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I was deeply troubled by Christine Flowers’s column in the Journal Review in which she suggests that parents not “force” their sons to see the film Little Women because, to her, it is strictly a film for girls and women. Yet it is perfectly all right, according to Flowers, to “insist” that “your daughter not be given a GI Joe doll or that your son put down Barbie.” There are “stereotypes for a reason,” she argues. Really? I guess if her son wanted to see the film, which she thinks is actually an excellent work of art, she would insist he not go. The poor guy might become confused about where he belongs, and we can’t have that. Talk about the gender police!
Flowers’s column is so riddled with narrow, old-fashioned thinking that I was surprised to see that she actually went to college in the 1980’s and not the 1850’s. She makes the dangerously false assertion that boy’s books like “A Separate Peace” and ”Catcher in the Rye” are fine for girls to read because they have a “universality of message,” but that Little Women is “really just a movie about females,” and so could have no universal appeal — especially to boys who are supposed to like only “battlefield scenes.”
What could a boy learn from seeing (and reading) Little Women? He might learn that girls are creative, thoughtful, powerful, caring and struggle with universal issues that affect him as well, like what makes a successful parent, the challenges of economic survival, the costs and benefits of ambition, the costs of war, the question of who to love, our connection to place (small town versus city) and what constitutes art, among many other themes.
Most important, and this is something I’ve learned after almost 40 years of teaching literature to young men at Wabash, the boys would learn empathy. Reading literature that is outside our comfort zones is one of the best ways to understand and connect with people that seem different from us. When I assigned works by Toni Morrison, Emily Dickinson and Kate Chopin, in a way I was “forcing” them to encounter worlds they thought, at first, they had no interest in. But they ALWAYS made personal connections to the stories and characters, and developed greater empathy for women in the process.
So let’s support and trust our boys and young men to make their own choices about what kinds of men they might want to be. To do so we must expose them to the widest variety of experiences, encourage, not force them to engage difference, and then let them choose for themselves.