‘We Mess Up Boys As Much As Girls’: Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shrewd Look At Life

In her new and darkly funny book of essays, the author and columnist charts her path from timid pre-teen to ‘big, galumphing war horse.’

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Photo courtesy of House of Anansi.

Elizabeth Renzetti was a bored preteen killing time in her local library when she absent-mindedly started doodling on an eraser. When she looked down, she recoiled in horror at the letters “LIB” staring back at her. The first three letters of “library,” by themselves, spelled a dirty word.

“This was the mid-1970s, when people talked about women’s lib in a scornful way,” the Globe and Mail columnist says. “I was consumed with fear and very carefully crossed it out.”

Her new, deeply funny and insightful book of essays, Shrewed, charts her long path from that moment of shame to becoming one of the country’s most incisive voices on women’s issues. She talked to Chatelaine about raising boys, the #MeToo movement, and what she’d say in a commencement speech, if only someone would invite her to give one.

Your first book was fiction — why a book of essays, and why now?

In 2016 I was doing a lot of reporting about the U.S. election and I noticed what, to me, was a very clear strain of misogyny in the discourse. After election day, I wrote my column for The Globe and Mail and asked “What Will We Tell Our Daughters?” — because my own daughter, who was 11 at the time, and her friends were, frankly, pissed. To them, a bully had won the presidency. How does that happen? I was having dinner at my publisher’s house after the election, and she said, “That’s the book you should write.”

The market’s been saturated with young women celebrities writing books of essays — Lena Dunham, Anna Kendrick — but there isn’t a lot out there by women in, let’s say their middle years, who have the benefit of hindsight.

Middle years? You’re so kind.

Medium-old?

I like medium-old. I love reading younger feminists. They really just don’t give a f— and I love that rebelliousness. But I’m just at that different point in my life when I’ve lived through a lot of things — career, death, family, my own changing body and perceptions about how I should be in the world — and it just seemed like, as a “medium-old person,” I could offer a fresh perspective on this particular little slice of life.

In a way, the book charts your own feminist evolution, including recognition of your own blind spots.

In the 1990s and 2000s it was all about empowerment and your individual power as a woman. It was the Carrie Bradshaw model, “You can charge your way to emancipation in these Manolo Blahniks!” I didn’t think a lot about the systemic underpinnings of why women are exploited and dispossessed, and why some women, such as women of colour and the disabled, are much more marginalized than others. I’d only even seen through the lens of my own individual oppression as a woman.

It’s really only been in the past few years when I realized, as the conversation has come to be about this, how you have to recognize where you stand in the world. So I feel like now, hopefully, I’m trying to open my shutter a bit wider to see what else is out there that I’ve messed up until now.

There’s a hilarious part where your son, who was 13 at the time, calmly asks you if know any feminists. Not like you — real feminists.

Oh my God, yes. The thing is, he’s this amazingly empathetic and wise person and at the same time, what he sees when he goes online is this weird misogyny that exists among trolls on social media, especially Twitter. I think it’s much harder to be a young man these days and navigate this landscape because it’s changing — it’s unfamiliar, it’s not the one their dad or grandad existed in. There’s no map for it. And I think we’re very bad at teaching boys to be complete human beings. I worry a lot about boys, even more than I do about girls in some cases.

Do you think you would feel that way if you hadn’t been a mother to a boy?

No. I think I would have been much more, “Ah,  f— them all.” But when you are the mother of a boy, you recognize the pitfalls that exist for them and the variety of different ways we have created those pitfalls for them. We mess up boys as much as girls. I do hope that’s changing.

How has what you’ve learned about masculinity through motherhood impacted the way you think about feminism?

I think I’m less judgmental. And I think I’m hopefully a little bit more tolerant and open-hearted about individuals — I’m much less tolerant about systems of oppression and exploitation because I think those are actually the dangerous things, which are much harder to change.

If your daughter reads the book at some point, will anything surprise her?

That I’m a human being and not the monster she currently thinks I am. I’m overstating that: She doesn’t think I’m a monster but she maybe gets a little tired of my constantly pointing out gender discrimination to her. But she and her friends, they understand their place in the world in a very different way than I did. I think she’ll be surprised that I had a journey in the way that she will have a journey. You never see your parents as humans — you never think about what they struggled with.

I loved the chapter on the theoretical commencement speech, about women taking up space, that you’d give if only someone invited you to.

It’s something I’ve thought about since one of my journalism professors who, really, looked like the bottom of a shoe, told me that I should never wear horizontal stripes because they make me look fat. I look back on it now and I think, that’s insane that he would say that to me — and that I would take it. But I was always conscious of being too big for the world, being too loud. I wanted to be a little dainty Audrey Hepburn type person instead of the big galumphing war horse that I am.

When I say “big galumphing war horse” now, I mean it in the most positive way. War horses are big and powerful and strong. Bigness and size is an asset. So that just seems like such a crucial thing to say to people. Be big. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Someone will tell you that stripes make you look fat — but so what?

A lot of people seem to be having “mini-awakenings” regarding women’s issues at the moment — do you think the more public ones are genuine? Does it matter?

I think there’s been a recognition that harassment and abuse and exploitation of power directed at women happens not just in Hollywood but also, and more problematically, in areas where women don’t have a lot of power. And we’re seeing reporting on that — like with hotel cleaners, and the Ford workers —which is really heartening. I get so many emails from women who are now in their 60s, 70s and 80s saying, “I was assaulted,” or “I was raped” or “I was chased around the table and had to leave my job and never thought I could tell anyone.”

They’ve been carrying this stuff around with them for years — and now, they are saying that change is in the air. And it is. This Genie is not going back in the bottle.

You’re sure about that?

There will be a backlash and it’s already happening — you know, people are starting to say “so I can’t see a movie with Kevin Spacey in it?” Well, Kevin Spacey isn’t the point. Neither is Harvey Weinstein. The point is that we exist in a system that economically protects and rewards abusive behaviour.

That has to change, and I think the gears have already started to grind toward something different. The two things that I think are left, and that women require, are economic power and political power. Those are the things that will eventually transform the world into a better place.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.