I am reassured that if I don’t buy GoldieBlox for my daughter, at least I can still find plenty of toys, books, and materials to encourage her to play outside the Princess Box. (A Mighty Girl is always a good place to start.) But I’d say our most successful STEM program in our house is my husband’s brilliant “experiments in the tub,” which began as a one-night-only presentation, but was so highly lauded that now we have shows nightly. What is buoyancy and what are the characteristics of buoyant objects? How does air create propulsion in the water? What is displacement? What is water resistance? My husband has illustrated all these concepts using items around the house like rubber bands, air cushion packs, balloons, corks, and plastic toys. No extraneous purchases necessary.
So far so good with my daughter. Yes, Silver dressed up as Cinderella for Halloween and asked for dolls for Christmas, but she constructs forts, can identify all the planets of the solar system, and can now tell everyone at kindergarten that snowflakes have six-point radial symmetry.
(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)
My fellow feminist and queer parents have identified a funny double standard: when our daughters play princess, we roll our eyes and wonder where we went wrong. But when our sons play princess, we cheer them on.
I am heartened to see several breakthroughs recently for boys whose gender expression is, for lack of a less loaded term, more feminine. Are these boys queer? Are they trans? Are they straight and enjoy being “girly”? We’ll have to wait until they are old enough to say for themselves. But they are boys who embrace pink, who prefer dresses, who love nail polish. Most boys still get teased or gender policed in other ways when they want to wear “girl” dress-up or clothes, but more parents are defending their sons’ choices. As a result, attitudes towards Princess Boys are slowly changing in some parts of the U.S.
Ocho has what I would consider typically three-year-old gender expression—that is, all over the place. His favorite color right now is hot pink. He did want to be a princess for Halloween, because, he said, “I want to be like Samantha”—Samantha* being the five-year-old girl he worships. At school, he will dress up in a tutu, then he’ll go outside and push bulldozers around. He plays with tool kits and dolls. He is growing his hair out and refusing offers of haircuts. Last time he grew it out, to keep the hair out of his face, I pulled his bangs up into a topknot. Strangers assumed he was a girl, even if he was wearing “boy” clothing.
So my son is a Princess Boy, sometimes. And he is a Boy-Boy, sometimes.
Right now, nearly all of my son’s friends at school are girls. He used to play with other boys at day care, but since he graduated to preschool, these friendships have fallen away. I assume one factor is that he has an older sister. But it also has to do with how our culture continues to define gender for kids.
|Which of these things is not like the others?|
(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)
We don’t have any TV in our house (no cable or no digital antenna) so our children watch only the most benign shows on my laptop: Sesame Street, Wonder Pets, Olivia, Bob the Builder, the bland Canadian cartoon Caillou, and the charming British one, Kipper. Licensed characters are not allowed at our preschool, so this has helped to delay the pressure of keeping up with popular culture until kindergarten.
I suspect that my son’s limited media consumption explains something about the way he enjoys play. Because he hasn’t yet seen conflicts modeled by superhero cartoons and movies, he doesn’t play good guys fighting bad guys. His imagination extends more towards playing a pet, or domestic family scenes, or pretending to be an excavator. Perhaps it’s just his age—the boys who play superheroes are older than him. But it means that the kind of play he likes will often group him with girls.
This isn’t to say that he doesn’t do rough-and-tumble play. Both Silver and Ocho are very strong, and they get into wrestling matches where I can’t tell if they are laughing or screaming. (It’s usually both.)
I find myself wondering, where is the middle path for Ocho, especially as he gets older? We try to construct it as much as we can in our own house. We’re happy to let him follow his own interests and imagination. When he puts on a sparkly crown for Thanksgiving dinner because, he says, he wants to “look more beautiful,” we smile at him with no reservations. We do the same when he puts on a firefighter’s hat.
But he doesn’t live in a bubble, and I wish there were an equivalent of “A Mighty Girl” for boys, a central resource to encourage boys to grow up outside of stereotypes of manly men that isn’t exclusively Princess Boy, either. We know that feminism isn’t a women’s issue—it’s an issue for humanity. We can’t expand the spectrum of “masculine” and “feminine” solely for women and girls; we must expand it for men and boys as well.
* Name changed.