HB2 and making problems where there were none

Dear Dad,

I’ve been thinking about writing you a letter on this issue for a while, and I guess lucky for procrastinating me, it hasn’t blown over. Unluckily for transgender people, unfortunately, it hasn’t blown over.
By now, you’ve probably figured out I’m going to be writing about the infamous bathroom bill. I’m not a fan.
It’s been incredible to see over the past few years the gains transgender people have made in visibility and acceptance, from Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black to Janet Mock. Unfortunately, just as with the women’s rights, when a marginalized groups makes some gains and gets some visibility, there’s usually a huge backlash. We saw it with the push for women’s suffrage, as I’ve written about before, and we see it in the rise of Men’s Rights Activists and virulent online misogyny in response to modern feminism, and we’re seeing it in HB2 and hysterical fear-mongering arguments that “men in dresses” will attack children in bathrooms.
To top it off, this whole “men in the women’s restroom is a threat to women’s safety” thing assumes that all men are violent sexual predators and that gender-separated restrooms somehow keep people safe. But when I was a little girl just learning how to use the restroom, I remember you going into the restroom with me to help me out. I don’t remember if it was the men’s room or women’s (I feel like maybe it was both on different occasions?) but HB2 would criminalize either.
I’ve seen little boys in the women’s room, and I wouldn’t be upset about a father helping his daughter pee in a public restroom, regardless of which bathroom they use. Public restrooms have stalls, which is privacy enough for anyone to do their business, and no one should have to show their birth certificate to go in a stall.
On top of this bill creating problems that didn’t exist before, it also assumes gender and gender expression are black and white — or pink and blue. But they’re not. I remember a kid in my high school, a couple years younger than me, and the whole two years we attended school together, I didn’t know their gender. They were very physically ambiguous. But it didn’t matter because they’re a stranger! My guess at their gender would have no value on my life, or theirs.
transgender q
Boys can paint their nails and like dolls, girls can play baseball and hate makeup. The only thing that says otherwise are gender norms like the ones HB2 seeks to enforce, which leads to individuals who don’t adhere strictly enough to those norms being discriminated against.
And some people don’t really feel like “boy” or “girl” describes them accurately. They can shift between genders, or maybe don’t feel they have any specific gender at all. AND THAT’S TOTALLY OKAY BECAUSE WHAT MATTERS IS THAT THEY’RE PEOPLE AND DESERVE THE SAME RIGHTS AS ANYONE ELSE.
But I’m rambling now. What matters is this, Dad: HB2 creates problems out of nonproblems, and seeks to enforce binaries and create barriers. What we need to be doing though, is breaking down those barriers to create a culture of expression and acceptance.
Also, sometimes when the line for the women’s room is long, I use the men’s. It’s totally no big deal.

Achieving parity

Dear Dad,

I saw another study about women’s representation in movies and was reminded of our brief conversation on the topic a few months back.

First, some summaries of this study:

  • Globally, there are 2.24 males for every female character.
  • Only about 30 percent of speaking or named characters are female.
  • Only 20.5 percent of filmmakers are female.
  • Female characters are more likely to be sexualized, skinny, or wearing sexy clothes. (Almost twice as often as male characters)
  • In films for children, female characters are even more likely to be thin than in films targeted at adults.
  • Women make up only 23.2 percent of the U.S. workforce in films, but 46.3 percent of the workforce in real life.
  • Comments about appearance were directed at women at FIVE TIMES the rate they were directed at men.

In my last post, I talked about how women make up about 17 percent of crowd scenes in movies, as well as about 17 percent of leadership positions in real life. You replied that women are rapidly surpassing men in holding bachelor’s degrees, and that the gender pay gap is nigh but a thing of the past. And that is encouraging (though if you read that story, you’ll realize that the reason women are graduating at higher rates is because they can’t get a lucrative job without a degree, so they’re more willing to take on student debt than men, who have more job opportunities available regardless of education, and student debt is a whole other issue that saddles students of lower socio-economic status and any gender, but I digress).

You also mention negative portrayals of dads in media, and you’re right! This is a shame! The “dad-as-dumb-couch-potato” trope is harmful to men! And it perpetuates stereotypes that are harmful to families and women. These are important media critiques to make, and I should add that the slacker dad plays into the “mother runs the home” trope, keeping Mom in the kitchen and taking care of the kids because that is her purview. The slacker dad trope perpetuates ideas of masculinity as being animalistic and lazy, thus giving men a free pass on participation at home. It’s refreshing and encouraging to see positive portrayals of engaged fathers. It’s one of the reasons “Boy Meets World” is still one of my favorite sitcoms. “How I Met Your Mother” is another sitcom, this one geared at adults, that features passionate, engaged dads. They sometimes make silly goofs, but that doesn’t make them buffoons. They can be funny without being stupid, and I appreciate that.

But on the topic of women surpassing men in the job market, even the articles you point me to say that that hasn’t yet happened. Certainly, the gap is closing, but we’re nowhere near equality. On John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” segment on the pay gap, one pundit points out that unmarried, childless women between the age of 35 and 43 make 108 cents to a man’s dollar. Which is like, great if you don’t want to have kids or get married or ever turn 44. But we shouldn’t be restricting women’s options in the name of fairness!

The full, thorough, hilarious segment here:

And, as the fabulous documentary “Miss Representation” points out (I really liked that movie, okay?), an interesting thing happened when women first started to make forays into the job market: Media representations of women became far more toxic. In fact, as women continue to make headway, our counterparts on television become weaker and more sexualized, perpetuating harmful stereotypes. This is a way of making equality harder to achieve.

Just because we’ve made progress doesn’t mean we don’t have more to get done. And the latest study on representation in media shows that there is still so much to do.



On female traits

Males shouldn’t be jealous, that’s a female trait.

—Jay-Z, “Heart of the City”

Dear Dad,

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a woman a woman. You and Mom have both talked with me about the innate differences between men and women, differences that make the genders special. Mom’s even asked me to dive into those differences here and explore positive variance between genders. But then I got to thinking, what are those differences, exactly?

A black-and-white, vintage photo of a father helping his child with their homework. In the background, mother knits in her sitting chair.

Maternal mother knitting? Father-knows-best helping with the book learning?

The first “female traits” that come to mind are negative stereotypes, like the one Jay-Z names above. I think of cliches that made me want to shy away from being female as a child: cattiness, vanity, squeamishness and a fear of spiders. These traits are weak, and uncool, and traditionally thought of as feminine, so I told myself I was “not like other girls” and gallantly picked up the spiders on my own and put them outside, disavowed fashion and makeup, and avoided most female friendships.

You might be saying, “Those aren’t the female traits I’m thinking of!” Certainly, when you and Mom talk about differences between genders, the woman is the nurturer, the man the problem-solver. But these roles are neither consistent nor guaranteed across genders. Is a woman who is not maternal not then a woman? Or just a failure to her gender?

Even you and Mom don’t fit into these roles! When I was a child, I turned to you for comfort, because I knew if I went to Mom with a problem she’d say, “Well have you tried x, y and z solutions?”

And these same “positive” gender traits feed into the negatives. A man being a protector necessarily needs a weak, squeamish woman to defend, for instance. And, in a world where we’re at the top of the food chain, that strength and protection is often used to guard women against other men, instead of addressing the societal root of the problem and ending gendered sexual violence. Katherine Bushnell and Elizabeth Wheeler Andrew break it down quite nicely in their 1907 (1907!) book “Heathen Slaves and Christian Rulers”:

What charm this word ‘protection,’ and the title ‘Protector’ has held for certain persons, as applied to the male sex! ‘Man, the natural protector of woman.’ Forsooth, to protect her from what? Rattlesnakes, buffalo, lions, wildcats no more overrun the country, and why is this relation of ‘protector’ still claimed? Why, to protect woman from rudeness, and insult and sometimes even worse. But from whence comes that danger of rudeness and insult or worse from which man is to protect woman? From man, of course. Man is, then, woman’s natural protector to protect her from man, her natural protector. He is to set himself the task of defending her from his injury of her, and he is charmed with the avocation.

Kelsey over at Peak City Life has a lot more on this book, if you’re interested.

I suppose what I’m saying is, I learned to like fashion, and I learned to have female friendships, but I also still put the spiders outside for myself. Mom taught me how to approach my problems, and you showed me that a shoulder to cry on can come from anywhere. Ascribing values such as “female” or “male” to certain traits limits the possibilities available to us, and limits us as human beings. It prevents us from becoming full-fledged individuals.

I’m still growing, but I recognize that I don’t have to behave in ways that are necessarily female. I am a fearfully, wonderfully made unique person, and you and Mom helped show me that.


P.S. I realized that I started this post with a rather sad, sexist lyric that upholds gender roles, so let me end it with a song that explores gender roles and their impact on our lives in a more nuanced fashion:

On quirks and cultural norms

Dear Dad,

You made some interesting arguments about challenging gender roles, but I think you missed the point. You say not shaving is just my way of being a nonconformist, but while wearing mismatched socks is met with, “That’s so quirky,” the hair in my armpits is met with, “Ew.” (Your words exactly.)
You say that if I really want to challenge gender roles, I should become more mechanically skilled, and I admit, I loved learning to tune up my car when you came to visit. That’s a memory I’ll treasure forever. But I am suspicious of anything that says “If women want to challenge sexism, they should do X,” especially when that prescription comes from a man (no offense, Dad).
Yes, I should know basic upkeep tasks for my car. That will save me money and keep me from getting caught in a bind on the side of the highway. But I don’t think women should be required to learn a certain skill or accomplish a certain set of tasks to break down stereotypes. Those stereotypes shouldn’t be there in the first place.
I’m not fighting for a world where women learn to change their oil to prove they’re just as good as men. I’m fighting for a world where she shouldn’t have to prove anything, where a woman can know how to change her own oil, or not.
The problem is that when we start telling women that if they want equality they have to do X or Y thing, we just place more demands and rigid gender rules on them. As Nicki Minaj explained in a now epic video, it’s not possible for women to live up to it:
“When you’re a girl, you have to be everything. You have to be dope at what you do but you have to be super sweet and you have to be sexy and you have to be this, you have to be that, and you have to be nice. It’s like, ‘I can’t be all those things at once. I’m a human being.’ ”
A gif of Nicki Minaj in a pink wig saying

All hail.

Put it this way: In my ideal world, I can shave. Or not. In my ideal world, I can cake my face in makeup. Or not. In my ideal world, I can learn to rebuild an engine from scratch. Or not. And if I do, it’s not because I’m trying to show up some misogynists; it’s because I want to rebuild an engine from scratch. For me.
Sadly, we’re not there yet. It’s hard to imagine a time when our actions aren’t viewed through a lens that interprets them based on our gender.  But that is why examining those lenses is so important.
Love ya,