My friends and I share a desire to raise feminist sons, which is to say, men who consider women their equals and treat them accordingly. We agree communication is key, but sometimes we struggle to put that into practice. The issue isn’t just what to say, but when and where to actually say it. Sometimes, it just feels…awkward.
However, if I have learned anything at all from mothering five sons, it is this: there is never a “perfect” time to talk. There will always be a deadline looming, a handball bouncing off your forehead, or a device pinging somewhere. Electronics in particular can seem an overwhelming distraction unless you find a way to make their constant intrusion an asset.
Here are my top tips for using media to stimulate meaningful conversation about gender politics with children:
Watch TV together
Score! This is an easy one. Not every show will contentedly play second fiddle to chatter, but there are plenty of programs that do.
Reality TV is a perfect choice because the cast are behavioural archetypes: The Jock, The Rebel, The Princess, The Villain. Find a PG-rated dating show and comment away. “Why did he do that? Did you see her reaction? Do you think he should tell her? Would you?”
Commercials are a goldmine in and of themselves. “Why don’t they ever show a father cleaning the toilets? Have you ever seen a policewoman wearing high heels? That guy served the dog dinner before his wife!”
Get into Gaming
Concerned parents usually focus on the level of violence in video games, but what if we took a moment to look at the avatars in our kids’ favorite virtual environments? It’s easy to get so fixated on whether or not there’s a gun in a character’s hand that we may overlook some enormous discrepancies in how male and female players are depicted, especially with regards to sexualization of the latter.
Questioning gender roles in relation to characters also opens the door to discussing how female gamers themselves might be treated by their fellow players online, where the anonymity of digital interaction can open the floodgates for dehumanization and harassment.
Go to the movies
There is nothing I like more than taking all my kids to the cinema. For ninety blissful minutes, I can listen to them gasp and giggle without worrying that someone’s going to skateboard down a staircase or drop toast butter-side-down on the carpet. And afterwards, we get to talk.
I went to university with aspiring actors and directors who dissected every film to within an inch of its life the second the house lights came on. It drove me crazy at the time, but now I’m the one pointing out how the only female in a Sci Fi flick got relegated from Adventurer to Girlfriend halfway through Act 2. “Why did they expect the mother to put away all their spy stuff?” I ask. “How come the guys got to wear space suits and the woman wore a bikini?”
Of course, my boys swoon over special effects and rehash all the action sequences. I love that! It means they’re engaged, which then opens the door for a deeper conversation about which characters get screen time and whether they’re the ones doing the rescuing or simply being saved.
Listen to the radio
Thirty per cent of my day is driving. I’m not going to lie—I spend a lot of that time tuning out background noise so I can pay attention to the road. But being trapped in a car with kids is also a great opportunity to discuss song lyrics.
When Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” first came out, I had a habit of changing the station every time it played, which only made the song taboo and therefore more appealing. Eventually, I let my boys hear it in its entirety and we had a wonderful conversation about why many listeners—myself included—found it really offensive. It’s a conversation we repeat every time a similar song hits the airwaves.
Radio chat itself opens up another avenue for discussion. A lot of the dialogue makes me cringe, but I try to resist the temptation to flick away and instead point out inequities. “How would you feel if someone said that to you when you were telling a story? Why does he keep cutting her off? Why is he asking questions about her breasts instead of her music?”
If you like to read magazines, how about snuggling up on the sofa with younger kids and flipping through the pages together? Search for photos of women and talk about what they’re doing. How are the other people in the photo looking at them? What kind of mood do those images convey?
With older children, discuss the tone of news headlines. Flip or surf to the Arts section and see how many of the reviews have been written by or about women’s work. Visit the Business section and check if there are any articles about female entrepreneurs or leaders. Challenge your kids to find any man doing anything in the Beauty or Lifestyle columns.
Even if you aspire to be a media-free family, you can’t escape advertisements. We’ve all heard the statistic that the average child is exposed to thousands of ads. It’s impossible for our kids to avoid being bombarded with images and slogans, but that doesn’t mean they need to be passive observers.
Instead of rushing past the next billboard that makes you squirm, why not slow down, encourage your kids to study it, and ask them what they think? Get them to show you their favourite posters and invite them to explain what they like about individual campaigns. Don’t criticize their enjoyment of anything; just nudge them to consider whether they’re seeing a fair and balanced perspective on the world.
Let’s presume that most boys want to grow into respectful men, but they absorb information at face value. Their gender is the mainstream default, so the status quo seems normal to them; they don’t intuitively notice how women—especially women from marginalized communities—are so frequently stereotyped, if not left out altogether. And they won’t notice unless we take the time to teach them.
The good news is that with media literally everywhere around us, we are spoiled for choice with opportunities to encourage our children to consider gender with a critical eye.