Ages 13-17 (Teen)EducationFeminism

Default Sexism

Like many of you, perhaps, I was raised in a patriarchy*.

What this means, it means

  • Women were barred from many jobs
  • Jobs women did have were often menial, relatively low-paying, or service jobs – waitressing or house-cleaning, nursing, childcare, or – for middle and upperclass women, selling real estate;
  • Women were teachers, but men were principals.  And vice-principals.  And coaches.  And policemen.  And firemen.  And the President.  And anything that had any sliver of power attached to it at all.
  • Men gave the orders, women did as they were told (“We’ll ask Daddy.” “Let’s see what your father says.”)
  • Most of the books I read had male protagonists (girls were off to the side, being helpful);
  • Most of the television I saw was about men and their adventures (Star Trek – Lt. Uhura was there, off to the side, answering the phone; Time Tunnel; Lost in Space – wasn’t there a mother, having the vapors?; Andy Griffith, in which Aunt Bee did the cooking and the laundry);uhura
  • Most of the movies I saw had women serving as plot points or victims


At fifteen, I first came feminism (very slowly I might add, and reluctantly, and via great struggle – like many of us, I resisted viciously any suggestion that the system I was living in might be unjust); by twenty-six I was a confirmed feminist; by the time my daughter was born, I had been a feminist so long it was in my bones.

Or so I thought.

But one day I was writing a scene in my latest novel, and, since it had to do with a character who does animation, I called my daughter in to read it, so she could check my details.  She read it, she gave me some advice about a few things, and she sat thinking a bit.

“What?” I said.

“Well,” she said.


“Well.  Why is this character a guy?”

I looked at my laptop screen.  I looked at her.

“Almost all of your default characters are guys,” she said reasonably.  “What’s up with that?”


“I’m just saying,” she said.

“You’re right,” I said.

And she was right.  When a character appears in my head, or on my page, my default setting is white male heterosexual.  That was I was programmed by my culture to believe is real person, and that is what shows up.

I have (somewhat successfully) managed to deprogram the white and het parts of this programming, but apparently the male part is still merrily functioning away.

(Recently Alex Dally McFarlane wrote a great post somewhat on this topic, “Post-Binary Gender in SF,” over on; I’m linking it here mostly because it also talks about shifting your defaults, and because I love it.)

My point – and I do have one! – what does this have to do with parenting?

You reap what you sow, peeps.

I raised my kid to be a relentless, truth-seeking, truth-speaking  feminist who will call me out when I am getting it wrong.  She calls me out when I get it wrong.

It’s brilliant.


*Conditions not subject to (much) change in most parts America / The World

(Images: Girl Has Limitations: Marianarulappa, Wikicommons; Lt. Uhura;



Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings is a member and co-founder of the Boston Mountain Writers Group. She has published short fiction in Strange Horizons and The Future Fire, as well as in the recent feminist SF anthology The Other Half of The Sky. Her first novel, Broken Slate, was published by Crossed Genres. She blogs at delagar.

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  1. Excellent post!
    In the third grade my daughter criticized a book because it “reduced the few female characters to cardboard cutout stereotypes”. (The characters were cats. And yes, I was proud of her when I was told about it.) It didn’t go over well. It still doesn’t go over well with most people as her assessments take on more prejudices and become more nuanced. I’m proud of her for holding her ground, but it doesn’t make her life easy. I hope that your daughter continues to speak up. I suspect that with you as a parent she will.

    1. Cerys, one of my kid’s earliest encounters with misogyny in literature dealt with cats! The Warriors series, if you know it? She’s still kind of pissed about how the female cats are treated in that series. 🙂

  2. *gna*
    I can only hope to get mine to that point in a few years.
    Right now they are deeply involved in stereotypes, but they’re only 4 and 6.
    The latest way for my 6yo to reconcile her ideas about boys, girls, men and women and the fact that I don’t fit the pattern?
    “Mum, you’re an exception. You are allowed to like blue and pirates and dragons, but those things are still for boys”
    It’s not her fault, but it makes me wanna cry.

  3. Feminism is like the Matrix, and once you start to realize stuff like default character are white, male, cis-sex, or the fact that in video games, all female characters wear ridiculous clothes not meant for battle, your whole world view changes and you begin to see this shit everywhere. I had this realization a few years ago and even now I still am discovering my hidden biases.

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