Full Show Notes
As parents, we want our kids to grow up with a sense of equality. We want them to know that both boys and girls are capable of greatness, that regardless of their gender, they’re free to follow their wildest dreams. That’s why it’s frustrating when we see sexist attitudes or gender inequality perpetuated by major retailers or movie franchises. It can feel like there’s little you can do as a parent to protect your kid from these potentially harmful ideas. We want to steer our teens clear of these influences, but it’s tough to find ways of avoiding negative cultural narratives about gender.
Even outside of our modern media, troublesome ideas about gender can be found in our daily lives, amongst our friends and neighbors. They’re buried within phrases like “boys will be boys”, hidden behind casual remarks about women’s bodies, present in small ways in our conversations at the office or around the dinner table. Sexist ideas pass under our noses every day, often without attracting attention— even though they definitely should!
Our guest today is Mike Adamick, the author of Raising Empowered Daughters: a Dad to Dad Guide. Mike is here to talk to us about avoiding negative cultural narratives about gender that may be affecting our kids, and how we can make small, but important changes within our communities and social circles.
As a stay-at-home dad and the father of a daughter, Mike knows what it’s like to tackle parenthood head on. He was inspired to write a book about avoiding negative cultural narratives when he found himself getting angrier and angrier over the hurtful messages he saw targeted at his daughter and other young girls. He wanted parents to understand these cultural forces and their effects, but he also wanted to share ways that we can fight against sexism in our everyday lives, to make the world a better, more equal place for young people.
Mike provides many examples of how damaging cultural messages about gender are being spread to young people. These ideas can be sensed in movies, marketing, retail–in more places than you’d expect! He talks specifically about clothing: how many large clothing chains offer very different products for boys and girls, and how these products send strong messages to young people about who they’re supposed to be based on their gender.
For example, Mike points out that clothes for boys are usually roomy and contain exciting slogans and images, encouraging males to be active and pursue their dreams. Girls, on the other hand, are often sold tight fitting clothing that restricts their movement, with much less exciting pictures and messages. This disparity in available wardrobe is a signal to girls that they don’t have the same freedoms as boys, that they are meant to look nice, to be satisfied with less ambition.
If we take a look at popular culture, it’s not hard to find inequality there as well. Mike talks about the promotional materials for the recent release of The Force Awakens, the much buzzed about, long awaited seventh installment in the Star Wars saga. Mike was excited to show his daughter the first released picture of the film’s cast, knowing that there would be a female heroine. Upon viewing the photo, however, Mike was ot excited but appalled by the gender imbalance in the photo.
Although the main character was female, the photo was otherwise entirely filled with male characters. This frustrated Mike. He wants to live in a world where his daughter can see tons of tough women on screen, working together to battle evil, instead of just one token female character in an otherwise male dominated universe.
It sometimes seems as if there’s no way of avoiding negative cultural narratives like these. Unfortunately, we don’t really have the ability to call up the CEO of Disney or H&M and demand a widespread change. All hope is not lost, however. Mike talks about how we can act locally. He describes changes we can implement in our homes and communities, to help stop harmful messages about gender from gaining traction so that our kids can grow up knowing that equality matters.
Making Change In Your Inner Circle
Although it may seem insignificant to try to talk about avoiding negative cultural narratives with your small circle of friends and neighbors, these efforts can have a rippling effect. Spreading positive messages in your own community can be the beginning of creating major change.
Avoiding negative cultural narratives can be difficult when certain gender ideals have heavily infiltrated our society. One pervading cultural idea that Mike really dislikes is the notion of “boys will be boys.” This term generally implies that the actions that boys take are not “their fault”– but just a result of biology. It implies that males are inherently violent or disrespectful, and therefore can’t be blamed for acting out of line.
To Mike, this represents the crazy double standard we have when it comes to raising children of different genders. It spreads the message that men and boys can do whatever they like, without being held accountable! It also harms men and boys by placing them under pressure to meet certain cultural constructs about masculinity and what it means to be a “man.” It portrays manhood as being impervious to social rules, being rude and disrespectful, taking what you want without consideration for others.
Mike believes that not just avoiding negative cultural narratives but reframing them are necessary, especially when it comes to ones that enable inappropriate behavior. To do this, we need to think about the way we talk to others about stereotypes.
When it comes to talking to our friends and neighbors, objecting to these cultural stereotypes can help us create a healthier, more positive environment for our growing teens. Say you’re at a barbecue with your neighbors, and you overhear someone excusing their son’s bad behavior, saying “boys will be boys.” Although it may be awkward to interject, consider speaking up and against this idea, asking why it seems so easy to use this phrase and waive consequences for young boys. Your friends and neighbors might not be used to challenging these notions, but by encouraging discussion on these ideas, you can work on avoiding negative cultural narratives in your community.
Bringing the Conversation Home
Although it’s good to spread the idea of avoiding negative cultural narratives to your friends, talking to our own kids is just as important. Teenagers are subject to many cultural influences on a daily basis, so it’s important to help them decode the messages they receive from outside sources about gender roles.
For example, the other side of the “boys will be boys” idea is a cultural implication that girls are delicate, polite and well mannered. This can be harmful to girls because it restricts them from expressing all the rage, passion, and excitement that life brings! Avoiding negative cultural narratives like these will help push our society toward greater gender equality.
Mike talks about how we need to let girls have a punching bag–an outlet for expressing their emotions. In Mike’s home, that’s a literal punching bag, which his daughter can punch when she feels angry. However, this doesn’t have to be so literal. It could be as simple as providing your daughter with your attention so that she can vent to you, or helping her find a creative outlet for her feelings.
If she isn’t given an outlet, she may turn to risky behavior, like using drugs or alcohol to cope. Although these behaviors may not seem directly tied to gender roles, the pressures of cultural expectations can have unintended consequences. By providing a safe space in your home for your teenager’s emotional expression, you can prevent this outcome before it becomes a serious concern.
As a parent, you are a role model. That’s why it’s also helpful to call things out when you see them transpiring. When you and your teenager are watching a T.V. show together and you notice small examples of sexist behavior, don’t be afraid to initiate discussion! If you take a stand for what you believe in, your kid will be more inspired to do the same. If they see somebody acting in discriminatory way, they’ll know that standing against such behavior is the right thing to do.
Mike’s wisdom on avoiding negative cultural narratives is expansive, and he’s got a lot of advice to share with you! We talk about:
- Common justifications for sexism in everyday life
- How men can talk to other men about the issue of sexism
- How we can create a more equitable environment in our online discourse
- How many of our outdated ideas about dating may be perpetuating the normalization of sexual violence
Thanks for listening to this episode with Mike Adamick about avoiding negative cultural narratives!
Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen
1. Instead of excusing bad behavior with “boys will be boys,” set the bar higher for your teen:
“You know, we expect better behavior than that.”-Mike Adamick
2. What to say to your teen when you notice a panel of all men discussing sports:(Members Only)
3. When you’re watching TV and want your teen to notice under-representation in media:(Members Only)
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Maybe Boys Shouldn’t “be Boys”:As Mike Adamick mentions in our interview, “boys will be boys” is often just what we say to excuse away what would otherwise be bad behavior. He points out that rarely do we see a boy baking cupcakes or doing something nice for a friend and say “boys will be boys.” “Boys will be boys” sets a low bar for boys (and men) and what we expect from them. Think back to all the times you said or thought this about your own teen boy, or maybe you witnessed some rowdy or rude boys and said “boys will be boys” to your teen (boy or girl). Was the behavior at the time something you truly condone? Is playfully shoving a friend, being unknowingly rude to adults, or accidentally breaking something, really okay as long term behaviors? Write down three phrases to say next time instead of “boys will be boys” that make your stance on the behavior clear. It can be as simple as “I expect better from (you/teen boys/young men).”
2. The Importance of Noticing Gender Bias and How to Do It:(Members Only)
3. Use a “Wow” to Mindfully Acknowledge Your Teen:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: I read the book here, Raising Empowered Daughters: A-Dad-to-Dad Guide. And I thought that it was just so timely and also, kind of inspirational, but also, really, a call to arms. I think a call to action that we have work to do. And so, I thought it was really nice though because it also has really practical things that you can do, which I really liked. Can you just talk a little bit about kind of how it came to be and what inspired it?
Mike: Yeah. I’m happy to, Andy, thank you so much for having me. My pronouns are he, him, and his for the wider audience. Kind of inspiration was just kind of a blind rage, frankly, at the presidential campaign, as well as kind of the reawakening of the Me Too movement, which came in response to that and stories obviously out of Hollywood. So it’s that and then writing in the parenting sphere about kind of calling out gender bias in childhood and in parenting that we see, but it kind of just all came together in this. I just really feel we need to do something that kind of tackles two things at once, raise strong, powerful, confident daughters, like my own, who I think is amazing and awesome, and I’m trying my best. But we can’t just… And it’s kind of the crux of the book, we just can’t raise powerful, strong daughters and say, “Well, good luck to you. Here’s your armor. See you later.” I really wanted to have a conversation, dad to dad, man to man, to kind of pave a better way and say, “If we recognize that a lot of the things our daughters going to face are not necessarily the most wonderful things in the world, we have a responsibility to make it a little bit easier for them.” So it’s really about doing a couple of things at the same time.
Andy: The negative messages come at them from every possible direction and you kind of shine the spotlight on a lot of them and break them down in this book. And one of them, towards the beginning, that I really enjoyed was clothes shopping. Can you talk a little bit about the clothing options in H&M and why they piss you off so much?
Mike: You know, it’s so funny. I always have to hold a special place. I have to hold space for a distance that I’m afforded in that when I talk about these things, I sound in my brain like a crazy conspiracy theorist, like, “Well, there’s gender bias in clothing. There’s gender bias in sports. There’s gender bias in government. There’s gender bias at the workplace.” And for me, there’s a certain amount of distance because I’m not experiencing it, it’s not my lived experience versus someone who’s going through it. So I kind of wanted to bring a certain amount of outrage to the audience I’m writing to, fellow dads, to say, “Hey, this might sound crazy, but it is crazy. And it’s, frankly, absurd,” and clothes shopping is a pretty good example. I start the book with an example that I think a lot of guys or dads, hopefully when you’re going to the store and you’re shopping for clothes, just kind of do it in the everyday thing of making the family run.
Mike: When you go to the boys’ section, the clothes are like roomy. They’re made for movement, and bouncing around, and they’ve got sharks on them, and they say adventure, and I’m going to college. And they’re just cool. I like them. They’re nice clothes, and they’re made for play, and they’ve got cool messages. And then I noticed this, specifically at H&M and other big retailers, you go to the girls’ section and all of a sudden the clothes shrink. A size eight for a boy is suddenly like a size four for a girl, and it’s just hard to move, and you’re showing skin, you got to apply sunscreen to your shoulders in ways you don’t for boys, and the messages on them. It’s like everything’s kind of cute, and frothy, and pink, which is totally cool.
Mike: I love cute and frothy and pink, but it seems to be the only options for sale on a lot of these stores. So it goes from adventurous, violence, sports hero for boys to cute, and frothy, flowery, hashtags peace, cupcakes, woo. And it’s just kind of the only option. So you can really see this disparity in clothes that allow for movement and kind of adventure for boys, and clothes that are a little bit more restricting, like slim jeans for girls at a really young age, and heels, and kind of messages that are more about appearance than in actually doing things. I wanted to just highlight that early in the book because that kind of offers a good segue into the rest of it, which is equally as absurd and outrageous.
Andy: One of the big themes of the book is that there’s such a big difference in the way boys and girls are treated and what’s expected from them in society, and a lot of it seems just social and you kind of break down the history of it. And you also break down, though, a lot of research. And so, one of the things that I thought that was really interesting was you have a chapter in here on the “very large differences that have been found in research between boys and girls.” Could you walk me through how that looks?
Mike: Yeah, that was a really fun chapter to write. And I guess I want to hold a caveat that I’m not like a neuroscientist. I talked to a lot of experts, namely one, Lisa Elliott, who is talking about people often point to, “Well, boys are better at math, or tech, or kind of these mathy things.” Clearly, I’m not a math person myself. Because their brains are bigger and they have like all these connections and she says, “Well, yeah, on average, that’s true. But men, on average, are bigger. Their hearts are bigger. Their kidneys are bigger. They’re just, they’re taller on average thing.” And so we can’t use that to justify discrimination. And that’s kind of what I wanted to call out in the book is that often when this stuff is talked about, these kind of tiny differences that we might have, and we, sure, no one’s arguing there’s no differences between boys and girls.
Mike: I don’t think that’s an argument anyone in science or academia is making. It’s just when, culturally, we talk about a lot of these differences, they’re not used in a productive way to say, “Well, there’s some small biological differences between boys and girls, and maybe men and women. So let’s see if we can kind of work through that so that eventually we can have the same opportunities for boys and girls, and men and women.” It’s usually carted out to say, “Well, there’s a giant disparity in hiring in tech, and that’s fine because men’s brains, on average, are bigger.” It’s carved out to really justify-
Andy: That they’re just better.
Mike: Exactly. So if you’re working in the high sciences, or academia, or medicine to try to say like, “Oh, what are the differences? Do we need to do anything to close in the gaps?” That’s cool. But if you’re just constantly looking for small differences, which are very small, they’re not very big, to justify just kind of ongoing oppression, I always have to wonder why are you doing that?
Andy: Something that was super amusing to me, and also just really interesting, was this chapter where you talk about how you often receive praise and applause from people for your fatherly… For your being just such a good father out there. I’m curious. What is it that you do that sets you so apart from other parents that you receive applause all over the place?
Mike: I really like the way you set that up because it is, it’s something I do as a person that really does set me apart and that’s merely existing in a world as a man with-
Andy: We want to know these secrets, Mike. Tell us the secret.
Mike: It happens, still, in more ways than I can imagine. And I talk about it in the book, this idea that I’m literally just walking down the sidewalk with my daughter, who was a toddler at this age and was just kind of holding hands and I’ll get applause. People clap and say, “Oh my gosh, Dad, you’re killing it. Way to go.” And I’m literally just in the vicinity of my daughter. It’s cool. I enjoy it on some level because I’m like, “Gosh, how many people when they’re just going about their day to day, stopped in their cubicle and get applause?” Like, “Way to do your job.” I’m a stay at home dad. This is literally my role. And so, on some level, yeah, it’s like, “Ah, phew. Not really screwing up today. That feels great.”
Mike: But what I call out is it creates, and it’s a part of this cultural messaging system that says dads with kids, even messing up, walking down the street is still like, “You’re close enough, good job. You deserve applause.” And the message that send is it’s so out of the ordinary, dads with kids, that it’s worthy of praise. And the flip side of that is if it’s so out of the ordinary, what is the ordinary? And the ordinary in our culture is still very much if you’re a mom, you’ve got to be with your kid. If you’re in a board meeting, where’s the kid? What are you doing? How on earth can you work? Where’s the kid? And so that message feels good in the moment, but it’s really part of a broader kind of cultural structure of oppression that says on the sidewalk, in the store, Dad’s at work, that we’re not supposed to be with our kids. We’re not supposed to parent the very things that we helped create.
Andy: Anything you’re doing, and that is above and beyond.
Andy: Just even just spending a few minutes here, is like, “Wow, you’re stellar.” [inaudible 00:10:30]
Mike: Yeah. It puts us in kind of a box because it cuts us off in many ways from just the cool everyday stuff which, I’m a parent, it could be totally annoying. And it also kind of pigeonholes moms and women as just the ultimate caregivers that, no matter what aspirations they have, they should be with their kids. And that’s not cool. I wanted to point that out for dads so we can recognize that we might need to do more in those moments, but we might need to do more to make sure we’re carrying that emotional load that makes parenting if you’re in a… If you happen to be in a shared relationship, a shared responsibility.
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Andy: Okay. So it’s hard to talk about raising girls today without talking about the messages they receive from the media, from athletes and celebrities, from movies and TV shows that they see, what the characters look like, and the body types that are represented. So, what do you think is our responsibility as parents to try and combat those messages? How do we kind of stand up against those a little bit?
Mike: Yeah. That’s a really good question to do in the moment with your kids because I know from personal experience that if you start going off on gender bias, and media, and sports representation in every TV show or movie you watch with your kid, eventually your kid’s going to tune out and go, “Oh my gosh, Dad, please stop. I get it. I see it. I know.” So you definitely got to pick your moments, but it is as simple as kind of like, “Huh, that’s interesting. We’ve been watching this show for a half-hour and it’s been all white dudes talking and maybe one woman who kind of flashed by, and they showed a picture of her butt. What do you think that’s about?” It could literally be that simple and you’re calling it out to the kid to let them know that’s not normal and that’s not okay.
Mike: But what I found, and I wrote about in the book, it’s this idea that… So that’s something you could talk about with your kids with, but how can you shift culture? How can you shift society to something different? And I think of this example from Star Wars. I’m such a Star Wars nerd. I cannot wait for the new one to come out, and I’m just already like a tuning fork of emotion waiting for that to hit. And I think of the first reinvigorated Star Wars, starring Rey, and as that was announced a picture was released and it was a group of all the Star Wars people. Like, “Hey, here’s this black and white photo of everyone that’s going to be in Star Wars.” And it was something, I forget exactly, there’s like 20 dudes and maybe two women. And people called that out on Facebook, on Twitter, on social media, which might seem like total griping online, like, “Oh my god, they’re just complaining.”
Mike: But the thing is, it actually had an impact. The screenwriter came back later and was like, “Well, one of the reasons we created Captain Phasma and made that person a woman and tried to incorporate more background characters who are women and just kind of populate a fictional universe that wasn’t all dudes and Chewbaccas was because of this outrage, because of people spoke up and said, ‘No, we want better. This is the 2000-teens and we deserve better.'” So, that’s something that I think concrete we can do. And it might seem on some level like complaining. I get that, but it’s also voices that move the culture, whether on social media or even in your friend circles. I think that’s very important to get to a broader topic on how to shift things culturally. We seem very small individually sometimes.
Mike: What power do I have to shift these giant cultural narratives? And I think very often of Allan Johnson, he wrote a book called The Gender Knot, and he explains that we all live in the patriarchy. We can’t really help that that’s just the system, that’s how it’s set up, and we don’t get to decide whether we participate in it, we just are, but we do get to decide how we participate in it. And that’s really the main message I wanted to talk to dads about, whether it comes to media representation, or talks about girls and talks about boys, or talks about opportunity, is we get to decide whether we want to kind of bolster systems as they exist, or kind of shift them a little bit from the inside to say like, “Oh, I think it’s fantastic that the new hero is Rey instead of Luke Skywalker.” Little things like that can shift your dad groups a little bit, or your men groups, or your friend groups of guys that can change things a little bit from the inside.
Mike: And it’s just calling out like, “Ah, geez. I wanted to watch that movie, but it was just all dudes. It just seemed kind of weird.” Little things like that I think can shift, whether you’re doing it online, in social media, or with your dad groups kind of over beers. I think that’s important to just talk about it. You don’t need to get in giant fights about it, but you just need to kind of bring it to the table and say, “Eh, I kind of want something better.”
Andy: Another one that you point out in the book that I really like is this attitude of boys will be boys. And that kind of more rowdy and risky [inaudible 00:17:40] is sort of expected and taken for granted from boys. So, A, why is that? Where does that come from? And then, B, as a parent today, what can you do to sort of shift it in your family?
Mike: That’s a fantastic question, and would that I knew where it came from exactly, other than we have a long history of excusing pretty poor behavior just by saying, “Eh.” We expect so little from boys that, no bigs. And when I think of boys being boys, it’s usually trotted out as an excuse for bad behavior, right. We never see a boy baking cupcakes and we’re like, “Oh, boys will be boys.” It’s always kind of something dangerous, something physical, something violent, something that maybe hurt somebody else. It’s like, “Eh, boys will be boys. They just can’t really help it.” Well, obviously, they can. It’s a cultural construct we’re creating each time we say that. Like, I love to sew. I love to cross-stitch. I love to work out and run long-distance races. All of that stuff, I like to tell dads, is totally cool.
Mike: There’s no right way to be a man. There’s no right way to be a boy. There’s a huge spectrum of things we can do in the spectrum of masculinity, and that’s just all okay. So, that’s kind of goes to the second part of what you can do in your circles to help shift that. I think I take a more strident tone in the book in terms of, people trod it out, boys will be boys. And I think, I’m like, “Yeah, boys will be jerks. Let’s call them out on it and make sure they’re not in the future.” But I think it just kind of goes to the overall message of you can just say little things. You don’t have to be a total… You don’t have to get in fight with all your friends and family, but you can say like, “We expect better behavior than that. And we’re not going to excuse away bad behavior just because of who you are. That’s silly. That’s not okay.”
Mike: So that’s something I really am calling on dads to just kind of be aware of and be present every time you kind of get that urge to say that. Well, explore why and what that excuses away exactly, and whether that fits your own full spectrum of emotion that we’re often not capable, sometimes, of expressing, of bringing out, and bringing to word, to language. So that’s one of the things I definitely wanted to make sure we talked about and just keep an intentional space in your brain for not letting that creep in as an excuse for bad behavior because it does add up. We excuse away little things and then, all of a sudden, we’re excusing away bad things.
Andy: Yeah. I totally agree. I feel it’s kind of about trying to find the way that feels authentic for you to be able to dissent a little bit. Because it’s like if those moments happen and you don’t say anything, you’re just kind of silently, implicitly allowing it to go on or agreeing. Martin Luther King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” And I think that’s true with a lot of this kind of stuff. So, your edict in the book to say something, to call people out on it, I think is valid. And it might not be that people might not all do it the same way as you, but you can find a way, I think, that’s authentic to you to just say something just so that people know that you’re not just agreeing with whatever’s kind of being done.
Mike: Yeah. That’s a really good thing to put kind of a fine point on is that feeling of… I think a lot of people get twitchy, myself included. I get it. It feels uncomfortable to have what you think might be an oppositional conversation about it.
Andy: But I think we avoid confrontation a lot.
Andy: It feels like you just would rather just let it… Just not rock the boat or something, sometimes.
Mike: Yeah. Sociologists have that thing, and then what passes as normal. It’s a symbolic interactionism. It’s the idea that we kind of through shared language and symbols kind of create our normal in culture. And for far too long, the normal we’ve created is just, eh, boys will be boys. So it does take a little bit of effort, a confrontation to say, “I want something better. I’m willing to engage in a little bit of trouble to make it better.” And again, it’s going to be a little bit uncomfortable. You might get in an argument with dudes, but at the end of the day, we’re really stifling our boys. And we’re putting our girls at danger, health danger, physical danger because we’re saying, “Things are okay to do to them because boys just can’t help it.” And that’s not cool. That’s worth having a little conversation with Aunt Sally about sometimes, I think.
Andy: Because the flip side of the boys will be boys is that girls are expected to just kind of be polite, and well mannered, and good, and not really to express those kind of negative emotions as much anger. And so, you talk about in here, I thought was pretty cool, the idea of getting a punching bag for girls or finding ways, if you have girls, to kind of help them to express and get out some of those fear, and anger, and sadness, and those more negative emotions that girls aren’t “supposed to express as much.”
Mike: Yeah. It’s funny. We actually do have a punching bag at home that is there, but my daughter’s finding a lot more relief in taking a pillow and just throwing it down like a medicine ball as hard as she can, like… And I told her to add in a good scream for that. And now that she’s 13, and this just kind of goes toward the idea of earlier on, I’ve helped manage tantrums and frustrations a little bit differently and I’m like, “Oh, you know what, kiddo? I want you to find a curse word you’re comfortable saying. Not a big one, but maybe a low key one,” because science has found that when you pair that with throwing a pillow down after a… maybe you stub your toe, it actually it helps relieve pain a little bit more than not cursing. She said “Dad, I’m not going to curse around you. That’s crazy.” I’m like, “All right.” But just having that conversation, how can we deal with your emotions.
About Mike Adamick
In addition to Raising Empowered Daughters, Mike has authored Dad’s Book of Awesome Projects, Dad’s Book of Awesome Science Experiments, and Dad’s Book of Awesome Recipes. Adamick is a main contributor to Jezebel.com’s “Daddy Issues” column, and has been featured in The New York Times, CBS Morning Show, and NPR, to name a few. He is a proud stay-at-home Dad to a now teen daughter, an avid US Women’s Soccer fan, and a self-proclaimed Star Wars nut.