You know how I feel about asking a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. So of course I cringed when I was catching up on the latest episode of Brooklyn Nine Nine and saw a new Volkswagen ad with just that as the premise.
The plot is this: Young man and his girlfriend’s dad are on an 11-hour car trip. Young man keeps trying to ask for her hand (“There’s something I have to ask you.”) and father keeps distracting him, shushing him, making the conversation about his swell new car. At one point, dad even accelerates in an attempt to, I dunno, outrun the guy in the passenger seat?
And nowhere in the commercial is the woman, or any woman, for that matter. This commercial is on the one hand about selling cars (which like, what do marriage proposals have to do with torque or fuel efficiency?), but it’s also about selling the centuries-old idea that women are property to be handed from father to husband.
It’s just another commercial that reinforces the idea of women as tangential to men, existing only as wives or daughters, and not even of their own choosing. I’m sick of this kind of media, Dad, just as I’m sick of these gender roles we can’t seem to shake. I, for one, am not buying it.
Today, I did something foolish: I got into an argument with people on the Internet. You think I would learn, but I’m stubborn, and when I see something ignorant, sometimes I don’t resist the urge to step in and clarify.
In this case, it was in regards to an article about Heidi Klum saving her son and nanny from drowning, and a story that focused on the nip slip that ensued, instead of the heroism. The headline was posted as an example of sexism in the media. Someone responded that that was stupid, but not sexist. Of course, I stepped in to say that women’s bodies are sexualized in ways that men’s aren’t, and offered examples of how the innocuous nipple is treated differently when it’s a woman’s than a man’s. I mentioned that you had told me to wear a shirt when I was a girl to be “modest.” That concept is sexual in nature, as it requires of woman a certain level of sexual purity that men are not held to. My brothers were not required to wear shirts the way I was.
Long story short, this man responded that that was my “dad, not society,” which was an interesting response, to say the least. And it launched me into a train of thought about how much of our actions are individual and how much part of the societal structure.
Of course, you, individually, told me that I needed to be modest (and in response I tucked my hair under a cap and decided my name was “Thomas.” Remember that?) but you are not the only parent who taught their daughter what modesty is, or that as young women we needed to cover our chests, while our brothers ran around shirtless in the backyard.
As a feminist, it’s crucial for me to parse what actions are individual from those that are part of the patriarchy, and at the same time, it’s impossible. You see, you told me, voluntarily, to cover up, and through your voluntary, individual action, you perpetuated a system in which women’s nipples are considered obscene but men’s are not. Just as a woman shaves voluntarily , or men have voluntarily, individually called me both a slut and ugly for my writing, yes, it is a single person doing these things, but many single people do them, see them, reenact them, creating this thing we call culture.
Being aware of the creation of culture, the connection between society and “your dad,” is part of effecting change. In high school, I proudly said that I was “not like other girls.” When I realized that what I was saying meant that I was ashamed to be a woman, that I thought femininity was inferior to masculinity, I quit saying that. I broke that cycle and embraced being a woman.
Hopefully my actions, my writings, are not just me. Hopefully, the idea is, that others will see, catch on, and perpetuate, just as I was inspired to write this blog by the feminist writers I admire. Hopefully we can create a shift in culture. Hopefully, we can smash the patriarchy.
I’m having a great time in my new home. Work is going great, and I’ve been working on cooking more and expanding my kitchen repertoire at home.
Part of what’s helped me so much with this culinary goal is the contents of my hope chest that Mom brought out in January. Most of all, I’ve been using the stoneware casserole to cook meatballs. My latest attempt included soy sauce and chopped onions, and they were irresistible.
It’s interesting for me to be using my hope chest items, intended for new married life, even though I am unmarried. But I am grateful for them, and I think it’s a timely twist on the hope chest tradition.
Normally, these household items were destined for newly-married women to begin their adult lives. But women are getting married later than ever, and it’s no guarantee that I’ll ever be married. However, I have embarked on my grown-up, independent life, so this fine cookware is extremely useful to me.
I can’t help but revel in this twist on a patriarchal tradition: Instead of me serving as the cook and housekeeper to a man, I am taking charge of my own life. I cook my meals for myself, and then take the leftovers to my job for lunch.
Why, I’d even support hope chests for all children, to be given to them when they leave for college or start out their first full-time, grown-up job away from home. It’s a celebration of adulthood and independence.
Love, and thanks for the cookware,
I’ve been thinking a lot about growing, and making mistakes. Do you remember how much of a perfectionist I was as a child? How much I wanted to please others? I remember the first time I got a B+ on a math test in sixth grade; I was crushed.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve struggled to learn that mistakes are part of growing up. Sometimes, you have to take your lumps to learn a lesson. Sometimes, mistakes permit a breakthrough greater than you could have imagined. I found this TED talk very encouraging. It helped me focus on not being afraid to fail:
With this blog, that’s always been a part of my approach, as well. I’m aware that this is the phase in my life where I separate from my parents and define myself. I’m trying to do that as gracefully as possible, but also, separation hurts. It’s a tearing of our bonds so that they become something new.
I’ve hoped our letters could give us a chance to define that separation and feel out the bounds of our new relationship. I delight in our conversations. I’m sorry when I hurt you.
I hope in my life, as well, I continue to grow and reevaluate my goals, ideas, perceptions and beliefs. I look forward to the future.
I love you,
In a lot of ways, yesterday’s phone call was a relief. I had been so afraid to tell you, but now I can freely say: I live with my boyfriend.
In the past, when the topic of men in or near my residence came up, you became distressed, so I thought I’d save both of us the emotional strain. When I told you I was moving into a house with a couple guys and a girl, you were so unhappy that I fretted about it for weeks, though I knew the men were honorable and they made good roommates. When I told you a funny story my neighbor told me about blue balls, your face became dark red and you said, “I’m going to kill him.” So obviously, I worried saying,”I’m moving in with my boyfriend,” would bring some backlash. I’ve learned to just avoid certain topics to keep from upsetting you.
But now, the cat’s out of the bag. I live with my boyfriend. And of course, that means we’re having sex.
This is the real heart of the matter. This is why I couldn’t tell you. Because you raised me to believe that a woman’s worth is in her purity, her value is in that she has “saved herself” until marriage. Not that she has waited to engage in a sexual act until marriage, but literally saved her entire being.
You raised me to approach sex with fear and shame, not open communication. Instead of discussing how or when to decide to have sex, I was told simply, “Don’t do it. Doing it is bad. You’ll regret it.” Remember that story of your friend who had sex once in college and felt everyone was staring at her and knew her guilty secret, Dad? Yeah, that story haunted me.
Even after I decided I would not wait until marriage, it took me years before I felt I was free of that guilt, before I trusted that I could make conscious, informed sexual decisions without hating myself afterward for somehow being less good than before.
This is a problem, Dad. This purity culture taught me that my value was inextricably linked to whether or not I had had sex. And if I had, I was less desirable or good than if I was “pure.” My smarts, my accomplishments, my integrity, my talents, my goals, none of them are as important to my value as a woman as my sexual activity, according to this belief.
But sex does not have to be like that. It can be enriching and fulfilling. It can be fun. It brings partners together and is an expression of both affection and desire. And it is not necessary to marry a virgin for this to be true.
Do I regret some of my decisions? Of course. But then, I regret what I ate for lunch yesterday. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy dinner. If I had waited until marriage, I’m sure I would still have regrets, as I’d have no idea how to express my wants or communicate my boundaries.
In the end, I’ve learned that what is most important for a fulfilling sexual relationship is trust, open communication and attraction. My partner and I have all of these. We care about each other and communicate and have a fulfilling relationship. He wants me regardless of whether or not I’ve “saved myself.” And I have freed myself from shame and can openly, joyfully ask for what I want. It’s wonderful.
I am sorry I hurt you and mom by not telling you sooner. I knew you would disapprove and was afraid of your anger. I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused you. I’m not sorry for having sex.
P.S. For more on how purity culture leads, Christianity and fulfilling relationships, check out Libby Anne’s blog Love, Joy, Feminism. This is a good post on how purity robs women of sexual agency. And I highly recommend Samantha Field over at Defeating the Dragon’s post about how harmful tying women’s worth entirely to their virginity is. I related very strongly to the Christian object lessons she describes, as well as deep feelings of shame and dirtiness.
One of my goals with this blog, besides opening up a conversation with you, was to explore how feminist ideals impact fatherhood.
It seems like a straightforward enough idea, but honestly, when I googled “feminist father” Google turned up only a handful of useful resources and a bogue study from the nineties about how feminism turns women against their fathers and turns them into lesbians (and I read the whole thing in the name of research. You’re welcome).
In fact, feminism and fatherhood are not antithetical, as the blog Feminist Fatherhood points out. Started in 2011, it was created to fill the void where discussion of dads who dig feminism should be, as well as offer guidance for guys who want to raise their kids to value equality. As the Feminist Father himself explains it:
A Feminist Father is a dad that seeks to transcend the sociopolitical gender landscape in the noble pursuit of raising a fully realized human being.
Not a bad goal for one’s offspring.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti had a similar take on it, reflecting on her relationship with her dad and husband:
Feminist fathers know that parenting doesn’t have to come with a harsh dose of paternalism and reject the father-knows-best ideology that is so harmful to young girls (like purity balls). Girls with fathers who model equality at home are more likely to be ambitious about their future. And feminist fathers with sons are teaching the next generation that being a man does not have to be synonymous with deriding all things female.
How does this look in practice? While reading Jessica Valenti’s piece, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a feminist dad friend of mine, who told me recently about discovering porn on his young teen son’s computer. He brought it up with his son, who said his friends talked about porn and sex and he was curious.
My friend was, at first, a bit shocked; he tries to let his son know frequently that he is open and available to talk about sex, puberty, etc. But he kept his calm, and opened a conversation about how porn, as entertainment, is different from sex in everyday life. He explained that it wasn’t appropriate at his age, and then the talk turned into a conversation about anatomy, relationships, consent and sexual orientation:
I told him to remember it sets up unrealistic expectations. Women don’t behave like that, and men shouldn’t behave like that.
It was a difficult conversation, but also rewarding, my feminist dad friend said, and one he hopes will lead to healthy and fulfilling relationships for his son in the future.
Disliking patriarchy does not, it turns out, mean disliking dads, to poorly paraphrase Jessica Valenti. Feminist fathers are, in fact, instrumental to taking apart old, oppressive norms.
And that gives me hope for kids and dads everywhere,