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Thoughts on Raising Girls: The Importance of Agency and Anger

Young couple sitting on groundA few different items recently making the rounds on social media have been drawing my attention as both a feminist and a parent. You might have seen this video featuring a Scottish dad having a spirited exchange with his 4-year-old daughter on the subject of boyfriends. In the video we see the dad threatening to "break the legs" of any future boyfriend. Dad is also, apparently, going to hold future boyfriend’s family members "hostage in a cupboard" and is seen telling his daughter that she is "going to be a nun" and not have any boyfriends at all. Initially, I assumed that this video was being shared disapprovingly. But then I realized that the narrative from all of the posts sharing the video was Oh look at this dad and his cute daughter! How FUNNY. This fills me with unease. How funny is it really to replay these tired old tropes of fathers owning their daughters' bodies and seeing boys as nothing other than threats to their daughters' "virtue"?

I found myself thinking a lot about the implications of the fact that in 2016 this video went viral as something harmless and funny. And that there is still a lot of this type of humour that flies around. Reasonable men meet my beautiful young daughter and joke that we better “lock her up” when she is a teenager. In a TV commercial for a car that monitors teenage driving habits, a dad quips “Will it keep track of how many boys get into the car?” Protective dads can buy novelty t-shirts that threaten violence to the boys who show interest in their daughters. And so on.

The clear basis of all of these jokes is that boys are going to want to have sex with your daughters, and this is something to be discouraged and feared. As girls grow up they already have to struggle with so much crap about their own sexuality and how they and the world see their bodies. They don't need to hear, from their own fathers, that they have no agency. Significantly, these jokes indicate that a girl's sexuality is always seen as either dangerous or in danger, and outside of that context we tend to ignore it altogether. The problem here is that we don’t give girls the social space to feel comfortable in their bodies and to understand that their body, and sexuality, belongs only to them. The narrative is usually all about how girls are subject to the sexuality of boys and subject to the control of their fathers. In short, the agency of girls is absent in these discussions. And this makes me angry.

And this brings me to another topic that has been making the rounds on social media. From this post, about little girls who are taught never to be angry; to fascinating conversations in intersectional feminist circles about Beyoncé’s Lemonade; to commentary about expressions of anger by female public figures, I have been seeing a lot of conversations about how girls and women are socialized regarding anger. A key observation in all of these discussions is that women and girls are socialized away from showing this very integral human emotion, and penalized when they do. In contrast, anger from boys and men is more accepted and is often even rewarded in social and work contexts. One of the problems we can identify here is that productive anger is not usually something that is modeled for girls. We simply don’t teach girls how and when it is appropriate, or necessary, to be angry. Thankfully, my own daughter has a mother who tries to model righteous anger and who rages against the machine at fairly regular intervals. But in truth, the practicalities of this are something we really struggle with. My daughter has a fiery personality, which may or may not be related to her red hair, and I am struck by how often I am effectively forced to police her emotions in the name of discipline and/or being socially functional. I once had a teacher earnestly inform me that because she already has "so many busy boys in her classroom, [she] can't handle [my daughter’s] misbehaviour on top of that." Alas, frustrating gender norms and stereotypes are still very much in play.

All of this has alerted me to a growing realization that when it comes to raising girls, questions of agency and anger are important and connected. In raising my daughter, I want her to be confident and strong and to be able to advocate for herself where necessary. And when she is ready, I want her to be able to firmly establish her own sexual boundaries, without shame or fear. With this in mind, I try to encourage her agency and channel her anger. But I am still confounded at every turn by the wider social dismissal of both. From clickbait viral videos to earnest feminist commentary, we still seem to struggle with the idea that girls own their bodies and that they are allowed to get angry. For me, the most disappointing thing about bell hooks' response to Lemonade is what can be read as her disavowal and dismissal of Beyoncé’s formidable display of vengeful femme sexuality and the power of her bat-wielding anger. I respectfully disagree with hooks on this because hell yes, I'd take a baseball bat to The Patriarchy if I could, and I’d like to think that my daughter would to. And if I want to wear a frilly yellow dress while I’m at it that is my own damned prerogative.

This is why, for me, the only good part about that viral video of the 4-year-old and her dad is her complete and utter indignation in response to his insistence that she will be a nun. “NO! I WON’T!” she screams at him. “If I want a boyfriend, I. WILL. GO. GET. A. BOYFRIEND!” The kid deserves a standing ovation. Her anger is so real and so necessary and yet society will do everything it can to stamp it out. We should be nurturing and celebrating it instead. 


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One response to “Thoughts on Raising Girls: The Importance of Agency and Anger”

  1. Avatar Andrew Mantulak says:

    Great read Jennifer and much to think about for sure. As a social worker, educator and father of two teenage girls I am so aware yet challenged by all the messages my daughters are exposed to through social media and by society in general. Your piece offers some clarity as I try desperately to try and engage my daughters in conversations (as much as an uncool dad can) that hopefully change the narrative of what they experience in a positive way for them as young women. Not always easy.

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