By Marina Spears
Recently I woke up in the middle of night, unable to sleep. I turned on the television and began to scroll through a very long “My List” on Netflix–that I never seem to have the time to watch. Since it was 3 a.m. and sleep was nowhere in sight, I decided to watch Beauty and the Beast, one of my favorite films.
What an eye opener! I have always loved Belle’s character. She demonstrated strength, kindness, unselfishness, the ability to look beyond physical appearance, and most importantly the ability to see past the Beast’s faults and bring out his strengths. But this time it just felt wrong. It wasn’t Belle’s responsibility to change the Beast, and certainly she should not be treated poorly in her attempt to “help him learn to love another.”
I began to think about this plotline: the girl who holds a magic key to change a rough, but good-natured guy and help him become the prince, she knows is really inside of him. This message of “if a girl loves a guy enough, he will change” is the foundation for many abusive relationships and shifts responsibility from the guy to the girl.
It does not stop there…
Many portrayals of boys/men in media allow them a free pass when it comes to their behavior. Think about how many times male characters ogle female characters in movies, or even worse peep on young women in locker rooms or showers. The audience laughs with a “boys will be boys” attitude. And what about the male character who doesn’t take “no” for answer, and the audience views it as romantic?
Is it any wonder that girls often keep quiet when a boy makes a rude joke or touches her inappropriately? The messages they are bombarded with encourage their silence, make light of boys sexualized and/or aggressive behavior, and even worse push the responsibility onto the girl.
In a recent study reported by Huffington Post, more than 30% of teens report being sexually harassed online, yet very few ever report it. In the same study, 81% of women report some form of sexual harassment, and most of it goes unreported. Girls under the age of 19 are at greatest risk, and account for 51% of reported sexual assaults (Scheff, 2017).
As parents we must do all we can to change these statistics and change the societal attitudes that often lead people into abusive relationships. These changes start in our homes, with our attitudes, our example, and our open, honest communication.
Communicating with our children directly about these issues is vital. Plan a family night specifically to talk about gender roles in the media and abusive relationships. This will give you the opportunity to prepare and involve them in the planning. Conversations can also be very powerful right in the moment, after watching a movie with confusing depictions of relationships.
With Young Children:
Teach body safety. Use correct names for body parts and let them know that certain parts of their bodies are private.
Teach them to trust their gut. Talk about trusting feelings, and the importance for children to follow their instincts if they feel uncomfortable around someone, they should let you know. We can unknowingly teach children to override their own safety sensors in trying to teach kindness and respect.
Teach them about healthy boundaries. Give them permission to say ”no”, when someone acts in a way that makes them uncomfortable.
Teach them with positive examples. Label examples of kindness, respect, thoughtfulness when it is demonstrated in media and in real life, teaching them how to treat others and expectations of how they should be treated.
Teach them where to go for help. Be a safe space for your children to come, even when they make mistakes, often children avoid talking to their parents because they fear they will get in trouble.
Teach them about healthy sexuality. Watch this video about Talking to Young Kids about Sexual Intimacy.
With Older kids:
Teach media literacy. Teach them to be discerning regarding media–especially social media— and discuss unhealthy depictions of relationships, take time to talk about something you have seen or heard together that reinforces damaging relationships.
Teach them about healthy relationships. Talk about qualities that make a relationship healthy: mutual respect, honesty, support, trust, good communication.
Teach them about unhealthy relationships. Talk about qualities that can make a relationship unhealthy: physical abuse, controlling behavior, obsessiveness, intense jealousy, lying.
Teach them about open communication. If you have experienced some form of sexual harassment share it, let them know it is okay to talk about it!
Teach them to be a good friend. Support them to support their friends and to stand up to inappropriate behavior.
Teach them about healthy boundaries. Teach them that boundaries are the rules of how we treat others and how we want to be treated, it includes physical, mental and emotional boundaries. Discuss ways to handle unwanted sexual attention/harassment. Help them to distinguish between being assertive and being mean, and let them know that they are not the same.
Teach them about healthy sexuality. Watch this video about How to Talk to Older Kids about Sexual Intimacy.
Our children are besieged by many confusing messages, in movies, songs, television, social media etc etc. Often when the good is mixed with the bad, like Beauty and the Beast, it can be very hard for children and even teens to sort it all out. Remember, you as their parent are a source of clarity, so talk to them and listen to them. One discussion is not enough. Talk to your kids about these issues consistently, and make it an ongoing conversation.