Yesterday, we celebrated International Women’s Day, giving odes to women in our lives who have been a source of inspiration. However, with holidays like this, in which even those with sexist values feel obligated to share a picture of their mom or favorite female character, it is important to remember that it is a day about women’s rights under a socialist lens, not just a hashtag. That is why Angelina Jolie’s piece for Time stuck out to me over the weekend.
Jolie, who is the mother of six—three of them being daughters Zahara (15), Shiloh (13), and Vivienne (11)—wrote about the experience of sitting at the bedside of her daughters while two of them went through undisclosed surgeries these past two months. The girls cared for each other and were supportive (Jolie also praises the support of her sons, too), but Jolie pointed out in her piece that there is also an expectation for girls to always be emotionally available to the needs of others first, and themselves second:
Someone said to me, when they saw my daughters caring for each other, that “it comes naturally to girls.” I smiled, but then I thought of how often that notion is abused. The little girl is expected to take care of others. The woman she grows up to be will be expected to give, and care for, and sacrifice. Girls are often conditioned to think that they are good only when they serve others, and selfish or wrong if ever they focus on their own needs and desires.
This passage rang true to me because I often hear people talking about their daughters as kind and nurturing, plus the fact that so many toys and dolls girls traditionally have been given are ones that teach them to be caregivers. Girls are expected to be sweet and soft when needed, but tough and steely in just enough moderation to survive on their own.
“Little girls’ softness, their openness and instinct to nurture and help others, must be appreciated and not abused,” Jolie says in the article. “We must do much more to protect them, in all societies: not only against the extreme ways girls’ rights are often violated, but also the more subtle injustices and attitudes that so often go unnoticed or excused.”
One thing that is not touched on in the piece is the difference between young girls of color and their white counterparts, or how queerness affects femme kids. Jolie’s eldest daughter, Zahara, is Black, and as someone old enough to remember the “discourse” around her growing up, there were always comments about Zahara’s name, features, and especially her hair, in comparison to Vivienne or Shiloh.
With Shiloh, we get the discussion of how gender non-conforming kids are scrutinized. For a long time, Shiloh dressed in what people called boys’ clothes and wanted to be called John. Shiloh would come to red carpets dressed in suits and polos, and that led to speculation about her gender and sexuality because any deviation from the norm is seen as odd.
It is not a criticism of Jolie’s piece, only an addendum that we remember non-binary folx, trans women, and women of color who so often are forced to meet expectations of performing gender while being dehumanized—those who never get to be seen as soft because softness is not taught as part of their survival.
“So my wish on this day is that we value girls,” Jolie ends the piece by saying. “Care for them, and know that the stronger they grow, the healthier they will be, and the more they will give back to their family and community.”
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