In 1970 I was a junior in high school when I declared myself a feminist. I understood little more than the basic concept that feminism was a movement concerned with the rights and equality of women, but that was enough for me. Historically speaking, this makes me a second wave feminist, though I'm not much interested in parsing the waves of feminism. As early as 1975, Robin Morgan celebrated feminism's diffuse strands in a Ms. Magazine article. When I use the word feminist to describe myself to my sons, I do not affix any adjective or prefix -- radical, global, Marxist, Amazon, post- etc. -- nor do I discuss historical waves unless it comes up in a specific context such as suffrage or Roe v. Wade, for example. My sons are too young to have been aware of riot grrls at the height of their movement. But they did come of age in the era of government-sponsored Girl Power, most often represented -- or misrepresented -- by slogans on their female classmates' t-shirts: Girls Kick Ass; Boys are Stupid.
They are smart enough to know that real ideas are seldom represented by slogans on t-shirts, but nonetheless some of these messages, like a lot of public discourse, must be mediated. And I've found the best way to do that is to try to keep a discussion going when they raise an issue or when we observe an event together. A few years ago, I was teaching a unit on gender with my first-year composition students at UC Berkeley. I had assigned excerpts from two books popular at the time: Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (Pipher and Ross, 1995) and Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys (Kindlon and Thompson, 2000). My youngest son saw the books on our dining room table. He was not yet familiar with the reference to Ophelia, but understood the significance of Cain. "Do people think boys are all bad like Cain? That we don't understand our emotions?" he demanded to know.
This was in the wake of Columbine shootings, and suddenly everyone was focused on the emotional well-being of boys. But my son had it exactly right. In large part, the point of entry to this concern was fear: that all boys, because of repressed anger and violent tendencies, were potential Harris and Klebold clones. I talk to him about the fact that the authors of these books were drawing on familiar cultural icons -- Ophelia, a girl who drowns in her emotions; Cain, a boy whose weapon is anger -- to draw attention to the positive guidance they offer in their books -- that the words reviving and raising suggested ways of taking action against common self-destructive trends in both boys and girls.
While watching the breaking news of the Virginia Tech Massacre, my older son checked the clock and wondered how long it would take to blame Seung-Hui Cho's rampage on a taste for violent video games. In the span of a few hours, reporters began to posit -- with no basis whatsoever -- that like Harris and Klebold, Cho was addicted to violent video games. Thus far, no evidence supporting that claim has been found. On the contrary, what his computer holds is evidence that violent and disturbed as he was, words -- drama and poetry -- were his chosen forms of expression until he ultimately communicated his madness with easily obtained guns and ammunition.
As consumers of products -- video games, books, music and movies—containing violent images and themes, and the often-attendant sexism, my sons are sensitive to the common claims (some more well-founded than others) that people who share their tastes are prone to violence. So if you were concerned that my children were being constantly subjected to academic lectures and feminist dogma, let me assure you there is a fairly even exchange in our household -- after all, there are two of them and only one of me. I've read more Neil Gaiman than I care to admit. I was persuaded by my sons (15 and 16 at the time) to take them to see Frank Miller's R-Rated Sin City, which I watched, eyes averted as I slunk further and further down into my chair, both in discomfort at watching sexploitation, dismemberment and torture with my children and embarrassment in having exercised such poor judgment.
But if I tried to ban everything that contained sexism or violence from their realm of choices, I would miss out on a lot of interesting cultural phenomenon in what I feel sure would be a losing battle. And the truth is that I share a lot of their tastes. As a child I was probably more addicted to super-hero comic books than my sons are now, so I read and enjoy those they recommend to me, especially updated versions of Marvel superheroes in series such as The Ultimates (Miller 2004) and from DC Comics the Justice League of America in graphic novels such as Divided We Fall (Waid 2001). I am genuinely interested in and often amazed at what they have learned about genre and graphic arts. I find the Cold War mentality of the videogame Metal Gear Solid (Playstation) intriguing and often watch the cinemas—short movies that advance the narrative of the game -- with my sons while they play. I have always been a fan of war movies and westerns and don't shy away from movie violence, having cut my teeth on Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and developed a taste for Sam Pekinpah's movies as a teenager. So when they want to see a movie like Sin City, having already read the graphic novel standing in the aisles of Barnes and Noble, I express my concerns but trust their judgment. Sometimes I make mistakes.
Without this open exchange, however, my younger son might not have introduced me to Marjane Satrapi's first graphic novel Persepolis. More than reports in the news about head-scarf girls in Turkey or France, this book raised for him the issue of human rights for Muslim girls and women. Recently my sons and I watched in rapt attention a report on the Lehrer News Hour about Dr. Sunitha Krishnan, the founder of the Prajwala School in India, a school for girls infected with AIDS as a result of rape, incest, or prostitution. Dr. Krishnan was infected with AIDS when she was gang raped and found that there were few resources for her in India. Both of my sons were deeply moved by her story and voiced their admiration for the incredible strength she demonstrates in continually fighting off not only criticism for providing shelter and education for these girls, but also physical attack. She has been physically assaulted 14 times since opening the school in 1995. After the program, my older son talked to me about the position paper he had written for the Model United Nations Conference he would be attending at UC Berkeley. The topic, which had been assigned to him, was sex trafficking of boys and girls in Japan. He agreed with Dr. Krishnan that the United States ought to be more vigorous in addressing the fact that Americans make up a large portion of the customers for this trade.