In an article for NBC News’ “Think” section, actress Olivia Wilde explains why she’s raising her children to understand that “gender equality isn’t controversial.” This wouldn’t be particularly interesting — gender equality isn’t controversial — except for the fact that Wilde’s definition of “gender equality” seems a little… confused. “I want my son and daughter to grow up thinking girls can be Batman and boys can be Wonder Woman,” Wilde writes. But that — sorry, Olivia — wouldn’t be gender equality, that would be gender elimination. And they’re different. Really. I promise.
Gender equality is a rational and reasonable expectation to have in a free society, and — though it wasn’t always this way — it is one which has largely been met in our country. Gender equality is defined as “the state in which access to rights or opportunities is unaffected by gender.” This means that, should a woman want to have a career, for example, instead of staying home with her children, she should be allowed to do so. A person’s gender shouldn’t affect his ability to get into a school or a job or a place of business — unless there is a valid reason why a particular opportunity must be gender-specific. Gender equality is a state that can be reached without ever having to break down any barriers about gender itself. It simply means that the “rights or opportunities” are available regardless of gender.
In her article, Wilde tells a story about her son watching his father lifting something heavy. “He turned to me,” Wilde writes, “and said, ‘Mom, Dad is like Wonder Woman.’” This was a moment that Wilde says made her feel “really proud” and gave her “hope” that her son will never develop “the artificial mental barriers — so prevalent in our society — that limit what women can and can’t do.”
But this is an odd example. The fact that men are better at lifting heavy things than women are isn’t an “artificial mental barrier” it’s a literal truth. Gender equality does not mean that men and women have to possess the exact same skills or abilities — lifting a heavy object is neither a “right” nor an “opportunity.” It isn’t a mental barrier that prevents women from being able to lift just as much as men, it’s a biological one.
The whole point of Wonder Woman is that she has supernatural powers which allow her to compete with the men in an area where men are naturally more capable. There’s nothing wrong with comparing someone to Wonder Woman, it just doesn’t illustrate that men and women have equal strength because Wonder Woman’s strength is, necessarily, a superpower. The only thing noteworthy about Wilde’s son’s comment is that he chose a female superhero to compare his father to instead of a male one. And this is only laudable if our goal is to erase gender entirely such that men are women and women are men and no specific traits are more prevalent in one than the other.
“Feminism for me boils down to equality,” Wilde writes. And that ought to be true, but “equal” doesn’t mean “identical.” A woman cannot be Batman, because Batman is a man. A man cannot be Wonder Woman, because Wonder Woman is a woman. (It’s right there, in their names, if you’re not sure.) The point shouldn’t be that anyone could be a man or a woman, it’s that everyone has equal inherent value and worth. Because that’s equality. Anything else is a fiction — like Wonder Woman, come to think of it. Hey Olivia, could you come help me lift this box?