Just a girl

Audrey N. Carpio (The Philippine Star) - October 17, 2014 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Before I gave birth, I swore that my daughter would not grow up Disney. We would not let ourselves get sucked into the princess industrial complex that manages to ensnare every little girl in its pink plastic manacles. Of course, nothing ever goes according to your birth plan. Last Halloween, I dressed Tica up as a zombie scuba diver. Now that she’s three years old and quite opinionated, there’s no escaping the barrage of fluffy tutus, chintzy ball gowns and glittery fairy wings. She likes pink, and I have to accept that. She’s a girl.

Over the course of, say, a hundred viewings of Disney princess films watched in hostage with my child, I’ve found that these films, especially the early ones, are not completely devoid of characters with feminist traits who sometimes make empowering choices for themselves. So I’ve let it go. I think that the way I model myself as a mother and a woman will have more influence on my daughter than any movie she sees. I say this because a lot of my core values about what it means to be female come from my own mother. She has always pushed for learning and education, signing me up for violin, piano, guitar, ballet, tennis and painting lessons, all of which I showed no talent for, to generously funding the post-graduate degree that I will never make back in earnings. While other kids had stories read to them before bedtime, I was made to do math word problems. Needless to say, I suck at math.

So maybe she was a typical achievement-seeking Asian tiger mom, but all this pushing tied into the importance of having my own career for personal and social fulfillment, in addition to the importance of making my own money — just in case I had to “leave my husband.” She looked daggers at me when I suggested I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, during a postpartum phase when I felt guilty about leaving my child for most of the day (and still do). She also always drilled into me the belief that anything a boy can do, a girl can do better, which came from her growing up with three older brothers. Now I wonder if that resulted in me being a nerdy boy-hater all throughout high school, one who never brushed her hair or wore makeup (and still don’t), though that wasn’t something my mother condoned, as she is also of the era where women do not step outside of the house looking anything less than perfect.

My mother’s own story is that she left her hometown in Vietnam to attend university in the Philippines, when she could’ve stayed and settled with any number of suitors she claimed wanted to marry her. At UP my mom met my father, and even though they’d been dating, she returned to Vietnam after graduation to teach at university there as she had promised herself. She came back to Manila and eventually ended up in a traditional framework of marriage to raise two kids, but she never dropped her maiden name. Her own mother had earlier kicked convention by taking up martial arts during a time when all women did was learn to cook. In their own personal lives, they were trailblazers of feminism by not letting society dictate what they could and couldn’t do.

I am hardly a card-carrying feminazi and admittedly can’t tell my Gertrude Stein from my Gloria Steinem. I’ve been lucky enough to go through life without being victimized for not being a dude. And while I’ve encountered class and race issues, being a chick has mostly been a boon. I’ve worked for uber ladybosses, listened to female pastors preach in church, and have been led and misled by our women presidents. It’s a generally egalitarian if not matriarchal society we live in, and we suffer not the levels of discrimination women in Saudi Arabia, Somalia or Pakistan face. Because of this privilege, it’s our responsibility to promote the cause of feminism however we can on behalf of those who do remain oppressed — women who aren’t given a choice over how many children they will have, women who are not given equal pay for equal work, or are abused and harassed at the workplace, or denied from entering certain professions or going to school, women who are said to “have asked for it,” or to have gotten “what she deserved,” or be subjected to pro-rape slogans on T-shirts, women whose not-for-public-viewing naked pictures are illegally disseminated online.

It’s the 21st century but in many ways we’re still living in the dark ages, remnants of religious fundamentalism and patriarchy, and really just fear and misunderstanding of the Other. These tensions are amplified online under the cloak of anonymity and free speech. Entire groups devoted to misogyny and rape actually exist on Facebook, and for every feminist foot put forward, like Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize win, there will be a vocal bunch of haters who react with condescension, even rage.

We can blame media for perpetuating sexist tropes (heck, I work for a men’s magazine and acknowledge how a sexy shoot can tread the line between expression and objectification), but to some extent media is the mirror society holds up to itself. The best place to sow the seeds of equality and nip-budding anti-feminist activity is in the home, and from the beginning, so that our girls don’t grow up thinking of themselves as helpless and submissive, and our boys don’t consider themselves entitled. Then, as empowered, educated equals they can do something about the ingrained sexism found in our culture, from our laws and politics to the way we interpret religion.

Is feminism the new black? In popular culture it’s reached its zenith with Beyoncé as today’s feminist icon; it dropped several notches with Karl Lagerfeld’s commercial co-optation for Chanel’s Paris Fashion Week show, where models marched with nonsensical placards. Feminism, as is being discussed today with regards to Queen Bey, isn’t characterized by the bra-burning of yore, but bra- and butt-baring, and owning it. It’s cheekily naming your tour “The Mrs. Carter Show” then having the word “FEMINIST” blaze on stage at the MTV Awards. Why the hell not? She makes $11 million more than her husband Jay-Z. Lagerfeld’s effort on the other hand seems to be just empty imagery, a fashion spectacle referencing the movements of the ‘70s and ‘80s while alluding to current social trends. We saw “Feministe mais feminine” branded on tiny purses, as if the two are mutually exclusive. On second thought, that would be a perfect feminist starter accessory for Tica’s princess costume this Halloween. She may be a girly girl, but she’s her own girly girl.

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