There is a photograph that has gone viral of a father with a baby strapped to his chest, standing in front of the bathroom mirror and brushing his toddler daughter's hair. The Internet has lost its collective mind over this image, with many Facebook and Twitter users seeming to believe this dude deserves a Nobel Prize for putting his daughter's curls into a tight ponytail. The dad in the picture responded to his admirers by saying that he dreams of the day when a picture like this won't be that big of a deal. After all, if the picture had been of his wife doing the same thing, nobody would have thought twice about it. He was just doing his job as a father.
The picture and corresponding response from the dad has got me thinking about feminism and what gender equality really means. I think for many, including myself, gender equality has become about opening doors for women. About equal pay and breaking the glass ceiling. About fighting for reproductive rights and standing against slut-shaming. But what about men? Is the only path to equality comprised of women achieving the same things men have traditionally been afforded? Why can't equality also mean that men can participate in "traditionally feminine" activities without being ostracized or viewed as magical, one-of-a-kind unicorns who deserve all of the "likes" on Facebook?
In today's world, it has become more socially acceptable for a woman to be the CEO of a company than for a man to stay at home with his kids or pursue a career as an elementary school teacher or a midwife. I know a whole lot more women completely in charge of organizations than men completely in charge of their households.
Don't get me wrong, women are still getting the short end of the stick. We continue to make 77 cents on the dollar. We account for 51 percent of the population, but only make up 18 percent of the seats in Congress. And we are constantly being subjected to misogyny and patriarchy in the media. However, at least these inequalities are acknowledged and discussed openly. Women are encouraged to become strong leaders and applauded for succeeding in traditionally male-dominated fields. Men, on the other hand, are often ridiculed when they express interest in areas perceived as feminine. They are discouraged from expressing their feelings, from showing compassion, from seeming vulnerable, because all of those characteristics — which are often associated with women — are considered weak.
As the mother of two boys, this worries me. Before having kids, I used to lose sleep over the idea of having a daughter. What if she became one of "those girls" — you know, the ones obsessed with pink and princesses and playing house. As a progressive, independent woman, I could not tolerate the thought of having a child who fell into the patriarchal traps society sets for little girls. It never occurred to me that the pirates and the superheroes and the ninjas boys are inundated with are just as harmful to an egalitarian society.
Now I've come to realize that it's just as dangerous for a little girl to see images of princesses constantly being rescued by male figures as it is for a little boy to never see his heroes as vulnerable, emotional or in the role of caretakers.
We blame the disproportionate number of girls with eating disorders on the media and society's pressure on women's bodies. We criticize the airbrushing of Hollywood actresses and praise the celebrities who have curves and aren't afraid to show them. But we rarely make a connection between the disproportionate number of men responsible for committing violent crimes and the pressure boys receive to be tough, gritty, macho. Yes, when there's a mass shooting we talk briefly about violence in movies and video games, but those conversations don't last very long. And I certainly haven't seen viral videos of celebrity males touting the importance of compassion and sensitivity to their fans.
True equality can't be achieved by only moving in one direction. If we make women solely responsible for shattering the ceilings, patriarchy will continue to be alive and kicking. There are emotional, domestic and professional ceilings that men must also shatter. And just like we tell our girls that they can do and be anything they want to, we need to start telling our boys that they too are free to feel and express any and all emotions.
Just like the dad in the picture, I too dream of a day when neither the professional achievements of women nor the domestic activities of men are considered a big deal. True gender equality will come on the day all of Facebook's "likes" are reserved for pictures of cats.