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Raising Boys

Sunday, March 12, 2017

I watched the TV docudrama, Suffragette, last week. It popularised a piece of social history I was never taught that the turn of the 20th century campaign in Britain to extend the vote to women involved terrorist tactics by women that included pelting rocks through store windows, blowing up postboxes, setting fires in churches, sabotaging telecommunications and public suicide. Women jailed would go on hunger strikes and were force fed to keep them alive.

My deepest acquaintance with the Suffragist movement before the film was through its depiction in the Disney comedy, Mary Poppins, which was a childhood rite for many Trinis of my generation. Early in the movie, the character Mrs Winifred Banks, the dizzy wife of the thoroughly British London household where Julie Andrews’s character floats in to be the magical nanny, joins her domestics in the kitchen, marching and singing, in cross-class solidarity, the anthem “Sister Suffragette.”

One phrase that remains etched in my childhood memory from the well-worn turns of the 33 RPM vinyl cast album my Aunt Cynthia brought as a gift on her visit home from the States is the last line in the song’s opening verse:

“Though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid.”

It didn’t rhyme. It was one of my earliest lessons in feminism.

Like so much of the Disney studios’ work—long, long before the new LeFou—the movie masks, beneath its musical entertainment, considerable social dialogue. About the contest in roles between men and women; and about how children ought to be raised. Like so many of those childhood moments that unconsciously imprint our ideas, the American-made film is also the root of much of my imagination of that romantic Edwardian era of British imperial mercantilism and prosperity.

It’s this second film that’s been on my mind more over International Women’s Day. Yes: the saccharine musical one about gender roles and childrearing methods with the mocking line about masculinity, which reminds me of how I described it in one of my earliest columns—really delicious, but not really very good.

The same idea I realise I was struggling with in a recent column purporting to be about dating, relationships and St Valentine’s Day, but that was really about the crisis of masculinity.

I’ve been chatting about the column with a few readers. One woman offered: “I wonder whether men feel guilty about treating people badly, or taking things—physical things, time, love, energy, etc—from people as much as women do. They take and take. And we let them. But even if we don’t, they take and take.”

And I want to campaign for us to take even more.

Feminism, let’s argue, is about women having equitable access to all the things that men do. Power. Leadership. Agency. Sexual safety. Choice. Pleasure. Income. To walk away from crying children and dirty wares.

I witness the powerful work some of my friends are doing fathering daughters to be bold and safe and playful. It’s more visible with those who are single; as men tend to let their partners parent. For so many other girls, however, incest, violence and daily lessons about their lack of worth are what they get. Reversing that is work all of us are called to do.

But more and more, I am concluding that girls are given a heap of things that boys aren’t. A commitment and art for caring for others and themselves. The capacity to feel. Grace in managing desire and pain and denial. Skills at conflict resolution. Discipline and balance. Tenderness and vulnerability. Dolls.

Boys chronically need all of those. As boys. As men. Making these things—often devalued as feminine—valuable not only increases our access to them. Making the things women beat us at important also increases women’s equity.

So I think I have found my “big idea” I keep talking about us needing to anchor our work at nation building. Threaded through everything I have had to say in this column about rape culture, crime, the violence everywhere, the dutty child fathers, the anti-evidence policymakers, even my own loneliness and heartbreak, is this big idea that we just haven’t raised boys better.

That we are really raising them to be rather stupid.

And as much as Women’s Day ought to be about women and girls, this thing about raising boys is sitting at the root of so many of the things women would want to march about. The wonderful nature of this past Saturday’s Life in Leggings women’s rights solidarity march is how we were encouraged to “Bring yuh message and come.”

How we raise boys is mine. And Keith Rowley’s now, too, I see.


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