We supposedly live in an era where gender norms are to be broken, or at least regularly questioned. Young men are into My Little Pony, 7-year-old girls not only read superhero comics but criticize their portrayals of women, and it is a sign of being a decent parent not to force your kid to like whatever stereotypically boy- or girl-themed shows, toys, movies, or books happen to match his or her anatomy.
So, as a father of a 5-year-old girl, I have tried to expose my daughter to a variety of possible interests, including things that are, according to some, “just for boys.” While this has gone well at home and she has a diverse set of interests, the response when interacting with other kids remains the same as always: many boys her age don’t think she should be into Batman or Star Wars or whatever. She should only be playing princesses and horsies and dollies according to them. Frankly, I expected this response and can write it off as no big deal since they are other kids. However, recently I’ve begun to notice the most annoying gendered assumptions and comments directed at my daughter aren’t those made by other kids . . . they are those made offhandedly by random adult women who have an occasion to talk to her.
A little while back, we went to see The Avengers as a family. My daughter and I had watched the trailer together, and she was super excited for her first “big kid movie” and to see Hulk smash (this, of course, became a problem later when she kept re-enacting it). Upon arriving at the theater, the young lady at the ticket booth looked us over and said to my daughter, “I bet you are going to Mirror Mirror.” Seriously? 90% of the people here today are going to see Avengers and you assume we’re headed to a crappy Snow White adaptation instead because she’s a young girl?
While I wish I could say my kid said, “NO! We’re going to see HULK!” she didn’t. And I didn’t respond, “Why would you assume that?” as I later wished I had. Instead, I stifled my annoyance and had to explain what Mirror Mirror even was. (For the record, we did see it later, on video, and all viewers including the kid thought it was boring).
Another, similar situation happened when we went to our credit union so my daughter could cash in her piggy bank. For doing such a good job being patient while the machine counted her change, the middle-aged woman helping us offered her the ubiquitous award for kids who don’t cause a scene in public: a sticker. Digging in the drawer where such things are kept, the teller told her, “Oh, I’m sorry, we’re all out of the unicorn stickers.” Uh, what? Why even mention them then? “So what do you have?” I asked her. “Superheroes,” she vaguely replied (they were Fantastic Four stickers).
My kid would have loved either a unicorn or superhero sticker at that point (it’s not even what is on the sticker that counts, really), and the FF even have a female character . . . if that matters (which at times it does for young girls). Yet, this woman assumed my daughter wouldn’t be interested in a superhero sticker and that she should mention what she couldn’t have.
At this point, readers may be saying, “Big deal. You’re cherrypicking anecdotes and making more of this than it is.” This is a fair point; however, the sheer number of times some woman decides she needs to say dumb things like “I bet you love Hello Kitty!” (she does, but she also loves Batman and you’d never say “I bet you love Batman!”) based solely on my kid being a girl gets annoying, especially since I’m sure many of these women view themselves as progressive and feminists. So why not ask her what she is into instead of imposing gendered likes on her?
The weird thing about this is that men rarely do the same thing. Part of the reason for this is that men seem far less likely to talk to little girls. But another aspect of it has to be that men rarely have that specific gendered background to talk about princesses or Strawberry Shortcake or whatever. So, to some extent, what women who make these statements are doing is connecting their childhoods to my daughter’s childhood, and, in doing so, perpetuating gender norms of what she is supposed to like because it was what they were supposed to like. A weird, unintentional cycle is perpetuated.
So, ladies who interact with little kids, I’d appreciate it if you’d please take a second and think about what you are saying to young girls instead of making assumptions and imposing those norms you had impose on you on them.