This is day two of the massive comic convention in Salt Lake City. If you’re at FanX, please stop by booth 2017 and say hello. This is another essay that I’ve read aloud during events and feel has things to say that are worth re-reading. I originally wrote it in 2012 and then revised for my book Cobble Stones 2012. You can find the book in our store for only $5. I don’t have an e-book edition at this time.
How to Raise a Strong Girl
Last week I saw several social media campaigns urging people to go see the Pixar movie Brave on opening weekend. “Let’s show Hollywood that girl-led movies can make money!” they said, as if increasing the number of girl-led films would make the world a more fair place for women. I did see Brave during opening weekend, but only because Howard writes reviews and needs to see films early. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t. It managed to gut punch me in my emotional baggage about motherhood roles. I came home feeling like the movie told me that being a mother meant being the person who ruins all the fun and enforces all the rules. I was sad because my heart is Merida climbing the rocks and riding through the forest, but my life is Elinor imposing order onto the lives of others.
Today I decided to spend my afternoon seeing Brave again. My kids had not yet seen it, and I wanted to re-view the film leaving my emotional baggage at home. I bought tickets and then hurried to finish my work; before we could leave I had to make progress on my shelving project. I donned my work gloves and plugged in my borrowed electric sander.
There is a sort of magic in watching a power tool turn a sharp wooden corner into a smooth, round one. I glided the sander over the edges of the boards, and dust blew away. I was careful to keep the sanding surface away from all my limbs and thought gratefully of my grandpa, who used to take me into his big garage and let me work on projects with him. With Grandpa, I soldered, repaired bikes, used a lathe, sawed wood, and hauled rocks. Grandpa let any grandchild who was interested participate in the work; there was no distinction based on gender. Because of Grandpa, I am not afraid to pick up a power tool and make things, even if I have never done so before. This shelving project is my first time using an electric sander.
Afternoon came, and we all trekked to go see Brave. The kids loved it. They laughed out loud at exactly the slapstick moments which didn’t work well for Howard and me. I loved it too. I loved it as much as I wanted to love it the first time I saw it. The mother character, Elinor, has to be rigid in order to provoke Merida into taking action. A more balanced representation of motherhood would have ruined the film. The scene where Elinor quells the room full of brawling men is critical to a hero moment later in the film when Merida turns and faces down the woman who turned all those strong men into jelly. Yes, the brawling scene plays to a stereotype, but it gives power to the moment that I think is the epitome of Brave: mother and daughter staring angrily into each other’s eyes because they have mutually exclusive plans for the future.
I’m glad I took my kids to see it; they now have a new princess story in their minds which is in many ways the antithesis of a classic Disney-type film. But, if I were to weigh what I did today for gender equality, the most important thing I did was sand boards. My grandpa is not around to haul my kids (both boys and girls) into his garage to use power tools, but they can see that Mom fixes stuff. For every movie where the girl character exists to scream, there is a time when I am fetched to slay spiders. For every movie with true love in it, they see a hundred days where Mom and Dad snap at each other grouchily in the morning and then laugh together later in the evening. For every movie where the dad is helpless to manage the household, there are the days when Howard cleans the kitchen and makes dinner.
Seeing a movie present a different perspective can be truly powerful, as when a young Whoopi Goldberg saw Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek and realized that black women could be on television without being maids. These powerful, pivotal moments in entertainment matter. Perhaps Brave is one of those moments and can change the world for some girls. But if I want to raise strong girls of my own, I just need to live as if the equality I hope for them already exists. I need to gift them with pocketknives, bows, arrows, hair ribbons, power tools, and nail polish as their interests warrant. My actions should say, of course they can be what they choose to be, so long as they are willing to work hard to get there.
Life is not fair. It never will be. No movie can make it so. But strong girls can see the unfairness and do what they want to do anyway.