Why We Need To Teach, Rather Than Bully

I recently heard about a young boy who took to Twitter and wrote something that I, personally, disagree with. “There are only two genders,” this boy wrote, and nothing more than that. No threats. No elaboration. Just a short sentence that disregards the existence of transgender, non-binary, and gender queer individuals. Now, I happen to believe that there are more than two genders. In fact, I believe that gender is a societal construct to begin with. But that is not what I want to focus on. What I want to focus on is the reaction that people had to this boy.

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that this boy was an eighteen year old teenager who was just about to graduate from high school. And when people read his tweet that was, admittedly, unnecessary and bullying, they responded by bullying him. They messaged him with personal insults, telling him that he was cruel and ugly. They sent messages to the universities that he applied to, telling them not to accept him because he was a transphobic piece of shit. And, yes, what this boy said was not okay. Any transgender, non-binary, or gender queer person who happened to be following him on Twitter could have seen that tweet and felt a punch to the gut, a realization that there was just another person out there saying that they didn’t exist, that the ways that they feel and think aren’t valid, and that is never okay. But the reaction that people had to this boy was not morally better.

In this specific situation, the boy was very young – still a teenager. And teenagers tend to say stupid things – not because they’re teenagers, but because they’re young, they’re still learning about their place in society and the place of others in society. And more than that, it is a fact that men and boys have a harder time accepting more than two genders than women and girls do. This is not because men are inherently transphobic, but because men are taught from a young age that they have to “be a man”, that their masculinity is important and needs to be maintained, and so when they see something that they perceive to be an insult to the accepted way that things are, such as a transgender, non-binary, or gender queer person, they react with offence or anger.

And so in this specific situation, what we had was a young boy, still capable of learning, but stuck in his idea of what is right or wrong and having a hard time moving passed that. He reacted by insulting a group of people who are already persecuted regularly, yes, but that is what he was nonetheless. And when he did that, nobody tried to teach him anything. Nobody tried to help him move passed where he is stuck. They just insulted him, belittled him, and tried to ruin his life by limiting his access to the education that he actually needed.

And that’s just what this boy needed: education. He needed someone to reach out to him and say, “I get that you believe that there are only two genders, but this is why I disagree”, and he needed that person to say it politely and with an open mind. Had someone done that to this boy, then he might have seen why his tweet could be considered offensive. He might have changed his mind about what gender can be. Or, at the very least, he might have been more respectful toward transgender, non-binary, and gender queer people in the future. None of that will happen if people respond to him with nothing with hostility. In fact, there is a good chance that it will only increase his hostility toward them, because he will begin to feel like that community hates him.

I am proud to call myself an intersectional feminist. I want to do my best to learn about the experiences of other people, to spread awareness of the issues faced by women, LGBTQ+ people, people of colour, disabled people, people dealing with mental illness, whatever the case may be. But there are many people who feel the same way as me about this who respond to people with differing opinions with hostility.

And I’m not going to pretend that I don’t understand where the hostility comes from, because it comes from a few places. It comes from the belief that all people need is more education and they would change their minds about the matter. It comes from the belief that it isn’t as simple as saying that they have “different opinions”, because these are opinions that involve the very existence of certain people, or the very basic human rights that they deserve. It comes from the frustration that inevitably occurs when you are trying to get your government to recognize that you deserve to be acknowledged and treated equally, but others refuse to allow it when they don’t even know your experience. And it comes from the belief that it is not the life purpose of a person of colour to teach white people about what their experience is, or a transgender person to teach cisgendered people – it is something that you should go out and learn about yourself.

And I get it, I do – as a bisexual woman, sometimes I get tired about talking about the experience of being a bisexual woman. Sometimes, I’d really rather people didn’t see me as just a bisexual woman, but as a person, more than a representative of my community. But I also understand that, if you are not a part of this community, then there is also a good chance that you are too busy dealing with your own dumb life to go out and learn about mine. And it is very easy when society constantly tells you “this is right, and this is what people are” to just accept that message without thinking twice about it.

But more than that, regardless of a person’s reasons for believing something different from me, I love my cause too much to let it earn the hostility that it will inevitably get if I am too dismissive of other people. Personally insulting other people and calling them stupid and wrong makes them upset. It makes them hate the person who called them that, and whether you care about that or not is your deal, but you should care about the fact that it will also make them hate the subject that you are arguing about. It will close them off from ever hearing anything more from you. It will keep them from learning more, from becoming educated, from understanding why it is you feel the way you do.

And I understand that it is sometimes hurtful to hear the sort of comments that are made. It is hurtful to be told that you don’t exist, that your perspective doesn’t matter, that you don’t deserve basic human rights – I understand that completely. And sometimes, when people are hurtful, your instinct is to be hurtful back. But in many cases, even when these people are being harmful, they are not doing it because they want to be – they are doing it because society has made them believe that they are in the right. They believe in what they are saying. And so getting mad at them will get them no where, but talking to them, having a rational discussion where you explain your perspective and you listen to theirs, might. And maybe you won’t turn them into an ally overnight, but you will have introduced something to them that they can think on. Maybe they won’t think on it. Maybe you change nothing. But isn’t it better to be the bigger person and try to make them understand your side, than it is to bully people for not being on it?

‘Feminism’ and ‘Man-Hating’ Are Not The Same Thing

I have identified as a feminist for quite a while now, and especially recently, I’ve been very vocal about it. I don’t think there’s any shame is being vocal – in fact, I think it’s kind of important. After all, the only way to confront issues like rape culture, the objectification of women, and outdated gender roles is if we actually talk about them. But talking about feminism (and more than that, using the word ‘feminism’ unashamedly) has made me increasingly aware of another issue: the way in which feminism is frequently perceived as man-hating.

When I first started talking about feminism, I had heard women make comments such as “I’m not a feminist because I don’t hate men”, and so I knew about the association going in. But at the same time, I figured that very few people would associate me as a man-hater simply because I knew that I would be careful about the way that I talked. I would make sure that nothing that I said sounded hateful, and for two reasons: 1) because I don’t believe in fighting hate with hate, or think that I will be taken seriously if I do sound hateful, and 2) because I don’t hate men. I hate toxic masculinity, sure (more on that later), but men as a group are great, I’m not going to dismiss them all based solely on the fact that they associate themselves with a specific gender.

And yet, even while being careful about what I say, I’ve still gotten multiple responses that insinuate that all feminists (and me by extension) are man-haters. I’ve had people respond to a perfectly inclusive feminist discussion by saying, “you’re right; women are better”, when that wasn’t at all what I was trying to say. I’ve had people say, “it’s weird to hear you talk like that, because most feminists are man-haters”, when that isn’t my usual experience. And oddest of all, even when I’m not even talking about feminism at the time, I’ve had people make comments such as, “well, you know how Ciara feels about men”, as though they immediately assume that because I talk about feminism, I have negative feelings toward men.

And I don’t. I really don’t. In fact, part of identifying as an intersectional feminist means that I actively try to avoid having any negative feelings toward any group of people who just happened to be born a certain way.

So why is this such a common assumption that people make?

Well, it isn’t any secret that this idea of the man-hating feminist has become a common one in popular culture. We hear talk of ‘feminazies’, as though somewhere in the world, there are actually group of feminists that round men up and lock them away in concentration camps (just so this is clear, this has never happened in the history of the planet). We hear about bra-burning feminists who scream in people’s faces to get shit done, to turn the order of the world upside down so that women rule and men obey. But the odd thing about this imagine is that, as common as it is to come to people’s minds, it doesn’t at all reflect the reality of feminism and its goals.

Ask anyone who identifies as a feminist, and chances are they will tell you the same thing: feminism is not about giving women, as a group, a position of superiority over men, as a group. If anyone is clambering to turn men into slaves and dogs, they are extremists and do not reflect the views of the average feminist. By definition, feminism is about creating a society of equality, one where nobody is limited by their gender. A society where women can lead the country and where men can express emotion.

And that brings me to another point – feminism does not solely concern women. Feminism primarily concerns women, sure: if a completely feminist world is created, it is women who will see the biggest changes in their lives, but women will not see the only change. Many feminist issues involve men, and not just as the perpetrators. This is because feminism is not a battle between men and women – feminism is a battle between feminists (male and female alike) and the patriarchy.

For those of you who do not know what the patriarchy is, this is the name given to a very traditional set of societal rules that enforce the idea that men and everything associated with male-ness is superior to women and everything associated with them. And believe it or not, the patriarchy hurts men too. The patriarchy is what enforces the idea that men must be tough and unemotional. The patriarchy demands that men be providers for their family, that they make good money, protect their women from any threats, that they have women in the first place and they aren’t, in fact, gay. And the hard truth about many of these expectations is that they aren’t easy to live up to. Some men have a very difficult time providing for their families, and when they do, they confront a sense of failure, an inability to be ‘the man’. All men are born with emotions, but the patriarchy demands that they don’t express them, that they bury them deep down and bear that burden alone, resulting in a difficult time expressing themselves and inevitable feelings of loneliness. And because the patriarchy views men as tough, when they are the victims of rape or abuse, it isn’t rare for people to not believe them, simply because they’re men and should have been able to fight off their attacker, especially if their attacker was a (according to the patriarchy) weak and fragile woman.

The patriarchy also expresses an odd perspective when it comes to men and children, including their own. According to the patriarchy, men are not natural parents in the way that women are, and therefore, when they take care of their children they are ‘babysitting’. Women are considered the primary caregivers; men are merely helping out. This can be a problem for the woman, most certainly, but it is also a problem for the man who wants to be taken seriously as his child’s father.

Furthermore, the patriarchy is also responsible for what is called ‘toxic masculinity’ – a set of learned behaviours that society pushes on men specifically, but are ultimately harmful, both to the man displaying them and to others. An example of toxic masculinity would be a display of violence – an act that is very frequently done to prove a man’s toughness (or maleness), but can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Other examples of toxic masculinity would include misogyny, homophobia, and sexual assault.

But toxic masculinity is not something that is innate to the male gender as a whole, and it is not a set of behaviours displayed by every man. When I say that toxic masculinity is something that needs to end, I am not referring to men as a whole, nor to masculinity as a whole. All that I am saying is that we as a society need to stop teaching boys from such a young age that they need to turn to such extremes to prove their maleness, because doing so only hurts them and others in the long run.

And these are issues that feminism is trying to fight. Feminism wants men to be able to show emotion, to allow their wife to provide for them if that dynamic works better for them, to not feel any shame if they don’t quite live up to what society demands that they be. Feminism is about equality, and that equality includes men.

Feminism is not an exclusive club either; men can identify as feminists just as much as women can. In fact, many male celebrities have stood up for feminism in the media, including Patrick Stewart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Daniel Radcliffe. Even the Dalai Lama has outright referred to himself as a feminist. These are not men who are actively fighting against their own interests; they are men who believe in equality. Equality for the women in their lives to have command over their own bodies and to pursue whatever they want in life, as well as equality for men to have emotion and be taken seriously as their child’s parent.

How to Write a Strong Female Character

I don’t think it’s any secret that I love women (for the purpose of this article, I mostly mean this in the feminist way, but I suppose it’s true in the bisexual way too). I love helping women, supporting women, learning more about the experiences of other women, and whenever I hear about a piece of media that is supposed to represent women well, my interest in it is immediately piqued. Because, let’s face it, there is also a lot of media out there that doesn’t represent women well; sometimes, they’re reduced to being plot devices for the sake of the male characters. Sometimes they’re represented as empty vessels, devoid of a brain or personality but there to provide the film with tits and ass. And let’s face it, people: these types of female characters are boring. I’m much more interested in seeing a woman with strength, a woman who can be explored and developed and who can really become something amazing.

But, as it turns out, writing strong female characters seems to be a much more complex art than it really should be. I mean, we as a society have been writing strong male characters for years, decades, centuries even. Writers know how to write them, so it shouldn’t be too hard to just transfer that ability over to the other gender, right? And some try, but audiences continue to pick these attempts apart and argue about what the ‘correct’ way to represent strong women is in the media.

Take the character of Rey from the newest Star Wars movies for instance. I’ve heard some people say that Rey is a terrible example of a strong female character, because she doesn’t have enough flaws, she isn’t willing to accept help from anyone, and she doesn’t come across as human enough, whereas Princess Leia from the original Star Wars series was a better strong female character because she was humble and cared more about helping others than herself. I’ve also heard that Rey is a wonderful example of a strong female character because she is emotionally complex, capable of taking care of herself, and doesn’t rely on anyone, whereas Princess Leia was a weaker female character because she was only allowed to be strong if the fans got at least one scene of her in a tiny, gold bikini and acting as a slave girl.

Arguments like these surround almost every female character that comes out in the media nowadays. Peggy Carter from the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t a good strong female character because she’s too aggressive, Harley Quinn in the Suicide Squad movie can’t be strong because she wears tiny, sparkly shorts that may as well be underwear, and Black Widow was criticized by fans because she expressed regret at never being able to have a family in Age of Ultron. It seems like the smallest little detail can suddenly make a female character either not feminist enough or too feminist, too feminine to be strong or too masculine to be taken seriously as a woman. So, really, what is the answer? How can one properly write a strong female character?

Well, in my own humble opinion, there is no real answer. There is no one way to represent a woman that will immediately translate as ‘strong’, because there is no single way for a real human person to be strong. And at the end of the day, that’s all that I want a female character to be: real. She doesn’t have to be a gun-totting badass, she just needs to feel complex and human. She just needs to be a person. And real people find all sorts of different ways to be strong. Some women find strength in wearing tiny, sparkly shorts that may as well be underwear. Some women find strength dressing up in men’s clothing. Some women find strength through physical means, some through mental means, some through emotional means. Some women find strength by being hyper-feminine and revelling in clothes, make-up, and pretty nails. Some women find strength by behaving the way men stereotypically do – fixing cars, building houses, whatever it is those men-folk do, I don’t know. And some women find strength through creating families, attaching themselves to friends, and helping others, while some women find strength by being all on their own.

So how do we represent that? How do we create strong women in the media if the definition of a strong woman is so incredibly varied? Well, the answer to that is a bit simpler: we keep writing female characters, as many of them as possible, and we make them as varied, unique, and individual as possible. And at the same time, we need to stop comparing them to other female characters, expecting them to act one specific way to be strong. To return to the example of Rey and Princess Leia, I personally find both of them to be good examples of strong female characters. One is a bit more independent and the other is a bit more focused on helping others, but neither of them are wrong. They’re just different, because women are different. And that’s awesome. That’s something that should be celebrated, not shamed.

The purpose of a strong female character should not be to show women and girls that there is only one way to be strong. The purpose should be to show them that they can be strong. Men and boys have had centuries of seeing complex and varied male characters – men that think their way out of situations, men that punch their way out of situations, men that can work alone and men that need validation, so that every man, regardless of how he defines himself, can feel like he has the capability to be strong. And as much as those characters are awesome and should continue to be written, now it’s our turn. Now we should have the opportunity to see ourselves represented, regardless of how we define ourselves, and we should know that our way of finding strength is perfectly valid.

Free Speech Used to Disguise Hate

I believe in free speech. I really do; as a writer, I think that it is one of the most fundamental and important things that our society should uphold.

I believe that any society that stifles and controls speech is limited.

I believe that the only way for new and better ways of thinking to be formed is if they have the chance to be talked about and explored freely.

And considering all of that, I have a very hard time when it comes to people who openly and blatantly make harmful comments and claim that it should be protected under the idea of ‘free speech’.

“I’m just saying,” one person recently said on my Facebook feed, “I don’t think transgender people actually exist. I think they’re all just extremely mentally ill and gender confused.” When someone pointed out to them that their opinion was a hateful one, that same person replied with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!”

But what about the transgender teenager on your Facebook feed that saw that comment? And sure, you can say that you don’t have any transgender teenagers on your Facebook feed, but how do you know that? How do you know that your niece, nephew, cousin, child to a long-lost friend, whoever it might be didn’t stumble upon that status and feel a sudden sinking feeling in their gut, paired soon afterward with a sense of self-loathing? How do you know that your status won’t come to mind later on in their life, when they’re thinking about the fact that there are people who don’t believe that they exist? When they start to wonder if they do exist? How do you know that your comment won’t someday contribute to the reason why they never express themselves for who they are, or the reason why they develop a life-altering, perhaps crippling depression? How do you know that your opinion isn’t the reason why someone someday kills themselves?

And I know, this is a difficult field to enter into altogether. On the one hand, people can’t live their lives constantly monitoring everything they say to ensure that it isn’t offensive, and even the best of us slip up now and then. And we do happen to live in a society where people can internalize harmful ideas, so it isn’t unheard of for good people to believe in bad things. But that isn’t the issue that I have here. The issue that I have is the use of free speech as an attempt to excuse hate.

Think about if someone were to make a harmful comment that wasn’t targeting a specific group of people, but rather one person in particular. Imagine someone walked right up to another person and said, “you’re a stupid, worthless waste of human life.” How would you react? Well, hopefully, you’d point out that that’s a cruel thing to say, and if the bully in this scenario responded with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!” you’d roll your eyes just a little bit, wouldn’t you? Because, yes, people are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can be harmful and that they do have consequences.

The same thing applies to beliefs that are harmful towards specific groups of people. You can hold onto ideas that are transphobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever, but at the end of the day, you should understand that these are people who deserve rights and respect. They shouldn’t be invalidated, they have just as much of a right to take up space and be themselves as you do, and if you do make an active attempt to undermine their existence, then you should expect a response, just like you should expect a response if you actively walked up to someone and insulted them. In a society where free speech is allowed, you are free to hate as much as you want, but you should also expect to have it pointed out to you that what you are saying is hate, and you should respect their perspective just as much as you want your own to be.

Why Emma Watson’s ‘Provocative’ Photo is Still a Feminist Act

When I first heard about the controversy regarding Emma Watson and her ‘provocative’ photo, bearing her stomach and parts of her breasts, I decided to stay out of it. My initial reaction was a very general ‘that’s a silly thing to get offended about’, and I had faith in humanity that this would just blow over and it wouldn’t be a deal in a couple of days.

Except the controversy is still here. People are still talking about it. And I have to say, I don’t understand why.

The argument that I’ve heard people offer is that Emma Watson is very outspoken about being a feminist, and that posing with parts of her torso exposed contradicts this statement. You can’t be a feminist and have boobs. Everybody knows that. Feminists are all conventionally unattractive women who dress head-to-toe in men’s business suits, and the moment she puts on a skirt or some lipstick, she immediately loses her status as a feminist.

Except that that very clearly isn’t true. And the manner in which people have responded to Emma Watson’s photograph just proves to me how much we need feminism.

Because, first of all, there is nothing inherently sexual about Emma Watson’s photograph. You can see parts of her breasts and her stomach, but besides that, she is standing tall with her arms crossed delicately before herself. The only reason why the photograph has been deemed sexual at all is because parts of a woman’s body are exposed – and that is a problem.

Because, honestly, what about a woman’s stomach and breasts is sexual, besides the fact that society has deemed them so? Why can’t Emma Watson be taken seriously as a feminist while simultaneously having breasts attached to her body?

And even if the photographs were completely sexual, even if she was lounging on a bed with a come-hither look in her eye and a pout on her lip, could she not still believe in equality? Want to be taken seriously as an individual? How is it that one photograph can so completely define who a woman is one hundred percent of the time?

This is our society’s problem – more than the fact that Emma Watson happens to have tits. We fail to see women as complex individuals. We have been taught to see them in the terms of stereotypes – a woman is either an unliberated whore or an ugly and completely asexual feminist. Any crossover between the two stereotypes completely baffles our mind and we don’t know how to understand it.

Because here’s the thing – women have sexuality. Even feminist women feel desire, have wants and needs of their own (unless they’re asexual), and that is perfectly fine. That’s more than fine – that’s human. And women should be allowed to express their sexuality in any way that they feel comfortable with, whether that mean that they take topless photographs and release them publicly or dress head-to-toe in a man’s business suit. As long as she is doing it because she wants to do it and it makes her feel comfortable and liberated, then that’s alright. That’s a completely feminist act and she should feel no shame for it.

Being a feminist does not mean that you have to limit yourself to being one thing. Being a feminist means that you can be free, that you can do what you want and what makes you happy, that you don’t have to bend exclusively to a man’s whim. That’s what being a feminist means.

Or, if nothing else, being a feminist at least means that you shouldn’t be publicly shamed for having tits.