What I tell my son about the sexist media

Janet Alperstein, Raising Race Conscious Childrenby guest blogger Janet Alperstein

After attending “Fiddler on the Roof” my eight-year-old Jewish Day School-educated son, made it his business to memorize the verse about the sons in “Tradition:”

“At three I started Hebrew school, at ten I learned a trade. I hear they picked a bride for me, I hope she’s pretty. The sons, the sons.” The first sentence came quickly as he could easily relate to it, at least the Hebrew school part. After working at the second sentence, he added in with a similar tune,

“I hope she’s nice.”

I couldn’t help but smile and think how grateful I am for his continued friendships with girls, as well as boys. I quickly praised his added verse and asked him why he added it:

“Momma, if I’m going to marry someone I want them to be nice.”

No argument there. Conversations around gender keep coming up as we go about our day:

As we catch an early morning taxi to go to school, my son notices an ad on top of the taxi with a scantily clad woman promoting, a strip club.

When we watch sports on TV or in an arena during a sports event, my son is exposed to ads for beer with provocatively dressed women.

When we walk by a newsstand at the train station, my son sees the annual swimsuit edition to a well-known sports magazine with women in varying states of undress on the new stand.

“Momma why is there a half-naked lady there?”

The lack of respect for gender rears its head, more and more in our everyday life. How does one responsibly articulate the basic advertising concept that “sex sells,” and has for well over 100 years, to a child? Here are a couple of things I have said and asked:

“People and companies think they will get more business and make more money for some products, if there is a woman who people consider ‘pretty’ in the ad. Do you remember seeing any half-naked men in ads?”

“There are some places where men go to watch women dance. They are treating women like things and not people. I do not think it is fair or nice to treat any people this way. What do you think?”

Recently, my son and I were watching “Back to the Future,” a movie I fondly remembered from my childhood. I didn’t consult ratings on Common Sense Media which I am quick to do with media I did not grow up with, and found myself needing to explain unwanted intimacy from the movie which I had long since forgotten.

While I don’t want to scare my son, I want and need him to understand how important it is to protect and respect his own body and that of others.

“Momma, why is he doing that if she doesn’t want him to?”

“Unfortunately, not everyone listens to requests about respecting their body, even though they should. Remember in day care how hugging was not allowed as not everyone had the words yet to explain how they wanted their body respected?”

Another resource has been, Sex is a Funny Word, a fabulous book we have read separately and together in our family that has encouraged questions and discussions. In some ways our discussions around this book have been an extension of our discussions last June about the landmark Supreme Court decision about same-sex marriage, and what it means to be a family in today’s world. More books about teaching children about how important consent is can be found here.

I recently learned about an organization, DoSomething.org, who has a campaign, Project Shutdown, designed to draw attention to ads which “sexualize or objectify women.” We need people and organizations like this to speak up and out more.

While I do not have all of the answers, I am grateful the questions keep coming and that there are resources which share the messages I am trying teach my son to prepare him as he ventures out into our complicated world.


Janet F. Alperstein is the proud mom of an nine-year-old boy born in Guatemala City and raised in New York City where their gender, racial, ethnic and religious identities are an important part of their everyday lives. Dr. Alperstein has worked in higher education for just over 20 years with a focus on international education and has taught a graduate sociology class on gender and the role of schools for 15 years.

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