‘I’m Sleeping Beauty’, he says. ‘I’m a pirate, I’m a fisherman, I’m a Princess, I’m The Queen’.
He doesn’t know yet. That there is intrinsic status (or lack thereof), attached to these roles. That some of them are strong, masculine, affirming. That some of them are weak, subordinate, female. And who would want to be female? He must be strange. Or gay. I have no idea if he’s either. I don’t really care, I just play along.
A while ago I wrote about how important it is to raise my boys to be okay with being ‘like a girl‘. The above video might be hawking santirary products, but it makes a good point. When did ‘like a girl‘ become an insult? It is, it was, it has been since forever ago. Our entire society is founded on that construct, it’s called the patriachy, now go buy some tampons, disgusting.
Much of modern feminism focuses on creating equality by elevating women to the same status as men: getting more (primarily white, middle class, but that’s a different post), women into senior roles, accepting and celebrating masculine traits in women (‘I’m not bossy, I’m the boss’), breaking down the glass ceiling. Obviously all of this is important, and really, really crucial for those women who aspire to be doctors or CEOs or presidents or Beyonce. But it is only half the picture.
The ascension of women only truly creates equality if society also gives status to what are traditionally considered to be feminine traits: being nurturing, gentle, emotionally literate. When men can, without shame, aspire to be a care giver, or a stay at home parent. (There is an excellent article about this in relation to how motherhood is so undervalued on Ask Moxie, which is well worth reading).
The bottom line is, should be, that we must accept that while some girls aspire to grow up to be an engineer or scientist, that they may choose to get there wearing a pink sparkly dress and high heels. Some women might choose to stay home with their children/get their nails done/bake a pie/go for cocktails with the girls, and that doesn’t mean that they are letting down the sisterhood. Wearing makeup doesn’t in itself make me oppressed, just like earning the same as my husband doesn’t mean I #dontneedfeminism.
So you see I’d got it all figured out.
Then my three year old son asked me for a princess dress.
And my instinctive reaction was: this is too much. Pink snowflake leggings are one thing, purple snow boots, long hair, Star Wars t shirts, pink eye shadow occasionally (but usually while wielding a sword and an eyepatch), a silver ‘space suit’ coat, a dinosaur jumper, penguin leggings. These are all things, which when combined, say, at most: androgyny. They leave a question mark hanging over his head, a gender mystery, which is no closer to being solved on hearing his unisex name. They do not, in my humble opinion, scream GIRL.
A dress screams girl. I don’t think I want him to get a dress.
But he is Princess Aurora, Briar Rose, Sleeping Beauty, he needs a sparkly blue dress and a yellow crown like in the book Mama. To be honest, he never really asks for much, so I agree to give it some consideration. I tell him we’ll go to the shops and just have a look.
In the changing room of TK Maxx I reflect that I have possibly never seen my son so happy. Are those tears of joy pricking his eyes? ‘I must go and show Daddy!’, he declares, and off he goes in a rustle of tulle and sequins, out onto the department store floor, to proudly show his father, who mercifully, is about as right on as they come and who nods approvingly, ‘You look lovely’.
‘Hopefully the sales assistant will assume he’s a girl’, I hear myself think and I’m horrified with myself. It’s not that I’m ashamed of him, certainly not, but it’s protection I suppose. I don’t want people to look at him and write him off as flawed, as one of ‘those‘ kids: the ones who get beaten up at school. I have no desire for him to be one of those kids either, but this is bigger than him, and I also don’t want him to be just another boy (100% BOY!), for who being ‘like a girl’ is basically a byword for being a right twat. Pun intended.
But he’s not just another boy. This is who he is, this is who we have raised him to be, twirling around with a paintbrush as a magic wand. I buy the dress. I determine to see through what I have started, to be proud of him, so he can be proud of himself. Like a girl, or not.
When I was half way through writing this post, they had a short but very interesting discussion on this exact topic on Woman’s Hour, which you can listen to by clicking the link.