Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
My child is three heading towards four. When watching tv on her Netflix, I have noticed that the categories have a particular gender bias. “Girls Take the Lead” is my favorite. Here you find films like Gnome Alone, Brave, Tangled, and DC Super Hero Girls. What Netflix is doing when titling collections of films as specifically gendered, is helping to redefine how my child thinks about gender. These subject headings signal to people of all genders that girls CAN, will or even SHOULD take the lead. Not only would this category not have existed when I was a child, but there also would have been no films or shows to populate it. The existence of the category is a positive step forward.
However, I have two challenges with this. The first is we seem to be missing categories like “Boys Have Feelings” or “Boys are Kind” or “Boys Lose Gracefully.” I suggest these categories or others like them because they too would signal to people of all genders that boys CAN, will or even SHOULD behave in these ways which are counter to traditional gender norms.
If these categories did exist, there are movies already out there to populate them. The recently released Ralph Breaks the Internet or The Smurfs-which seems to be all about the redefinition of self-or a recent addition to my family’s watch list, Escape from Planet Earth. This last film, released in 2013, is fascinating. First of all, it emerges from the Weinstein production house. This film features two male lead aliens, one the caricature of “masculinity” and the other his softer although super smart foil. The second character embodies more of what we think of as “feminine” qualities. Through the course of the film, the jock alien gets more in touch with his emotional side, and the nerdy character emerges as the unexpected hero who saves the day. As a subplot, the wife of the nerdy alien has a scene where she completely overpowers the female antagonist. She marks her moment of victory with a line similar to, “You think just because I am a housewife, I am a wimp?”
Because while redefining an oppressive femininity that says “Females are passive, docile, accommodating, pretty, happy, social, not too smart,” and so on is really important, it is only part of the story. Toxic masculinity also begs for redefinition. Teaching our male people that they can be sensitive, sweet, smart, kind, caring, soft, gentle and the like opens all of us up for new possibilities. These two constructs would do well to be recrafted together.
The second challenge I have is that redefining gender norms is a step along the way but not the final stop. While this is good, moving to a place where the topic headings on Netflix are “Leadership,” and “Feelings” populated with films with people who are boys, girls, trans, gender-indeterminate, all colors, all races, all religions, all abilities and so on, robustly included is where we ultimately need to go.
My child happens to be a girl person. She loves pink, and she loves superheroes. One of her favorite things to wear is a pink satin dress with a frilly tutu and a batgirl emblem emblazoned on her chest. When trying to gather the attention of mix-gendered groups of people, she says, “Hey girls” instead of “Hey guys.” And sometimes people bristle at this. And they should. Because it is just as wacky to identify multi-gendered groups as “male” as it is to identify them as “female.” I would like for her to live in a world where we say, “Hey kids” or “Hey friends” or “Hey loves” or “Hey incarnations of the Divine.” That last one might be too much of a mouthful for little people. Hopefully, you see where I am going.
We risk swinging the pendulum of gender redefinition too far into a direction which narrowly defines anyone. Doing this means we continue to live in a society where large groups of people are oppressed by societal norms. And while such a thing would fix many problems in the world today, it would create the same problems we are trying to solve-just for new people. This is insufficient at best. It is absurdist and cruel at worst. As Jews, we are told again and again…and again, “Remember you were slaves in Egypt.” Why? So that we do not forget how awful that existence was and therefore never ever enslave anyone else. If we can learn one thing from the #MeToo movement, please let it be this.
We are the dawn of a new era. All bets are off and everything is up for grabs as we figure out anew who we are and who we are going to be. Let’s let this moment of time be a gift to all of God’s creatures regardless of the bodies into which we each happen to be born.