I’ll never forget a conversation I had with one of my girls in my second year teaching. We were sitting on the carpet, discussing our stories. Every student was required to write a story that had a lesson they wanted their readers to learn.
“Well, the princess starts off the story, and she’s really not pretty,” my student said to me.
“Ok, so it sounds like you have a problem in your story,” I replied skeptically, trying not to judge.
“Yep!” she continued.
“So how does she solve her problem?” I queried.
“Well, she becomes beautiful and then the prince falls in love with her,” she finished, smiling up at me.
I was stopped dead in my tracks, unsure of what to say. Time to intervene.
“Interesting,” I replied. “Are you trying to teach readers that you need to be pretty to fall in love? As a reader, that’s the message that I get from your story.”
And now she was stopped dead in her tracks.
I could tell I made her stop and think twice about what she was writing. In all fairness, she was young, and in her experience, these were the kinds of stories she was exposed to: the ones where the ugly duckling can get the prince finally after he notices that she is, in fact, “beautiful.” Frequently enough, it’s not because her sparkling personality that shines; instead, it’s because a superficial change in her appearance miraculously makes it so the prince can see the “real” girl.
As a man, you probably think I have no business writing about this, and you might be right; but for a second, I ask that you remove this bias and allow me to empathize — empathize with the struggles that women have undergone to develop and maintain something that resembles equality, and in turn, empathize with all marginalized populations out there, for if we allow the marginalization of one population, we allow for the marginalization of them all. As a gay man, I’ve personally felt the effects of of this marginalization, and a result, I can understand — firsthand — the bias that clouds our judgment and the formative experiences that make us who we are.
I wish I could say this instance — the story of the ugly girl who suddenly became pretty — was the last time something like this has happened, but I’m constantly met with little girls, wanting to be princesses, wanting the fairy tale, and even hoping that some day a boy will get down on his knee, ask her to marry him, and sweep her off her feet.
My response, you ask, when they say these things to me?
“I sure hope that happens to me someday, too,” I reply, knowing just the response I’ll elicit.
“But Paul,” they always seem to reply, “you’re the boy.”
“So?” I always respond.
“Well, the boy is supposed to ask the girl,” they’ll always retort.
So I’ll always counter with, “What if I told you that women were supposed to stay home and do all of the laundry? What if I told you that women were supposed to listen to everything their husbands say?”
And the response is always the same — a big, emphatic “NO!”
In a way, I find it to be utterly contradictory: in an age where women’s rights are publicly preached, why is it assumed that the man has all of the power in this decision? Why is this idea of marriage proposal always so revolutionary to them? Why is the thought of the woman controlling the situation and asking a man for his hand in marriage so preposterous? And why, in an age where we celebrate women’s rights, do we still need to remind girls that they have the power to choose?
But then, it always dawns upon me — the harsh reality — that many girls are still feeling the residual effects of a society that marginalizes women, placing them beneath men. Regardless of the fact that modern culture is beginning to teach children both explicitly and implicitly that women do not need to listen to men, this message, in and of itself, doesn’t erase the underlying implicit message: that women need men to validate and take care of them. And to think, many of them have no idea that they’re learning this.
They simply accept it as truth.
But our best shot is in the classroom. Our best shot at turning these perceived truths into myths and fixing this problem is not by judging, but by allowing a safe space where children can be questioned about these misconceptions and alter them all on their own. Perhaps if we do this, we will slowly, but surely, help girls to change, not only their own perceptions, but also the perception that society so willingly forces upon them, so that thirty years from now, these conversations are a thing of the past, up only for comparative discussion in history class.
But I still can’t help but wonder what if, thirty years from now, they are still so innocently the victims of marginalization — in the same and in other ways. At that time, will they realize the power they hold? Or will they continue to willingly rescind their power only for the sake of a romantic proposal, a diamond ring, and a so-called happy ending?
I’m certain I don’t have the answer, but I’m certain that I’m going to try and do something about it.