The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

How Can Feminist Mums Avoid Being Humourless Childhood-Ruiners?

Posted by Mel Campbell on September 14, 2009

Jo Case has a fascinating article at Kill Your Darlings that focuses on a new book from Spinifex Press called Getting Real: Challenging The Sexualisation Of Girls. This is a topic The Dawn Chorus has discussed before, and these posts have always attracted lots of comments from mums who talk about the challenges they face trying to raise both boys and girls in the face of so many gendered cultural imperatives, from obsessing over the colour pink to seeing one’s body as a constant renovation project.

In a way, the comments people have made on blog posts like this – especially ones that come from personal experience of parenting – interest me more than the issues of female sexualisation (raunch culture) in the media, which are so mainstream it’s dispiriting, especially when they’re conflated with “empowerment”. The impression I get is that on one front, mums feel strongly enough about the issue to ban Barbies and pink things, to refuse to buy slutty pre-teen clothes and to stand up to schools and organisations who condone sexualised behaviour and attitudes.

Then there’s a subset of parents who appear to find this stuff amusing and ironic. Before the story got a little too old, I was planning to write a story for The Enthusiast about the quality of ‘edginess’, and the way that to involve children – who are consensually imagined as ‘pure’ and ‘innocent’ – in these knowing gestures treads an especially keen edge between propriety and obscenity. Indeed, as the Cotton On example reveals, certain companies actively market their products as ‘edgy’; part of the appeal to their consumers is that other people might find them offensive, and hence these consumers feel more sophisticated because they ‘get’ the joke.

That, for my mind, is the most confronting aspect of parenting – especially of girls. Are you going to be the kind of humourless, daggy mum who interferes in everything that’s cool and is a source of mortification to your children (“You just don’t GET it, Mum!”), or are you going to be a hip mum who helps your kids navigate pop culture rather than trying to restrict their access to it?

I mean, as adults we all fondly tell stories about the wowserish parents who banned junk food and served pitiful Pritikin imitations of the foods kids love; who prevented us from watching commercial TV, or even any TV at all; who wouldn’t buy the ‘cool’ clothes so we had to look like dicks in front of our friends; who wouldn’t buy the in-demand toys such as Barbies and Cabbage Patch Kids. (Oh boy, I’m showing my age with that one!)

But this just goes to show that kids don’t ever forget this stuff. Time can transform an embarrassing mum into an endearingly daggy one, but do we have to accept being an embarrassment to our children as the price of ‘protecting’ them from a culture they desperately want to participate in? Do we ‘know better’ than our kids or should we perhaps try to find some middle ground with them, rather than being the inflexible person banning things?

One of my main worries as a feminist is that feminism is so often about being angry and disapproving; it rarely seems hip unless it concedes something to raunch culture. Just last week I was thinking, “No wonder people say feminists are unattractive; nobody likes hanging out with angry people.” Perhaps we should also consider what we’re teaching children about feminism if their main experience of it is telling them what they’re not allowed to do.


26 Responses to “How Can Feminist Mums Avoid Being Humourless Childhood-Ruiners?”

  1. MarianK said

    Oh dear. This essay was fine until the last paragraph. Then it lost me … big time.

    Helping girls navigate the minefield of sexualised cultural messages drip-fed to them every day, as well as leaving them free to stay in tune with their own era, is something every parent of daughters has to navigate with the daughters themselves. It’s not a case of either/or. More like both/and.

    And if feminism is supposed to be ‘about being angry and disapproving’ (an observation I don’t agree with at all), who exactly is doing the judging? And by whose criteria? In my experience, any destructive anger that surrounds feminism is directed AT feminists by those who don’t like the issues feminism raises, not the other way round.

    All social justice movements use constructive anger and disapproval to get their message across. They use other means as well – like discussion, analysis, lobbying, consciousness raising, organising, support networking etc. Constructive anger and disapproval are all a part of being human and living in a society. It’s almost impossible to exchange ideas and raise awareness about social issues without using either or both.

    My biggest problem with feminism is not about it being supposedly angry or disapproving, but the way in which so many feminists crumple in the face of the destructive anger and disapproval they RECEIVE. Too many pro-feminist women are the fair-weather kind. It’s great when the mainstream is on our side, but we prefer to distance ourselves from feminism when it’s not (which is most of the time).

    If you feel ashamed or discomforted by the way in which feminists are viewed by its sworn enemies, then that is the message you will get across to your daughter. If you are proud of being a feminist – regardless of how society views us – that’s the message your daughter will receive.

  2. Mel Campbell said

    Massive eye-roll. Can’t you see how embarrassingly dogmatic it looks to accuse other feminists of not being feminist enough? If I really were a “fair-weather feminist” I wouldn’t bother blogging here. It’s because I do identify as a feminist and want to protect that idea from the public vilification it often receives that I try to write these kinds of posts.

    Rather than assuming our kids will fall in line with our own ideologies, let’s try imagining a version of feminism that a kid might like. Imagine being ‘for’ things instead of constantly ‘against’ them; imagine being happy and proud rather than angry and complaining. Imagine being a cool mum who ‘gets’ pop culture and is able to guide kids to the bits of it that aren’t grotesquely exploitative, rather than coming across as an aggro mum who’s always taking herself horribly seriously, fighting about things, lecturing her kids and telling them what stuff they’re not allowed, and doesn’t ‘get’ why her kids are embarrassed by her.

    Besides, anger is not a virtue. It’s a primitive stress response designed to get our ancestors out of trouble, so it’s not a healthy state to live in on a day-to-day basis – let alone an environment you want to bring up kids in. Sorry MarianK, but right now you’re coming across as precisely the kind of humourless childhood-ruiner that I don’t want to be.

  3. Jo Case said

    Hey Mel,

    A friend just alerted me to this thoughtful and intriguing post, which I read with interest.

    The whole question of how to engage with pop culture and help kids navigate it, while staying true to one’s values and instilling those values in your children, is a biggie. And it’s one that I wrestle with on an almost daily basis. That said, I put values first and fear of being a wowser second. And I think it’s easier as the parent of a boy these days.

    I think there’s a difference between engaging with pop culture and accepting it, too. I take my son to rock concerts and let him choose his own clothes (at times, disastrously). I’ve helped him build a blog. But I also restrict his ‘screen time’ to weekends and school holidays, and time it even then. His grandparents bought him a ‘Tantrum Alert’ tee shirt much like those Cotton On ones that I asked his dad (we share parenting – it was the gift of his mother) to never let him wear on my watch again. Because him wearing it makes it seem that I find tantrums cute and funny, and I don’t. So – I’m a real blend of hip mum and terrible wowser, and I’m fine with that.

    I think self-consciously ‘hip mums’ who see that as their first responsibility to their children are seriously, um, compromised. Think of the mother of the Queen Bee character in Mean Girls …

    Engaging with pop culture means that when you disagree with something and want to restrict your child from it, explain why.

    My mum was a ‘wowser’ who told me she’d never been drunk in her life, who made up embarassing school uniforms for me to wear in primary school because there wasn’t one, who often didn’t let me choose my own clothes, which I hated. Her favourite saying was ‘life is not a fashion parade’. She drove me nuts. I rebelled. But when the teenage years were over, I had a set of grounding values to return to, which I am grateful for. I had a friend and neighbour whose very ‘hip’ mother dyed her girls’ hair, helped them pluck their eyebrows and all-over wax, and heavily instilled the importance of being attractive to men and the status value of having male attention. (From the age of ten, for the youngest girl.) I know who I prefer as a parental role model. And despite my own myriad insecurities, I ended up with far less than my neighbour.

    As parents, it’s our responsibility to ‘know better’ than our kids … otherwise they’d be parenting us. On the other hand, yes, it’s in everyone’s interest to engage with them and learn from them too. But the final call has to be ours: kids will usually go with peer pressure and a desire to fit in over long-term gain, and it’s our job to provide the balance between social cohesion (which is important) and a serviceable value system.

  4. Kat said

    I’m not a parent yet, but plan to be. Feminism for me highlights two of the most important traits I wish to instil in any children I interact with:

    1) Personal responsibility – to internally question if your actions agree with your own moral code. To see if your choices effect others, and be willing to defend them if questioned. Hopefully this will encourage confidence and the ability to say no. The ability to not follow blindly, be they peers, business’s, relationships.
    2) Compassion – that while everyone is unique, there are similarities in life experience based on race, gender, sexuality, economic and social status, health and ability etc. Therefore, before jumping to conclusions consider some of the external forces which have lead to the situation that another person is in, and the choices that they make. To recognise that the default of male/white/straight might be the most common point of view shown, but that doesn’t mean it is an unbiased view.

    The comments sound pretty dry above, but I think with kids it is more about engaging them, paying attention, listening, talking. Giving in all the time to a superficial “I want” will not be satisfying for parent or child in the long run.

    I think everyone chooses their battles, and parents should not be chastised just because you happen to see one of the times a parent might decide to let something slide.

  5. MarianK said


    Try reading my post again minus the angry defensiveness. And ask yourself what exactly is the difference between your words:

    ‘… imagine being happy and proud rather than angry and complaining’

    and my words:

    ‘If you are proud of being a feminist – regardless of how society views us – that’s the message your daughter will receive’?

    I see none of the destructive anger and disapproval in feminism that you seem to see – the very opposite. Feminism to me is a joyous, life-affirming philosophy that provides young women with the analytical tools to understand where the system ends and they begin. It’s a wonderful counterbalance to the cultural messages that girls are what the system says they are.

    And to me, raunch culture is no more or less destructive to young girls than the virginal romance culture that our mothers and grandmothers grew up in. Different rider, same horse.

    If you see feminism as all about ‘being angry and disapproving’, then I think you should ask yourself if you are listening more to feminism’s critics than to feminism itself.

  6. Pangur Ban said


    I probably won’t make myself very popular by saying this, but I agree with MarianK. I found the last paragraph of your article jarring as well. It’s dispiriting to see such a two dimensional caricature of feminism being trotted out on a feminist website of all things, and then dismissing any objection to it as embarrassing feminist dogma.
    The rest of the article had some great things to say but there was no need to make the implication that a feminist is more likely to be the sort of ‘humourless, child-ruining’ parent who only tells her daughters what they’re not allowed to do.
    I am an active feminist with a teenaged son and daughter. Their father and I have always gone out of our way to relate to them in ways they understand and appreciate. It seems to have worked because we have developed a reputation among their friends of being ‘the coolest parents ever’. My son has also told me that his female friends really like the feminist conversations they’ve had at our house, something they don’t get in their own homes.

  7. […] great to be part of a vigorous online conversation about the topic, which continued over at The Dawn Chorus, where Mel Campbell responded with some quite different thoughts of her own on the […]

  8. lauredhel said

    How many feminist mums do you hang out with, Mel? Seriously, whining about feminists being “angry” and “humourless”?

    As a feminist mother, I’ve chosen not to mock and belittle my son when he’s played with dolls or chosen pink or dressed as a ballerina.

    I allow and validate and discuss his emotions, instead of silencing him and yelling at him “boys don’t cry” and “harden up, be a man”.

    I encourage him to read widely, including books with a variety of protagonists and genres.

    We’ve talked about the variety of possible family structures, the fact that boys can fall in love with boys and girls with girls, that some people don’t end up the gender they started out as, that some people have children and some don’t, and that it’s their choice and nothing to either sneer at or be ashamed of.

    I’ve emphasised to him that his body is his, and that the same goes for others, and that you don’t touch people when they say “no”.

    I’m “angry” and “humourless” enough to not egg him on, indulgently amused, when he succumbs to peer pressure to denigrate others for acting “like a girl”.

    Guess I should be like all those other fun parents, eh? I’m condemning him to a lifetime of therapy and resentment with my evil feminist ways.

  9. […] The Dawn Chorus, Mel Campbell asks “How Can Feminist Mums Avoid Being Humourless Childhood-Ruiners?” (Without, it seems, a hint of satire): Are you going to be the kind of humourless, daggy mum […]

  10. The Green Bean said

    Yes, I think assuming that feminist parenting is synonymous with authoritarian, dictatorial parenting is dangerous. And, well, wrong. I know plenty of feminist parents who are able to navigate the contemporary pop cultural landscape with finesse, and without resorting to the strategies this article seems to suggest is the province of feminist parenting.

    My mother raised my brother and I in a manner quite close to the cliche model of feminist parenting Mel invokes here; i.e. one founded on a seemingly desperate need to protect us from outside influences at all costs. And it was limiting and stifling at times, but I can definitely understand the impulse to shelter your child from the overwhelming hideousness of the world outside the home (though I wonder if doing so simply invokes the kind of repression feminism is opposed to). We consider our child our equal, deserving of respect, and so that’s how my husband and I hope to raise her; as our equal, capable of making her own decisions, and capable of understanding why certain aspects of popular culture can be problematic. As others have pointed out, I don’t believe you need to be a ‘humourless childhood-ruiner’ to be a feminist parent, and I’m actually surprised by the suggestion that this is the current state of feminist parenting is.

    So, to this –

    “Rather than assuming our kids will fall in line with our own ideologies, let’s try imagining a version of feminism that a kid might like. Imagine being ‘for’ things instead of constantly ‘against’ them; imagine being happy and proud rather than angry and complaining.”

    I suppose I have to say; the world is full of feminist parents, and what makes you so sure that none of them operate according to the alternative model you propose? That seems narrow to me. While I applaud your desire to discuss parenting in a feminist blog (this website needs more posts on the subject), this article seems to be based, in part, on a caricature of feminist parenting; and as a feminist parent, I don’t know how I feel about being preached at by another feminist about how I ‘should’ be doing things.

  11. shelby said

    Mel, I agree with Mariank. Also, you’ll probably find that as a mum, the moment you decide to agree with your teen that some aspect of pop culture (either harmful or harmless) is ‘hip’, that’s the exact moment that they’ll decide it’s not.

  12. Rebekka said

    As I always ask people when they accuse me of being “angry” as a feminist, since when is anger an inappropriate response to oppression?

  13. Linda Radfem said

    I’ve observed that it’s the more traditional, conventional gender role-upholding mums who are humourless – some of them are so preoccupied with getting kids to conform to all the mainstream heteronormative ideals that they’ve conformed to, that they forget their kids are people.

    My kids are 14 and 18 and they would laugh at the suggestion that because their mum is an unapologetic feminist/social activist, that they’ve been raised in a humourless environment. Humour is one of the foundation stones of our family unit – biting wit, sarcasm and just generally ripping the piss out of pop culture is all par for the course around here.

    I think progressive open-minded parents who encourage independent thought in their kids, enable a much more relaxed and free space in which to grow and develop, than rigid conformists and upholders of the social status quo.

    For the record, I am considered by their friends to be like THE coolest mum EVER.

  14. Natasha said

    The main point I took from this article was that there’s value in considering the context in which your kids will understand and live with the values you’re instilling in them. So that doesn’t mean that you sway to your children’s will, but it does mean that you don’t expect a 12 year old girl to be able to abandon appraisal of her appearance as a contributing factor to her self-esteem just because you read a lot at uni. And to be positive about your values, rather than aggressive or ‘anti’.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think that any of the comments thus far really disagree with that point.

  15. Natasha said

    P.S. Forgive me, but I take with a grain of salt any parents who claim to know that kids think they are cool. Kids can be sycophants, just like anyone, if they see a ready target.

  16. […] Angry? Humourless? Disapproving? Well you might just be a feminist mother. Poor Mel Campbell has stepped into a quagmire by wondering aloud if she can still be cool when she becomes a mother, and if there is any hope of coolness were she […]

  17. Yeah that part was a bit tongue in cheek, Natasha. I thought it was funny.

  18. dogpossum said

    Mel, you didn’t just buy all that bullshit about feminists being angry, unattractive women in ugly shoes, did you?

  19. sera said

    feminism – gives me confidence in my own integrity, so I don’t have to rely on my teens to validate me as ‘hip’ or ‘cool’….

  20. jenny said

    MAHaha this reminded me of this classic daggy song:

    Daughters of feminists love to wear pink and white
    Short frilly dresses they speak of successes with boys,
    It annoys their mom.
    Daughters of feminists won’t put on jeans
    Or that precious construction boot Mama found cute,
    Ugly shoes they refuse. How come?
    Daughters of feminists think they’ll get married
    To some wealthy guy who’ll support them forever
    Daughters of feminists don’t bother voting at all.
    Daughters of feminists beg to wear lipstick
    Each day from the age of three.
    Daughters of feminists think that a princess is
    What they are destined to be.
    How do they get so girlie?
    How come they want a Barbie?
    Why does it start so early?
    Why, when we bring her up just like a fella,
    Who does she idolize? Cinderella!

    Anyway, folksy moment over, this really surprised me: “No wonder people say feminists are unattractive; nobody likes hanging out with angry people.” I suppose I don’t know who you have been hanging out with. Maybe they happen to be angry, unattractive people who also happen to be feminists. But it’s a bit bizarre to see the “unattractive angry feminist” stereotype being perpetuated on this blog.

  21. Natasha said

    Jenny, I am concerned at the suggestion that the assertion about many feminists being angry has no place on this blog.

    Mel’s assertion in her article contravenes notions of sisterhood, where all feminists mush be united, but not feminism, which espouses equality across the genders, and there should be a distinction between these two ideas. This is a feminist blog, not a sisterhood blog. I think discussions about how feminists present, and what are constructive feminist approaches, such as has gone on above, are extremely valid and valuable. Disagree with the statement if you like, but don’t censor it.

    I hardly feel united with most of the sentiments expressed in this thread. And nor do I have to. And I think that’s really important.

    • jenny said

      I wasn’t suggesting censoring anything. I genuinely think it’s strange and vaguely disturbing to see the “angry feminist” stereotype trotted out in a feminist blog; that’s not at all my experience of feminists, I find it unhelpful and damaging, and it’s a little worrying that it’s being voiced by both feminists and anti-feminists. That doesn’t mean I am denying the heterogeneity of feminisms.

  22. Very late to the party, I apologise, but I couldn’t resist commenting as I’m so engaged with these ideas.

    Now I’m pregnant myself, and facing the hard realities and choices of what kind of parent I want to be, I have to agree with much of what Mel has written. I feel like the decisions I’m already making for this person are really little more than a list of NOs. No Bratz, no Barbies, no blue/pink, no engendered toy assumptions… on and on it goes.

    Particularly when I consider having a daughter, I wonder how I can stop this list of things I won’t do (or allow to be done to her) and still approach her upbringing with a sense of positivity. And surely the inherent value in feminism is in allowing choice. How are we doing this if we begin with a big list of blackbanned activities and ideas? Yes, parenting is about guiding, and certainly about making healthy choices for our children before they can do it for themselves, but I find the ideas of empowerment much more engaging.

    I don’t want my child to develop an obsession for those (as I perceive them) negative role models or influences by making them forbidden. I want to be saying yes and showing the positive elements of feminism and a wide world of choices for women. It may be a stereotype to see some feminist mothers as negative and angry but I do worry about transforming into exactly that. Because I know women like this, and I don’t see their children being engaged with the awesome ideals that make these women so passionate. It turns them off. Perhaps age will change their view, but it’s not achieving what I assume their parents are aiming for at this point.

    My blog is rather tongue in cheek-ly named ‘Maintaining the rage makes me tired’, because sometimes I feel that the anger, the passion, required to stay engaged and focused in a world which so often fails our optimistic expectations is so damn hard! It is tiring, and often it feels easier to give up, to want to laugh, to disengage for your own sanity. And I already feel like the choices relating to raising this child, boy or girl, are wearing on me as being tough. I won’t give up, but I do feel like some of them strip joy, and I’m not sure how to shield my child from this while staying on track. I need to stay firm, protect them from the mainstream brainwash, show them the positivity in feminism and try to avoid saying NO to everything that seems so appealing to them and their friends.

    The women I admire are those who tread this line, and come out on the positive side. Your parenting as you have described it Lauredhel, seems positive and embracing rather than negative and without humor. One of my closest friends is staunchly feminist and remains one of the most upbeat, engaged parents I know. Those are the feminists I most look to when trying to see how we can parent and instill values in our children.

  23. lauredhel said

    Madeinmelbourne: I don’t see myself as the slightest bit unusual. I know a large number of feminist parents, male and female, every one of them different and every one of them awesome in my eyes – thoughtful, engaged, and treating their children like humans.

    It’s sad that you’ve managed to meet so many parents you see as negative and angry. Do you have reason to believe that this stems from feminism somehow? The only parents I have met who I’d categorise in that way also appear to be staunchly set in kyriarchal ways; and I meet a lot more men I’d put into this basket than I do women. I know we move in different circles geographically, but I find this particular difference very striking.

  24. Bee said

    Okay old discussion, and I haven’t read all the comments… but I wanted to say that I think the point is not to close kids off from pop culture but to teach them to engage with it actively… There’s no use sheltering children from sexism- rather they SHOULD be shown how to recognise it and reject it for themselves.

    But Mel I don’t get what’s wrong with anger? If we teach our daughters (and sons) to shut their eyes to offensive representations of women and to squash down their anger when some asshole makes a sexist and disgusting comment it’s all a little bit too close to saying “good girls don’t complain” so be a good girl and don’t make waves. As long as we deal with sexism we need to find the strength to get angry about it. Even if it makes us sound like perpetual naysayers. Even if it gets exhausting. I just don’t see what’s so uncool about being discerning about our pop cultural diet? Isn’t discernment pretty much what cool IS? Since when does being cool involve eating up anything they throw at us?

  25. […] And I stopped blogging at The Dawn Chorus for nearly a year after feeling as though the entire feminist blogosphere had turned on me because of this (admittedly, mischievously titled) blog post. […]

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