Ben first became interested in politics last winter, when his kindergarten teacher organized a peace march to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. The kids painted posters and made a wandering parade down to the Fillmore district of San Francisco, singing "Happy Birthday" and chanting "What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!"
Now, Ben divides politicians into two camps: those who uphold MLK's principles, and those who don't. He has decided Obama is his candidate, will argue his opinion with his classmates, and has dedicated his sidewalk lemonade stand to raise money for the campaign. I only wish he could vote.
Instead, we've been reading political picture books like Gloria for President, and I'm keeping my eye out for movies about elections that are appropriate for kids. I had high hopes for the documentary I saw recently, What's Your Point, Honey? (Amy Sewell--writer of Mad Hot Ballroom--and Susan Toffler, 2008), but it's too talky for my young kids. Still, I think it would make a good conversation-starter to watch with boys and girls about ten and up.
The movie takes its title from a recent political cartoon that showed Hillary Clinton pointing to a globe marked with countries that have been led by women, while a grumpy Uncle Sam mutters, "What's your point, Honey?" It intersperses sharp commentary from Gloria Steinem and Ms. Foundation president Marie Wilson while following three different groups of girls: elementary age, middle schoolers, and college students.
The middle school group is the least scripted and the most fun to watch. The filmmakers observe them in a class as their teacher leads discussions of the portrayal of women in advertising, The Feminine Mystique, or the wage gap, which one of the girls, surprisingly, thinks shouldn't change. When pressed by her teacher, she can't explain her feeling that it would be "weird" for women to make the same amount as men, and the moment is left hanging, the students tense and uncertain. Outside of class, we see the girls shopping at Victoria's Secret or primping at a make-up counter, and the audience is left to draw their own conclusions about the disconnect between what the girls learn in school (advertising objectifies women) and what they feel (makeup and pretty clothes are fun!). This is the group I wanted to get to know better, the girls I wanted to hear talk about how they could avoid absorbing advertising's constricting messages without giving up the sheer pleasure of being a girl.
The youngest group in the film, who are around eight or nine, are lively and confident, scootering down sidewalks in an intimidating gang, asking strangers if they would vote for a woman president (a resounding yes from their random sample: a UPS guy, a ConEd worker, and a family strolling down the street). We see them quizzing friends about what's missing from a row of presidential portraits: "None of them are women! That stinks!" Later, the girls visit a wax museum, and we're amused to see they don't recognize Princess Diana ("Wales? Maybe she's called that because she wailed a lot when she was a baby?"), but they are thrilled to see a likeness of Hillary Clinton. They make a voting booth and roll it out to the sidewalk. All of this is entertaining, if a little too obviously staged; it left me wondering what these girls would say if they were simply asked what they think about women in politics. Still, the filmmakers' projects clearly got the girls musing about the future, and they talk about their strategies for combining work and family; hands-on partners, chore lists and alternating weeks of childcare figure prominently in their plans, and I had to smile, thinking of how my husband Tony and I sit down together each Sunday and map out the week's worth of school pick-ups, household errands, and other tasks.
The balance of the film follows a dozen college women who've won internships through CosmoGirl and the "2024 Project," a campaign to get a woman in the White House by 2024. These young women (none of them CosmoGirl readers, they hasten to point out) each spends a college summer interning with a political or business organization. We see them walking to their assignments, and we see the terrified look on one young intern's face when she's assigned to write a piece of legislation, but mostly we don't see these women at work, or learn what they accomplished over the summer, which was a disappointment (the intern who took questions at the screening I attended said she designed a marketing campaign, but admitted it was just as important that she now had a big-name company on her resume).
We do see the women at home, though, in rich conversations with their parents about gender roles, working, and parenting. All of them want children, and are thinking about the impact of their careers -- which they assume will come first -- on their families. Patrice wants a family and two careers, so she plans to hire a nanny; her mother and grandmother, who worked full time while raising five and ten kids, respectively, mock her about this expectation. Lexie is happy she has more options than her mother, who quit working when she married. Agxibel, who as a child joined the United Farm Workers' grape boycott and is now headed to law school, notes that half of her high school classmates are already parents, implying that while they might have jobs, they don't (maybe won't) have careers. All of these young women are smart, articulate, polished and -- perhaps -- a bit naïve. I confess I found it difficult to watch them without feeling a bit cynical about their confident expectations for the future. Their internships might have offered great professional training, but I'd have loved to see them talking also with Gloria Steinem and Marie Wilson, or with a group of thirty- and forty-something moms, women in the thick of combining work and family, about ways to manage the mix of professional and personal.
I may be, as a well-educated, politically-committed mom, the target audience for this movie, but I'm already sitting in the choir; the conversations these earnest, enthusiastic young women engage in echo ones I (and likely many Literary Mama readers) have been involved in for years. So this isn't a movie for me, exactly, nor one to get little kids fired up about politics; I realize they don't need such a movie. Ben tried to watch the VP debate (but had trouble following it), Eli stuck an Obama bumper sticker on his trike -- I think it's safe to say they're interested. The folks who really need to see this film are members of Congress, CEOs, and college deans, to remind them how their decisions today about taxes and health insurance and medical leaves and benefits affect the day to day choices we make for ourselves and our children; their policies affect our families for generations. And if the policy-makers happen to miss the movie, those of us with older kids could be watching it with our children, and making sure our conversations about work and family involve our sons and daughters, so that they become informed and active young voters.
What's Your Point, Honey? is less about women in politics specifically than women in society generally. As one woman comments in the film, she's never heard a young man express concern about how to balance work and family; until this is a question that occupies both sexes, nothing's going to change. "There is a girl out there, somebody's daughter, " she continues, "who's going to be President." The line made me tear up. I know that girl won't be mine, but maybe she'll be supported by one of my boys, and I want to make sure they're both up for the job. So we'll keep talking politics around here, and divvying up the chore lists, and making sure the boys really see how their parents work as a team. Because we still have an awfully long way to go (baby) before the opportunities available to women are as easy for them to live as they are for them to choose.
For more information or to purchase a DVD, visit the film's website. Special offer for Literary Mama readers! Purchase the DVD with discount code WC51 and receive a 20% discount. 30% of DVD profits go to The White House Project, the Ms. Foundation and Girls Inc.!