I’ve recently discovered that the feminist mantras I’ve been teaching my son are becoming slowly undone. All the years of warning him not to underestimate princesses because they might surprise you with a blaster gun like Princess Leia, as well as all those nights singing Annie Oakley’s theme “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” have lately felt like they’ve been taught in vain.
Between the never-ending heavily-made up Bratz dolls commercials on Nickelodeon, the gender stereotyping on all of his favorite television shows, and the sexist parents who (I swear to God) still instruct their kids to “Stop throwing like a girl,” I’ve had to do some reprogramming. My son lives in a world of standards: Barbies are for girls. Princesses suck (unless it’s the girl from Brave). Girls aren’t as strong. And because my son has developed early-onset world-class smart assy-ness, I’ve had to use strong feminist evidence to get my point across.
First, I’ve given great weight to history because my son deals in absolutes. (i.e., It doesn’t count if it’s just your opinion, Mom.) So about six months ago, I hung up a collage by artist Michael Albert in my kids’ bathroom that quotes the 19th Amendment. I’m serious. In all sorts of cut out letters it reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” The collage is a brilliant array of hundreds of pictures of women including Dora the Explorer, Pebbles and the Statue of Liberty. My son never fails to discuss the contents of the collage because he’s facing it while peeing.
“Mom, what is ‘abridged?’” he called the other day from the bathroom.
“Deprive,” I said. “Why?”
“Who was deprived?”
“Women. We weren’t allowed to vote.”
He stared at the poster carefully.
“Wow, who ever created that rule is a total idiot.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Like serious idiot. Like, twenty times a thousand idiot.”
I can’t disagree.
Second, when he and his friends tell me that boys are actually stronger than girls, and, like, they’re not trying to be mean or anything but boys just are, I make sure to flood him with images of female athletes. As in Gabby Douglas. As in Hope Solo. As in our lacrosse-playing babysitter whose team won the New Jersey State Championship! Just last week I told him as we gaggled over Serena Williams’ muscles, “She could win her fifteenth grand slam.” And then I mentioned an interesting article that I read in the newspaper the other day. About a study. About boys and girls. And how between the ages of six and eight, boys and girls were athletically equal.
“Hum,” he said.
I also reminded him of the red-headed princess from Brave.
Thirdly, I don’t shy away from talking about politics with him. And I also don’t shy away from complaining. Just the other week, I did both; I stayed up too late to watch Bill Clinton deliver his DNC speech and then balked about it the morning.
“Well, what could have been so important to watch that late at night?” my son asked.
I told him about the Big Dog’s speech, but I also told him that there was a woman named Sandra Fluke who spoke. She was a student. She defended women’s rights to congress and people called her a lot of bad names.
“Ooh,” he said because forbidden names spark interest. “What names?”
“Bad words that you don’t even know yet.”
“Oh, come on—”
The names were besides the point, I told him. “The point is she stuck up for women, specifically women’s health issues, and a lot of people attacked her for it. She was pretty brave.”
He conceded. “Okay, that must have been hard,” he said.
I can only hope these specific examples (and yes, yes, along with demonstrating broad values like respect, tolerance, kindness and equality) will catch on. I had a glimpse of hope yesterday when my 3-year-old daughter announced out of the blue: “Boys don’t like dressing up in girl costumes, right, Mommy?” As sociologist Shauna Pomerantz explained to me in an interview once, my daughter is being bombarded with such severity by marketers about what her gender is “supposed” to like that “It’s difficult to distinguish what you like and what you think you like.”
So I distinguished it for her: “Well, boys can dress how ever they want,” I told her. “And girls can dress how ever they want.”
“Boys can’t wear skirts,” she said.
“If they want to, they can. Just like girls can,” I said, and turned to my son. “Right, Jake?
I crossed my fingers in hopes he’d have a snarky, know-it-all retort based on some of gender equality messages I’ve been secretly transmitting to his brain.
“Yeah, boys and girls can wear what they want, but it might be a little funny if a boy wore a skirt.”
“Still, it’s up to him what to wear,” I said.
“Yep, it’s up to him.”