I notice the preoccupations of my daughter and her friends. They’re sixteen. They like the Kardashians and vintage clothes. Outfits that reek of 1990’s throwback, but do so ironically, as if the 1990’s were a long-lost age, not the one from which their parents have so recently emerged, blinking into the light, murmuring ‘Wonderwall’. They consider themselves to be equal counterparts to their male friends, yet they regard much of what teenage boys do as alien, to be excused, dumb. I think: still? Boys, it seems, have no filter, no pause button, no method through which to edit their behaviour. Like puppy dogs. Teenage girls meanwhile, are clever, sassy, smart but also vulnerable, insecure and foolish. There’s a quagmire between the sexes, but it’s one they’re happy to wade through. For girls, the focus is on hair and even more on eyebrows; the application of eyebrows being the most important component of the day. Without them, there is a possibility that selfies will be somewhat off; under-dressed. There are acrylic nails and lacy bralettes and beds that don’t get made. Dirty plates and smeary, two-day-old banana milkshakes, and crumpled Maccy D’s wrappers.
I notice the mothers of said teens, in contrast. Forty-something, sometimes fifty-something. Those who had late babies face the teenage reality as they simultaneously contemplate menopause. We like ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and ‘Big Little Lies’ and shop online as if the world depends on it. We wear outfits curated in the hope we don’t look dowdy, curmudgeonly, old. The dichotomous striving between too little and too much: is this too much? I ask my daughter. She replies ‘no’ and I am grateful for her tacit solidarity. We worry and fret and try to bridge the gap between the many prongs of our lives; husbands, in-laws, teens, pre-teens, parents in their 70’s, friends we haven’t seen for a year, but whom we email with fervour. There’s focus on grey roots and how to disguise them, on a slippery slope to becoming platinum blonde, we dye our once-healthy, lustrous hair until it’s straw-like in the onslaught. There are houses and cars and Nutri-bullets and electric toothbrushes. We own stuff. And we clean stuff up. We work and then we fantasise about not working. But mostly we try to decipher the future and observe in our daughters as the next generation of women we’re raising; we are the planets and they are satellites entering our orbit. We watch their behaviour, staving off the next demand, we try to respond appropriately and assuredly. Yet despite years of life experience, we feel as if we are winging it. Every. Damn. Day.
I refuse to see the downside. This is the way it goes. No matter how evolved I thought I was – dammit I was an early adopter of Snapchat; I am down with the kids – there is now weighty evidence that I am an entirely different generation to that of my children. Even though I thought I’d strap that baby girl to my back and carry-the-hell-on with my fabulous life, parenthood did eventually dig its heels in. Now I am a beleaguered veteran; I’ve done some time. I have a sixteen year old! And the road is not even at an end. It stretches ahead over the brow of a hill I haven’t even started to climb.
I remember the summer I graduated like it was last week, I am Generation X. I grew up with John Hughes movies and later, tried to gather the gall to cut my hair like Winona Ryder in ‘Reality Bites’ (I never did). My daughter does not even qualify for Generation Snowflake, but will morph into some as-yet-undefined grouping with worrying social traits, to be reported by the media. I ask her if she is a feminist, which is, on my part, a covert exercise to establish if the doctrines underpinning my own have rubbed off. She looks at me quizzically: is this a trick question? When I was a teenager, circa 1989, I recall feminism in my corner of rural England as synonymous with trouble-making; women who complained, left their husbands, messed up the status quo. Joined CND and camped out in Greenham Common. The status quo was fine and dandy, why change? My daughter regards the status quo, but the drum-beat of societal change has been deafening during her life.
Is a feminist innate or is she (or he) made? Can you opt in or out? I feel like my generation opted in. For years, the ground on which feminism stood seemed steady. Sure-fast. It was simply a matter of building it up, adding to it, making it stronger. Now it feels different; a shift in perception. Gender fluidity means all accepted standards can and should be challenged in the name of equality, to enable those who feel marginal to feel less so. I sense threat when writing about this topic, I acknowledge the ease with which I could offend, how I may appear misinformed, blinkered, and note the misjudgments of others who inadvertently stray into the dangerous territory of gender politics. There’s a temptation to remain anodyne. It leads me to question how easily and seriously my daughter might form her views in such a volatile environment. Attitudes previously deemed to be acceptable by society have become the opposite.
I am not sure she knows what all the fuss is about; should women and men have equality? Errr, yea? Dummy. Her generation doesn’t really get the distinction; the glass ceiling is something which, at 16, they haven’t tapped a tentative finger on. Constructs are in place to ensure that, at least in her school experience, she does not perceive disadvantage. Can girls excel at Science and Maths? Of course. Can they play rugby and cricket? If they so wish. On the one hand they are empowered – absolutely so. They don’t consider they are segregated; the world is for the taking. Yet simultaneously, my daughter witnesses modern politics and seems to consider it as not directly relevant to her. Brexit. Trump. A woman Prime Minister in our country. A quiet rage might ignite in the face of injustice, but on the whole, I don’t see her demographic exercise activism. They haven’t worked out what they need to fight for. Yet.
Amongst her contemporaries, there is the perpetual invitation to comment, to ‘like’, to pass judgement, in a way that did not exist in my teenage years. Any attitude I might have fostered had time to grow strength and validity, to form part of an inner dialogue, stress-tested in my mind. Whereas in her connected, social-media enabled age, one false move can lead to a trolling on Twitter or a comment-fest on Instagram. When driving in the car, after the news has aired, I explain the Weinstein allegations to her, what happened and what women had been subjected to in his industry. I explain to her the righteous outcry, the abuse of power, the sexually motivated harassment. I expand on the #Metoo concept; there is solidarity in knowing there are others and there is freedom and strength derived from exposing one’s oppressor.
But where does it all lead? What happens next? Will she be exempt when she takes her first job and someone in a position more senior to her abuses his power? Following decades of this systemic behaviour, do we now face a Brave New World? I consider: do men in 2017 feel brave? Do women? There’s the clear and obvious good that has come from recent events. Emma Thompson spoke eloquently about ‘the crisis in masculinity’ and how we must address that first, and she’s right. Like all newly identified and frightening facets of society, once they are exposed, we reel from the exposure – the rapid and unexpected pulling back of the curtain – but it takes time, humility and intelligence to define how to use that exposure for good. In this instance, it will take years and years of subtle (and not so subtle) change to alter the way a man perceives a woman as she enters the room. This must start with our sons as well as our daughters. It is mothers like myself who have the work to do now.
There will be those who may secretly wish things wouldn’t change. There will be men whom overnight, have become relics, dinosaurs, defined by their inability to recognise they belong to another era. The world has moved on. How should they behave now and must we acknowledge the fall-out of deriding a generation of men as inappropriate? They are fathers, husbands, brothers, colleagues, friends. As a seismic change takes place underfoot, the tectonic plates of gender are on the move and now a new landscape is discernible, complete with gaping crevasses between what was and what will be. And what of the accused? There’s instant judgement and castigation. Weinstein flashes across our screens. We imagine the manifestation of the sexual predator; the middle-aged, paunchy, powerful man. But it surely must apply to younger men, boys even, who are now navigating these waters? What of the accused teenage boy who thought he had consent but, it turns out, his perception differs to hers? So treacherous is it that my head spins at the prospect of guiding my daughter and my son through and I, like every generation before me, think back with whimsy to my teenage years when we bought ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ by ‘The Cure’ on 7 inch vinyl and didn’t really question things. I see that era is gone. As it ever was, the older generation – my generation – will define the route forward, but it will be her generation who take the journey.