Should You Let Your Little Girl Embrace Princesshood?

My latest at Jezebel looks at the “princess wars” and the debate over how much access to Disney characters parents should give their daughters. Excerpt:

While the reasons to be troubled by princess culture are myriad, parents like us who are more relaxed about our daughters’ enchantment with Disney’s royal entourage tend to fall into two distinct camps. One group embraces what Hinds calls “princessing” with uncritical abandon, seeing their daughters’ fascination with all things royal as an opportunity to inculcate a myriad of presumed virtues. Ever since Ariel (the Little Mermaid), Belle (Beauty and the Beast) and Jasmine (Aladdin) appeared in the early 1990s as part of Disney’s expansion of their historic princess franchise, fans have pointed to what they insist are the feminist leanings of this new generation of animated heroines. This faux royal egalitarianism is on full display in the latest offering from the House of Mouse, Sofia the First, a show that Hinds makes a point of refusing to allow his daughters to watch. In an episode that debuted just last week on Disney Jr., the title character bucks restrictive gender roles by becoming the first princess at “Royal Prep” to enter the previously all-boy equestrian steeplechase competition. (As one would expect, Sofia triumphs, defeating a sneering and scheming chauvinist nemesis named, to my daughter’s delight, Prince Hugo.) See, Disney and its defenders claim, little feminists can wear tiaras and defy stereotypes at the same time.

The other camp –- and this includes my wife and me as well as the parents of most of Heloise’s friends -– is wary of the claim that modern princessing offers much in the way of empowerment. Like Hinds, we recognize that “even the most feminist-friendly princess derives her social currency, her political power, and her personal identity as ‘princess’ from the make-believe patriarchy.” At the same time, we’re optimistic, perhaps overly so, about our daughters’ ability to leave the less healthy lessons of princess culture behind as they age. When I was Heloise’s age, I spent most of my non-school hours dressed as a cowboy, wearing a six-shooter on my hip. My mother trusted, rightly, that I’d grow out of a fascination with firearms. She also knew that forbidding me from having war toys would increase rather than diminish their allure. Toy guns are only one small way in which toxic messages about manhood get taught to little boys, and making them more appealing by banning them is a most ineffective vaccine against male violence. The risk in fighting an (almost inevitably unsuccessful) battle against princess culture is the false hope it gives that a de-Disneyed daughter will be a more empowered one.

Read the whole thing.

Six-pack or soft belly, I am still okay

In my column I look at my journey to — and away from — peak fitness. Letting go of exercise addiction for the sake of my family has been one of the most humbling and terrifying journeys of the past few years of my life. Excerpt:

I won’t pretend it’s been easy to give up the kind of peak fitness I once had. There are days where I avoid seeing myself naked in the mirror, nights where I touch my body before bed and fight back a sudden wave of shame. When I drive to work, I see lean runners on long runs, water bottles and Camelpaks strapped to their bodies, and I’m momentarily overwhelmed by a mix of nostalgia and envy. Those moments pass. I know I’ve got a finite amount of time, and a finite amount of energy, and I’ve made a choice to use my body for others rather than myself. There’s no resentment of Eira and the kids. They didn’t take my four-hour workouts away from me. I gave them up to have something better.

There are seasons in life. In one season, I was an addict, a self-mutilator, a recklessly promiscuous man who loathed his body and his life and found solace in sex, self-harm, and drugs. In the next long season, my body became an ascetic’s temple, rigorously disciplined by sweat and self-denial. At 45, in what I’d like to think is the high summer of my life, my body is here to carry small children and to love an equally exhausted spouse. When our kids are older and our responsibilities different (if not entirely fewer), perhaps there will be another season in which Eira and I will go back to the racing, the boxing, the hours of happy sweating. But that season won’t come soon.

Read the whole thing here.

An interview with Michael and Zachary Kimmel

My column at Role/Reboot this week features an interview with the founder of masculinity studies, the wonderful activist and scholar Michael Kimmel – and with his 13 year-old son Zachary, who has just started blogging about gender justice. As a father of two with a four-month old son, I wanted to do what I’ve done many times in the past; turn to Michael for some wisdom.


When Zach was born, Michael had the same experience I’ve had with the birth of each of my children. Friends and family, knowing our views and what we do for a living, repeatedly told us both that “now you’ll see that biology really is destiny.” Kimmel noted that people tend to presume expertise resting solely on their own experience, issuing sweeping generalizations about gender roles “based on a sample size of one or two.”

Though the Kimmels never foisted feminist activism onto their son, since hitting his teens, Zach has increasingly embraced gender justice as part of his calling. Though he admitted that a lot of his eighth-grade peers don’t really understand feminism, Zach said they do mostly understand the problems of sexualization and perfectionism he wrote about in his Spark Summit piece. Michael pointed out that Zach also lives out his feminism in a less obvious way. Since he first started school, he’s had friends of both sexes. Even now, well into puberty, Zach maintains close friendships with girls as well as boys. “It’s difficult to dehumanize or objectify someone you know and like,” Michael argues, a point with which his son vigorously agrees. By consciously pushing back against the socialized mystification of the opposite sex, Zach is bridging the artificial but rigid gender divide. “It’s a lot easier for me to be friends with girls than it is for most of my friends,” the younger Kimmel says, lamenting the unnecessary “drama” and “misunderstanding” that characterizes too many cross-sex friendships in his middle school.

When I asked about how things had changed for teen guys since Michael was his son’s age, the elder Kimmel brought up his son’s yearbook. In addition to several good female friends, Zach also has several wonderful male buddies. Last spring, one of the best of these signed Zach’s yearbook with an entirely un-ironic “I love you.” Michael and I laughed ruefully about how dangerous it would have been for any boy to have written that in another guy’s yearbook when we were 13; Zach averred that these displays of masculine devotion are “normal and accepted” in his school. As his father put it (echoing the recent excellent work of C.J. Pascoe), male homophobia has “disappeared so fast, it’s like it’s fallen off a cliff” within just the past decade.

Read the whole thing.

Perfection of the Life or the Work — Yeats on “Having it All”

For the past half-decade, The Atlantic has been good for two or three conversation-shifting articles a year. Everyone and their chinchilla is talking about Why Women Still Can’t Have it All, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s magnum opus on the impossibility of sustaining work/life balance. There have been dozens of great responses around the web, and at the risk of overkill, I added one today at Role/Reboot: No One Can Have It All, But Some Still Get More than Others. Excerpt:

When I think about not being able to have it all, I think about choosing between training for a 50-mile trail race or spending Sunday mornings with my children. I’m choosing between two sources of happiness, as I did when I was a child at the ice cream store, choosing between mint chocolate chip and French vanilla. There’s a difference between choosing between competing goods (maximum fitness or quality time with children) and the kind of hard choices between essentials for survival that the less privileged make all the time (pay the rent or the medical bills; quality time with children or work three jobs to keep those same kids fed).

One danger of these discussions about “having it all” is that we can elide the differences between what are essentially luxury choices (the kind I’m describing here, a kind that affluent people of both sexes get to make) and the hard trade-offs of necessity that far more people are forced to make. At the same time, it’s worth noting that even immensely privileged women still have greater obstacles to work/life balance than do men. I’m closer to 50 than I am to 40, and I have a 3-year-old daughter and a 6-week-old son. I was able to delay having children until I was—finally—fully ready to embrace the responsibilities of parenthood. Women don’t have the same biological flexibility that men enjoy, a reality that—as Slaughter points out—our workplace culture has yet to address.

Those of us who are lucky enough to get to choose between “perfection of the life, or of the work” do well to reflect carefully on the dangers of selecting the latter. No one, no matter how wealthy or talented, can avoid having to make difficult decisions surrounding things like career, romance, and children. Too few of us, however, are even in a position to decide between rival perfections. Before we can talk about the challenge of “having it all,” we need to ensure that far more simply “have enough.”

The Special Worry of Raising a Son

At Role/Reboot this week, my column is a candid look at my fears about raising a son: Why I’m More Afraid to Raise a Son than a Daughter. Excerpt:

Here’s a truth: I’m more scared to raise a son than a daughter. Before Heloise was born, I’d had a gut feeling my first child would be a girl. I didn’t bribe the ultrasound technician to give me the scoop when my wife was out of the room; I just had an instinct so strong about her sex that when she was born it seemed the fulfillment of something entirely preordained. I wasn’t the only one who “expected” that I’d have a daughter first. Much of my best-known writing revolves around women, body image, sexuality, and perfectionism; “it makes sense that you’d have a girl” was a sentiment I heard from many friends and readers in their congratulatory notes. It certainly made sense to me.

One men’s rights activist with whom I’d long sparred online commented that he was relieved that Heloise hadn’t turned out to be a boy. “If you ever had a son, you’d fuck him up,” the MRA wrote; “you’d poison him into believing that his only purpose in life is to serve women.” I laughed that off, but noted quietly to myself that for different reasons, I shared the MRA’s relief. I was enchanted by my daughter and thrilled to have her for her own sake, of that I had no doubt. But I also recognized, to my own embarrassment, that I felt as if I’d been let off the hook…

In the fortnight since my precious David was born, it’s struck me how gendered my fears for my children are. I worry about both children getting sick, or being in pain, or being hungry, or cold. I worry about both of them being victimized by predators. I know enough to worry about both of them growing up around toxic messages of physical perfection (a particular problem where we live in West Los Angeles). But I realize that I’m not anxious about whether Heloise will grow up to be violent or predatory herself. I know girls can bully—but despite the claims of MRAs, the evidence is that girls are much less likely to rape, to hit, to abuse.

Men’s Desire, Women’s Mortality: Do Historical Rates of Maternal Death Affect Our Views of Sexuality Today?

Sperm kills.* For hundreds of millions of women over the course of millenia, the riskiest action they ever took was having sex (consensual or otherwise, married or not) with men. As medical historians will tell you, until the 20th century, childbirth was the leading cause of death for all women of childbearing years; in some societies that maternal mortality rate may have reached 40%, while other researchers prefer a lower figure of 1 in 5. Given that many women in the developing world still have half a dozen children or more, as they did in previous centuries, the overall risk is compounded by the sheer number of pregnancies carried to term. (1 in 7 Afghan women today die in childbirth.)

Our cultural memory of this devastating toll is limited. We have a Mother’s Day, of course, but we have no public rituals to honor our countless female ancestors who died — quite literally — so that we could live. There is no Tomb of the Unknown Mother in Arlington, though more American women died from childbirth than male soldiers did in war for the first century and a half of our republic’s history. This legacy lives on best in fairy tales, replete with stories of single fathers (Beauty and the Beast) or wicked step-mothers (take your pick). When I ask my students what happened to Cinderella’s birth mother, it drives the point about maternal mortality home.

Whatever the exact figures, childbirth has probably killed more women than any other single cause in human history. Until very recently (a miracle two millenia ago in Palestine notwithstanding), the only possible cause for pregnancy was heterosexual intercourse. So if childbirth kills women, and sex causes pregnancy, then by the logical transitive property, heterosexual intercourse has been, not so indirectly, the most lethal of all human activities for one-half of the population. To put it even more bluntly, men have killed far more women by ejaculating inside of them than they have by any other method. Semen has killed more people than any other body fluid (and yet it is menstrual blood that is considered far more “unclean” in many Western traditions.) (This, by the way, is a good moment to note how absurd the argument is about AIDS being “God’s punishment for homosexuality.” Even if we were to assume that AIDS was primarily transmitted through same-sex sexual activity, the number of deaths globally from AIDS has not yet risen to the historic levels of those from childbirth. If God punishes by death those who engage in forbidden sexual activity, how then to explain that the leading cause of death for women for centuries was having intercourse with their own husbands?)

Very few, if any, men ever presumably sought to kill their wives or lovers through intercourse. But men did devise patriarchal power structures that forbade women from using contraception or from refusing sex to their husbands. From both a moral and a statistical standpoint, cultures that don’t allow women access to contraception — as well as the right to say “no” after marriage as well as before — are complicit in the death of countless millions of women. Of course, many women surely enjoyed sex despite the risks; many women surely longed for children even in the face of the grave dangers that attended pregnancy, labor, and delivery. All the more reason to honor the bravery and the sacrifice of those who fought for life against death on a battlefield far more lethal than those on which their husbands, fathers, and brothers struggled. Continue reading

The Philandering Perfectionist Papas of Park Slope: UPDATED

My latest Genderal Interest column is up: The Cheating Dads of Brooklyn. I look at the recent revelation that the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, infamous for perfectionistic parenting practices, is also the home to the greatest number of users of the adultery service Ashley Madison of any community in New York City. Excerpt:

If the wealth of Park Slope’s residents enables cheating by reducing moral inhibitions, the notoriously perfectionistic parenting ethos of the community elevates child-rearing to the sine qua non of marriage. In her novel Prospect Park West, Amy Sohn describes the Slope as a place where “marriage is a vehicle for procreation” and little more. “It’s a very undersexed neighborhood,” she claimed in an interview. Ashley Madison begs to differ. Park Slope may not be home to much in the way of marital fucking, but it is the City’s most fertile habitat for philanderers.

Whether Ashley Madison’s statistics are scientifically sound or total bullshit, the evidence is that entitlement drives male infidelity. Madison CEO Biderman opines that men start cheating after they become fathers because “they spend so much time working for others, they now want something for themselves.” This is the classic middle-class male martyr complex, in which men imagine themselves as helpless, hapless servants to the demands of bosses, children, and spouses. Cheating becomes justified compensation for a lifetime of labor to make other people happy. In that sense, the more conspicuous the care that’s lavished on the children, the greater the opportunity to rationalize stepping out on the marriage. (This sets the the kids up for one hell of a guilt trip when they grow up and learn that daddy stepped out on mommy because all his noble focus on their needs deprived pops of a chance to get his much-needed man food. Congrats, pumpkin, it’s all your fault.)

The news here is not that people cheat. The news is that we can see more clearly than ever that male infidelity is correlated with the conjunction of affluence and hyper-competitive parenting. The blame here doesn’t lie with cosseted kids or man-food withholding wives. The blame lies with privileged men who confuse their own choices with the chains of obligation, and who use their own sense of self-sacrificing heroism to excuse the inexcusable.

UPDATE: A moderately critical response by KJ Dell’Antonia in the New York Times: Does Helicopter Parenting Drive Dads to Cheat?

Kinder, Gentler, and Less Likely to Become Teen Dads: Today’s Adolescent Guys and the Birth Rate

My Genderal Interest column at Jezebel this week: Is the Teen Birth Rate Dropping Because Boys are More Romantic? Excerpt:

…in terms of their emotional dexterity, boys today are “more like girls” than ever before. Perhaps that’s because girls today are more like boys. In the past 25 years, girls have made undeniable progress educationally, athletically, financially –- and sexually. That success has often come with a heavy dose of anxiety-ridden perfectionism. Teen girls’ agency is easily oversold; many adults (not to mention adolescents) have a hard time distinguishing a performed sexiness from authentic sexual desire. But this progress isn’t illusory either; young women seem better equipped to name what they want than were their counterparts 25 years ago. As more and more girls have at least begun to escape the straitjacket of classic feminine expectations, they’ve given permission to their brothers to start to do the same. The end result is that in terms of what they want from sex, boys and girls may be more alike than ever before.

As Michael Kimmel, C.J. Pascoe, and other sociologists of masculinity have shown, traditional adolescent male heterosexual behavior has been driven as much by the desire to win approval from other men as by biological lust itself. Having sex with girls (preferably lots of girls) is a way of establishing masculine bona fides. Some of that is tied up neatly with homophobia; the more sex a young man has with women, the less likely he’ll be slapped with the “faggot” label. Yet recent research has shown that just within the past decade, boys have become much less homophobic. As fear of being labeled “gay” decreases, guys may well feel less pressure to have sex to prove their heterosexuality. The fact that guys are waiting longer to have heterosexual intercourse -– and are more likely to use contraception when they do finally have it — may owe as much to their own changing definitions of manhood as it does to fear or the economy. That’s a good thing.

Do men have an obligation to witness the birth of their children?

Though this post first appeared in 2009, the topic of whether men have a responsibility to be present at the birth of their children (if the mothers want them there) came up again in discussion with friends this week.

Are some men just too squeamish to witness their children being born? If so, should we have compassion on that reluctance to be present — or should we ask these guys to grow the hell up?

The latest entry in the “men today have it so hard” sweepstakes is this Jonathan Last piece that ran in the June 4 Wall Street Journal: Present at the Creation. Remarking on the excellent new Judith Leavitt book Make Room for Daddy: The Journey from Waiting Room to Birthing Room, Last wonders if our contemporary cultural insistence that men be present when the mothers of their children give birth is such a good idea.

Explaining how the dinosaurs once rationalized keeping men in the Stork Club (the waiting room for expectant fathers), Ms. Leavitt quotes one doctor’s argument from the mid-1960s: “As the charm of woman is in her mystery, it is inconceivable that a wife will maintain her sexual prestige after her husband witnessed the expulsion of a baby — a negligee will never hide this apparition.” Another doctor concluded: “On the whole, it is not a show to watch.”

We all laugh at how benighted such views are. (Even if there is, just possibly, some truth in them.) Yet today it is socially acceptable to father a child without marrying the mother or to divorce her later on if mother and father actually do bother to get hitched. And at the same time there is zero tolerance for a husband who says: “No thanks, I’ll be in the waiting room with cigars.” Ms. Leavitt’s fascinating history suggests that childbirth is just one more area where our narcissism has swamped our seriousness.

My head hurts.

Last strains to connect the increased expectation that Dads will be present with an increasing divorce rate (never mind that the divorce rate has been in decline throughout the admittedly brief 21st century). If there’s a need for a case study for correlation without even a whiff of causation, this WSJ piece might be a good place to start. One is left to wonder if Last actually believes that men are more inclined to divorce their wives after witnessing birth; perhaps he imagines that the delicate masculine sensibility is so easily overwhelmed by the sight of the “bloody show” that future marital relations are inexorably damaged as a consequence.

This, in other words, is just another bit of popular sexual “wisdom” from the purity peddlers and the chastity crowd. Last implies that men’s sexual desire for their spouses (or the mothers of their children to whom they are not wed) is contingent upon denial about the bloody reality of how life comes into this world. Women, of course, can be expected to endure childbirth — despite the pain and turmoil inherent in the process — and then turn around and long to do again with their men the very act that ended up putting them through the whole traumatic (albeit, presumably, rewarding) experience in the first place. Women’s libidinousness, in other words, isn’t allowed to be contingent upon some carefully enforced ignorance about bodily functions. Instead of marveling that so many modern women are willing to give birth more than once, to make love with their husbands with the memory of what lovemaking can lead to still embedded in the consciousness, Last worries about the poor lads whose fragile sensibilities might be permanently scarred at the sight, sounds, and smells of a delivery room. This is the myth of male weakness writ large indeed. Continue reading

Of teen sex and suitcases

On this Shrove Tuesday, we start the new term at Pasadena City College with painful cutbacks.

One of my colleagues (who as far as I know has been unaware of the controversy surrounding me) greeted me in the office this morning and said “Good morning, Hugo! You look like you’ve aged ten years.”

But all is well regardless. I’ve got a piece up at Role/Reboot this morning: Teens, Sex, and the Suitcase Rule. Inspired by Amy Schalet’s wonderful Not Under My Roof, the post looks at different attitudes towards teen sex, including my own family’s particular approach to the issue. Excerpt:

American parents, Schalet claims, use a strategy of “connection through control.” By imposing rules (curfews, blanket prohibitions on pre-marital sex), parents seek to demonstrate love and to maintain a vigilant presence in their children’s lives. Parents in the United States pursue connection through control even when they know it won’t work; the American adults Schalet interviewed were often pessimistic about their own ability to regulate their adolescent children’s behavior. Contemporary parents often assume that their kids will have sex anyway; they describe their own efforts as “swimming against the tide.” But because American parents tend to see teenagers as fundamentally irresponsible, they often believe that they have no choice but to continue to do whatever they can to regulate their teens’ private lives, even if they doubt the efficacy of the strategy.

In the Netherlands, according to Schalet, parents also want to protect their teens. But their technique is the reverse: “control through connection.” Like American adults, Dutch mothers and fathers believe adolescent sexual experimentation is inevitable. But rather than grimly soldiering on in the effort to repress teen exploration like their American counterparts, many Dutch parents seek to integrate teen sexual discovery into family life. Teens are expected to bring their boyfriends and girlfriends home to meet the relatives and to participate in family activities. Sons and daughters are encouraged to integrate their romantic lives into communal domestic routines. In due course, typical Dutch families will permit their teenage children to invite boyfriends or girlfriends to spend the night. Unlike in my family, the luggage and the bodies all sleep in the same bedroom. Sexual discovery is private, but it’s also sanctioned. The end result is, Dutch parents hope, a safer and happier experience for their children.