Lessons learned: women in society
Sometime last month, I was riding in the car with my 14 year-old brother and listening to him complain about his Health class. Most of the gripes I’d heard before: it was too boring, too easy, and the pictures of STD-infected hoo-hoos and hah-hahs? Totally nasty. But there was a little gem in all his bemoaning, and I discreetly tugged out my headphones in order to hear him better.
“I just don’t agree with the teacher on a lot of things,” he said.
My Mom tossed him a backwards glance from the driver’s seat. “Like what?” she asked.
“Well,” he hedged, “yesterday she said that if a woman respects her body, then other people will respect it, too. And if something bad happens to a woman, it’s because she didn’t respect herself enough.”
“Wait, what part do you disagree with?” I piped up, just to make sure.
“I think you should always respect a woman, that’s all.”
It goes pretty much without saying how proud I am of my brother. He’s a smart kid for sure, and we see eye-to-eye on almost everything. Still, I was startled by the veracity of his statements. Our society tends to embrace men and masculinity no matter what, to espouse patriarchy as being an innate and perfect system. ‘Boys will be boys,’ the old adage goes. And yet, my brother – my soccer-playing, video game-loving, tee shirt-and-sweatpants-wearing brother – disproved this entire myth with one sentence. Boys can be smart. Boys can question the systems that benefit them. They can surprise you, if given the chance. I believe the same goes for girls as well.
See, the Western world has some pretty backwards expectations of women. It’s easy for us, as Americans, to look at tragedies such as the recent public gang rape of a Delhi woman and pat ourselves on the back because “thank God that doesn’t happen here”; what we conveniently ignore is the fact that, yes, that does happen here, and that the inequalities which contributed to the rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey exist in America, too. Just recently, hacker group Anonymous brought the gang rape of an unconscious Ohio teenager to light, revealing that the alleged rapists joked about the act on social media websites afterward. “This country loves football more than its own daughters,” reads a post on the Facebook page of Michael Nodianos, who was also seen in a viral video joking about the rape.
That’s a pretty bold statement. So what prompted Michael Nodianos’s confidence in broadcasting it to the world? Well, if you’re a girl, when was the last time you were called a slut? When was the last time you called someone else a slut? Even if you personally haven’t done so, it’s extremely likely that you’ve heard the word thrown around quite a bit. Sexism is so ingrained in every facet of our society that most of it goes completely under our radar. Take the Bechdel test, for instance: the only requirement to pass is that a work of fiction must include two women talking to each other about something other than a man. Guess how many movies and TV shows actually pass. (Hardly any.) When hatred against women – when disdain of women, refusal to see them as three-dimensional people independent of their relationship to a man – is so normalized in our society that even women think we’re not worthy of respect, can we really be surprised that a teenage boy felt perfectly comfortable joking about the physical and emotional desecration of an innocent girl?
Look, I’m a social optimist. I don’t think men are programmed with this insatiable, animalistic urge that drives them to rape every woman who dares show some skin. I don’t think men are born without compassion or common sense. I do think, unfortunately, that thousands of years of patriarchal mythos and “boys will be boys” mentalities have convinced them of these lies – and, even worse, convinced them that these lies are something to be embraced. “Men should be offended when someone claims that women should prevent rape by not wearing certain things or not going certain places or not acting a certain way,” goes one anonymous quote. “That line of thinking presumes that you are incapable of control… It presumes that your natural state is rapist.”
When I look at my brother, I see what all men can be. I see someone who respects all people, who keeps his mind and ears open and just listens. I see someone who refuses to give in to stereotypes and accept things for less than they really are.
And whether you’re a boy or girl, I think we could all learn from that.