Can we just relax about casual sexism?

There’s a lot of stuff about gender trending on social media this week, like this video. In my twitter feed, I saw no less than THREE WOMEN saying that they had watched this commercial and “cried out of guilt.” Apparently, according to the video’s description on the Huffington Post, parents give their girls an array of subtle social cues that “push girls away from math and science in their earliest childhood years.” These messages can also, according to the description, “ultimately discourage girls from pursuing traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects in school.”

Wow, I thought. What exactly are parents SAYING to these poor girls?! Are they literally burning their daughter’s chemistry books right in front of her? Curious, I clicked on the ad, fully expecting some seriously messed up shit.

This was the first example. Um. I scratched my head. That’s supposed to deter a girl from math and science? …Is the parent off-camera holding a chemistry set right out of her reach? Is that what she’s grabbing for? What am I missing?

Hmm. I guess I see how this could send some bad signals — telling your girl forego exploring for fear of getting “dirty” or “messy”. That’s no good. But maybe this mom just doesn’t want to do another god damn load of laundry? Lord knows between a baby who can’t use utensils yet and a potty-training toddler we do at least two loads PER DAY around here, and you can often hear me yelling, “Can you PLEASE eat your spaghetti OVER your plate so you don’t ruin your new shirt?! Can you PLEASE sit on the potty when you pee, so you don’t spray urine all over your clothes?!” Who knew I was setting her up to hate the hard sciences?

Sheesh. I told June not to pet a dead bird at the park last week … was I really deterring her from scientific inquiry?

At the end of the ad, Sammy, now in highschool, removes a science fair poster from a glass board and applies lipstick, using the glass as a mirror. BOOM. There you go, you sexist parents — you just set little Sammy up for a lifetime of waitressing at Hooters. Sammy could have graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biology, but you had to compliment her DRESS, didn’t you, you science-hating monsters?! Our words can have a huge impact, the ad warns. Apparently. Apparently even the most innocuous comment can have a permanent, life-altering impact. When you tell your daughter she’s pretty, what she’s really hearing is that she’s a vapid princess who’s too dumb to do math, and it will alter the course of her life forever.

Can we all just calm down about this sexism thing? Can we just relax about parenthood in general? 

Sexism is real. It’s subtle and it’s damaging. And I do agree with the (poorly-conveyed) message of this video: If we treat our daughters like they’re adorable morons, persistently and insistently, they’ll probably grow up thinking exactly that. But people, I am so sick of fear-based parenting. 

When June was a newborn, I was constantly terrified. Sure, some of that had to do with my anxiety disorder. But I also labored under the new-parent delusion that every single decision I made was a life-altering one: If I fed her once from a bottle, my milk would dry up. If I gave her a pacifier, she would immediately get nipple confusion, and our breastfeeding relationship would never recover. Once, in a particularly harrowing episode of cluster feeding — she must have been three or four days old at the time, and she had been nursing and crying every forty-five minutes around the clock — my husband started burping her, their noses about six inches apart, his face totally sullen and lined with sleeplessness. I thought, panicked, oh, God! The first formative memory of her father will be him glaring at her and willing her to sleep! It will imprint in her brain and she’ll grow up thinking that he hates her! “HONEY SMILE AT HER,” I shrieked, bolting upright in bed, “YOU HAVE TO SMILE AT HER!”

This article brings me back there, to those high-stakes newborn days. Let’s realize that sexism is real, and it plays itself out in a thousand different ways, sometimes very subtly. And it’s wrong. But holy hell, we parents are going to make mistakes, okay? We’re going to slip up, say the wrong thing, send the wrong message. Big mistakes, subtle mistakes — we just have to accept that we’re going to screw up in some way or another. Let’s own that and maybe calm down about all the million ways we can irreparably damage our children. It would break my heart to see a new parent watch this commercial and stop telling her daughter that she’s beautiful, agonizing over all the ways it would potentially damage her in the future.

Let’s have confidence that our children are not as fragile as we’re making them out to be. Examine yourself, examine your blind spots like racism or sexism, but please let’s not make the mistake of thinking that any slight rebuke or comment is going to scar them forever.

Words have meaning; our actions have meaning; but they don’t set our futures in stone.


This post was later picked up by the folks at the Huffington Post! Hop on over and leave a comment, won’t you?


9 thoughts on “Can we just relax about casual sexism?

  1. Thank you! I agree- they were trying to convey something true, but they lost sight entirely of the reality. Now, if in the commercial, the disembodied parental voice had been saying, “Science club? Wouldn’t you rather join the cheer squad?” or even showed her picking out a “sexy doctor” Halloween costume, that would have had more impact.

    Fear based parenting is the pits. Thanks for saying it!

    • YES thank you! Exactly! I mean, I get that sexism can be subtle, but holy crap, let’s just dial it back a little; they’re not going to start stripping because we called them “ladylike” a few times, or something.

  2. Amen. I tell my baby girl that she is pretty every day. So does my husband. I remember loving it when my dad looked at me in a pretty dress, smiled, and told me I looked beautiful. (I still love that now as a grown adult with a husband). There is just something about your mom and dad’s compliments that mean a lot. My dad also coached me in volleyball, played catch with me and made me become a better pitcher in softball, and helped me measure rain water when I did my science project on weather in the 7th grade. I want my daughter to know that her dad thinks she is beautiful. And she will, because he will tell her everyday. But he will also probably teach her how to mow the lawn and catch frogs with her at the creek. 🙂

  3. I’d like to add that it is all about balance. My parents told me I was pretty but also encouraged sports and academics. I still did end up with an eating disorder in high school, but it was my own damn fault. I let peers and the media get to me. And a diet I tried went all wrong. In hindsight; my parents maybe would’ve approached my ED differently, but they did the best they could and with their support I am ED free today. As parents we could do everything “right” and our children may still end up with depression or lack of self esteem. As parents we need to do our best to be there for them and love them. On the other end of the spectrum, we could never tell our daughters they are pretty and push the academics hard and then the kids will end up with perfectionism to the extreme and end up killing themselves because they get a B on a test during their first semester in college. Let’s just love our kids, encourage them, tell them they are beautiful and let them be free to be who they want to be, whether that is a beauty pageant contestant or a NASA engineer.

  4. Good points. The only part of that commercial that could be construed as genuinely keeping the girl out of science was when she and her brother are working on a science project. Sam is operating a cordless drill and the offscreen dad says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Let your brother handle that!” (What he really should have said is, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Put your safety glasses on, kids!” But I digress.)

    • Yup! I thought the same thing! That was the only thing that made me shake my head. Or the parent should have said, BOTH OF YOU GET AWAY FROM THE DRILL! Haha.

  5. Sarah, I’m not going to lie. I opened up this post to get mad. But your perspective is totally valid and understandable.

    As someone WITHOUT children (and as someone with a single father whom I adore and a mom whom I don’t usually see eye-to-eye with), the little girl reminds me of myself. The ad had me reflecting on my own upbringing and subsequent adult life. Once again, you’d be hard to find a daughter with a better father (sorry, Lou!), but it’s made me examine some of the subtle sexism I received from my father. Do I blame him? Dear lord, no! He only did what he knew to be best, and most of the time he nailed it!

    This ad was important to me in the way that it allows me to examine my own upbringing without assigning blame and makes me reflect on how I can do better. (Seriously, you know how long I evesdrop on cute little kids on the CTA to gather enough information to say “you’re so pretty and (funny/smart/clever/caring/kind/fun/etc.)!” …Probably too long for any parents who are reading this to feel comfortable.

    Remember that ad where the little girl says “daddy, why is the sky blue?” and he says “to match your eyes!” Then the daughter said “no, mom said it’s because (blah blah blah scientific explanation that I don’t even know because I was terrible with STEM subjects).”

    I totally agree that this ad could have done more and in a better way. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a teenager applying lipgloss, but a young adult working a dead-end office job. Seriously.

  6. I worry less about subtle sexism (and telling the girl to let her brother handle the power tools is NOT subtle), and more about direct sexism. As a teenager, I wanted to buy and rebuild an old mustang. I did my research, saved my money and asked my dad to help me work on it. His response, “I don’t think that’s such a great idea. Boys don’t like girls who work on cars.” Keep in mind that this came from the man who insisted I learn to change my oil and tires and do basic maintenance so I wouldn’t get taken advantage of by mechanics. He just couldn’t wrap his head around a girl voluntarily rebuilding an engine though. Later, after college I wanted to go live overseas for a while. I did my research, found family members I could live with, and my dad’s response, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s not safe for a girl to travel alone.” I still regret not doing either of those things. Ironically, I’m almost finished my masters in forensic science, I do most of the remodeling projects on our house myself, and I’ve traveled all over with my kids, alone, because my husband and I often have to take separate flights.

  7. Hah! I have to laugh. I tell my daughter every day that she is so pretty — which I should probably stop doing for an entirely different reason, which is that she’s going to grow up conceited. But I can’t help it SHE’S SO PRETTY — and if someone ever told me that was going to discourage her from pursuing a STEM education I would laugh in their face. My parents told me I was beautiful — not every day probably, but when it was called for — and I took dance lessons instead of playing sports, and my mom told us not to “clean the neighborhood” with our clothes, and my brother had way more freedom than my sisters and I did because he was a boy and we were girls.

    And then I went off to college and got a degree in chemical engineering.

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