When my niece was in her first year of high school, she was rejected from the cheerleading squad for not being pretty enough. This isn't my assessment, of course, but her own. Or rather, according to her, the vice-principal's. "He was in charge of the cheerleading team and he liked the prettier girls more," she told me this week, still a bit upset three years later.
I tried to convince her that she likely misinterpreted the situation, but in a way, it doesn't matter what really happened if she's living in a world where that's her default assumption. "When I go on the Internet, there's so much about DIY beauty tricks for women," she said. "It feels like if you're not pretty, you're worth nothing. And if you're pretty, you're only worth your looks."
Her story, an all too common one, illustrated for me why feminism still has some fights to take on – and why boys her age need to hear its perspective. It's the kind of experience that prompted a new book, The Guy's Guide to Feminism, which landed on my desk recently. Co-authored by Canadian social justice educator Michael Kaufman and New York-based sociologist Michael Kimmel, the book takes the form of a lighthearted A to Z bathroom companion – the personal is political, after all – and thus strikes a tone that I think boys just might listen to.
With homophobic cyberbullying causing suicides, rape joke pages on Facebook, and pornography widely accessible to impressionable minds, it's more important than ever to start a discussion with teens – the girls as well as the guys – about gender stereotypes and expectations.
Internet pornography, one of teen boys' greatest preoccupations, is naturally one of the issues addressed – in a pro-sex, playfully ironic manner. When I asked my niece whether she thinks porn puts negative pressure on her, she confirmed – and then inspirationally combatted – our collective fear that girls feel they have to mimic the videos that boys watch. One guy she dated at 16 did indeed pressure her. "He asked me, 'Why aren't you screaming?' And I told him, 'Because I'm not acting!' That's what a lot of it is. It's fake."
"I think sex has to be good," she continued. "And if it's not good for me, I don't want to deal with it. Why can a guy flaunt his sexual conquests and a girl has to hide them? Why is it horrible for a girl to enjoy sex? After a few bad times, I decided I'm going to take control of whatever situation I'm in. If it's not working for me, I'm not going to do it."
Besides highlighting for budding men the expectations put on women, The Guy's Guide to Feminism actively questions male stereotypes as well. In other words, feminism is good for guys too.
A 14-year-old son of a friend I spoke to is well aware of the pressures on boys his age and the ways in which they police each other. "If you're a guy, you don't want to do girly things," he said. "You don't talk about hair or clothes. If you're complimenting a girl, that's different. But you don't carry on."
"Guys hate Justin Bieber and Twilight, while girls love them," he continued, noting that if a guy liked either of them, he'd get picked on. The reason for this, he says, is that the vampire trilogy and the newest prince of pop are "too sweet." Boys, he explained, "don't like to be so incredibly sweet."
While rom-coms may never be his thing, I think he is also reflecting, in a polite way, how our culture suffers from a general hockey-dad syndrome, teaching boys that their basic nature is to be less emotional, or at least to rarely express their feelings.
Another budding feminist I spoke to, the 15-year-old daughter of a friend, talked about how similar pressures play out for girls on Facebook. "Girls only post pictures where they look pretty. A guy can look strange or funny, but a girl can't show the multiple sides of her personality," she said. "In person, feminism has come some way, but on social networks it's like we're starting from the beginning."
"TV commercials show the same old-school thing of women cleaning up the household after the family, and women putting on makeup," she continued, citing the all-female buddy flick Bridesmaids as the only example of pop culture she could think of that showed women acting like she and her friends do. "They were being true to themselves and being funny, not just in a perfect way, but in a human way," she said.
Speaking of revealing one's humanity, the 14-year-old Bieber-hating boy had something to add after expressing his hesitation about appearing too sensitive, something that the girls of his generation will be happy to hear.
"I'll probably be a little more affectionate as I grow up," he promised.
Micah Toub is the author of Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks.