For his birthday this year, my 5-year-old son asked for a My Little Pony sweatshirt. He didn’t know that it was categorized as girls’ clothing, only that, like his beloved Rainbow Dash, it was polychromatic, glittery, winged and perfect.
He has spent his early years in Oakland, California, largely surrounded by adults who avoid use of the nouns “boys” and “girls” unless necessary. His world is blissfully, ignorantly gender-neutral.
In the fall, he’ll be heading to elementary school, and I was thinking it might be time to explain to him that as natural as his love for this sweatshirt is, there are a lot of people who find a boy in a girl’s sweatshirt unnatural and won’t hesitate to let him know.
The hardest part of this conversation will be what, inevitably, will follow. He, a scrupulous monitor of fairness in matters large and small, will ask whether there are also things people think girls shouldn’t wear. I, remorsefully, will have to tell him “no.”
Gender progress: a one-way street
Though feminism has made great progress in stripping childhood of gender norms, the efforts have been awfully lopsided.
Today, there’s not a single traditionally masculine thing a girl can do that would raise eyebrows. Join a sports team? Over half of them do it. Play with toy guns? Nerf makes a line just for them. Cut their hair short? Celebrities Katy Perry, Janelle Monae and Scarlett Johansson all have locks that measure under half a foot. Interested in STEM? On trend. Pretend they are superheroes? Last year’s “Wonder Woman” is one of the highest-grossing superhero movies of all time.
Meanwhile, there’s still not a single traditionally feminine thing a boy can do that wouldn’t raise eyebrows. A boy who likes wearing jewelry or makeup, twirling in a tutu or caring for baby dolls is at best the subject of conversations conducted sotto voce. At worst: a bully’s target.
The tomboy phenomenon is more than 400 years oldand has gone from outsider to aspirational to anachronistic over the course of the 20th century; the tomgirl remains a nonstarter. Describe a boy with a phrase that includes the word “girl” in it, and you’re likely to make his parents’ spines quiver, including those of many of the feminist dads I know.
Parents are increasingly giving their daughters boy names like James and Finn; few among us would dare give our sons a girl name, because pity the boy named Jenn or Sofia. Girls fought and won the right to join the Boy Scouts; I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for boys to gain entry to the Girl Scouts.
All this might make you conclude that girls have it better. And in some ways, they do.
“Women have changed what it means to be a woman and embrace a much larger human canvas. Men are still painting on half the canvas,” said Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology and gender studies and author of “Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.”
“Now, it’s perfectly permissible for girls to (enter) boyland, but heaven help the boy who wants to move to the other side.”
But a closer look at this gender revolution among children reveals to what degree this whole enterprise has been tipped in favor of the masculine.
Barbie has been a member of the armed forces, a presidential candidate and an engineer; boys’ dolls continue be, nearly exclusively, action figures conscripted to battle. Disney movies have featured a number of macho or strong and brave female characters, including “Pocahontas” (1995), “Mulan” (1998) and “Moana” (2016); meanwhile, the male characters continue to alternate between brute and naïf.
Girls get to flip through books like “Strong is the New Pretty,” but no publication is telling boys that typically feminine traits like caring for others or, yes, taking an interest in beauty (which is often tsked tsked in boys) is the new strong.
Girls have been told that they can do anything, be anything, and they largely can, without judgment. However — and here’s the catch — that’s true only if they are physically strong and career-oriented and eschew most of the traditional trappings of femininity. In short, they will gain respect if they act like boys.
“It’s about mobility. Girls who act like boys are moving up the social ladder. Boys who are acting like anything but masculine are moving down and risk losing their status,” Kimmel said.