29 November 2013

Between Superman and Princess Boy

So far this holiday season, the controversial gendered toy seems to be GoldieBlox, the toy that began as a scrappy feminist upstart to generate engineer girls, but lately has labored under criticisms that it reinforces stereotypes about girls (“all girls are oriented verbally”; “girls won’t touch anything that isn’t princessy”), that the toy is an inferior build compared with “boy” toys, and that it doesn’t inspire creative play as well as plain blocks do. And of course, their latest ad ignited a firestorm

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. 

The Topknot
(Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian)
So what about my son? 

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. 

And I find myself wondering if he will continue this gender flexibility as he gets older. At some point, will he have to choose? Will Princess Boy become another rigid category rather than a fluid, permeable one? 

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)
For example, my son doesn’t know about superheroes, unlike almost every other boy at his school. Our kids haven’t watched a feature-length movie yet, mostly because my daughter finds any kind of conflict in a movie scary. We’ve tried Lady and the Tramp, The Muppets, and even Winnie the Pooh. Each screening has ended the same way: Silver, who will happily hold all kinds of bugs that we find in the garden and stare unabashedly at blood, burst blisters, and x-rayed broken bones, will start to wail, “It’s scaaaaaaaaary!” So we stop. 

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. 


  1. Love this. I cringed when Summit started wanting to wear tutus. Then I gently reminded myself of the TWO YEARS her brother spent wearing his and got over myself. Now I just try to support their self-expression in whatever way it appears that day.

    1. I think about what a hard time my mother had raising a tomboy, and then it comes around, and I find myself confounded when my daughter is a girly girl!

      I don't worry much about what my kids learn about gender in our house, but more about gender policing at school and in the wider world. My daughter certainly picked up ideas about what girls and boys do/wear/look like at day care that were at odds with what we teach at home.

      I assume that Ocho will get into superheroes at some point, and I feel even less prepared to cope with his experiments with masculinity than with my daughter's experiments with femininity. I do wish I had more tools for when that day comes. I am glad, however, that I know so many lesbians and queer women who are raising sons who will be able to help me out, offer advice, and calm me down!

  2. Bravo! I'm in my 11th (give or take a year) of teaching little ones & in my biased opinion, I have never worried about the children who so freely explore themselves across those societal gender lines. Those children always strike me as the more confident and creative ones of the bunch. Not to say that those who are more rigid in stereotypical roles are not creative nor confident, they just have a different vibe, they seem more fixed in their personalities. I guess it would be a boring world if we were all the same but I like to think there are more boys being raised now who are allowed to have feelings, allowed to express those feelings, and have the freedom to express them via a broader stage, so to speak. How about "A Sensitive Boy" in response to "A Mighty Girl"?

    1. What I didn't articulate, and should in a future post, is how rigid gender roles can limit boys when they become adults. Certainly, we are moving beyond the masculinity of the 1950s that my dad grew up with. I don't think (most) boys (in urban areas) are expected to grow up stoic, as the sole providers for their families, and as workers exclusively outside the home (as opposed to working inside the home by washing dishes, doing laundry, changing diapers, etc.).

      My nephew (who just turned 9) is growing up with a more subtle gender distinction. Girls' toys and kinds of play are "nice," but boys' are "cool." The hierarchy of "cool" over "nice" is difficult to demonstrate, but it's still there and leads, I think, to the situation where, for example, all big-budget movies right now are aimed at men 18-25 and so all fail the Bechdel Test (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/UsefulNotes/TheBechdelTest) quite spectacularly.

      So my goal is really twofold: 1) get parents to think as critically about alternative definitions of "masculinity" for their boys as they do "femininity" for their girls, and 2) stop gender-policing, both adult-to-child and child-to-child.

  3. Bravo!

    I was just Googling boy alternatives to "A Mighty Girl" and you popped up,

    Great read with great insight and points. I came to terms with my more femme side at the ripe age of 52 after the utterly unlikely event of getting a "drag makeover" on YT and have never been happier - although getting to that happy was a chore of introspection and releasing damns given in itself.

    If only more folk fully understood your final paragraph...

    Be well and continued brilliance!

    1. Thank you, Khloe! Glad you are enjoying the full spectrum of your gender identity at last!