Fathers and Sons

Fathers and Sons

Recently, I watched The Empire Strikes Back and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which reminded me that the father and son narrative in all its diversity has been a longstanding theme in the fantasy world – from conflicted and tortured, violent and angry, loving and affectionate, to strong and stoic as well as the son and pseudo adopted father trope (like the Matrix and Finding Nemo for instance).

On one hand, its great isn’t it? That such an important and pivotal relationship between two people has been so thoroughly examined and expressed time after time. But, where’s the balance? Where is the multitude of stories about other familial relationships? The father and daughter? The mother and son? The mother and daughter? The sibling to sibling? Why are these stories missing and incomplete and less portrayed?

But it doesn’t end there, this emphasis on the father/son – it is often coupled with the absent mother. Finding Nemo, Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars trilogy are good examples of this. (Let’s not even get started on classic fairy tales and absent mothers).
Cynically, I would theorise that the reasons are the same: our cultural storytellers are male, and write about what they know and what they identify with. Which of course, isn’t mother – daughter relationships or father- daughter relationships.

And yet, the mother daughter relationship is a rich minefield of narratives begging to be tapped. Real life has infinite examples of how this relationship is so encumbered with historical baggage and embedded with multidimensional and highly nuanced cultural meaning. Indeed, it is possibly, one of the most complicated relationships that exist. At crucial times it transcends the mundane. Only women grow and bear children. And to state the obvious, only women’s daughters do the same. (Not to undermine a man becoming a father and how it can change his relationship with his father, but the fundamentally biological nature of pregnancy and childbirth is singularly unique and unforgettable). And isn’t this worth writing about and worth making stories about?

Watching the Empire Strikes Back is a great reminder of the ever present supportive role of the female. Princess Leia is a great character – independent, tough, assertive, level headed and calm in the face of imminent danger, however she is never the starring character in the films. She supports Luke. Possibly, at times, she co-leads actions with Hans. But the story is not about her – even though it is acknowledged that she has the same talent and capabilities as Luke. She is not chosen or approached to become a Jedi Master. Arguably she is more mature than Luke, she is definitely less reckless (as Yoda accuses him of). But, this is never explained. Dare I say it’s because of her gender? Could there be any other reason? But yet we accept it so complacently and I suggest that it would be surprising to all of us if she was chosen over him.

And why doesn’t Darth Vader recognise the force in Leia when he sees her face to face at Lando’s building in the clouds? Is he so fixated on his son that he doesn’t recognise what should be as plain as the nose on his face? Strictly speaking he should have sensed Leia’s force, just like he did with Luke’s. Or does one have to know someone has this force before one can sense it? Hmm. This smacks of convenience to me. A convenient way to keep the focus away from Leia and her potential, because this story was to be about a man and his father. Again.

I have said this before; I am seeking balance. I want to see the other familial relationships explored in a similarly nuanced, conflicted and detailed way that father son relationships can be treated and with just as much variation as possible. Is that too much to ask in this supposedly post-feminist age?

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Dramatic irony (Guest Post by my friend Bob)

Dramatic irony: it’ll fuck you every time*
*Professor Jules Hilbert, Stranger than Fiction

Little did I know but one of the very reasons I knew I could love her would be one of the reasons she left me. My connection with, and love for, her daughter.

Before I met her I was pretty sure that I would never date a single mother. Too much trouble with a kid on the scene I thought. Before we ever got together, she spent three days with me in my city. She was there for a conference and, as I remember it, it was the first time she’d been away for such a long time from her then nine-year-old daughter.

I remember, as we were about to go to dinner one night she rang her daughter as she’d done every night whilst with me. But this night, as I stood about 10 metres from her and looked at her face as she talked to her daughter I saw the beauty inherent in this woman. Her face lit up as she talked to her daughter – I couldn’t hear what was being said but I could feel the love even from where I was standing.

I remember the first night I went out with her and her daughter. Her daughter’s first question to me was “what animals do you like?” I think I said I like cats and snakes which she then drew for me –– but don’t quote me; a lot of time and much emotion has passed under that particular bridge. I then spent much of the rest of the night wowing the daughter with my mathematical skills – complicated (for her) multiplication in my head – so cool!

To say I got on with her daughter is an understatement. She’s considered a quirky child and, as a result, was not always popular at school. But the joy of this was that she didn’t take it to heart. She’d realised the other kids were jealous of her individuality and used to tell them as much – oh for her self-confidence! This was one cool kid. Not to suggest I always got it right, sometimes she frustrated me and made me angry. In my defence I hadn’t had much to do with 10-year-old girls and spent many a night hunched over my computer looking up 10-year-old developmental psychology and physiology to better educate myself on the physical and mental milestones she should have been at. I was constantly worried that I was expecting too much of her or not giving her credit for what she could already handle.

And then we broke up. Correction, she broke up with me. And what was one of the reasons? That at a friend’s place, rather than engaging with the adults I had spent time with her daughter. At the time I thought I was giving my ex a well-earned break and a chance to talk to her friends. I realise now that that wasn’t the case – she’d been a single mum for years before I came on the scene – she could chat with her friends and deal with her daughter – she didn’t need me for that. She needed me, her partner, to be fully present. As always, too late I see how she must have felt.

There’s no doubt about it dramatic irony will fuck you every time!

Sometimes big brothers protect their sisters – (Guest Post by my friend Bob)

 

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty 

The man who has been her life for the last three months picks up the young girl, barely thirteen. He, nineteen, has befriended her, driven her around in his cool car and has given her drugs and alcohol.  On this night he drives out of town to a secluded spot and demands oral sex. Her options are to comply or to be dumped. Dumped, to walk, for hours, in the dark, in the dark miles from home.

 

Take a moment, you’ve read the words but take a moment – put yourself in her position for just a moment, feel the fear, the despair, the shock and the heartbreak all at once…

She complies and she hates herself. A cycle of abuse is started. He passes her around his friends. Always drunk and drugged she is raped again and again. She is trafficked to towns and sold for sex, for rape.

Finally she tells the police. Hundreds of men at dozens of locations. Phone records show he has contacted her again and again. Rape cannot be proved – there is too much, too much seminal and vaginal fluid in his car, in the flats and on the filthy mattresses. It cannot be proved she was ever there. But, there are laws against trafficking. If only the police could prove that she had been moved, if only there was something to show her proximity to him as he drove her round the countryside. There is; mobile phone records. The location data of his phone coupled with the location data of her phone provides irrefutable evidence of a crime she will live with for the rest of her life.

A woman is abducted on an empty street at night. She seems to have vanished without a trace. Her husband is desperate. The community is shocked. It is reasonably assumed that a sex crime has taken place. Sexual criminals’ details are on database. Police match all the phone records against of the location of their phones against the location of her phone. A man is arrested. Faced with the evidence of proximity to her phone he confesses. He leads police to her body.

These examples are taken from real life events. In both cases the offenders were convicted.  Hopefully, they will not be able to offend again. Taking them off the streets protects women who could have become their victims. Using arguments based on civil liberties such as privacy and freedom from State intrusion, there are those who would deny the police the ability to access this unique data.  These arguments are compelling but equally so are stories of the people who have been bought to justice.

Access to phone data may seem like big brother but sometimes big brothers protect their sisters.

When girls and women go missing*

The Truth will make you free. But first, it will really piss you off!” –Gloria Steinem

When I was young and of some indeterminate age, I noticed how girls were largely absent from the cartoons that I loved to watch.  The main characters and sidekicks seemed to (nearly) always be male, and the female representation was mostly limited to one character.  Moreover, the female character tended to be a bit part, a sideline to the main story.  And this lack bothered me, right from the outset.

One of my favourite authors around this time, Enid Blyton, also disappointed and shocked me with her gendered bias.  The girls steadfastly performed domestic duties inside the home, whilst their brother would always be involved with the outdoor activities.  A sign of the times you might argue.  Probably true.  But there were times when the boy, Jo, got to go adventuring whilst the girls stayed behind to do stimulating tasks such as ironing.  Ironing trumped adventuring! And this was written by a woman!  At the time I puzzled over how she could do this; choose to write those words when she could’ve written others.  After all, it didn’t need to be realistic and in accordance with the prevailing societal norms – it was fiction after all!

At the time I didn’t realise how our gendered beliefs can be rendered so invisible to ourselves and others.  How we can write about cultural truisms as if they apply universally and across history.  But, now I understand more about our gender filters; that in short, our gendered beliefs are so deeply entrenched, so core to how we interpret the world and so early developed in our lives, that we find it difficult to disentangle them or hold them at arm’s length long enough to enable us to question their validity.

One example if you’ll indulge me.  Take the issue of employing quotas to enable more women to be in positions of leadership and power.  This is not a popular option in the corporate world of Australia currently.  They implicitly challenge the existing status quo for instance.  But the main concern of those who oppose quotas seems to be this: that the best person for the job won’t get it with a quota in place (implying of course, that the current system succeeds in employing the top person for the job). It is argued that a quota system will confer unnatural and therefore unfair advantages onto those who don’t have the necessary skills/experience/capability.  (Naturally, the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality and class in the makeup of people who command our highest levels of position and power is not considered).

And this sets up an interesting binary in my opinion.  Either, we agree that white, middle and upper class (and mostly heterosexual) men have the greatest intellect, skills and capacity for leadership over men from all other backgrounds, plus all women, regardless of their individual skills/experience/capability.  (Since in our society, they are the ones that occupy the vast majority of our executive level positions).  Or instead, we consider that it’s not just about who is the most capable person for the job, it’s also about whom fits in best within the existing setup.  In other words, either men of a specific socio-economic and cultural demographic are truly our superiors and deserve these positions unquestioningly, or they have been given a leg up (in large part), because they look and behave like the people who hire them.  You decide.

But back to girls and their absence in visual pop culture and my feminist awakenings.  Like any burgeoning awareness, once something is noticed it is difficult to shut it down.  And I didn’t need to look hard to witness how girls were mostly absent in mainstream media.  On many television shows and films of my childhood men stood front and centre.  Think of Star Wars and Doctor Who.  Think of the Thunderbirds or the Muppets.  Think of Road Runner or Tom and Jerry.  Or the highly dubious male to female ratio in The Smurfs (11:1).  There are too many examples.

It was reflected in my High School English classes.  We read about boys and men.  Books like Of Mice and Men, Kes (how I hated that!), Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies.  I don’t recall reading a book with a female protagonist or heroine (and how I yearned to!).  Boys and men always directed the show and the action.  The lives and feelings of boys and men were the entirety of options of what we could identify with.  As a hormonal adolescent female I wondered at the sense of this.  Firstly, why didn’t we study women’s stories?  What did those stories lack?  Were they not literature to be studied? Also, who were my role models to look up to and identify with?  To share their triumphs and travesties?  There was no mirror I could look through and see someone who resembled me either now or in my perceived future.  And that frustrated me no end, and seemed mightily unfair.

Now, as an adult with some lived experience, I now wonder about the impact of this invisibility.  What happens when your gender is so under-represented in our cultural narratives over and over again?  What happens when your story (or your sister’s/mother’s/daughter’s) seems hardly worth telling and portraying?  What conclusions can be drawn about the importance (or not) of the female gender in our society? And just as crucially, how does it affect boys and their understanding about girls and women?  Could it be that one of the reasons that the female gender is perceived as mysterious and complicated is precisely because our stories are less visible and less told?  That maybe, the essence of women’s “otherness” has risen from the silence around our narratives?

And let’s consider what happens when stories are told about girls and women.  They are often sidelined and trivialised (for instance, a film being referred to as a “chick” film).  They are marketed less in general and rarely to boys or men for mainstream viewing.  (There’s that tired old chestnut that girls will see movies and tv shows about boys but not vice versa so therefore the status quo can’t be changed).  These stories tend to centre on relationships to men or bitchy interactions with each other (hello stereotypes).

Women are not portrayed as game changers wielding any real power or influence.  Women never save the world or change the course of history.  Women never invent anything, create anything or influence the outcome of (almost) anything.  Where are the stories about success and failure?  Around nationhood and land?  Around heroism and sacrifice?  Around mateship/bonding or sisterhood?  Around making choices which affect the lives of many others?

This is what I gleaned from my consumption of mainstream media growing up – that essentially girls and women didn’t count, otherwise we’d show more stories about them.  (And what a powerful message that is.)

Sometimes I wonder if I take it too seriously.  Maybe it doesn’t matter what happens in the fiction/make believe/fantasy world. Maybe it bears little reflection on how women are viewed in our society.  But yet, it seems to me that the fantasy world is like a form of collective imagination and storytelling.  It is a place for playfulness, a place for rich tales and mythologies.  A place where good mostly usurps evil.  Where happy endings are the norm.  A place a kid imagines themselves to be.  A place a kid can pretend to be the one saving the world.  But yet, these remain men’s narratives and men’s perspectives.  It’s not to say men’s narratives are worthless, but there needs to be a balance and opportunities to enlarge the spectrum and hear women’s stories too.  Otherwise we sell ourselves and our children short; indeed we dangerously skew their ideas around what is normal personhood, what constitutes a normal life with normal hopes and desires.  This provides a limited script for how we understand ourselves and each other when one gender’s stories are unheard and rendered invisible.

But if we agree that this stuff is important, why then is this an area so overlooked and ignored?  Why don’t we demand a solution such as instigating quotas for storylines and main characters for instance (particularly with kids shows)?  Why doesn’t the fact that half the population’s stories and narratives are missing from mainstream bother us enough?  Are we persuaded that the media we and our children consume has no real impact or consequences (to which I answer refer to the paragraph above)?

And finally, why does the status quo remain so similar to my childhood of thirty years ago?

That, my friends, is the most chilling aspect of all.

* Acknowledgements to Margot Margowan of the Reel Girl blog.

The problem with nature versus nurture

“The role of gender in society is the most complicated thing I’ve ever spent a lot of time learning about, and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about quantum mechanics.” 
― Randall Munroe

“I have three sons and one daughter and boy are they different”.

“My son and daughter are different, even though I’ve treated them the same”.

“I didn’t believe it was true until I had my own children, but boys and girls just aren’t the same”.

Phrases like these are said by parents I know, in a manner that brooks no disagreement or allows discussion. It’s another way of saying: this is all biological, and we can’t fuck with  destiny.  Biology is an unstoppable force.  Biology just is. Independent. Autonomous. Unaffected (mostly) by culture or society.  Sure, we can try and influence our kids, but ultimately, our sons will like wheels and balls and our girls will like pink and pretty princess stuff.  Our sons will be rowdier and boisterous and our girls will be quieter.  Its just how it is.  Hardwired. Nothing we can do. Boys and girls are different, no matter how we try and change it, its like pushing a rock up a hill.

I try and challenge this gently.  I ask: what did boys play with before there were trucks and cars? How can it be biological when wheels haven’t always existed (and are more recent in some cultures anyhow)? How can we possibly think its universal when childhood around the world is so wonderfully varied and diverse?

I ask: How can we think we can separate boys and girls from their cultural trappings when we are so immersed in it that that we can’t even render visible the invisible gender baggage that we carry? Do we think its truly possible to parent our children in a gender neutral fashion?

I ask: How can we ignore the fact that gender is the product of culture and society when for example, one colour’s close association with girlhood and femininity is barely five decades old? (Guess which one).

My questions are difficult to answer; they open a chasm to a world a lot less secure and well known.  My questions challenge all that we believe and know about the nature of boys and girls.  So no one really wants to listen. Its too hard.

I walk away from these conversations in despair, wondering at our need to perpetuate this powerful belief about gender and biology, even when our sample size is limited to a few children we raise.  I wonder why we need to focus on it and emphasize it.  What makes it so important?  Why don’t we focus on the similarities?  What are we trying to protect and who? And why in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary do we persist in believing in the supposed sanctity of these beliefs as if they are time worn universal rules that cannot be challenged?

The problem with nature versus nurture is manifold.  Putting aside the simplicity which this binary presents, the crux of the matter is this: Our children never have a chance to be raised gender neutral precisely because we never were never raised in a gender free fashion. We live and breathe our culture and our family’s culture long before we say our first words or take our first steps.  Its just been rendered so invisible and so all encompassing that we can’t see it.

Therefore, if we cannot disentangle culture from biology, how can we begin to think that biology is an independent force which has the most influence over the two genders?  Moreover, how could we ever prove it beyond reasonable doubt and claim it reigns supreme?  But yet that’s exactly what we do.  Troubling isn’t it?