I have a dad friend with a 4-year-old daughter. This is a man who isn’t afraid to call himself a feminist, who is concerned with societal gender expectations, and who has a goal of raising his little girl into a strong, confident woman.
One day this friend lightheartedly lamented, “You know the T-shirts that say, ‘Forget Princess — I Want to Be an Astrophysicist’? I need one for my daughter that says, ‘My Dad Wants Me To Be an Astrophysicist, But I Want To Be a Princess.’”
My friend had given a lot of thought to raising a girl in a society that assigns gender-specific interests and identities from the get-go. He understands that females get pushed toward pinks, purples, and princesses and doesn’t want his daughter to fall prey to that societal conditioning. So he and his wife did their best to limit clothing, toys, and media marketed specifically for girls — or at least to provide a balance with less traditionally “girly” things.
And yet, despite that conscientious approach to gender stereotypes, my friend’s daughter eats, sleeps, and breathes all things pink, purple, and princessey. She wants her hair long like Rapunzel. Beyond that, she makes a point of naming “boy things” and “girl things.” She’s had to be corrected for chastising boys for being “in the girl aisle” at the toy store. She flat-out refuses to wear anything that she considers not girly enough.
She’s 110% “girly-girl,” for lack of a better term. She’s also fiercely independent and strong-willed, which is awesome — except that convincing her to tone down her gender-specific rhetoric is a challenge. She’s choosing her preferences on her own terms, which is great. At the same time, her embrace of the stereotypical girly-girl trope and her outright rejection of gender-neutral anything is a bit of a hard pill for a progressive-minded parent to swallow.
This experience has caused my friend to ponder, as many of us do, how much gender is purely a societal construct, and how much is inherent in biology? Is there simply a natural spectrum that the majority — but certainly not all — fall toward the ends of? Or is the gendered messaging and marketing of the outside world so strong that it overpowers what we do in our own homes?
Of course, a sample of one is not indicative of anything, but I’ve heard similar stories from many other parents who didn’t expect their gender-neutral approaches to go the way they did. In fact, I went through something similar with my own kids.
Our first two kids were girls. When our son came along, he inherited his sisters’ playthings. We also tried to keep a balance of traditionally gendered costumes, toys, and décor, but our girls in their younger years had migrated toward pinks and princesses too. So that’s largely what our son had at his disposal. He did enjoy dressing in his sisters’ tutus as a toddler for a short spell, but mostly he was interested in balls and cars. Everything else got his attention for two seconds. Balls and cars were life.
And that was fine, of course. Just as it’s fine for my friend’s daughter to embrace all things pink. Those of us who’d like to see the end of the gender-specific marketing of childhood have to be okay with all our kids falling on all ends of the spectrum here.
We have to be okay with boys who are all about tutus and tiaras as well as boys who are all about trucks and tank engines. We have to be okay with girls who would rather play hockey than play house, but also okay with girls who love all things pink and sparkly. If we truly believe that these interests and items shouldn’t be assigned to gender, then it shouldn’t matter if our kids fall completely into traditionally gendered categories or fall completely outside of them.
The hard part about that is that so much of the traditionally gendered stuff can lead to unhealthy ideas about femininity and masculinity. A damsel in distress waiting around to be rescued by a brave prince. A tough superhero who constantly gets beaten to a pulp but never cries. I don’t want my kids to internalize those gender-associated identities. I think that was part of my friend’s concern too. That concern is valid.
We’ve moved forward a bit on that front — at least we can now steer our girly daughters toward the strong, independent Meridas and Mulans of the princess world. But there’s still some lingering misogyny and toxic masculinity to be found in the marketing of childhood fantasy. While it may not be something worth overly fretting about, it’s definitely worth thinking about.
I recognize that gender is a hot topic, and not without controversy. Some will berate this post as being too gendered, others will berate the idea of gender neutrality, and others will say I’m making mountains out of molehills. But it’s not a simple subject. We as parents have the challenge of learning about all of this and figuring out how to approach it while trying to raise our kids. I don’t pretend to have it all figured out.
One thing I know for sure is that we can all strive to celebrate our children’s personalities and preferences, regardless of our own personal tastes and wishes for them. Even at a young age, they have a right to form their identities as they choose. And we can help them by removing any barriers that stand in their way and opening their minds to all possibilities.
As my friend said of his daughter, “Maybe she’ll be an astrophysicist princess…”
Indeed, maybe she will.