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.

The Lonely, Self-Absorbed Contrarian: On Elizabeth Wurtzel

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s latest bizarre piece in New York Magazine has unleashed a tremendous and understandably negative reaction in the feminist community. I’ve written critically about Wurtzel before for the LA Times, but today at Role/Reboot, I’m trying for a more sympathetic angle. Here’s A Difficult Woman: Why Elizabeth Wurtzel Is A Narcissist Who Still Matters. Excerpt:

Wurtzel doesn’t repudiate her old call to prioritize autonomy and adventure over security, but she does acknowledge that it has all come at a price. “Convention serves a purpose,” she has decided; “it gives life meaning, and without it, one is in a constant existential crisis.” And Wurtzel is in one hell of an ongoing crisis: “I have spent an amazing amount of my life in tears,” she writes. One can almost imagine the glee with which anti-feminists might read that. If it hasn’t been written already, somewhere some pious defender of traditional gender roles is cobbling together a schadenfreude-drenched column in which Wurtzel appears as the ultimate object lesson about the dangers of feminism. Indeed, part of the fury at Wurtzel now is that her self-indulgent train-wreck of an essay provides such an easy cudgel for social conservatives to use against progressive young women.

As exasperating and bewildering and narcissistic as her essay is, there’s a way in which Wurtzel is doing something more important than indulging herself at our expense. Her work is defiantly at odds with the dominant writing today about gender, defined as it is by long Atlantic articles that eventually become books. This is the era where ambitious women are advised to settle for Mr. Good Enough, warned that their own achievements have brought about the end of men, and sternly reminded that they can’t hope to have it all. Yes, it’s an era of incredible feminist activism, but it’s also an age in which even many progressive women’s voices encourage women to diminish their expectations. To Wurtzel, that emphasis on sober compromise is at the heart of what’s led to our “world gone wrong.” She may be more self-absorbed than ever, but she’s also doing what she’s always done: playing the lonely contrarian.

On the false claims of “A War on Men”

I have another piece up at Daily Life Australia (part of the Sydney Morning Herald media family), looking at the risible claims of a “War on Men” that have set the interwebs ablaze this week.


Much of the male rhetoric of the so-called ”gender wars” is rooted in rage-filled indignation at women’s newfound capacity for sexual selectiveness. Dimly aware of an “earlier time” when “women knew their place” (the bygone days of the vulnerability-for-responsibility exchange), these men (and their female surrogates, like Suzanne Venker) direct their anger not only at the women who reject them but at the feminism that empowered women to be more “choosy” about those with whom they mated. Women today can afford to say, as many of my students do, “If I meet the right person, then I might consider getting married – and if I don’t, then I’ll still be fine.” Contrary to what the Abbots and Venkers might claim, that “if/then thinking” represents tremendous opportunity for both sexes. It means women can avoid being trapped in desperately unhappy marriages; it means that men can trust they’re being chosen for their emotional and sexual desirability rather than their bank balance or their staid reliability.

To put it simply, the more freedom women have to say “no,” the more men can trust the authenticity of their “yes.”

If there is a “war on men,” it’s not being waged by feminists. It’s being waged by an unholy alliance of social conservatives and evolutionary psychologists who relentlessly repeat the message that men can only feel powerful when women make themselves powerless. In the modern gender battles, it’s worth asking which side believes in men’s capacity to be fully human. Reading the propaganda, it’s clear it’s not the side of the sexual traditionalists.

Read the whole thing.

Daring to Disappoint: On Choosing Happiness over Obligation

Do the sacrifices of our parents, our ancestors, and our culture constitute obligations? I get that question in one form or another every semester in my women’s history class; my answer is always the same: a qualified but firm no. Rather, personal happiness is gratitude made manifest.

From 2006:

In a comment below last Friday’s post about virginity and expectations, a wonderful former student of mine named Connie writes:

Hugo, my question is this, how do we deal with the pressure of knowing our parents sacrifice so much so that we can succeed?

My parents have always given me everything I ask for and expect nothing in return except that I excel in my academics so that I can be successful, live a good life and help them out when they get old. What frustrates me is that this seems like such a simple request that I should be able to fulfill it with ease. Yet, because the notion seems so simple, there is more pressure and if I can’t do something as simple as studying and getting good grades, I am a failure. Having an education is simply not enough. I have to be at the top of my class. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of my parents’ paradigm or mine because I am always striving to be the best. I guess I fear letting my parents down if I settle for average and as a result, I let myself down. I just want to be happy but I can’t be unless my parents are. I love my parents immensely and am forever grateful for everything they’ve sacrificed for me, I would just like to prove that to them and give them something in return.

Connie fits into the same demographic of many of the students I’m writing about: the child of Asian immigrants, raised with one foot firmly in this culture and another elsewhere, trying so hard to live up to what are, as she makes clear, intense and sometimes overwhelming expectations.

I’ve thought a lot about what it means to teach feminism to a classroom filled with young women whose parents believe that their daughters owe them something. It took me a long time to come to grips with just how crushing those expectations are that women like Connie describe. (I was fortunate: my parents told me that while they hoped I would do well, they would be perfectly satisfied if I merely earned the "gentlemen’s C".  Yes, when I was at Cal in the late-80s, some folks still used that expression without a trace of irony!)  And while male students from certain working-class or immigrant backgrounds also are hit with the burden of parental expectations for success, they usually get to escape the simultaneous requirement that they be virginal while earning straight As!

For so many young women from these backgrounds, sexual purity is less about a private spiritual decision and more about honoring an obligation to a mother and father who have invariably sacrificed so much so that their daughter could have a "better life."  Most of my first-generation students at the community college are acutely aware of just how hard their parents have worked to give them the chance at an education and a promising career.  Though their parents may or may not have strong religious beliefs, they almost always teach their girls that pre-marital sex represents a threat not merely to their daughter’s personal success but to the well-being of the entire family.  Just as in the most tradition-bound of societies, a daughter’s virginity is still all- too-often powerfully connected to the hopes and dreams and sacrifices of a mother and father who have come so very far and worked so very hard for a better life.

And virginity is also of course a symbol for all of the other things a dutiful and hard-working daughter owes to her parents.  In most traditional cultures, daughters and daughters-in-law will be the primary providers of elder care.  Connie writes that her parents expect her to take care of them when they get old. Of course, they’d probably like her to get married and give them grandchildren.  And if she marries a man from a similar background, his parents may expect their daughter-in-law to care for them when they become elderly.  And she’ll do this while holding down a terrific job of which her parents can be suitably proud, and being an excellent mother to their grandkids.  And somehow, women like Connie describe this as "a simple request"!

So you deny your sexuality through your entire adolescence, and put off sexual relationships until you’re finished with college.   Ideally, you find the husband (whom the ‘rents hope will be from the same ethnic group) just as you begin to climb the corporate (or medical) ladder.  You have kids while somehow holding down the job.  You prepare marvelous meals that reflect the best traditions of your ancestral cuisine, your hair and makeup are immaculate, your body is trim, your husband is kept happy, and two sets of doting grandparents are given well-behaved children.  You then begin to care for those grandparents while still holding down the job, still raising the kids, still cooking the superb whatever from the old recipes, still keeping your husband happy.  Sister, ain’t nothing simple about it!  From a feminist perspective, it looks like one long litany of sacrifice, one long list of obligations, one long reminder that as a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother, one’s happiness is always contingent on the joy one brings to others.

I think I’m fairly close to accurately describing the pressures with which so many of my students contend.  But identifying the problem, and enumerating the pressures, is not the same as offering a workable solution.  And of course, there isn’t an easy solution.  Just as many folks have told me this week that when it comes to my comment policy I can’t please everyone, so too many of my students will have to make the hard choice to either continue to exhaust and deny themselves or to choose to rebel.  And it’s my explicit hope that they will choose the latter.

In advocating rebellion, I am not advocating dropping out.  I’m not advocating reckless or self-destructive personal behavior. I am advocating that these young women begin to ask themselves the hard question: what do I want?   I want them to begin the immensely difficult task of silencing those nagging internal (and external) voices that urge self-denial, endless sacrifice, endless sublimation. I want them to talk to each other, to seek support from other young women in similar straits — to plot strategy, share family war stories, and offer encouragement to take the first tentative steps of feminist rebellion.  This "feminist rebellion" will look different for different women.  For one, it might involve telling Mom and Dad she wants to major in history rather than chemistry or business.  For another, it might involve learning to masturbate — without guilt.  For another, it might involve choosing to move out rather than stay at home as her parents expect.  For another, it might involve bringing home a young man from a different ethnicity.  Or bringing home a girl.  If the parents are Catholic, it might involve becoming a Pentecostal.  Or if parents are Presbyterian, it might involve becoming a Buddhist.  The one thing all of these rebellions will have in common is that they will be small steps towards self-discovery and towards personal growth and joy.

Usually at this point, the young women to whom I’m directing this interrupt me:

Hugo, it’s so easy for you to say all of this!  You’re a man, you’re white, you have no idea just how hard it is to ‘rebel’!  You don’t understand the consequences of what you’re saying; you don’t have any idea of how much guilt I’ll feel if I disappoint my parents!

In one sense, they’re right.  I can’t truly know what it’s like to be a first-generation female college student, carrying the hopes and dreams of my parents and my ancestors on my shoulders, on my heart –or on my hymen.  Sure, I’m privileged in ways that I probably don’t even fully understand.  But I do believe that at the heart of the feminist project is this: women ought to have the right to pursue happiness.  That happiness will manifest differently in the lives of different women; some will find their most sublime joy in marriage and motherhood while others will find it in on an archaeological dig while others will find it in the arms of another woman.  And if feminists can agree on one thing, it’s this: the collective sacrifices of your parents, ancestors, and culture do not trump your own personal right to be happy.

I do not hold this belief in contradiction to my Christian faith.  Rather, it is reinforced by it.  In Matthew 10:35, Jesus makes it clear that service to God is always more important than duty to family:

For I have come to turn  a man against his father,a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

While Jesus is referring specifically to what it will cost to follow Him, the broader implication is clear: in the final analysis, there are things that matter more than loyalty to one’s parents.  Honoring mom and dad is indeed one of the commandments, but honor is not a synonym for obedience.  The Christian journey is partly about discovering the unique purpose for which we each were made, own’s own unique role in building the Kingdom; the feminist journey is about essentially the same process.  Though both feminism and Christianity are about building community, they are also about an ultimately solitary journey of transformation and joy.  As a Christian and a pro-feminist, a teacher and a youth leader, I want to build community while encouraging young folks to set out on their own personal journeys.

I have no illusions that the feminist project will be an easy one for most of my students.  But the choice, ultimately, is often a stark one: a lifetime trying to live up to a crushing set of obligations or a series of difficult but ultimately liberating confrontations with one’s family.  Those confrontations don’t have to take place all at once; some rebellions will be private and small and secret while others will be major and dramatic.  But in the end, big or small, these rebellions need to happen.  And we who care about feminism, who care about the lives and the happiness of young women, have to not only encourage rebellion, we have to walk with them through it and be with them as they cope with the fallout of telling the truth about their own wants, hopes and desires. To the best of my ability, that’s what I’m trying to do.

In the end. we can comfort ourselves with this: the greatest way we can honor our parents may not be through living up to their hopes and expectations.  The greatest way in which we can honor them is to choose to live lives of personal happiness and public service.  Their sacrifices, like the sacrifices of their parents before them, were not in vain if we reject their values: our personal choice to be happy, even if it scandalizes and bewilders our family, is nonetheless a testament to all that they gave up for us.  Whether our parents accept that or not, we can use that thought to encourage and reassure those who are tormented with guilt or doubt about claiming their own happiness on their own terms.

But it still isn’t easy.

A Male Feminist Dilemma: When Your Wife Insists on Taking Your Last Name

My latest at Role/Reboot addresses that evergreen issue about marriage and last names. In our case, it was my wife who insisted on taking my surname after we were wed — presenting me with at least a momentary male feminist dilemma. Excerpt:

One of the unhappiest aspects of the last name debate is that most defenses of one’s own choices end up sounding like harsh judgments of other’s different decisions. Many of those who do defend the traditional practice of having a woman take her husband’s name suggest that to keep separate names indicates a lack of unity. That’s obviously unfair: Commitment has far more to do with devotion than nomenclature. At the same time, my wife regularly encounters pushback from women and men alike who are astonished at her decision to take my surname. Just last month, at a party, an acquaintance of ours gaped in astonishment upon learning that Eira was a Schwyzer too. “But you seem so independent,” she gasped. My beloved cocked her head to one side, took a deep breath, and firmly set the woman straight.

There’s a lot to criticize about a simplistic “I choose my choice!” feminism. Our choices are never made in a vacuum; rather, they are mediated by a host of complex—and frequently sexist—cultural influences. This is why we should always discuss options and explore alternatives. At the same time, however, we can’t fall victim to analysis paralysis. We can’t live out our inherently messy private lives in perfect political consistency.

Read the whole thing.

Affirmative action for boys means perfectionism for girls

My piece at Jezebel this week looks at how “affirmative action for men” drives perfectionism for young women: Women Are The Real Victims Of The So-Called ‘Men’s Crisis’. Excerpt:

Young men… are collectively rewarded for their absence of academic ambition and community spirit. By the intensely competitive standards of college admissions, what might seem like a lackluster volunteer record from a high school girl (say, 5 hours a week reading to the blind) seems positively heroic when it belongs to a guy. The more time the mass of young men devote to the gym or to playing Call of Duty, the more the shrinking number of even moderately ambitious dudes benefit; they become the chance for a selective school to keep its gender ratio from becoming too female-heavy.

The traditional “stressors” in so many young women’s lives – the obligation to care for family, the burden of chasing an unattainable physical ideal, the pressure to be sexy but not sexual, the worry about “running out of time” — all these were present well before the current frenzy of anxiety over the end of manhood. These familiar worries have now been joined by the depressing reality that young women have to be far more accomplished than young men just to receive equal consideration in college admissions.

Read the whole thing.

A niche or a ghetto? On Women Only Spaces in Publishing

This summer, the Huffington Post added a “Women’s” section.  This caused a fair amount of consternation; in the digital era, does it make sense to still do gender-based niche publishing like this?

Nicole Rodgers of Role/Reboot and I recently shared some thoughts on the topic; our conversation appears both at that site and at the Good Men Project today.  Excerpt:

NICOLE: It’s interesting that you say that men do read women’s magazines, sites, etc. My boyfriend tells me he had a stealthy male roommate in college who worked in entertainment and used to take home stacks of women’s magazines because he wanted insight into what women were thinking. I guess I tend to assume those men are aberrations, but maybe reading or watching content marketed to women is just one of those things men don’t talk about out of fear of being emasculated?  So assuming that’s true, then here’s a thought experiment for you: what is a “women’s issue”?

HUGO: The intent is to refer to a problem or a concept that disproportionately impacts one sex. Reproductive justice matters to everyone, but since only women get pregnant, women have more “skin in the game” as it were. But the fact that women are biologically more invested in issues around pregnancy and childbirth and contraception doesn’t mean that men aren’t interested and shouldn’t be concerned. Like women’s history month (of which I’ve never been a fan), I think this tactic of creating a separate space for talking about women’s issues can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allows people to start conversations that often don’t happen elsewhere; on the other, it allows some very important issues to be marginalized by the assumption that they only appeal to a select group.

Male feminists, sex work, and SlutWalk: part two of a conversation with Meghan Murphy

On Monday, I posted the first part of an exchange with Meghan Murphy, a blogger and radio host with the Canadian F Word Feminist Media Collective. I answered five questions she had asked of me, and we each posted the same piece at our respective sites. Predictably, we both attracted critics; some of Meghan’s radical allies were incensed that she would legitimize me by engaging, while some of my liberal/sex-positive friends were equally exasperated with my decision to take part in this dialogue.

In any event, what follows below the cut is the second part of our exchange, in which Meghan responds to five of my questions about male feminists, sex work and SlutWalk. Intercourse and puppy dogs also come up for discussion, though not in the same context. Continue reading

Mrs. Palin’s Mangina: on the pregnancy hoax, feminism, and baby Trig

Laura Novak, the writer who interviewed me for a story on circumcision at the Good Men Project, has been writing a great deal lately about the so-called “Sarah Palin pregnancy hoax.” She’s done a series of interviews with Brad Scharlott, a professor at the University of Northern Kentucky who’s convinced that Sarah Palin faked the pregnancy of her most recent child, Trig.

Count me in the camp of those who instinctively reject conspiracy theories — and who find it find it difficult to believe that Palin faked a pregnancy to cover up for Bristol (or some other family member.) But Novak tends to side with Scharlott, and both she and the professor have achieved some considerable recent notoriety as a consequence.

In any case, Laura shot me some questions and we did a little interview about Palin, pregnancy, and feminism. Read it all here, in a piece she calls Mrs. Palin’s Mangina.

Among other things, I say:

When it comes to sex, we’re all somewhat dishonest. We don’t have the vocabulary, most of us, to take the truth about our messy private lives into public spaces. Even if we want to tell our stories, our fears and our shame and our concern for others lead us to be less than forthcoming. And if Sarah Palin did pull off an elaborate hoax, I’m not sure that speaks to her essential truthfulness as a politician. When it comes to sex (our own and our children’s), we lie when we’d tell the truth about anything else…