside. What does it mean to be a girl in our culture? What does it mean to be a boy? How do we help our kids wade through the "shoulds" defined by society and find their own voice? It is clear to us that this desperately needs our attention. Consider some recent stories posted online...

Many of the following links contain graphic content and profanity. I mean no offense, but this is a realistic look at what's going on out there. Please consider reading some of these articles; then continue to follow us as we explore the issues presented more deeply.  One blog post can't cover it all...

To My Male Relatives on Facebook Who 'Like' Sexism
Children and the Culture of Pornography
Cameras, Consent and Conservative Rapeyness
A School Reveals It Has a "Fantasy Slut League"
The 12-Year Old Slut Meme and Facebook's Misogyny Problem

If you have opinions of your own you would like to share, or you would like to challenge our assertions or provide an alternate perspective, we invite you to do so. Respectful comments are always welcome here. Though this might seem to contradict our distaste for reporting only negative stories about life online for our kids, we know things like this are happening in our community and we need to address it. None of us are immune, and we do our children no favors by being ignorant. We still believe very strongly that technology makes great things possible, and there are plenty of examples of kids using it responsibly for the greater good. However, at the end of the day, this is so much more about behavior than it is about technology. Parenting, teaching, advising, counseling...these things are hard sometimes. We'd best be prepared and not caught by surprise.

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