The help desk: A faint-hearted feminist


Q. I am a single mother of a 13-year-old boy, and my sister and her family recently moved in next door. It's lovely for all of us, and my son spends lots of time at her house. But one thing's been worrying me. My sister and my teenage niece are strongly feminist. I'm most definitely a feminist myself, but they seem to see sexism everywhere and are very vocal about it.

My son is at a vulnerable age and just becoming interested in girls and I worry about him being exposed to the constant denigration of his sex (though he's never said anything about it). As a feminist, I feel slightly ashamed to be fretting about this. Am I wrong to worry? Or should I say something?

A. Ok, so you're a feminist who's fine with feminism until it threatens to nobble her son. That was my reaction when I first read this. Then I tried to picture what life would be like for any boy who lived in our house, home to two teenage girls who make Andrea Dworkin look like a bit of a girl's blouse, if you'll excuse the language.

My 14-year-old is still fuming after I encouraged her to watch My Fair Lady, because the heroine ends up ecstatically succumbing to the "charms" of the man who has treated her like a pile of cack from the off. (HOW did I forget this? Perhaps we should have watched Pygmalion instead, in which Eliza goes off to run a flower shop with the lovely Freddy – but the songs aren't as good.)

Little escapes her socio-political critique. On investigating the habits of lions in the wild, she learnt that the females do most of the hunting but are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to the eating. "Oh my god – even in other species!" she huffed.

All this might be a little wearing for a boy, I grant you. But on the other hand, would it do him any harm? Perhaps your son still has a father around, or perhaps an uncle next door, who could give him some perspective and offer a more positive view of the ways of men.

The fact is that your sister and niece see examples of sexism everywhere because there are examples of sexism everywhere. I think I'd be very happy to raise a son with such a strong awareness of that. He'll be comfortable around women and treat them with respect – and hence be irresistibly attractive to them. In fact, it sounds like you're raising a babe magnet. A feminist babe magnet. What's not to like?

Naturally, you are concerned about his self-esteem. But the puff that can go along with simply being born male is not the same as true self-worth, which is a far more complex thing.

So should you say anything? Well, if your sister or niece says something you disagree with, or you think they're going a bit far, using lazy thinking or generalising, then pipe up. If not, then what is there to say?

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