I watched “Guys and Dolls” a few months ago with my toddler son. Yeah, I know, it was probably a bad idea from the start, but he’d been listening to the songs and inadvertently memorizing some of the words and my husband and I figured that we’d just show him a handful of musical numbers – JUST THOSE. Good times, no sweat.
It was all so charming at first, our son raptly watching Frank Sinatra rally an entire barbershop into song. Then, Marlon Brando is begging Jean Simmons to go to Cuba. Then, they’re singing about love. Then, all of a sudden, he’s forcing his mouth onto her mouth as she raises her hands up, pushing him away in protest. And there was my son, eyes glued to the screen.
I pawed at the couch cushions for the remote, shouting, “OK, OK!” and frantically turning off the movie as my son yelled, “No, no, no!” It was like we were reading from a script for a PSA about consent.
Look, perhaps we should never have let a two-year old watch “Guys and Dolls.” But whether he watched it at two, at five, or at ten, the scene in front of him would’ve played out the same. The movies don’t change. It’s us – the parents – who change the way we watch them.
After he’d calmed down, we spoke for the first time about consent, about how you have to ask first if someone wants a kiss or a hug and if that person answers, “No.” then there is to be no kissing and hugging. He seemed to understand.
“Mommy, can I give you a hug?”
“Yes!” I said.
Then, when he asked again, I said, “Not right now,” to which my son responded with a mix of disappointment and fury. “I’m sorry but I said no.”
But what was I saying? I would always hug him, I’m his mother. THIS WAS JUST AN EXERCISE! It was messy and unpleasant and, I hope, probably exactly how a first conversation about consent ought to go.
We haven’t watched “Guys and Dolls” since.
A few months have passed and our 3-year-old spends many an evening working backward through The Beatles catalog. One night, my husband played “I Saw Her Standing There” on his phone. Ah, early Beatles, I think, so lovely and uncomplicated.
I hear Paul’s sweet voice sing, “She was just seventeen and you know what I mean.”
I suddenly realize that this song is about an underage girl. I doubt myself a second, it can’t be. But, no, Paul was certainly over eighteen when he sang it and he sings it in the first person and he uses the word “just.”
Oh no. Even if it is a great song, I can’t change the words or what they mean and I can’t change the fact that I’ll never not hear them this way. I don’t know what to do, how to, or whether to explain to a young child why this song – um – actually overtly references statutory rape.
Stunned, I stop singing along. I put on “I Am the Walrus” and, thankfully, I can’t make enough sense of what John’s saying to worry about what it means.
Sometimes rape culture announces itself loudly and sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it blends softly into a background we never noticed until, suddenly, there it is, like that porn shop billboard you grew up passing by in the car whenever your parents took the highway downstate. Except, instead of being a teenager outraged only by the objectification of other members of my gender, I’m now also outraged by the danger that I might inadvertently raise one such objectifier.
You could say these are small things and you’d be right, they are small. But it’s all these small things that make up a person’s world, especially for children, for whom our small things are simply regular sized.
As upsetting as it is to me to see a man sexually assaulting a woman or listening to a man talk about wanting to dance with girl who isn’t yet eighteen, it might be more upsetting to imagine my son absorbing both without anybody there to say: UM YEAH, GREAT FILM, GREAT SONG, BUT THIS IS NOT HOW WE DO THINGS NOW, OK?
It took me imagining him memorizing the lyrics to “I Saw Her Standing There” to actually hear those lyrics. What else have I missed? What else will I, inevitably, miss?
I can only look ahead, staring boldly into the sad eyes of the lady on the porn billboard, or at some 1950’s movie star on my television screen, or at a man whose name and face will remain everywhere for the next four years – a man who provides us evidence of a not-so-subtle rape culture.
In light of all of this, I know I must worry less about what my son is seeing and, instead, worry about how he is seeing it. I have to notice what registers as upsetting and what just slides by. I want to raise a human who is shocked by cruelty and who will say so – out loud.
So. I am trying to tell him when I observe it. I’m trying to show him, in these moments, my dismay and outrage – as his mother, as a woman, as a human. We’re immersed in a culture that’s comfortable putting women in their place – wherever that place may be – and I can’t keep my son from seeing that.
Instead, we’ll plod on together, shining our flashlights on what spooks us, and saying, “No!” when it needs to be said.