Sunday, February 10, 2008

A five-year-old-girl wants to show her bellybutton: On parental responsibility

I have a headache from thinking through the comments and my responses to them at this post. It was as though we weren't just disagreeing with each other; we weren't understanding what others were saying.

I think the problem is with the word "responsible" as it applies to the decisions parents make.

Especially within the context of sexual politics, many women hear that word and hear a pejorative charge to it aimed at them--pejorative because out of it has grown the phrase "she was asking for it": that any number of choices a woman makes is seen as leading to or mitigating a man's abuse or assault of her; ergo, she is implicitly "responsible" for what has happened to her. "Blaming the victim" is another way to articulate this idea.

Well, no--and not only that, Hell no. In the comments on the earlier post, Jennifer rightly says, "No means No." One of the valuable lessons of feminism, it seems to me, has been to reveal how reprehensible "blaming the victim" is. No matter what one may privately feel about the choices a woman makes, it is becoming more and more the socially-agreed presumption that those choices should not be seen as being "responsible" for her being assaulted: a man, too, makes choices and he can and should be held responsible--that is, punished--when those choices lead to the woman's brutalization. That idea has now become such a familiar one that we barely recognize it as a feminist one, and that is to its credit--and to ours. (And yes, I know that it's far from becoming a universally-acknowledged truth, but the fact that I feel comfortable in saying what I just said is evidence of its widespread acceptance.)

The careful reader of the above will note that I have used the term "woman." I have deliberately not used the term "girl," but I will now, via the relating of a true story involving my then-five-year-old younger daughter and her mother, so as to get at what (speaking for myself) I meant and mean by "responsible" as it applies to parental decisions.

Three quick definitions first:

The Rules: The constantly-evolving welter of codes, spoken and un-, that give shape to male-female social relations, whether we like them or not but which over time we can change or maybe even get away with ignoring if we're lucky, but the violation of some of which can lead to various legal and social punishments, some merited, some not.

Woman: A female who knows The Rules and can reasonably expect and hope that others know The Rules, too.

Girl: A female who does not yet know The Rules.

Make the appropriate changes to form definitions for "Man" and "Boy."

Now the story:

One day when C., my younger daughter, was 5 years old, she was with her mother at the grocery store check-out line. According to her mother, C. suddenly said, "I want to show my belly-button."

"Why?" her mom asked.

"Because all these cool people are," C. said, pointing to some magazines with pictures of women with bare midriffs.

Let's stop the narrative here for the moment. Who is "responsible," right at this moment in the story, and for what?

Here's how I would answer, in accordance with what I understood myself to be saying in that earlier post:
The "cool people" (and, by extension, those charged with the management of their careers and those who chose the images for these magazines) are responsible for the multiple decisions that led to the publication of the pictures my daughter was looking at. They are responsible in that, knowing The Rules, they made these various decisions. I may or may not approve of the particular Rules they've decided to abide by; but, there's no denying that they know them.

The store is responsible for choosing to offer the magazines for sale and for displaying them where they've placed them. They too know the same Rules that the "cool people" know--erm, that is, I assume they do (see the earlier post that prompts this one). In addition, they have another set of Rules that have to do with it being okay for a legitimate business to sell things and make a profit. I recognize and respect those Rules as well, though they may sell some products that either I'd prefer they not sell or that seem at variance with the store's public image. If I were so inclined, I would not demand that the store stop selling these magazines; however, I might note that some stores have "candy-free" checkout lines and suggest that the store consider providing an equivalent, "magazine-free" line. But I'm not going to go all Carrie Nation on their corporate asses if they don't. Is that necessarily a cop-out? I'd say no, for reasons I'll get into later.

My daughter C. is not responsible for what she notices in front of her. Nor is she responsible for expressing the wish she does; after all, she doesn't know The Rules. Or, rather, she grasps via inference another Rule--that the people she sees on the magazine are important in some way and so invite the public gaze and comparison between themselves and the viewer. That part she gets, as her statement to her mother indicates. But she, at 5, doesn't know why the midriffs are exposed. Everyone else so far mentioned (those involved in the magazine's existence and placement), however, does.

C.'s mother so far has said nothing beyond asking C. a question. But she also knows The Rules as put into practice by the Cool People and the store, and she also knows that her daughter, who is 5 and whom she loves, does not know these Rules.

It is precisely because C. doesn't know The Rules (because she is a Girl) and her mother (who is a Woman) does that here she (the mother) will assume parental responsibility in this situation.

This responsibility is not that arising from freely-made choices (see the "cool people" and the store). Rather, this responsibility is the obligation all parents should feel to be a teacher of and advocate for what is best for their children's well-being.

One can certainly argue the particulars of what is/is not "best for their children's well-being." That said, I would hope that what would be beyond dispute would be that, for Girls and Boys, at the center of that teaching and advocating is gradual instruction and guidance in The Rules and in maintaining and communicating self-respect and respect for others--their persons and their emotions. Whether we personally agree with what other people think or how they act on what they think, children need to be made aware of those other potential readings of The Rules--what to say or do when they run into such people (and I'm not speaking only of sociopaths here). We all have seen or heard of parents who have, for whatever reason, essentially tossed their children overboard (and their obligations as parents as well) in the roiling sea that is The Rules with little admonition other than, "Have FUN!!" Mere age does not make someone a grownup; in what I just described, the parent differs from his/her children only in that s/he holds the checkbook.

Much as I would love to, I can't hold other parents "responsible" (in the sense of "accountable") for not being responsible (in the sense of "obligated"). Cases of childhood endangerment--starvation, abuse, unsafe living conditions--those get punished, and rightly so. We can and should not just expect but require parents to provide their children food, clothing and shelter. Surely, though, parental guidance and exercise of judgment of what is appropriate for children, exercised out of knowledge of The Rules--that on which I based my sense of parental responsibility in the earlier post--are just as important as material needs, if not more so.

Back to the story:

C.'s mother simply told her in a positive, affirming tone that people are cool not because they show their bellybuttons but because people like them for who they are. It struck me, as C.'s mother told me this story, that this was a good exercise of parental responsibility: she recognized that, as far as C. was concerned, the question was about the nature of coolness. Times being what they are, of course, the rhetoric of coolness, for teens, is often shaped by the rhetoric of sexual expression; given that C. was 5 at the time, her mother apparently felt no need, nor would I have, to choose that moment to have The Talk. C. was (and remains) a Girl, after all.

To my knowledge, C. has not asked again about showing her belly-button.


Doc said...

interesting parsing, as far as it goes.

yes, if my daughter happens to see such a named bed and asks myself or her mother for it, we will tell her no and explain that it is a poor product produced by bad people who make bad and shoddy products.

but what about the individual/company that named/marketed the product?

what about the exec from woolsworth's who okayed the buy?

what about the copy-editor who let the product onto the web site?

none of these folks are excluded from The Rules. one could argue given their positions of undue influence, they should use stricter interpetations of The Rules than you and i. especially if they are parents, yes?

now, another definition:

Social (consensus) Reality: an unspoken agreement amongst tribe members on how to behave in public spaces; used to facilitate everyday or unusual situations,e.g. - walking on the right, entering/exiting on the right, slowing & stopping for yellow traffic lights, not interrupting, pulling over for emeregency vehicles, actually directing an out-of-state or foreign tourist correctly, standing on line, lost puppies, lost wallets, lost kids, not 'ffing pimping our children.

so, according to both The Rules and Social Reality, we should have no issue at all.

the problem is Social Reality has long since frazzled beyond being a useful wrap - which of the examples i used do you see done on a consistent basis? how many more can you think of that also aren't followed? and how much of it do you think can be traced back to the fascist culture of coporate consumerism that tells us 'me first' is the golden rule and 'eff everything else?

a little, some? a lot?

yes, parental responisbility in indicated; keeping up with the changing face of our 'culture' is mandatory for parents; loving discipline and installing critical thinkng at an early age is a must, but...

...what about the individual/company that named/marketed the product?

what about the exec from woolsworth's who okayed the buy?

what about the copy-editor who let the product onto the web site?

John B. said...

Thanks for commenting, both here and on the other post.
The magazines my daughter saw were targeted toward an adult audience; as you say, though, the makers of children's products should be ever-cognizant and thoughtful about the subtexts of the products they produce and how they're marketed. As Jennifer pointed out in the other post, it's all but impossible to be completely gender-neutral and thus convey to children implicit presumptions about how little girls and boys "should" behave; the trick, as she goes on to say, is locating the boundary between "innocence" and the not-so-innocent.

In an ideal world, everyone--and I mean everyone--would think about these things just like I do, and I wouldn't have felt compelled to write these posts and risk alienating people I like and respect. But they--manufacturers, marketers, other parents--clearly do not. Thus the need for others of us to be critical thinkers about these things and, if need be, advocates.

R. Sherman said...

More fodder for thought. This is still bugging me, by the way.