I did something I am deeply ashamed of this morning.
Today is a preschool day for my 3.5 year old son and he decided that he was going to take the book “That’s not my dolly” for show and tell, so he casually climbed the bookcase and packed it into his school bag without a second thought. Because I was semi-distracted and elbow deep in baby turds at the time I didn’t think much of it other than the fact it was one less thing I had to complete before we could get out the door, so I was simply grateful to be able to tick it off the mental “To Do” list and get on with it.
It wasn’t until we were finally outside and walking down to the preschool that I had second thoughts about the book. I’ll admit it. I was scared for him. As utterly ridiculous as it sounds I was apprehensive for my son and I wanted to shield him from the potential consequences of standing up at show and tell with his pink book about dollies. I was worried that he would be ostracised by his male friends, mocked or ridiculed, called a “girl” or a “sissy” or a “baby”. I couldn’t believe I was even having that dialogue with myself.
I first read Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth when I was 16. It changed my life. At university I went through a militant stage of forgoing make up and refusing to shave my armpits and legs. I did as many gender studies units as I could, I read widely in the feminist canon, I studied the spectrum of different theories, I wrote articles for the uni newspaper, I was selected to write satire for a feminist community radio program that never got our first program to air because I picked an ideological fight with a couple of lesbian separatists that got so heated the entire collective imploded in a miasma of oestrogen and bile. I was heaps of fun at parties.
I wrote fanzines, I blogged about it. My final year research project was an investigation of subcultural sexism, which included a feminist-influenced content analysis of seminal punk band Bikini Kill and their “Riot Grrrl” manifesto in qualitative comparison to the Spice Girls and their “Girl Power” schtick. I say all of these things, not to brag about how righteous I am, but to stress how much this shit matters to me.
I still bang on about things like gendered toys, the systematic social and cultural ghettoisation of women after they become mothers and hyper-sexualised media depictions of modern day animated characters and of females in general. I can’t help but filter the world through the lens of my feminist principles.
And yet I still took that fucking pink dolly book out of my son’s school bag.
It shames me deeply that yielding to this culture of chauvinism condones and legitimises and perpetuates it. It reinforces the message that boys shouldn’t like pink things or dollies, because that’s what girls like and boys are mocked or frowned at for slumming with the glittery trinkets and pretty ephemera of female stereotype, whereas we look benignly on girls who play with trucks and tools and Nerf guns because for them it’s trading up socially. It is something we tolerate with paternal condescension just as long as they don’t forget their place and become Prime Minister or something.
Why did I do it?
It goes against everything I believe in. The fact that we even have that book when I only have two sons and no daughters speaks volumes about my attitude to things like this. My son has tea sets and a pretend iron and a pink stroller to push his teddies around in. But, when it came to the crunch, I couldn’t let him take that book for show and tell, and worst of all was the deception. I took it out of his bag and hid it at the back of the pram. I pretended that he must have forgotten to pack it when we both knew quite well that he had. There was no age-appropriate way I could succinctly explain my complex motivations to him without reducing it to the offensive equation of pink dollies = girls book = bad for boys.
So why did I do it? I have been pondering on this all morning. How did I justify this in my head?
My son has only been at preschool less than six months and is still in the process of making friends and developing his own independent peer network. I suspect that the boys he has been playing with are probably aged 4 and up (he is only 3.5 years old) and going through that testosterone spurt boys get around that age because my son has come home enthusing about “guns” and “shooting people” and “baddies and goodies”, none of which he has ever been exposed to in our home environment. I have never bought him toy guns, played those sort of games, read those kind of books to him and has not been exposed him to violent media content – even heavily stylised types – like Ben 10, Spiderman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or others of their ilk.
So these are slightly older boys who are at the age where recognition of gender differences solidifies and where gender identification lends structure to peer groups and the corresponding types of play. I was worried that my younger, less mature, more sensitive son be mocked or derided or teased for taking a “girl’s book” to school. There I was projecting my stupid fears all over those kids when it is entirely possible that no one would even have raised an eyebrow, but I couldn’t allow him to take that risk. I kept thinking back to one day earlier this year when a whirlwind bromance with one of the boys at pre-school came to a very messy and painful end when my son’s friendship was brutally rejected, something which still saddens and bewilders him. He had a massive meltdown at school, moped around at home for weeks and I was shocked at how much it hurt my feelings too because I am not in the habit of being overly emotionally sensitive to, well, anything really.
Another principle I bang on about is developing resilience in children and letting them experience things like failure, disappointment and peer conflict without too much parental intervention. But despite everything, despite all those noble principles I resigned myself to the fact that at 3.5 my son was simply not ready for this fight, and it would have been unfair of me to let him walk wide-eyed and unknowing right into it. He just wants to make friends. He just wants to be liked. He doesn’t have the capacity to understand, let alone fight my ideological battles. It is not fair that his sense of happiness and security, his relationships with his peers become collateral damage to my feminist principles. That fight is too big for any 3.5 year old to wage on his own.
And so I took that fucking book out of his bag. Chalk up another win for chauvinism.