(Wo)man Up

Dear Mom,

As my colleague David and I sat at lunch this week, we bemoaned the lack of support we feel from district administration in helping us come up with a solution to a curricular problem we are facing.

“You guys can’t just let this go,” our colleague Kim implored. “You have to pursue this.  Make your case. Talk to the school board if necessary.  C’mon, ovary up.”

As many of us in the department are acolytes of Sandberg’s Lean In and her Ban Bossy campaign, we appreciated the attempt at flipping the phrase man up, that masculine exhortation to show your strength, take action, and not back down.  The next day as we walked in from the parking lot, David and I shook are heads and agreed: we have to do something.  We can’t let Kim down!

I wonder now if we secretly felt we might appear less manly if we don’t take action?

(It was interesting to see students at Duke University with their own issues around language this week, putting together a campus-wide campaign to encourage change around language that is used without thinking, and often with negative consequences. One of their PSAs: “I don’t say ‘man up’ because I don’t believe in gender norms.”)

What I appreciate about Ban Bossy is that it not only promulgates the correct idea that women can and should be leaders, but also encourages young women to be assertive, confident, resilient and invested in their own abilities and dreams.

Isabella may or may not grow up to be a leader, in the traditional sense of the term at least.  As you know (Exhibit #1, our dog Moe) she certainly has the ability to doggedly pursue the things that interest her, and an uncanny way of drawing devotees.

You also know her struggles. She’s often anxious when speaking and performing in front of groups, is not always eager to try new experiences outside her comfort zone, and when she compares herself to others (especially academically), she can be very hard on herself. Capital “L” leader or not, I hope that she will possess the strength to power through these challenges, pursue her dreams, and grow into a strong, courageous woman who experiences more success than failure in life.

This weekend, inspired by the materials online at the Ban Bossy campaign, I asked Isabella if I could watch some TV with her. She was able to choose the show (she selected Victorious, a Nickelodeon favorite which focuses on a group of students at a high school for the performing arts called Hollywood Arts), and she agreed to my plan to track which characters were talking, how often, and what they talked about. We also took note of how characters dressed, and the kinds of behavior they displayed.

We made simple tally marks under two columns, one for female characters, the other for males.  It will probably not surprise you that females dressed in fancy or revealing clothing and also talked about love or relationships much more frequently than their male friends. When characters took the lead in a group, the gender breakdown was about equal, and the only act of aggression was actually by a female character (which I found surprising).

Even though it was difficult, we tallied when characters spoke even a single word (did the grunts made by some of the male characters count? I thought so), and which of those utterances were spoken to a character of the same gender.  This is where it got kind of interesting, because there were so many more male characters (in a show called VicTORIous, where the main character is Tori, and the audience is clearly tween girls) than females, and I thought after the first scene the sheer numbers would weigh the count heavily in the male column.

Thankfully, Tori and her frenemy (truly no better way to describe it) have an opportunity to talk to one another when they go out on a date mid-show (no secret girl-on-girl crushes here; it’s for an acting assignment), have a real heart-to-heart, sing a girl-power song (of sorts) to ward off loser boys who are hitting on them (all the grunting sounds figured in here, but it was all PG), and their final performance for class (more conversation between the two) was stellar, the episode concluding with them more friends than enemies.

Two things astonished me about the show.

  1.  Not only are there more male characters total, but the same old stock characters are trotted out:

MALES = geek, lovesick innocent, class clown, hunk, goofy but lovable teacher, and the odd assortment of minor characters (cook, waiter, and DJ at the restaurant)

FEMALES (besides the two leads) = ditzy blonde and hot girl.

  1. THAT THERE IS A HUNK and A HOT GIRL in a show for tweenage girls!!! Three of the four sub-plots in this show were about dating and relationships among high schoolers, and the audience is for kids who, like Isabella, still can’t stand it when Harry Potter kisses Cho Chang in The Order of the Phoenix. I am convinced there are exactly ZERO high school age girls who watch this show, so the implication is clear: this is what you can expect in high school, girls. Watch. Study. Learn.

This show did make we want to watch more TV and movies with Isabella, so that we can talk, like we did after this episode, and try to uncover some of what is being communicated, both on the surface and below. I hope to insert myself for a few more years at least, or as long as she’s willing to sit down with me on Saturday morning and give me a peak into her world. I came away thinking that, while it’s great to ban the word bossy, there’s a whole lot more to do, too.

Get to work Dad. C’mon. Ovary up!

Love you,

Christopher

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