"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mama's Boy: Accidentally Raised as a Feminist Man, part I

A while ago, I heard through some grapevine or another that Shira Tarrant was accepting submissions for a new book, Men Speak Out: ProFeminist Views on Gender, Sex and Power (which will be published by Routledge in November, 2007). These were open submissions, and I went ahead and wrote something up quickly (I was close to the deadline, as I recall, though that may be my procrastinator/rationalizer brain talking) and sent it in. She was asking for first-person accounts from men interacting with feminism, and I provided her with one of mine.

Alas, I didn't make the cut; luckily, you'll be able to judge for yourselves as to why, because I hate all that (albeit quickly jotted down) writing to go to waste. I'll divide it out into a couple of installments, I think. Here's the first.

Mom: "What is it with you and all this feminism stuff?"
Me: Well, you're the one who complained about the little toy broom."

Little Toy Broom
In retrospect, if I had to give a short answer to "Why are you a feminist?" I might say: "Because my mother showed me what a feminist could be." The strangeness around this answer is twofold: First of all, my mother doesn't identify as a feminist, and feels vaguely uncomfortable, I think, with the fact that I do. The second strangeness is that the very fact that, because I recognize that feminism blossomed in me because of my mother's influence, sometimes I buy into one of the most pervasive examples of patriarchy in my life: Sometimes I feel like a mama's boy.

The notion of being a mama's boy (in some negative sense) is quite a sexist notion, along the lines of calling somebody 'faggot' in a derogatory way. Part of the 'logic' behind calling somebody a faggot as an insult goes like this: Gay men are somehow less masculine (huh?--bears,anyone?) and more feminine (huh?? bears, anyone?) than 'normal' men, and being like a woman is somehow a Very Bad Thing. "Mama's boy" follows a similar logic, I think, in that it accuses a person with being somehow less masculine because he has too-close ties to his mother, who is, one assumes, a woman. 'Mama's boy' has other connotations, of course--a mama's boy is a boy who hasn't become a man because he lets his mother take care of him, for instance; but that, too, ties into sexist notions of what a man should be--you don't hear 'daddy's boy' thrown out there as a derogatory remark very often, so the gender of the parent seems to matter here.

So, what do I do about feeling like a 'mama's boy' sometimes? Well, in general I just try to remember that, as much as feminism is embedded deeply within my persona, I am not the sole cause of that: My mother, both on purpose and by accident, taught me how to be a feminist.

Mostly my mom taught me feminism by example. Though I had a couple of step dads briefly along the way, I don't think any of them really succeeded in being father figures at all, and my mother shouldered alone almost all of the burdens of raising me. She did so while developing a career, playing in a softball league, making house payments and having various other interests. Even with the constraints of being a single parent, even in the face of having to live a somewhat difficult life in a world chock full of sexism against women, she continued then (and still continues) to live her life by some feminist principles (though she might not want to call them that), including a thirst for equality, and a desire to crush sexist stereotypes. Simply living as she has, day-to-day, she has taught me more about the basics of feminism than anything has since. And, even now that I'm an adult, she still manages to teach me lessons of feminism. So the continued irony that she doesn't herself identify as a feminist, and is still constantly surprised that I do identify as a feminist, is ever-present.

Looking back at my childhood for specific ways that my mother taught me feminism, it's only with the benefit of hindsight that I find individual moments that stick out in my memory. I think that this is part of what 'leading by example' is all about--such leading involves teaching without conscious individual lessons, encouraging incremental learning. There is one memory, however, that my mother and I still talk and laugh about. It's my first real memory of having the implicit traditional gender roles that we all swim in made explicit, warts and all. I also learned more explicitly my mother's opinion of these roles. Like a lot of good lessons, this one came out of the blue, sneaking up on me (and on her) from around the corner. It came, like a lot of things in
middle-class suburban America came, from a trip to the mall. I was on my way to spend my hard-earned money (or so I thought at the time) on a set of legos. I was probably around 8 or 9, and I was excited. Not about the feminism, to be sure. Rather, I was excited about something lots of 8 or 9 year olds get pretty excited about: Toys. Being a lower-middle class kid who had saved up his meager allowance to buy some legos, I was really excited to get them home and play. The set of bricks that I had my eye on, the one I had saved for, was some sort of 'home' set, with a little house, and a man and woman to live in it. (That I picked up the 'house' set and not, say, the race car set, may point to how deeply rooted my personality was in feminism and in relatively nontraditional conceptions of masculinity already, at nine years old.)

So there I was building my little lego house. I liked the flexibility of legos, but the compulsive side of me liked to build the set exactly like the directions said, the first time around. After I did that, in my mind, I was free to make my own stuff, which came from and then further encouraged my imagination. But first off, I made it look just like it was on the box. I couldn't even wait to get home. With my mom's permission, I sat in the back of the van (hey, it was suburbia in the early 80's...we sort of had to have a van) and built my set on the way home. I finished as we were pulling into our driveway. Before we even got out of the car, as per usual, I showed it proudly to my mom. Most times she would look, really look at what I built, hold it up, examine it, and then pronounce it a masterful work (even if I was just following the directions). This time, instead of responding with the enthusiasm I expected, she asked me a question: "Why does the woman have the broom?" Sure enough, in front of the little lego house that I had just built, was a little lego man holding a little lego wrench and a little lego woman holding a little lego broom. Just like on the box. I looked at my mom, looked at my masterwork, and then game my nine year old answer: "Because she's the girl."

I knew the moment it was out of my mouth that my answer certainly wasn't the one she had wanted to hear, though it may have been the one she expected. his answer did not sit well with mom, who spent a good deal of time explaining to me that, in fact, lego-dad needs to sweep a lot, and that lego-mom could handle a wrench quite effectively, thank you very much. She asked me to put the wrench in the hand of the woman, and to hand over the sweeping duties to the dad. I did so, a little disturbed at first at the fact that my little lego set was now not exactly like it was on the box, and my mother stomped into the house, the non-lego house that we lived in. I got the feeling then, and I still feel now, that she had much more to say to me, but exercised some restraint in the way that a parent sometimes thinks she ought to. She left me to consider the change, probably wondering just how much it might sink in. Or perhaps she was just trying to avoid her own version of a 9-year old temper tantrum? Her shift in emotions did bother me--I remember that fairly distinctly, but I wasn't bothered for long, and I quickly went inside and dismantled the entire set. I started building something else, something of my own devising. I may have quickly forgotten the little lego house that I had built, but I didn't seem to forget that lego-woman with the wrench. Or the lego-man with the broom. It stuck with me.

Next time: Fertile Ground
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