When my cousin, Enrico, was 6-years-old he asked his father if it was okay to like rainbows. My uncle — the embodiment of what the world would call a man’s man — looked at him with heart shattering disdain. “Cut that shit out,” he growled.
I was a young girl then, around 11-years-old. But I never forgot it.
The word ‘strong’ has quickly become a part of contemporary vernacular. It is painted in big bright colors in the media. ‘Strong’ looks like Beyonce smashing a car with a baseball bat. Like the jilted lover burning her cheating man’s house to the ground. Like the disenfranchised woman rising up from the ashes, victorious.
This is the narrative we are being told today. It carries with it the fiery rage of centuries of gender oppression. And while it is not wrong, I don’t think it captures the complete story either.
We are now teaching young girls to be brave and fearless. There is a necessary overflow of ‘sheroes’ rising: Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Hilary Clinton, Amy Schumer, Emma Watson, Leni Robredo. These are smart women, these are amazing women, these are brilliant, inspiring, phenomenal women, who are moving towards making the world better. I cannot stress how incredibly important the work they do is. I cannot stress how proud they make me feel to be a woman in the 21st century.
It is because of the collective voices of strong women coursing through the narrative of history that we are slowly getting it all: the recognition, the representation, the rights. We’ve got a long, long way to go and yet the evidence is clear: we’ve already moved mountains.
When Daenerys Targaryen, in all her regal fierceness, announces that she is not going to stop the wheel but break it, we feel that electric jolt rise through us. We’ve fallen in love with this version of strength.
But there is a softer side to it, too.
I am a teacher and I find myself constantly surprised by what living in a man’s world has done to men. My student, Marcus, asked if I could stay for a while after class just so he could have someone to talk to about the girl who broke his heart. If he risked opening up to his friends, he told me, they would jeer and yell. They would punch him in the shoulder and insist that he shut his mouth. That he ‘be a man’ about it. They would grab his feelings in their hands and crush them.
Marcus cried as he shared his story and I listened on, sad about this young man’s lack of safe spaces. Perhaps the world started dying when we told men they weren’t allowed to feel. When Marcus finished, he began thanking me profusely, embarrassed by his own emotional outburst. I dusted the shame off of him. “Marcus,” I said, “Your feelings are valid.”
He is finally graduating next month. He is going to be a filmmaker. He has done internships with many notable local directors. He has interviewed Lav Diaz. He has learned from many good colleagues of mine. Yet he attributes that moment in the classroom, the day he let himself break down, as one of the most empowering experiences of his life.
There is merit to tenderness and that, I think, is the untold story of feminism.
We need women to believe in their fire just as much as we need men to rest in their vulnerability. The men I know who rate high in emotional intelligence seem to convey more empathy and less aggression. They are not just ‘gentlemen’. They are not just ‘nice boys’. Unhindered by gender expectations, unafraid to express how they feel when they need to, they are actually some of the best human beings I know.
Feminism is important because it makes room for everybody to be the best version of who they are. Feminism compels strength just as much as it inspires vulnerability and both take equal amounts of courage.
The new world is slowly being born and we are the ones building it. It is a place where we’ve chucked all our preconceived notions away. It is a place where everybody is qualified to be amazing. It is a place where the yin and yang of strength and tenderness run freely through every person. And, lastly, it is a place where nobody is ever shut down for liking rainbows.