Parents raising daughters in the age of “grrl power” face a lot of questions. Having never experienced any inkling of discrimination themselves—in fact, hearing only explicit cheerleading about all that girls can accomplished, often laced with the implication that they are more capable than their brothers and male peers—young women are surprised to learn that it wasn’t always this way. Why, exactly, weren’t women involved in creating the Constitution and founding our country? Why has there never been a female president?
Explaining the history of discrimination is pretty straightforward: An unfair system prevented women from participating in many aspects of life, from business to politics. Brave women (and men) had to fight to change the laws and challenge societal norms to give women and girls all the opportunities that we take for granted today.
What gets complicated is when our pop culture tries to paper over real differences between men and women, and celebrate women for what they are not. For example, in honor of women’s history month, Brawny paper towels replaced their lumberjack male icon with a woman. If the point is merely to convey that the paper towels are strong enough to tackle the biggest spill, then a woman is certainly “brawny” enough to be up to that challenge. But why do we need to try to pretend that the average woman is “brawny?”
It’s a scenario you’ve seen play out on just about every sci-fi flick or law enforcement drama: A gorgeous, 110-pound woman (usually with long blonde hair and sporting stiletto heels) beating the stuffing out of a six foot, 200-pound muscle-strapped adversary. She’ll knock him down with a few acrobatic kicks and well-placed jabs.
This has no relation to reality. Sure, there may be some real women out there capable of overpowering plenty of guys. But any woman truly strong enough to take on a 200-pound man would also have to look a lot more like him. She’d have arms thick with muscles and have enough heft that she likely no longer looks quite so sexy in her leather cat suit. Hollywood’s ninja Barbie characters may be a fun fantasy, but it creates a warped perception about how such face offs would inevitably play out in real life.
When my oldest daughter learned that her physical education class would be separated by sex, she was incensed. I had to fill in some facts of life that must have been left out of an otherwise pretty thorough sex education curriculum: Just as boys and girls have different parts, they also have different physical attributes and strengths. The average male is simply physically stronger and faster than the average female, which is why there are often different teams for boys and girls. Otherwise, the boys would always win.
The good news, I told her, is that in today’s world, it’s really not such a limitation that women are less physically strong than men. In fact, that’s why Dad carries the heavier suitcases. These differences in strength don’t come up much in everyday life anymore, but for their own good, girls need to be aware of this reality. I certainly don’t want my daughter to become a teenager not fully knowing that even a nonathletic, scrawny-looking guy could absolutely overpower her if he wanted to. Awareness of that vulnerability is an absolute must as a first line of protection.
There is so much to celebrate about women, and women’s amazing history. Women are making records each day in the world of business and politics and leadership in civil society. And we don’t need to highlight women’s accomplishments only in terms of economics and political power. Girls should also be encouraged to take pride in women’s history as mothers and caretakers too. It’s a strange tendency, in fact, during women’s history month, to downplay the celebration of anything feminine. Of course, it’s important that we’ve moved far beyond the days when women were limited to pursuits as mothers and homemakers, but those are still valuable and important endeavors. Women don’t need to be “brawny” to have value.