Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Crossing Gender Lines

When I was in first grade my best friend and I had a fight. She wanted us to be called "tomboys," (as opposed to "girlie-girls,") but I was quick to point out, "But I take ballet."
"Then you're a girlie-girl," she said.
"But I play soccer," I countered.
"Then you're a tomboy."
I'm sure you can imagine what our seven-year old selves went on to do. (I repeated my same arguments that I was not one or another while she tried to label me as one and we continued to argue until we were distracted.)

I'm not exactly sure what the current seven-year old opinions are on tomboys vs. girlie girls, but where I lived in 1997, it was cool to be a tomboy.

So when I read a post online about a mother's struggle dealing with her seven-year old daughter, Katie, being teased for liking Star Wars, I remembered my own seven-year old struggle with labels. I took ballet lessons and I played soccer. I had Barbies and dinosaur figurines. I collected the "boy" toys in McDonald's Happy Meals because the toys for boys always did things while the toys for girls were generally stationary dolls. (Are Happy Meals still gendered? I don't even know.) I loved Disney princesses but I was also aware that I horror and action movies (like Star Wars) were really cool. For a seven-year old, whose entire world is gendered through movies, TV, commercials, toys, and other children, this was kind of confusing. Did I have to be a tomboy or a girlie-girl?

And I was glad to read the mother's follow-up post, about receiving support from other nerds, Star Wars fans, and girls who like "boy"-stuff.

I'm glad that Katie has so much support from all over the world now, but I wish more parents were like Katie's mom. Katie is being allowed to explore all the things she likes without being constricted by gendered associations. When I was a sophomore, I took a cultural anthropology class. One day we started discussing gender expression for children, and one girl raised her hand and started talking about how she had an 8-year old nephew who she knew was gay because he liked Barbies and "girl"-toys. After class she continued telling me about her nephew (she was one of those chatty-types) in the elevator and how if she had a son and he asked to play with "girl"-toys, she'd just hand him Hot Wheels or something and tell him no. I was shocked and didn't really know what to say other than, "Oh... I think I'll just let my kids play with what they want..."

What if that girl from my class has children who don't want to conform to strict gender norms? What about children whose parents force upon them these arbitrary distinctions about gendered activities? Aren't their lives and potential to grow severely limited?

I think this section from the follow-up post puts it perfectly:

And Katie is learning how to reach out to help other children in the same way that she has been helped. A mother named Emily called to tell me that her first grade son was recently teased for bringing My Little Pony for show and tell. She said he was terribly upset by the incident, and when I told Katie about it, she called to leave a message for the child.

She said, "I am Katie. I like Star Wars, and you like My Little Pony. I know other boys who like to play with My Little Pony, and it's great, and umm, May the Pony Be With You!" she finished proudly.

It is a gift to watch your child grow.

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