I've had a nice summer hiatus. Spent time with my daughter, enjoyed some down time, and frankly, was contemplating whether I wanted to write about safety anymore. Turning on the television each day, I found myself madly switching channels or covering my daughter's eyes as salacious stories of the latest “star” du jour passed as news, commercials for movies and shows depicted more violence in thirty seconds than I used to see in an hour when I was her age, erectile dysfunction commercials (“Mom, what's ED?”) seemed to proliferate like rabbits, or – worse – yet another woman or child had gone missing, been abducted, been murdered, been raped, etcetera. And that was just trying to watch the morning news for the weather, or to see what was happening in Syria.
Yet why are we surprised by the reality of violence – especially sexual violence – when our “entertainment” promotes a rape culture and the bastardization of feminism that equates sexual equality and empowerment with debasement. The curfuffle over Miley Cyrus' twerking (yes, I had to google it) and tongue action (that makes Gene Simmons look like a monk) has tongues wagging (pun intended). Yet, there is deafening silence over Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines” lyrics. Despite promoting the view that “bitches” don't really know what “no” means as the pimp culture continues its mighty march.
Which is ironic, considering the week's historical significance. This weekend, Rev. Al Sharpton spoke before the assembled masses commemorating 50 years of civil rights history and the epoch changes of 1963. What struck me, other than the fact that I actually agreed with something coming out of Rev. Sharpton's mouth, was that he hit the nail on the head.
Here's some of his commentary:
AL SHARPTON: We owe a debt to those that believed in us when we did not believe in ourselves, and we need to conduct ourselves in a way that respects that. Don't you ever think that men like Medgar Evers died to give you the right to be a hoodlum or to give you the right to be a thug. That is not what they gave their life about. We need to talk about how we address one another, how we respect one another. We need to teach our young folk. I don't care how much money they give you, don't disrespect your women. No matter what they promise you, make it clear that you know that Rosa Parks wasn't no hoe and Fannie Lou Hamer wasn't no bitch. We got some house cleaning to do, and as we clean up our house we would then be able to clean up America. (8/24/2013)
Our own worst enemy – as a society, as men and women, as blacks and whites, isn't institutional racism, sexism, or the like. Rather, it's culture. Meaning it's choice – personal choices. Bad ones, it turns out. Choices that foster violence, intolerance, and hatred.
While popular culture can seem overwhelming and deafening, it's also subject to the basic laws of supply and demand. “Entertainers” will supply what the consumer demands. And it seems that while parents, women, politicians, and untold others gnash their teeth over what's hitting us from every direction, the demand is there. Women (and men) buy songs that promote misogyny and violence. They buy it for themselves, their daughters, and sons. People watch shows that depict horrific levels of violence and torture, and then seem surprised when they turn on the TV to find real life horrors in Sandy Hook and Cleveland. Parents worry about their beautiful children growing up too fast, but take eight year olds into R-rated films.
We seem to be in an inverse race; while our technology has exploded, our culture has imploded. And of course violence has ridden shot gun. Even in the late 60s and through the 70s, there was still some innocence. It was changing – fast – to be sure. But it was there, and then it wasn't. I've pondered when it left. It wasn't some cataclysmic, door slamming departure. Instead, it was a silent wandering away.
I can't say that the world I've brought my daughter into is a better one. I don't know that I did her any favors by having her, although as a selfish parent I wouldn't give her up for anything. While my mother used to tell me how much she'd have enjoyed being born when I was, I find myself unable to say the same to my daughter. How heart-stopping is that? Perhaps for the first time in generations, mothers don't envy their daughters. And when I bring this up to the other women I know, none of them would exchange places with their daughters.
In other words, I wouldn't want to be a girl – now. Talk about a backlash.
Of course, women have faced backlashes before. Political exclusion? Well, it took a long time and a hell of a lot of effort, but Nineteenth Amendment anyone? Economic exclusion? Sure, women still earn less than men for the same job. BUT, and it's a big but, women have made huge strides in the economic realm, from obtaining more college and advanced degrees to being the high earner in more families.
So now it's a cultural backlash. Girls and women have always been judged by their looks. That hasn't changed. Nor has paternal dismissal or male rivalry. A film or TV retrospective would bear this out. What has changed is the visceral hatred for girls and women. We use words and images for girls and women today that if we substituted racial or ethnic terms, we'd be vilified. But for too many girls (and women) today, it seems normal to be called a “bitch” or whore. To be told they're there to sexually service some man. That twerking is a compliment.
The U.S. is fighting a cultural battle about gender that is every bit as significant as that being seen in other parts of the world. India's rape crisis and the Taliban's perverse fear of all that is female are just two examples. Even in a world that is – once again – witnessing egregious war crimes in places like Syria, this issue still matters. Like love, there is enough energy and power to address it all. And no, I'm not going to accept that we should set it aside – again – for something “more important.” Because whether we're talking about a cultural backlash or violence, it really all stems from the same place – fear. Fear over the loss of control. Fear over fairness, equality, and sharing. Fear of being equal and having to play on a level field rather than simply dominating others using gender, race, or ethnicity as an excuse.
Girl power initiatives – and entrepreneurs – face an epic battle, but it's a war worth waging. In the same way that it's worth waging war against autocrats. And maybe, just maybe, these girls will rebel. They'll reject the boxes and labels and – let's be honest – really just pure hatred being directed at them. Instead they'll pull a Westernized Malala-inspired resistance. Not only will education be embraced, but so too will being a girl. They'll define themselves and their gender. They'll reject a culture that is just as woman-hating as that promoted by the Taliban. No “blurred lines”; no “twerking”; just being a girl – and that's a good thing. And they'll teach their children – well. Then violence can ride in the trunk with the spare tire.
Karla J. Cunningham, Ph.D., is a mom whose alter ego is a violence and gender expert. Karla has worked in academics, government (law enforcement and intelligence), and at RAND. She writes frequently on her blog, toughlovehardtruths, and continues to explore the many dimensions of violence and risk for professional and mass audiences.