What do you say when your 10-year-old son asks you why it is okay to call boys “stupid”?
In the aftermath of Israel’s win at Eurovision, I found myself discussing the winning song with my four boys. They range in age from 8 to 14 and were very bothered by the popular refrain, “I’m not your toy/ You stupid boy,” sung by Netta Barzilai.
“I thought ‘stupid’ is a word we don’t use about other people.”
As young, sheltered and innocent boys, they were clearly lacking the necessary context to enable them to understand the message that Netta is trying to convey. Instead, they thought it was a “not-nice” song that mocks men, calls them “stupid boys,” and bullies them without any cause. I couldn’t help but note the irony.
Even after I explained to my boys the background of the song and the goal of female empowerment in a climate where women are often taken advantage of, they still struggled to wrap their heads around it.
“But why does the song have to be so mean to all boys in return?”
They are certainly not familiar with #MeToo, and I attempted to fill in the gaps and describe the perspective that the song was written from. My boys weren’t satisfied. And the truth is that I wasn’t either. Even with current realities being what they are, why does that justify the song’s rough, sweeping response to them?
Over the last few days, I have been thinking a lot about our culture and the subtle, underlying messages that we send our children.
Much pride and good feeling were engendered from seeing Israeli flags waving at the Eurovision. But did that distract us from thinking about the impression this song makes on the ears of young, smart boys? More, have we deferred to this pop song as a substitute for careful and measured conversations about what to expect, and to demand, from relationships?
As my children reminded me, I am often encouraging them, as well as my students, to aspire for high standards, whether in language, communication, or relationships. And while “Toy” is fun, catchy, and relevant, in this case they pushed me to admit that the bar it sets is too low for my tastes on all those counts.
We can aim higher.
Which is why I was similarly troubled by reading 45 Stories of Sex and Consent on Campus in the New York Times. Story after story in this feature detail how murky and complicated consent can be when often there is no preexisting relationship. They recount the resulting coercion, awkwardness, fear, vulnerability, pressure, and abuse and the lasting consequences of pain, sadness, regret, and resentment.
Yet again, I found myself asking: Can modern societies not educate towards something better?
Consent, protection and empowerment are all crucially important. People are not toys. No one should ever be taken advantage of. But since when did we settle on these as our central goals? Has our public conversation become too shallow? Our standards too low?
If there is consent and clear stipulations, then everything is alright? If you are not treated as a play item, then you’re in good shape? Are we forgetting what to aspire for, beyond basic decency and civility?
Can we not be smarter?
This week we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. We will commemorate the covenant that we forged with God. We will consummate a courtship that began on Passover with excitement and wonder and miracles but that needed to be built and developed over a steady period of 50 days of hard work and of ups and downs. Deepening trust and respect were critical before real commitment could be made; only then could there be true intimacy.
I think it is smart to reflect upon consequences. It is smart to acknowledge what brings joy. It is smart to realize that physical pleasure and deep fulfillment don’t always line up. It is smart to not merely be respected, but to share sacred trust with someone. It is smart to understand that with hard work and investment come great returns.
And it is smart to recognize that consent and commitment are not the same. That covenant, shared values and joint vision are often the pillars that provide meaning, happiness and truly satisfying intimacy for both parties.
Our kids, I was reminded, are smarter than we think. They hear all the messages that are being sent, including those that empower women while bringing down men and those that seem to have forgotten that there is more to yearn for in relationships than mutual consent.
Our children may know that they should not be treated as toys. But are we teaching them how to grow up, take responsibility, talk and act respectfully and aspire to live meaningful and happy adult lives in the context of healthy and fulfilling relationships?
Can we be smarter?