Parental Perpetuation of Heteronormativity and Agism: A brief history

Master wordsmith, President Barrack Obama is back, and his inaugural speech reminded me of a blog post over at Womanist Musings: What if Sasha and Malia Obama aren’t straight? In this post, Womanist Musings calls Obama’s heteronormativy out regarding his children. His choice of words failed him. In a series of interviews a reporter lightheartedly brought up the first daughters and potential boyfriends. Obama quipped that that’s why they have Secret Service. Womanist Musings points out the damage of statements like this; damage toward Sasha and Malia’s control over their own sexuality and the general perpetuation of gender roles and heteronormativity in this country. She writes, “When the secret service do appear in media, they are largely white cisgender men and it has often made me wonder about the implications of them acting as gatekeepers to the sexuality and bodies of young Black women.” This is a keen observation of power structures that, likely, and hopefully, Obama didn’t know he’d fallen prey to; a simple joke at the anxiety, I would guess, most fathers feel at the fear of their daughters growing too fast, but those in the limelight are criticized most often; are good liberals from the “top down” allowed a sense of humor at the expense heteronormativity?

Womanist Musings continues to point out the harm in jokes like the one Obama let loose back in June. She says it “denies the legitimacy of [Sasha and Malia's] sexual agency and the right to make decisions about their bodies.” This touches not only on the sexism and heternormativity perpetuated by jokes like this made by fathers all over the country, but also the agism that runs rampant in our culture. The innate desire to keep our children (in general) safe from whatever perceived harms, is a legitimate, earnest desire, however, the current state of this protection is, at times, smothering and stunting. It affects both girls and boys, but differently based on existing gender stereotypes.

Many cultural shifts and movements led us into a culture of agism. Historically our children were factory workers, farmers and slaves (except the rich white kids), and when the different groups of people in the industrialized west became more and more autonomous and affluent alongside changing labor laws, children were able go to school, and not work. These changes gradually led into the 80s when a highly televised kidnapping rattled the nation perpetuating fear mongering in regard to our children and parents who were able (read middle and upper class) became much more wary of their children playing outside without an adult. Our middle class children are now in school from 9 to 3 nine months of the year and parents are walking them to their suburban bus stops.

According to the Huffington Post, the divorce rates skyrocketed in the 60s and 70s, sending more women than ever into the college system, however, it also skyrocketed the overall single family household, “with the United States embracing progressive changes in equality and women’s liberation, divorce rates rose – disproportionately affecting women, who found themselves strapped with the burden of single parenthood more often than their male counterparts…” The parents of the 90s were a product of their single-family homes and high divorce rates. They felt a need to offer their children something they never felt they had: a stable family life and severe safety. Leading us into the 00s. Children are allowed to be “children” much longer than they have ever done in the past.  They are free from much responsibility, they are free from engaging with the world with any sense of reality, they are free from critical thinking skills, they are protected and sheltered and our parents are okay with that, but this freedom, if you will, strips our children of their autonomy, their ability to make decisions, for themselves, and most basely, their ability keep from binge drinking and overdrawing the checking account the minute they get to college.

A few years back a writer let her nine yr old ride the subway in NYC alone without a cell phone. They discussed it and they both agreed that he was ready. He knew the route, he was confident, he felt that it would give him some independence and she knew that it is unlikely that her son was kidnapped by a stranger, statistically speaking. She wrote about it in an article and half the responses were positive and the other half threatened to report her to social services. I won’t suggest that what that family did was right or wrong, but I will suggest that what they did, they did it together. This writer gave her son the opportunity to be autonomous, to be responsible and to make a decision. But maybe that’s what we’re afraid of, as soon as you send them out on their own, they’ll make the “wrong” decision.

In a lot of ways children aren’t seen as legitimate human beings. Proper education is withheld (i.e. Bush’s “let’s not be honest about sex” thing, No Kid Left Behind). They aren’t left with the ability to make their own decisions, or given the responsibility to make decisions, and then we get angry with them when they don’t make the right ones. Or “right” ones, in the case of heteronormativity, but I’m mostly speaking on a general making-healthy-decisions-for-themselves-and-those-around-them, like drinking in moderation, having responsible sex, choosing partners who respect them and respecting their partners/those around them. A part of this is also recognizing that whether hetero or queer our children have sexualities. Let’s be honest, who was masturbating before 10? Before 15? I was masturbating by the time I was five. My sister used to make out with our parents’ best friend’s son at the same age. How many of us also had desired sexual experiences at similar ages? And how many of us felt shameful or, like Womanist Musings pointed out in her essay, when potentially experiencing same-sex sexual encounters, we feel like we’ve done something wrong? How many of us were caught looking at or touching our bits at an inopportune time were told “Don’t do that!” and maybe our hand was slapped (is it still cute and funny when toddler boys do it and shameful when girls do?). Why not throw out something less shame-ridden, like, I don’t know, “Sweetie, those are your lady bits, (or that’s your vagina). It’s perfectly normal to be curious, but we’re in Kmart right now, and those bits should be explored in some privacy.” Or, in my case, not while watching Wizard of Oz with five or six members of my extended family.

Perpetuating heteronormativity in our children is a valid issue that needs recognition, but – how might I say this succinctly? – I think it ties closely with an overarching sense of agism, agism with the sense to protect (there are two ways to oppress someone: knock them to the floor or put them on a pedestal), or the two are working together from two different angles to fully invalidate our children making them ill-equipped to make decisions or think critically for themselves or suss our their sexuality/having sexuality with any sort of ease or comfort. Maybe, what I’m saying is, straight kids are just as fucked as queer kids in this culture. Each group has to overcome a different facet of sexual oppression.

THEN throw on top of that the need for this culture to separate everything into it’s own little binary, the sexualization of the nation (read primarily women), the current porn culture, and desperately seeking someone who doesn’t make you feel as invalid as your parents and society made you feel all the while being innately attracted to those that make you feel invalid (Stockholm syndrome? or just not understanding that love can be something different than feeling invalid?) IF you can suss out that that’s the problem. And Sasha and Malia have the added bonus of having the first Black president for a father and they will be publicly scrutinized not only for their future choice in partner (sex or otherwise) but for their hair, or dress, or the shape of their arms. To be honest, if these girls become reasonably functioning adults, I think Barack and Michelle will have succeeded in parenting.

I think my point is, that if we raise our kids to feel as if they are valid and treat them as such, no matter what lighthearted heteronormative jokes parents make, – subtle, intentional or ignorant – our children will, should they deviate from heterosexuality, and most kids do these days in some way or another, feel comfortable speaking about their sexuality with their parents. And that’s what we really hope is happening in the White House, isn’t it? Sasha and Malia being treated as valid human beings, valid women (or young girls) with thoughts and desires of their own who, when those thoughts and desires represent themselves, they feel legitimate enough to say, “Hey, Dad, what makes you think I’m going to date boys or that I want a big white man with a gun barreling over me and my date?” Now the question you pose is, can the girls be treated like valid humans when their father makes heteronormative cracks like that? And do cracks like that continue to perpetuate treating our children as invalid in the rest of American culture when made in public? The answers? Much too complicated.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation