Girls, your opinions matter.
I, like many parents, am sure to tell my daughter she can be whatever she wants when she grows up. And she takes this assurance to heart. I still have a photo of my daughter crying, aged 7, when Julia Gillard was elected because it crushed her dreams of being Australia’s first female prime minister.
Fortunately, society obliges in providing female role models, offering examples not just of female prime ministers, but female astronauts, film-makers, judges and Nobel prize winner. We tell her that there are no limits on her capabilities just because she is female.
But what if society tells her there are other limits on her, limits that are not just unhelpful, they are representative of dangerous societal norms?
Two examples I’ve come across recently seem at first glance to be the polar opposite, but are actually two sides of the same coin. It’s a coin that is symptomatic of a far broader cultural issue.
The first is the report by Laura Bates, co-founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, on the way school dress codes are used to make teenage girls feel they are responsible for ‘distracting male students’ or ‘making male teachers uncomfortable’. The report includes girls being told the school had dress codes so the male students ‘wouldn’t target or intimidate’ them, and also illustrates staggering levels of hypocrisy (such as when one female student reported being punished for wearing shorts, while male students were free to wear offensive T-shirts about women giving oral sex, for example).
The second report, published in The Weekend Australian, details the growing concern among psychiatrists, police, and child welfare experts about the negative impact of sexting and social media on young people’s mental and physical wellbeing. Like the report on school dress codes, there are some shocking examples, such as the 13-year-old girl who drew “Boner Garage” on her stomach with an arrow pointing to her crotch, then posted it to her public Instagram account.
There is a unifying theme to these two concerning reports, and it about whose opinion is the priority.
In the report on school dress codes, what was most striking was the way so many of the accounts privileged the perceptions and feelings of males (students and teachers) over that of the teenage girls. The female students were disciplined and punished for wearing clothes that would distract, make uncomfortable, excite, or incite the males around them, solidifying the idea that the opinion and experiences of the males was what mattered. Regardless of what the girls wanted, the message being sent to them loud and clear was that female behaviour, first and foremost, had to accommodate the male need.
Listen to MWN publisher Mia Freedman and Debrief Daily senior editor Sarah Macdonald talk about what it means to be a feminist. (Post continues after the audio.)
In the report of young people and the way online sexual behaviour transfers into alarming real-world problems, once again the theme of privileging male feelings is conspicuous. The report repeatedly discusses the way young (very young; as young as 8) girls are engaging in behaviours they think their male peers want, such as providing naked or sexual photos of themselves (which were often then shared amongst the boy’s friends), or ending up at their local GP’s with injuries because they were forced or coerced to mimic pornography featuring ‘rape, bondage, torture and bestiality’. As one child psychologist said, ‘Boys see girls as sexual service stations for their pleasure’. This report illustrates another way that even very young girls have been conditioned to see the needs and feelings of the males around them as trumping their own feelings.