When I was a child my wily mother would seek a few moments of peace by allowing my sister and I to have a bubble bath. There was nothing I loved more even though the time spent in said bubble bath would almost always be filled with strange and elaborate games sprung from the fertile mind of my sister. Looking back, all those games had but one common thread, that I was the slave girl to a beautiful princess who would demand an endless supply of “tea” (the top of a shampoo bottle filled with bath water and topped up with bubbles). I always wanted to be old enough so that I could be the one shaping the storylines of those games, never realising that when you have an older sister, you’d reach the end of your days before you’d ever be “old enough”. Even though I didn’t shape those stories, I most certainly knew how they would unfold. I too would be a princess and like in every fairy-tale, I would be rescued by a handsome prince. My stories were as dreadfully unimaginative as they were unyieldingly Caucasian, it would be easier to spot an alien than brown skin in any of the fairy tales I’d read as a child. Those were childish games, dreamt of in a childish mind, where men were heroes and women were sweet virgins waiting to be rescued. Except of course, I wonder when it was that we stopped asking men to be the heroes of the story. I wonder when it was that we started raising boys to be men instead.
This has been a difficult blog for me to write, I’ve mulled over the idea for a while, constantly picking it up and then dismissing it because the words I put together don’t fully shape the thoughts hurtling around in my mind. But the idea, I suppose, is a simple one. What happens to the boys raised to be heroes when they have no one to rescue anymore? What happens when those boys raised full of bravado find their masculinity threatened? What happens to the boys who grew up and were unprepared for the world they find themselves in now? The answer isn’t only the increased violence that seems to befall women as they progress in their careers. I heard a female executive speak, with quiet disbelief and horror in her voice, that she was observing a disturbing trend; the higher up women seemed to rise in the corporate world, the angrier their spouses became. To gain one form of power was to lose another. It is a harsh reality that for some men, a more successful partner is emasculating.
The answer isn’t only in the fact that women still downplay their smarts, their abilities so as not to threaten, so as to be accepted, to be liked. My sister (Princess of the Bubble Bath) tells me the other night that she read about a study that showed women of all ages uniformly downplaying their intellect when they were around men. Thoughts of the sheer waste of that capacity, that potential, are heavy and suffocating, to understand the constraint is to imagine a world without it. How could it be true that we’re still playing to the gender stereotypes of our parent’s generation? Is it because we never stopped creating the male hero, the Casanova, the strong yet gentle breadwinner, the provider? Part of me believes that. Part of me believes that we are still raising boys who will grow up and find their place in this world threatened. Those boys will grow up to see powerful women wielding invisible machetes and clutch their nether regions with despair.
Rightly or wrongly, I look to the mother here. I look to the women here, not because men are stupid and incapable of seeing logic. Not because the power struggles that we face daily are our fault or because no man on earth wants to see an end to patriarchy. I look to the women because I am one. I look to women because no one will understand this better than we do. I look to women and I ask, what is it we expect of our boys? Of our men? Do we expect a toxic, old fashioned version of strength? Do we expect to be taken care of? Do we expect to be rescued? Because if we do, we are part of the problem as well. We cannot to continue to propagate the power myth with our words and actions, to our sons, our brothers and our partners, if this is a myth we are seeking to dispel. I write this, and I know full well what happens to some women who challenge the power norms, and by no means do I ever want to trivialise violence or suggest that the one who survives it is somehow responsible for it in any form or way. But for me, there has to be something more here, we have to be able to look deeper and beyond the overt cases of sexism in our society. We have to start thinking deeply about what kind of messages live in our words, said or unsaid, and what clues lie in our everyday actions, conscious or not. Because if we are willing to do so, we continue to grow boys who will struggle and who will fight for significance and power in a world that would seem to take it away from them.