In an exclusive excerpt from her new collection of essays, It's Messy: On Boys, Boobs, and Badass Women, photographer, talk-show host, and mother Amanda de Cadenet offers sound advice on raising kids in a hostile political climate.
“Mom, what’s a pussy?”
“Umm, in what context do you mean?”
“My friend Noah says that Donald Trump grabs women by the pussy.”
This was a question posed to me by my 10-year-old son the day after the Trump Pussy Grabbing Tape went public. “The word pussy, when used in the context that Donald Trump used it, is slang for a woman’s vagina,” I say. “It’s a word that I’ve mostly heard men use. However, that is not the point. Or the worst part about what you told me. Any idea what I’m referring to?” “That he grabs them by the you-know-what?” “Yes, exactly. It’s never okay to grab anyone, especially by their vagina or penis.”
F-ck. I was really not ready for THIS one, but is there ever a best time to explain something like this to your kids? And then there was also the explanation of “Pussy Bites Back” when a mere 48 hours later, women and girls around the world, myself included, adopted that as our slogan in retaliation for Trump’s misogynistic rant.
I did not have this discussion on my parenting to-do list. The discussion did, however, open up a dialogue among many mothers I know about the challenges of raising kids in our current political climate. I like to think we are the living example of a family that operates by a very specific code of conduct. We discuss race, gender, identity, stereotyping, bias, and equality in some capacity almost on a daily basis.
When one or more of these themes come up, we address it in the moment. Ask my friends who have my kids over for a meal—Ella and Silvan will point-blank call people out when they pick up bias of any kind, sometimes to the embarrassment of their host. A recent example is when my son had lunch with an extremely well-respected film director and asked him why he’d never cast a woman in a lead role in his massive film franchise.
My kids see feminism in action every day, and leading by imperfect example is how I’m raising them.
If there was anyone primed to raise their kids feminist, it was me. My parents treated me no differently from my brother. I was raised to believe I was capable of doing anything I set my mind to. Despite the gender stereotypes in the ’80s, my race-car driving dad taught me that I could do whatever my brother could. My dad showed me how to ride a motorcycle when I was 6 and said I would never need to be a passenger on some drunk guy’s bike, that I could put the drunk guy on the back and ride that motorcycle to safety if need be.
I don’t raise my daughter differently than her twin brother, to the point where she only wanted to wear his clothes—sweatpants, baggy T-shirts, and high-tops—for a year straight. She claims it’s because she needs to be “comfortable and functional,” and who can blame her? I would wear a tracksuit seven out of seven days if I could.
No question there are more opportunities for women than ever before to create a life that is authentically their own. And yet at the same time, the patriarchy is working hard to make sure we stay stuck in the same old gender roles, even if there is a lot of confusion about those roles right now. Women’s roles within the family and workplace have changed so drastically over the last few decades, which is huge progress—but this has also left both men and women uncertain at times about who is doing what.
It wasn’t all that long ago we were being burned as witches, viewed legally as property, and sent off to mental asylums if we disagreed with our husbands. So it’s no wonder that we’re still trying to carve out a place for ourselves in the modern world.
My daughter is a prolific writer, and not long ago she wrote a paper for her school called “Sexism: It Is Everywhere,” a persuasive essay about how Hillary Clinton, as the first female president, would make it her priority to combat sexism. She then went on to give some very accurate examples of gender stereotypes and the ways in which girls are sexualized in everyday life, citing a trip we took to Target and how disgusted she was to discover that all the girls’ superheroes outfits are basically pink crop tops and underwear.
My son is obsessed with sports, but unlike a lot of his peers, he’s also very female sensitive. At bedtime recently he was reading a book and said, “Mom, you’ll like this book because the girl, who’s the main character, and the boy are friends and it’s not like they’re boyfriend and girlfriend.” I was ecstatic that he remembered my opinion that the sole purpose of girls in narrative should not be simply to provide the boy with a love interest.
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The reality is that parenting has always been complicated, but given the political landscape today, it feels trickier than ever. The Parenting 101 handbook needs a major update on a list of things, like how to navigate the pros, cons, and many perils of appropriate internet usage. Any child who knows how to work an iPad, which is most of them, can with a tap and swipe see our pop culture icons in various forms of undress. It used to be that only the girls with no talent had to rely on being half-naked to get noticed, but now even the ones who are already a huge success have adopted this approach.
This makes it all the more challenging to raise a daughter to believe that using her brain and working hard to become successful are not mutually exclusive. It’s close to impossible when almost all the messages delivered to her say the opposite. So what DO you do and say?
First, I want to acknowledge that I was the queen of the barely there outfits, and, boy, did they have the desired effect. Especially at age 14, hitting up some club with whatever cute band boy of the moment, wearing a fishnet catsuit with denim hot pants. YESSSS! This worked like a charm every time, and continued to for years to come. So, I get it. I really do. And maybe because I came to realize that my own urge to wear less was an attempt to disguise my monumental desire for attention and love, I have a preconceived idea and projection about why every other talented girl is also half-naked.
Are Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, and RiRi often emulating strippers onstage because they’re celebrating their slammin’ bodies? Which would be fair enough. Or do they all possess some deep need to be desired by everyone who lays eyes on them? Is there an unspoken competitiveness with other women? Forget being the fairest of them all, today it seems like it’s about being the most f-ckable of them all, and if you made me pick one, I would have to say RiRi does it for me.
Anyway, here’s how I address this issue with my kids when we see one of the aforementioned half-naked singers.
Sometimes I make light of the whole thing and joke, “I’m so distracted by RiRi’s boobs, I can’t focus on her incredible voice!” I draw attention to it so as not to normalize it. Occasionally—and this is when co-parenting gets tricky—Nick will chime in with “I think RiRi looks GREAT in her underwear, what’s wrong with that? She’s just performing.” He’s not wrong, but I always want to go on record as pointing out that being almost naked should not be a necessary component of being a successful female performer. And in fairness to RiRi, she often wears a dude-like suit on stage, so at least she’s mixing it up.
Reprinted from It’s Messy: On Boys, Boobs, and Badass Women. Copyright © 2017 by Amanda de Cadenet. Published by Harper Wave.