One negative stereotype of feminists is the panicked claim (usually by misinformed conservatives) that we hate children and families. Patently untrue as this is, as can be understood from feminist theory, I have anecdotal evidence to back me up: I, a feminist, just happen to love babies.
Was it luck that my mom had one when I was eighteen? The birth of a fourth sister gave me the priceless opportunity to observe the slow acculturation of a person into our society. Growing up with my other sisters was an entirely different experience from helping take care of a person so young she missed out on half of 2006.
That Little Haley loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Babysitter’s Club doesn’t seem too vastly removed from my sister’s post-millenialmillennial adoration of Yo Gabba Gabba and Youtube. But despite the decades that separate us, I came to realize her world isn’t all that different from the one of my earlier years. And therein is the problem.
I now understand that interacting with a toddler is not as simple as wiping noses and explaining Lady Gaga. The same gender binary that molded me into who I am today is still going to get its claws into my sister, no matter what I do to protect her. Although my parents don’t discourage her from demonstrating her more “masculine” interests – her beloved Spider Man muscle-suit is a testament to that – there is no mistake that she has been assigned a girl’s identity, and that she will face lifelong pressure to conform to it.
Even though we live in a world where women have made many gains towards equality, there are still penalties for people – men and women – who transgress against their gender identities. How many times has Rachel Maddow been chastised, not for her politics or opinions, but, as with a writer for Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller website, for not looking stereotypically feminine? How many commercials (ahem, Dodge Charger) aired during this year’s Super Bowl that desperately tried to reinforce the macho prerogative at the expense of respecting women? Whether we like it or not, men and women are cued to behave a certain way and those who don’t are punished.
So when my little sister refuses to fit into her assigned gender role, how am I supposed to respond? Not yet possessing the tools to express her individual interests and feelings, she is forced to describe elements of her personality, or the mood she is in on that particular day, as either that of a boy or a girl. Knowing what I do about the pressures and penalties of not being “feminine,” I feel helpless in guiding her through the minefield of gender while simultaneously encouraging her to stay true to herself.
Because I hate to admit it, but my feminist powers can only go so far. Sitting a three-year-old down and rationally explaining that gender is a mere social construct is a little much for someone who still thinks Elmo is their peer. I want for her what any parent or sibling would want: that she follow her own desires and interests, and that she develop fully as a human being. But I can’t remove the male-female dichotomy, and I can’t protect her from the world.
The fear that feminists are trying to undermine family structure is totally unfounded, but the (ridiculous) fear that we want to destroy traditional gender roles is right on. I don’t want my little sister to have to grow up with only a certain set of options available to her because someone put a pink bow on her head when she was born. I would feel the same if she had been born with male sexual equipment. It seems too easy to recognize that gender stereotypes are limiting – but how do we apply that to raising the next generation of feminists?
HALEY DAVIS has been feeling like a boy lately. He can be reached at email@example.com.