Teenage nephew making anti-women comments
July 8, 2014 7:03 AM   Subscribe

My 15 year old nephew has been saying some negative comments about women that make me a little concerned. How should I respond to him? Do I mention it to his parents?

Nephew is a bright, kind, and relatively outgoing incoming Sophomore in High School. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s as a toddler, but is pretty well adjusted - on a sport’s team, takes AP classes, and has an interest in partaking in social activities. I’m a pretty involved aunt and see him maybe 1-2x a month, and have a good relationship with him (and his parents).

Lately, he’s made a few comments that leave me disappointed and concerned. First it was some seemingly benign comments about wishing the trend of girl-power movies would end (movies with stronger female protagonists like Frozen, Hunger Games, Divergent, etc) - that he wishes there would be more movies that focus on strong boys/men.

But recently he’s made comments that he "hates feminism", and wishes that we’d return to a more masculinist society/culture. This left me a bit speechless and concerned. I tried to explain to him that feminism isn’t some “girls rule all” philosophy, but that feminism really means a call for a more egalitarian society that benefits everyone - both women and men alike. But he wasn’t having any of it, and that he “totally disagrees.”

I have a pretty good relationship with my nephew (I’m in my 30s, not married and don't have kids, if it matters), and am glad that he feels open to discuss these thoughts to me. But I don’t know if this is some normal teenage angst (and maybe rejection related) or may devolve into some scary MRA rage. I want to gather ideas about how to discuss these things with him that are age-appropriate, and appropriate for my own relationship with him as an aunt.

These are not ideas that he’s getting from home - I know with 100% certainty that they’re not ideas from his parents or other relatives - they are all rather socially progressive/leftie. He lives in a county and goes to a school that is mostly conservative, and I know he’s picked up some more conservative ideas overall (i.e., hating Obama, etc) from his peers. I can snakily joke with him about that and say stuff like “it’s ok nephew, when I was your age I was a Republican too - then I grew up!” He laughs, and then I challenge him to a game of Jenga. We can discuss things, but it’s back to lighthearted fun.

I don’t want to put him on the spot, but I need to figure out ways to respond to the misogynistic stuff. Anti-Obama comments don’t bother me a bit, but I feel a responsibility to hash out the anti-feminism, pro-masculinism comments to help steer my nephew from going down some frightening MRA path.

These comments were made without his parents present, so I don't know if he's made similar comments to them. I seem to have his trust and don't want to lose that, but would appreciate some insight about how to steer these discussions.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (32 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
a) He's 15 and most kids go through various stages of 'I represent XYZ now' as a means of finding their identity.

b) Unless he's spent a lot of time studying the issues, chances are he's just reacting to emotional caricatures of both sides (guy movies like T2 Schwartzenegger vs. Dworkin-like feminism)

c) What's wrong with being pro-masculine? ;)
posted by unixrat at 7:14 AM on July 8, 2014 [8 favorites]

First, don't tell his parents unless you know he's gone further than having backwards ideas with regards to women. If you see him mistreating women, sure, speak up and alert his mom and dad.

But honestly for expressing his opinion, what will they do? Punish him? That's not something that can change by grounding him. That's just a surefire way to make him dig his heels in. No, let him speak his mind. Be a safe space where he can say what's on his mind. But also challenge his bullshit.

He's a teenager. People change big time from 15 to 18 to 20 and so on. When I was his age in the 90s, I was a Conservative Republican who enjoyed Rush Limbaugh. Now I'm an avowed Liberal who supports Planned Parenthood.

Engage in conversations with him when you can. Listen to him. Let him talk it out. We're not born knowing what the right things to think and do are all the time. He's gotta work it out. Maybe he will, maybe he won't.
posted by inturnaround at 7:21 AM on July 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

Can you do this from a personal standpoint, to clue him in on how his comments affect people he cares about?

For example, next time he says something anti-women, it might work to respond along the lines of, "Wo there dude, the thing you just said has just made me feel sad, because [briefly explained reason]. It's cool that you have your opinions but you don't have to always share them if they're gonna upset people." I think this works best if you then quickly move on or change the subject, because it can be stored away for him to think about later, and it avoids the instant-reaction defensiveness that it can easily provoke.

I used this tack on a younger relative who used the word "gay" as a pejorative. I know he might still do it, but he's learned not to do it around me because I explained it was offensive and upsetting to me, and hopefully it's made him think about how it sounds when he does it.
posted by greenish at 7:22 AM on July 8, 2014 [11 favorites]

Thinking more on this, it might be more constructive to explore his ideas with him rather than oppose them. Let him work through whatever he's feeling rather than knocking it down. If you want him to become a rational, mature adult it's probably best to teach him to evaluate both sides of an issue and make up his mind versus handing down "This is wrong" proclamations from on high.

Is this a cry for a stronger male role model in his life? Perhaps he's wanting to explore more masculine/adrenaline-charged activities. What are his hobbies? Is he interested in something new? Does he hunt? Lift weights?

So give him some 'masculine' movies - show him what he wants to see. The more you repress something he's interested in the more attractive it'll become. I'm sure there are lists upon lists of 'guy movies' out there. Dig in!

At 15 he's just starting to mix with girls too. Is he frustrated in this area? Has he gone on dates? Perhaps he's being rebuffed by a crush or girls in general. Is he gawky? Awkward? Constant rejection often leads to anger and frustration.
posted by unixrat at 7:23 AM on July 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, jeez. I'm really torn - on one hand, my knee-jerk reaction is, "Aaagh, nascent MRA beliefs! Kill them with fire!" On the other hand?... when I was his age, my own core beliefs were derived mostly from the Loompanics catalog... they were an idiotic, ill-informed mishmash of libertarianism, social Darwinism, anarchism, Objectivism, etc. And I am TOTALLY sure that no one could've forcibly convinced me to believe otherwise.

The one thing I DO credit with helping me become less of a raging asshole as a grown-up? The calm, quiet, collected display of other, more-reasonable/nuanced/empathetic beliefs by others. That is to say, I saw friends and family LIVING (and/or reasonably espousing) beliefs contrary to mine, and this helped my views evolve way more effectively than any active campaign of reeducation on their parts would've.

If you do wind up discussing it with him, though - which may be totally viable! Perhaps he is more reasonable than I was at that age! - one sneaky trick I've discovered via parenting is that expressing "disappointment/dejected giving-up" is a way more effective way to engage with a kid than actively opposing their beliefs... if you lock horns immediately, it's a fight. But if you tell them, "Damn, son, I've gotta say that I'm disappointed to hear that... not sure it's worth discussing," they'll come to YOU for a conversation. Manipulative as hell, I know... but so is yapping about being anti-feminist. ;-)
posted by julthumbscrew at 7:27 AM on July 8, 2014 [15 favorites]

I think I'd be inclined to respond in two ways. The first would be to encourage him to talk more to you about it - without arguing against him, without trying to explain feminism in any way - and see what happens. On one hand, it'll give you a stronger idea about where he's getting this from and how vehement he is about it - which will also give you some tools to refute it later. MUCH later. It's hard for people to hear challenges to their beliefs if they're feeling defensive - so let him talk and talk and talk. Don't agree with anything you don't already agree with, but say things like, "Oh, that's an interesting point. Tell me more about that!" or "You read that online.. what else did the website say?" Be gentle and help him to not feel defensive when he's discussing his feelings and experiences.

The second thing, after listening for way longer than you'll want to, would be to break the concepts of feminism down into small chunks to which he CAN agree. Not, "All women deserve equality!" but make it personal - if you're female, make it about you, or his mom, or his sister, or his cousins, or his best friends. Make it about his hypothetical girlfriend, if he's straight. Without experience, it's easy to latch onto hazy concepts - but it's harder to maintain them if you have real-life experience with them.
posted by VioletU at 7:28 AM on July 8, 2014

How would you react if he were making racist comments - if he were wishing for a return to a "whiter" culture and complaining that there were too many people of colour in films?

I'd have a think about how you'd deal with that, and apply the same kind of reaction to this situation. A little disgust - expressed in the same way you'd express disgust with another adult whom you otherwise like and respect - is in order. Talking about how it makes you feel isn't going to go anywhere, because he's currently on a path that completely discounts feelings and empathy. The best way to deal with it is in terms of how little respect you have for his nonsense, and how little respect other intelligent, rational people will have for it, because respect (albeit a twisted, sad version of it) is all he's interested in.
posted by cilantro at 7:28 AM on July 8, 2014 [25 favorites]

I wouldn't use sarcasm or intellectual arguments, because that lets him continue believing that pro-feminist or anti-feminist is just a lighthearted disagreement about philosophies, and being able to approach it like that is privilege. I would keep the discussion grounded in what is real and personal and heartfelt.

Immediately after he makes those comments, I would say something like "ouch. I'm a woman, you know. You can't ask for women to disappear without asking for me to disappear with them." And then move on. Don't dwell.

Also, at other times, sort of out of the blue, you might consider opening up to him a bit more and telling him about your encounters with sexism that were hurtful and frustrating. Again, I wouldn't label it sexism because that will get him to try to find counterexamples and make it an argument. Make it more like a story of things you've had to deal with and how you overcame. For example, if someone ever called you a misogynist slur, especially when you were around the age he is now. Or if someone ever made an assumption about what career you should have, or that you should get married and have kids, and how that made you feel.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 7:31 AM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

"You know, maybe women don't have to be weak for men to be strong."

Then back to video games or whatever.
posted by amtho at 7:33 AM on July 8, 2014 [17 favorites]

Oh goodness. This one is tough.

My first thought what that he's suffering at school. Recent research has shown that boys hurt in schools with many female teachers, who try to enforce strong female culture (which in itself is not a bad thing!) Can you find that out?

Was he rejected by a girl? Girls? Is he hanging out with macho boys who use bad pick-up lines on girls and get laughed at? I would probably start there and explain to him that if he respects women, they will respect him more as well. Who doesn't want to date a feminist guy?
posted by LoonyLovegood at 7:37 AM on July 8, 2014

He's young and smart so he's probably his own worst enemy. A certain kind of person is good at arguing and coming up with some sort of reason why they're right because they want to Be Right more than they want to arrive at a correct answer through calm, consistent thought and reflection on issues. They forget that winning arguments isn't the be-all end-all.

I believe the best way to get a person to change their minds is to have them argue themselves out of them. You can leave some ammo lying around, but he's going to have to be the one to use it against his own ideas. So, make him explain himself. Ask pointed questions about his explanations. What does he even mean by "more masculine society"? How will society improve if it's more masculine? Who gets to decide what is "more masculine" anyway? Is it just something he thinks individuals should work on? Shouldn't individual's get to decide what kind of life they want to lead? There are a ton of questions you can ask him about his beliefs and hopefully if you ask the right questions he'll see the holes in his own fledgling beliefs.
posted by Green With You at 7:39 AM on July 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

Gift him an account here!
posted by ominous_paws at 8:29 AM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ask him why he thinks that? Listen to what he has to say, don't dismiss it don't argue. Just listen. when you know why he is saying what he is saying you will have more idea on how to approach giving him other information. Again don't make it an argument, nothing makes a teenager hold an opinion harder than arguing with them about it. Also often times people that age just repeat shit they hear without really having to think about it, having to explain it to someone so it makes sense might make him actually think about the shit he's saying. If his parents are left leaning, he's most likely just taking the opposite view to them because he's a teenager trying out ideas, like hippies were a protest against conservative parents but then pretty much all grew up and became "normal".

Honestly it sounds like he hangs out in certain parts the internet too much, Reddit, Imgur etc are full of this kind of shit at the moment.
posted by wwax at 8:36 AM on July 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

People tend to repeat things they hear from their peers.

Is there a guy in the family who can talk to him? I'd ask your brother / brother-in-law to talk to him a bit about this stuff.
posted by the young rope-rider at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

You have literally no control here; he's immature, but almost grown, and could react all kinds of ways to an attempt to make him think what you think. I'd suggest to just be yourself with him and not try to play out an Internet script.
posted by michaelh at 8:42 AM on July 8, 2014

Ask him to explain, and listen without comment. If you want to say something when he's done, you can always say, "Well, I'm a woman. It's useful to know that you feel that way."

And leave it. Maybe he'll stew over it today, maybe not for another couple of years, but with any luck he will eventually figure out that the positions he publicly claims to hold affect how others see him. I don't think you need to go to his parents specifically unless you think he's hurting someone or planning to, but I also don't think you need to keep it some sort of well-guarded secret that the kid's a proto-asshole either. I mean, he ought to be willing to stand up for what he believes in, right?
posted by Lyn Never at 8:47 AM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Agreed (and I hate myself for saying this) that an older male figure in the family may be the best person to confront this. (I am not saying AT ALL that women shouldn't fight sexism, I'm saying that if he's already in a place where he's basically dismissing women he's not going to Get It when a woman talks about these issues. Of course for some reason I'm assuming you're a woman and I don't quite know why.)

Second, ask him why he thinks these things and what he thinks feminism is. This image may help him understand what feminism isn't.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:49 AM on July 8, 2014

This is a really tough one. It's something I've encountered as a high school teacher too. I think it's really important to address these types of ideas, but that's nearly impossible to do well if you react emotionally rather than thoughtfully (I've learned this the hard way). It may help to think of these statements as purely experimental rather than as a real set of ideas. If he started wearing goth clothes you probably wouldn't assume that he was going to be wearing those same clothes to work 30 years later [not that there's anything wrong with that, just as an example of teen experimentation]...you may need to assume that this may also be a passing teenage thing. Primarily because that will help you address it in the most effective way possible.

I'd suggest addressing this in several different ways:

1. Asking him lots of questions.
The goal of this isn't to argue with him - it's to model asking the kind of questions you'd like him to begin to internalize and ask of things he reads and hears. The key to pulling this off is to not get defensive or reactive (this is really hard) but just to get him to fully consider the various parts of what he's saying. Don't take anything he says as set in stone - he's testing out ideas and those ideas may be incredibly in flux.
About the films: Hmmm...what made you think that originally? Are there movies that you think represent strong men well? [It's great if you an affirm part of his argument - "that's interesting, I hadn't thought about X movie that way but I think you're right, I think it does give boys a strong role model.] Do you think there are movies that have both strong men and strong women? So what kind of role models do you think women like me might want to see in movies?
About feminism: Well, how do you define feminism? What parts of that do you think are problematic? Where did you hear that definition? How do you think people on the other side argue for their stance?
If it gets to the point where he sputters, realizes he can't really defend his argument and just says something dismissive, let it go. He almost certainly won't acknowledge that his argument doesn't hold up, but you will have planted a seed. That's a fine time to say "well, I really disagree about women not needing equality. Hey, you want to grab the cards?"

2. Telling him anecdotes that relate to your own feminism.
I wouldn't frame it that way or bring it up in response to him saying one of these things. I would just make sure that he's aware of experiences you or other family members have had that are part of why you are feminist. Honestly, this is probably going to be the most important thing you do. Teenagers really grasp on to personal narratives (the vast majority of arguments my teens make in class are built on their own family members' personal stories). Tell him about times you've experienced sexism, about relationships you've had and gender roles within them, about experiences you've had at work that relate to your gender, about experiences your mom or grandmother had that are different than your own experiences.

3. Discussing gender-based political issues with him.
Again, don't do this in response to him saying something like you mentioned above. If you're watching the news and something about Hobby Lobby comes on, just share your perspective the way you would with a friend that you assume will be on your side. He probably won't have a fully-formed opinion yet, so most likely he'll just listen. Or he may even agree with you (you'll then be tempted to point out that this clashes with his previously-stated ideas, but don't).

4. Circle back to his ideas at a different time.
Sometime when you're hanging out and having a really good time - perhaps when it's been weeks or months since he mentioned that he hates feminism - bring it up again, calmly. "You know, I've been thinking about what you said about hating feminism, and it's actually been kind of bothering me. I think that's because I really believe in feminism because of x and y, and from your statement I felt like you didn't value women as equal people. Is that really what you meant, or was that just a reaction to something you heard or something that happened?" If you bring it up at the right time, when he's in a happy/amenable mood, you may get much further with the conversation than when he's in the argumentative state he was in when he first brought it up.

Good luck! I wish more family members paid close attention to these kind of statements and addressed them.
posted by leitmotif at 8:56 AM on July 8, 2014 [15 favorites]

challenge his bullshit

Yep. Being challenged, one way or another, is how people change. Quiet & reasonable is fine, but sarcasm has a place too. A 15-year-old who says he 'hates feminism' is old enough to be challenged, just as if he were to say he "hates racial equality." If my nephew, whom I love, said either of those things, his (older & wiser) uncle would engage him in debate.

"So you think women should ..
-- be paid less than men? Really? Why? Why should I be paid less than you for the same job?
-- have to use inferior sports equipment?
-- not be able to vote?
-- not be able to serve on a jury?
-- be barred from medical school?
-- be barred from the legal profession?

The movie thing really opens him up. "Really? You want studios to stop making girl-power movies? Why don't you just stop going to them? Oh, wait -- you don't go -- you just wish there were more masculine movies out there. Wake up, kid: There are bazillions of them. Here's a link to the Netflix catalog.

I don't disagree with the suggestions to be kind, find up what's up in his life. But that's not counterposed to challenging sexist statements.
posted by LonnieK at 9:55 AM on July 8, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'm thinking that making his opinions relatable to you might be a way of opening his mind a bit.

"Wow, that's an interesting thing to say. As a woman, it makes me feel sad that you don't think that I deserve equal protection under the law. I'm curious, why do you believe that?"

Engage in a civil dialogue. If he seems to be running slogans at you, encourage him to deconstruct them, "So you hate feminists? I'm a feminist, do you hate me? What about feminism do you hate?"

Most 15 years old boys are idiots and mysogynists because 15 years olds brains haven't really fully developed. I mean they can watch Transformers over and over and over again.

Most kids at 15 will embrace very black/white ideas, ideas that favor them in some way, because they're entering a very scary time for them. Once they're adults, they'll have to fend for themselves, so they're threatened by ideas that they perceive as maligning them. "I'm a male, therefore things that are positive for females threaten me."

Girls do it too, so it's not just a dude thing.

I taught debate and I found that having a socratic conversation with students about their beliefs really helped them to understand different sides to an argument and the shades of gray that permeate ideas.

Critical Thinking, it's not just for breakfast anymore.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:27 AM on July 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Might not hurt to note that the kid in CA who murdered 6 people he'd never met (because he was a little late getting laid, he said) hated feminism too. What did nephew think about that? Sure, he's not a killer. But did he agree with E. Rodgers' points?
Horrific as they views were, they were worth reading. Sometimes the extreme instance of a phenomenon limns the thing itself more clearly than academic debate.
posted by LonnieK at 10:41 AM on July 8, 2014

If it comes up again, invoking history might be helpful - like: "here's why it's a big deal for all these girl power movies to be coming out right now." or maybe: "imagine that the gender imbalance were reversed, and men were constantly [treated lousy, made less money, held up as sex objects with no agency, etc] - wouldn't you want to make things equal then?"
posted by ghostbikes at 11:16 AM on July 8, 2014

Not sure if you're on Reddit, but this kind of attitude is prevalent on the subreddit "The Red Pill" (not linking there, because it's a gross place full of gross, sad people). A few weeks ago, a person posted on /r/everymanshouldknow (later linked on /r/bestof) a great post about why the whole Red Pill/PUA mentality is a losing game. It's worth a read.
posted by melissasaurus at 11:27 AM on July 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, one other thing - there's some reason, event, or emotional experience (or multiple ones) that's making this point of view attractive to your nephew. One of my mottoes is "ask questions first"; it sounds like you're already doing that, but it might help you frame your response if you really understood what's driving him, and driving the people he's hearing this from. Not in terms of a paper pundit trail, but rather, if they're frustrated, why? If they feel the world is somehow not fair, why?

Whatever these guys fundamentally want (pride, security, family, dependable meals), they probably can achieve it better without going backward in time; you can help him make the connections to realize that.
posted by amtho at 3:00 PM on July 8, 2014

You might want to explain to him the drawbacks of being a young and powerless person of either gender in such a society. Inability to choose your spouse, limited opportunities for sex for both genders, excess young men being exiled or expendable as soldiers, drug mules or the like, impacts on children of both sexes when a patriarchal society deprives women of the means to earn cash etc etc. There are only a million books and movies focused on displaced young men in such societies. Then ask him how he thinks he'd really fare in such a society? Probably he'd not be the king of all he surveys that he is fantasizing about.

I agree with whoever equated his views with racist views. If he we're one of my nephews I'd give him a firm dose of reality, let him know he was losing my personal respect and friendship and I'd tell his mom. Those views are unacceptable these days, if they ever were, and will cause him nothing but grief.

He obviously feels powerless and resentful in some way. which is worth exploring but the women in his life don't need to pander to this.
posted by fshgrl at 3:56 PM on July 8, 2014

The women's suffrage movement said it best. I'd say treating your fellow humans with respect qualifies as good citizenship. You should send him some pro- and anti-suffrage art (lots available at that site). A history lesson, nothing more. Few people, especially young ones, enjoy being on the wrong side of history.
posted by theraflu at 7:47 PM on July 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about posing Rawls' "original position" thought experiment to him?
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:14 PM on July 8, 2014

Make it personal, and make sure he knows what he's saying is embarrassing: "Really? Well I'm a feminist, and so are all my friends. You may want to be careful saying stuff like that in public, it's pretty offensive to people who fight against the suppression of women's rights. Now let's play Jenga."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:49 AM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Mod note: Several comments deleted. Ask Metafilter is not the place to argue and debate with other commenters. Just address your own helpful advice to the OP and let them sort out what works for them.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:59 AM on July 9, 2014

Please challenge his bullshit. Fifteen isn't too young to be responsible for the words that come out of your mouth. Not enough strong men in movies. In his lifetime there have been two Superman movies, three Batman movies, five Spider-man movies, three Iron Man movies, two Thor movies, two Captain America movies, two Hulk movies, two Wolverine movies (plus five other X-Men movies which focus mainly on male characters) a Green Lantern movie, a Green Hornet movie, three Star Wars movies, four Transformer movies and seven Fast and Furious movies. Oh and eight Harry Potter movies, three Lord of the Rings, two Hobbits and two Star Trek movies. Plus most movies are about men. Most TV shows are about men. White men are over represented in the media. So call him out. Make him use words to explain how the facts are wrong and he is right. And then do it again if he complains about equal pay or men's rights or violence against women. He has a mother and he has you as his aunt and he owes you an explanation as to why you aren't worthy of equality.
posted by GilvearSt at 5:11 AM on July 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

One thing I think isn't done enough is making it clear that empowering group B is actually advantageous to group A.
posted by amtho at 8:54 AM on July 9, 2014

Talking to this with my husband last night. He suggested that if he wants more movies with strong male leads he needs to actually go and see them. Movies with strong women in tend to cost less to make, as most of them are not Micheal Bay CGIfests, so also make more money for the studios. Add to that that in his, my husbands, inexpert opinion, teenage girls are more likely to go and see the films, and see them multiple times and to buy the merchandising or books.

Look at the opening Box Office for "The Fate in Our Stars" next to the latest Tom Cruise running movie. One cost $170 millions to make, one cost $12 million, so even if they both take $200 million the first week, one makes the studio more profit, so what are they going to make more of. Also the demographic of one will buy the books & soundtracks & one lot will go hmmpf at the end of the film and never think of it again until the next movie with Tom Cruise running in it. If he wants more films with strong male leads maybe he should actually pay to go and see them instead of downloading them off the internet. Movie studios aren't part of a conspiracy they just want to make money.

So anyway I know that is only about one point of what you said, and I've already commented but I hadn't thought of it that way so it might be something to bring up with him.
posted by wwax at 7:55 AM on July 10, 2014

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