How Do You Teach A Thing Like Gender?

If anyone knows me long enough, it’s likely that they’ll see my put my foot in my mouth with some kind off-hand remark that sounded much more witty inside my head than it does coming out of my mouth. We’re all a work in progress; I know about this quirk of mine and I’m working on asking myself “Does this statement matter?” when I start to speak. Mindful thinking and all that jazz.

I was told about one of these moments from over the holidays. During some belated gift giving, a young girl in my family unwrapped a set of “princess tiaras and shoes,” marketed as the ultimate playtime accessory set. While she peeled out to trade out her sparkly sneakers for the plastic slides in a blinding shade of pink, my heart sank.

I’ve actively resisted the “princess power” mantra of girlhood since I started spending more time around young children, and when I can I challenge this child in particular to think about the reasons for her love of the Disney characters and others. I don’t recall the pervasiveness of idea that nothing is better than being a princess when I was a kid, nor do I remember ascribing to it. Of course, we had dolls and there was plenty of make-believe play. I know the Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories from memory but more as a totem of childhood rather than a story that I was told again and again. This lack of indoctrination makes it harder for me to relate to the gendered message being shoved on young girls today.

In that moment of seeing the gift, a moment of almost automatic response, I said “What…is that? Who is responsible for that?” To add sarcasm to incredulity, I gave a derisive chuckle. I recognize, in hindsight, that there is a small audience that appreciates the full amount of sardonic statements that come out of me. For most of the week, especially at work, I put on the largest filter. That day and that situation should have been one where I used that filter. Though no one said anything, it was obvious that I had spoken out of turn. Dropping the subject quickly, I gave the appropriate claps on the display of the tiara and clacking kitten-heel shoes, happy with the child’s happiness.

What remains on my mind, even weeks later, is how to balance my views on gender norms with the beauty of childhood, the blissful unawareness of expectations and judgment. At what point am I squashing creativity and curiousness with a serious subject such as trying to break down performativity and norms? My own eye-opening experience as a student coming face to face with critical theories of race and gender made me look at the world with a different lens. I no longer question why it’s so important that we notice these two black gay men who are fathers to three adopted children, though I wish it wasn’t such a “surprise” or even news. The ascendency of Lupita N’yongo, she of a hue with an interior glow that seems to both emit light and take it in simultaneously, is important both because she doesn’t represent the standard beauty norms (or even the standard idea of “Black beauty”) and because she doesn’t seem to take the burden on. She just wants to perform her craft.

There is ample evidence that we, both as a global society and within individual cultures, perform gender, either by knowingly or unknowingly adhering to or rejecting the standard. How am I, as a caretaker and future confidant of a child who will become a teenager and eventually a woman, reifying gender norms? What is my responsibility in lifting the veil to reveal the Wizard at work, and how do I stop short of taking away innocence? I can’t say I have the answer to this, and I likely never will have a definitive one. As I was told, in a gentle rebuke of my behavior, it isn’t always necessary to make it known verbally what one’s beliefs are and risk pushing away the intended audience. Perhaps my best weapon against patriarchy and pressure to perform one’s gender to fulfill society’s expectations is to be the example, the city upon the hill. And it may be working; just recently, I was told “Boys sometimes wear skirts too, huh?” without so much of a bat of the eye. The message is getting through. 

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