Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Creating Baby Feminists: Or How to Raise a Superhero Princess

Seriously, this tent is legit
Yesterday, my daughter turned 4 years old.  I had off work early and had been planning on taking her to the park or out to dinner, but all she wanted to do was stay home and have mac and cheese for dinner and play with her birthday present from me: a spaceship tent.  So that's what we did.  She wore her knight costume (because her astronaut costume might be too slippery inside, she said) and played in her spaceship tent all evening.  Her spaceship tent stood in the middle of her room decorated with Frozen stickers and Frozen sheets and Frozen posters.  Oh and a Star Wars poster.  And robots.  On Saturday we will have her big birthday party with all of her friends and her dad and my parents at a local children's museum.  She decided on a Ninja Turtles theme.  Lately she has
She likes Donatello
because he wears purple
gotten very interested in Ninja Turtles; she even dressed
as Donatello for Halloween, despite the fact that she can't sit through a whole episode of the actual cartoon since she thinks it is too scary.  A lot of things are scary to her.  She can't sit through pretty much any Disney movie with the exception of Frozen, Wall-E, and Toy Story 2 because she has an aversion to bad guys.  Cinderella: the mommy isn't nice, Tangled: the witch mommy isn't nice, Lion King: the bad lion is bad, Toy Story 1: Sid is scary and the toys in his room are scary, Beauty and the Beast: the wolves, Winnie the Pooh: bees (Seriously.  She doesn't like Winnie the Pooh because she is scared of bees).  On the other hand, she likes the original Star Wars just fine because Darth Vader is cool.  In fact she enjoys playing AS Darth Vader when we have lightsaber battles.  However, Empire Strikes back and Return of the Jedi are out because the Wampa and the Rancor are extremely scary to her.  If we watch those, we have to fast forward.  We can watch parts of How to Train Your Dragon but not all of it: Toothless is adorable, the other dragons not so much.  Despite all of this aversion to "bad guys," her preferred method of play is to have battles, to attack balloons with her knight sword, to pretend we are superheroes saving the day from the evil Loki (our cat, not the actual Marvel villain. Sometimes the cat plays the role of Lok-a-roid, a deadly asteroid that is attacking our space command).

Seriously, this movie
can't come soon enough
So why do I mention all this?  Because I have noticed through the course of talking to her and her play, that more often than not she plays as boy characters, except when she plays as Elsa.  Not because I believe she is experiencing any kind of gender identity issues or doesn't like being a girl, but because, just as I did when I was a kid, she finds the boy characters to be more interesting.  When she plays Big Hero 6 she wants to be Hiro and Baymax, not Go Go or Honey Lemon.  They were perfectly good "strong" characters, but they weren't the MAIN characters.  She has latched onto Frozen, to Elsa in particular like many little girls her age, I think because Elsa is truly the first female superhero to star in her own children's movie.  Think about it: can you think of another kid-friendly film that stars a woman who has superpowers?  Princess Leia is great and all but she doesn't have the Force (unless you are counting the now not-canon EU books).  Plus Princess Leia wasn't the star of the film.  In every other kid's movie, women with power are the villains: the witches, the evil fairies. 
Who WOULDN'T want to be
this badass bitch
Elsa was never truly a villain, simply a young woman with powers she couldn't control who eventually uses them for good.  And her power is cool!  She shoots ice from her fingers!  This readily translates to games of freeze tag!  Frozen is the PERFECT movie for little girls who want to have that feeling of power and strength that boys get playing Spider-Man or Batman or Superman or ANYTHING-man.  Which is why I think the new Wonder Woman movie and the Captain Marvel movie will be so important.  But they aren't enough.

Even at 4 my daughter has experienced our sexist culture.  She has been told by friends at school that certain things are "for boys," she has walked into the toy store and seen the separation of the gendered playthings, she has seen movies where women only serve as objects to be rescued (even though she doesn't particularly care for them).  There are two tacks that you can take to address this problem.  The first is denial. You can simply refuse to allow your children to watch princess movies, to limit their exposure to media in general, or to presume
Oh look, another boy off
on an adventure.
 that even worthy "classic" books and "quality" shows don't perpetuate our patriarchal culture.  But lets face it, most of your favorite "classic" children's books feature women more often than not in the role of mother and caretaker.  Not that there is anything wrong with being a mother, but if that is all your children are seeing then maybe you are "indoctrinating" them more than you know.  I sure as hell know that I would rather emulate the adventurous Peter Rabbit than be one of his demure, obedient sisters, even though they were rewarded.  The second option is to face reality, to acknowledge the fact that even if you never show a princess movie in your home that the IDEA of "princess" is so infused into our culture that exposure to the concept is inevitable.  You can deny a girl the right to princess crowns and pretty dresses all you want, but are you really taking the desire away?

One of these is astronaut Karen Nyberg

I actively try to read my daughter my issues of Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel when they come in each month, I show
her pictures of female astronauts like Karen Nyberg, an engineer formerly on board the ISS, whose flowing blonde hair is so similar to her own, and I bring home books about inspiring women like Jane Goodall.  I do these things very consciously.  I do it because without taking the time to actively select books and videos about inspirational women, without actively "indoctrinating" my daughter into the idea that women can accomplish the same things as men even at this early age, she could very easily go through life passively indoctrinating herself into the idea that they can't.  There are several moments in my daughter's favorite book, Daredevil: the Daring Life of Betty Skelton, where
Seriously, go read this book
young Betty faced adversity and sexism in trying to pursue her dreams.  She got her pilot's license at 16 but could not fly as a commercial pilot because she was a woman.  Instead she became a stunt pilot and did her own thing.  She trained with the Mercury 7, but was denied the right to be an real astronaut because NASA wasn't ready for a woman astronaut yet.  The book ends on a positive note, with a mention of the women who did break the barrier, Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride, and with Betty in her later years, a confident older lady who drove a Corvette well into her 80s.  It is an amazing book and Betty lived a remarkable life.  It is an important book for girls like my daughter, too.

Trying to raise confident children is challenging regardless of gender, and much has been written about how too much of a "You can do anything, Billy" attitude has shaped a generation of young people whose aspirations outmatch their skills.  But I think the challenge of raising confident girls is unique.  Boys, by the very nature of our culture, will naturally fall into a belief that they can do anything.  In school we teach them about presidents, about kings, about soldiers, and heroes and revolutionaries.  They might spend a few days during their school career learning about notable women.  So yeah, I take it upon myself to make sure she knows about those women who came before her.  I make sure to tell her that women can do anything that men can.  I acknowledge the sexism that exists, I actively correct her when she tells me a blue shirt with a dinosaur on it is "for boys."  When my daughter tells me she wants to be an astronaut I tell her about all the wonderful women in NASA, but I also make sure to tell her how hard it is to get into space, and how few people really make it.  She will have to work really hard, she will have to do really well in science and math, and pass all sorts of tests.  Even if she is strong and smart she might not make it, but there are lots of things that she could do with her passions: work at NASA on the ground, work at a science museum, be an engineer.  I want her to be able to "reach for the stars" but I also don't want her to feel inadequacy if she doesn't make it there. Most of all I want her to be a feminist.  I want her to proudly be able to declare the simple idea that boys and girls should be afforded the same opportunities, I want her to one day say confidently to someone who would deny her, "yes I can."  And that doesn't mean I deny her the right to wear pink, the desire to be a princess too.  I simply make sure she knows she can be so much more.

1 comment:

Dad said...

That was great!

I think you and she will like the collage I made for her that I will give her Saturday. I did this before a read your blog. One of the photos is a nice one of Karen weightless in the ISS!

Not sure if it will sit on the wall in your room or hers!

I am so proud of what a great mom you are! : )