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Susan Carland: 'Are we lying to our girls when we tell them they can be whatever they want?'

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.

Susan Carland and her family.

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.

Society obliges in providing excellent female role models for our children, like Malala Yousafazi.

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).

Even in our analysis of the career of Julia Gillard, how she affected the men around her is one of the defining narratives.

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.

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This guy wore a t-shirt saying “EAT SLEEP RAPE REPEAT” to music festival, Coachella.

And when the privileging of the male experience is seen as the foundation of these issues, suddenly the hypocrisy in the case of the schoolgirl who was punished for wearing shorts while her male classmate with the sexist t-shirt was ignored, makes a lot more sense.

As I read these reports, I knew I should feel angry. Angry for my daughter, but also angry for my son. Angry at what it means for them, and all the other children and teenagers their age trying to understand their place in the world. But I felt…nothing. Anger felt as futile as being angry at the sky being blue. Because that these reports document the ways young girls are made to prioritise what males want and the male experience is hardly surprising. And this is perhaps what’s most troubling about these reports to me. It’s not that the themes emerging from these reports are unique; it is just how mainstream they are. Because our society regularly – subtly and actively – subsumes the feelings, needs, opinions and desires of women and girls for the ultimate desires or interests of men. That’s exactly what patriarchy is.

Susan Carland with her daughter. “Because our society regularly – subtly and actively – subsumes the feelings, needs, opinions and desires of women and girls for the ultimate desires or interests of men. That’s exactly what patriarchy is.”

There are myriad examples from high and low culture to demonstrate this: just this week a 15-year long study found that books about women are less likely to win prizes. It seems stories with female protagonists simply aren’t as laudable; it’s the male experience that is most worthy of merit.

And in the worlds of film and gaming, men got rather cranky when the latest Mad Max film dared to have a strong female lead that saves the other female characters, tells the male characters what to do, and, staggeringly, doesn’t end up in bed with any of them, and also got angry about the latest soccer computer game that includes female soccer players for the first time. These reactions show us that women as the main role, or even an as option, are not the norm. By including women, a balance was upset.

Each one of these stories (and there are so many more) feels like just another addition to the pile of sexism that is albatrossed around the neck of the young women in our society.

“All of this reminds girls and women that the current balance is one where the male viewpoint is the default and the most important.”

All of this reminds girls and women that the current balance is one where the male viewpoint is the default and the most important. Females are to work around that. Those who do are rewarded, or at least tolerated. Those who don’t are punished, sidelined and attacked. The two reports of schoolgirls aptly illustrate a sad part of the girls’ education for life. And the lesson being taught is one that will be constantly reinforced throughout their lives: that the male prerogative is what matters.

This is a depressing reality. The never-ending litany of similar stories can make it feel like we are holding back the tide with our bare hands.

But if it is a choice of putting our hands in the water, or being submerged by the waves, then I guess we just have to keep pushing back.

And it starts with jumping straight in that ocean and constantly telling all our girls: your opinion matters.

What do you think? Is it futile to constantly try to right the wrongs we see all around us? 

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