With Feminists Like This Who Needs Misogynists: How Not To Contribute To The Women’s Movement (Or Be A Good Parent)

Posted on March 24, 2009

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Judith Timson today published a Pontius Pilate-like lament for the women’s movement — complete with self-absolving hand-washing. Unwittingly, she duplicates  the very behavior she intends to criticize and is an example of how not to lead or contribute to the women’s movement and how not to be a good parent. I wanted to let it go, I really did, but I can’t — just like the Pope and his condoms. For her piece, click here.

Let me summarize: Timson says, 1) some teenage girls seem willing to forgive Chris Brown’s alleged abuse and are even implying Rihanna may have provoked it (she quotes — believe it or not — the New York Times quoting a Grade 9 girl as proof); 2) a 17 year old recently convicted of masterminding the murder of another teenager sent “soulless” and sexually explicit text messages to the boyfriend who eventually did the killing. For Timson, 1) & 2) represents a pandemic return to an out-dated and problematic social dynamic where girls see each other as the enemy and combat other girls in order to secure male approval. Female on female bitchiness is back in vogue and this is bad and represents a failure in the women’s movement.

She highlights two possible explanations for this 1) the early sexualization of young girls which drive women to seek the sexual approval of boys as a measure of feminine self-worth; 2) the trivialization of feminist principles in the media. Unfortunately, no effort is made to explain how these two very plausible claims about the state of society right now actually cause young girls to publicly dismiss alleged spousal abuse and organize the murder of other girls. Although she implies that a unwillingness to look like a man-hater may cause a girl to overlook spousal abuse, it’s unclear to me how that is meant to work and how it also leads to girls murdering girls.

Timson then laments, oh, but we gave our daughters everything! And lists these gifts: “the words, the books, the laws; the examples everywhere of women, sometimes their own mothers, achieving at work and living in respectful and equal domestic relationships.” We did everything we could! Really! I swear!

Then, she considers the possibility that maybe the women and men of her generation somehow let these young women down and very quickly sets about absolving herself and her peers of any culpability. No, she writes, teens live in a “hermetically sealed culture” and that culture is “toxic” and “[t]he Internet has made girl-on-girl viciousness so much more virulent, with mass shunnings, false rumour-mongering and online slagging of each other.” It’s not us. We are not responsible. I didn’t do it! This is happening because those damn teenagers won’t listen to us — oh, you know, teenagers! — a toxic culture has infected their brains, and the internet facilitates this backward animosity between girls and young women. Not me!

And what is Timlin’s solution to this problem? Oh wait, it is delicious. It really is! In the very next paragraph, immediately following a paragraph where she absolves herself and her peers of any real responsibility for the contemporary curse of ” mass shunnings, false rumour-mongering and [girl-on-girl] online slagging of each other”, she writes the following:

We may not have a lot of sway over this culture, but we still need to keep on saying: shame on you. Shame on those girls for forgiving Chris Brown. Shame on girls, too, for being so savagely and even dangerously mean to each other in order to get the guy. This kind of behaviour shows a lack of self-respect and even a lack of ambition. It’s the retro road to nowhere.

That’s right. She immediately sets into publicly slagging girls. She effectively claims women don’t really have any power over culture, other than the power to slag other women and girls.

Even more to the point, the whole article begins by her “rumor-mongering”. The cited facts: some reporters are reporting that some young girls are saying publicly that they will forgive Chris Brown and that one girl, who sent sexually explicit text messages, has been convicted of murdering another. From this she concludes, all young women have gone mad, have failed to become good feminists, it’s not my fault, and by golly the only way to solve the problem is to start slagging girls. In other words, Timson’s entire article can be reduced to, “Like, I totally heard that Danny said you are like totally forgiving Billy and that other slut like totally killed another girl, so like totally all young girls today are likely totally uncool bitches.” Seriously.

Last but not least, Timson abruptly concludes, ah well maybe these nutty teenagers will “naturally” grow out of it after high school. Which is mind boggling to say in the least! If she actually believes her claims about a toxic culture and the internet, this natural transformation she now hopes for is impossible. Moreover, one can hardly expect young women to naturally evolve into sensible feminists if the older women spend all their time slagging them.

So let’s recap. Timson leapfrogs from two incidents to a general claim about all young women, absolves herself and her peers of any responsibility, implies women really have no power over culture, advises women to “shame” — yes, shame — young girls and finally she wistfully concludes, oh, well, hopefully everything will just work out once they hit university. Fantastic. Thanks, Judith.

Similarly, we can also infer that Timson’s vision of feminist leadership is this: engage in false rumor mongering which purportedly indicates the women’s movement is failing young girls, suggest women have no real power over the toxic culture in which they reside, publicly slag off other women — especially young girls — as a remedy to this issue, and hope it will all simply work out for the best. Super-duper! Are you ladies feeling empowered yet!

Timson is making a ton of mistakes in this piece. Why isn’t she critically examining the media’s handling of the Rihanna / Brown story? Why is she and they so quick to conclude there is wide-spread support for Brown? Are 13-14 year old sources really reliable? Similarly, why is the media so obsessed with this young female murderer’s sexuality? Why is it constantly being implied that her sexuality is somehow intrinsically tied to her criminal act? Why is Timson equivocating between the criminal act of one girl and the adolescent fact that boys and girls are sometimes mean to each? Why is she so quick to conclude all this circumstantial evidence is somehow proof the women’s movement has failed? Why is the purported failure of the woman’s movement an almost perpetual them in the popular media? Why is she blaming mysterious and powerful forces like a “toxic culture” and the internet, instead of examining the role played by parents and other adult role models? Finally, and most importantly, why is her answer to a problem she seem to be conjuring out of thin air the recommendation that people should shame young girls?

This last mistake is probably the most important. Public criticism of public figures is a crucial and important part of creating a better society but it is only usefully directed at the people in power — not adolescent girls. When the Pope says something irresponsible, game on. When Mr. Harper or Mr. Ignatieff shoot their mouths off, ridicule away. When paid columnists make absurd public statements, let the criticism fly. When corporate executives take greed to new heights, shame-away. If a blogger writes something dumb, flame away. But when young teenager girls and boys make questionable statements or engage in questionable behavior, public criticism / shaming is the worse pedagogical response possible. In many cases, it is also the wrong response for many adults who do not occupy positions of public power.

So, parents, please don’t follow Timson’s implied parenting advice. Do not try to make good feminists of your sons and daughters by shaming them. Instead, take a genuine interest in their lives, be aware of and moderate their peer group interactions, and reinforce positive behavior, and re-direct negative behavior. A good role model does not simply display good characteristics, she or he must actually involve her/himself in the lives she wishes to affect. Leaving your children in hermetically sealed bubbles that you yourself have created, while you bequeath cultural artifacts that kids are just meant “to get”, is not any way to teach your kids how to be good people. “Being the change” will only affect others — especially your kids — if those others are genuinely a part of your “being” Otherwise, you are only dancing alone with your mirror.

And last but not least: Timlin should learn to pick on someone her own size or someone bigger. That’s the proper role for public criticism. 

For more of my social and political commentary, click here.