When I sat down to watch the premiere episode of Supergirl with my young daughters last fall, something unexpected happened. I suddenly began to tear up, which is exactly what Stephen Colbert told Melissa Benoist, the show’s star, is what happens to him when he watches the show. In his case, Colbert expressed his excitement for a young woman playing a “superheroic, super-American” character.
For me, the tears came again a few months later when I sat, with my eldest daughter on my lap, for a screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I was overcome when, at a crucial moment, Rey, the female lead, is able to call a light saber into her hand using the force.
A similar rush of emotion occurred a third time when I began introducing my daughters to Hillary Clinton, showing them clips of her rallies and speeches, and when I participated in phone banking and campaigning for Clinton with my eldest daughter.
There is one obvious answer for my emotional reactions. My tears were brought on by the joy I could see in my then-5-year-old daughter’s face during these moments and for the possibilities and inspiration I knew these heroines would bring for her and her younger sister. Knowing how few female lead characters are available to my daughters in classic and modern children’s media, and how few women leaders there are in the real world of government and corporations, I was moved by the momentousness of these narratives.
I was deeply excited to share stories about women, stories that I wished would teach my daughters to believe in themselves and to believe in other women. I also imagined that my wholehearted embrace of female characters would show them not only how important they are but that I, a man (and their central model of masculinity), value and honor women’s leadership and authority.
But much more was stirred up in me than fatherly hope for my daughters’ future dreams and outlooks. This was not about them. These were the heroines I’d been looking for my entire life.
Most of us know our mother as the one who created and nurtured us, as our first heroine and authority figure. But young boys, and girls too, are taught to reject their mothers, to desire a separation from them and to dislike seeing female characters in positions of authority. Indeed, as Soraya Chemaly tells us, woman hatred is “the defining ideology of patriarchal societies…the basis of oppression of women in male-dominated societies” which “invades girls’ imaginations and ambitions just as it does boys’.” These lessons dehumanize all of us, and I believe so many of us are in pain from this normalized separation from our mothers and the misogyny that is pervasive in our society.
Those of us men, like me, who defy such teachings have been called “mama’s boys” and have had our masculinity called into question for our refusal to hate. Resisting gender expectations can be exhausting and miserable. But I learned how to be a man from women. First and foremost, by two mothers who raised me during my formative years, one of whom was a feminist leader. By countless women teachers, leaders, artists, thinkers, mentors, role models, heroines; people I think of as surrogate family. By all the books I read by and about women. By my wife, a true friend and inspiration for half my life. By many lawyers and judges with whom I’ve worked. And not least, by my grandmothers, both resilient and resourceful, both always seeking more knowledge, the kind of people who, if given the chance, could accomplish anything. Even run a country.
Some men are threatened by the idea of female heroes and leaders, by the idea that women could be in a position of authority over them. Still others only empathize with women once they have daughters or wives. Even disgust with Donald Trump’s recently revealed comments in which he objectifies women and talks about sexually assaulting them is couched in relation to having a wife and children, which perpetuates “protectiveness and male centrality.”
But for me this is not just about my mother, my wife, my grandmothers, my daughters. I don’t only empathize with those who look like me or those who “belong” to me. As a human being who believes in justice and fairness, I am horrified about how we treat women—half the human race—as less than, inferior, to be objectified, minimized, and ignored. I want to live in a society in which everyone is valued, in which everyone is given opportunities and treated fairly simply because it is the right thing to do.
At the same time, it is deeply painful that I rarely see anyone who looks like the people who made me who I am be truly valued, or even thought of as equal in the society in which I live. Most of my real-life heroes are women. I want more of my fictional heroes and actual leaders to be women too.
Although in so many ways it seems we are living in an age of the rise of women, we are being lulled into a sense of gender parity that simply does not exist. Sure, women are entering more professions than ever before, are increasingly the primary breadwinners for their families, hold seats in government and on corporate boards, and may appear to be more present in our media. But the gains are smaller than we realize. The truth is that the vast majority of power and authority in this country is still held by men.
And woman hatred is everywhere. It is on social media, where harassment of women is legion. It is seen in the persistence of rape culture, the pervasive objectification of women, the war on women’s reproductive rights, and the failure to provide enough bathrooms for women in our public spaces. It is seen in the erasure and minimization of women in history lessons, fiction, and other media. It is why there continues to be a fear of the LGBT community. And it is especially evidenced in the hatred of Hillary Clinton, in the claims she does not look presidential, that she lacks “stamina,” in the critiques of her tone and appearance, in the unfounded belief that she is untrustworthy, and ultimately in “the idea that men are people, and women are just women.”
Supergirl, Rey, and Clinton are significant because of what they represent. They inspire many girls and women to “step into their power,” awakening the force in them and giving them new galaxies. But as Hillary has herself noted, this is significant for boys and men too because “when any barrier falls in America, it clears the way for everyone. After all, when there are no ceilings, the sky’s the limit.”
We are truly at a crossroads in this election. Trump offers the “apotheosis of what so many of Hillary Clinton’s supporters are ready to overturn.” Sadly, Trump has “motivated a lot of his supporters to… feed on… gender resentment—the idea that women are getting too far, that Hillary is getting too far and is not really qualified, and that the only reason she has been successful is because she is a woman.” Clinton presents us with an opportunity to right the exclusion of women from our highest offices, to prove that our country believes in inclusiveness and merit, to begin to tackle the sexism in our land. Our democracy, all of us, can only benefit by giving voice to the “second sex.” Clinton, and these superheroines, offer us everything we’ve been waiting for, a chance for women and men to connect to our full humanity, a humanity that has until now not been whole because of the misogyny we carry within us.
Clinton has spoken about her belief that this country needs more love and kindness. I agree. Hate is exhausting and limits how high we can soar individually and together. We need to see all kinds of people flying, teaching, and leading us, especially those who look like our mothers. President Obama said with regard to Trump’s demeaning and degrading rhetoric against women, “We need to send a message to our kids about who we are.” Strong women like Hillary Clinton are the antidote. In other words, the only answer to all this woman hatred is to show ourselves and women that we love and believe in them. We can start with our votes.