Beyond Suicide Prevention: An Overlooked Threat to LGBTQ Youth

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Having recently returned to paid, full-time employment in the domestic and intimate partner violence prevention and intervention field, I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss barriers to serving queer youth, especially when so many entities dictating the structure for provision of programming are still mired in homophobia, transphobia, and heterosexism.

Any input from readers is much-appreciated.

- Amanda


I don’t often consider the reality that my children will be teenagers someday: probably because I still need to periodically remind myself that I’m not a teenager. 15, in particular, really stands out as a Me-seeming age. However, even my rudimentary math skills allow me to easily calculate that both of my kids are closer to 15 than I currently am — in terms of years, if not emotional maturity.

Actually, I am the same age as Steve Kornacki, the news editor at Salon.com, who recently wrote an article about coming out as a gay man. At 32.

It’s a sobering, but not all together bleak, tale of finding one’s way in the dark.

Kornacki describes how, although he knew he was attracted to other guys as early as his sophomore year in high school (when he was probably around 15 years old), he quickly wrote off the idea of ever openly acknowledging his preferences. Because he didn’t believe he fit the stereotypical image of how a gay male is expected to behave (he is a rabid sports fan; others described him as “straitlaced”; he notes that his role models had always been wholesome [and presumably straight] “family men”),  he was driven to,

[learn] how to compartmentalize. I didn’t have to spend all day fighting my urges; I could just ignore them in public and acknowledge them in private, fleeting moments. …  Back then … the idea of being 35 or 40 seemed ridiculously far off – distant enough for me to tell myself that everything would take care of itself and I’d end up married to a woman.

Reading Kornacki’s story, I experienced an almost palpable Oh-God-I-Am-Definitely-A-Parent epiphany. I’m not 15. I’m a stodgy woman in her early thirties. And I have Concerns.


Back in July of 2011, I wrote about the glaring omission of — and ever-contentious debate over — LGBTQ representations in pre-literate children’s media.  Parents, educators, and otherwise invested adults must step up our game, I reasoned,  if we want to ensure that gender variance and a diversity of (nascent) sexualities will be considered par for the course by the time our current crop of preschoolers reaches adolescence.

But there is another major void that I was so inured to,  I simply failed to notice. Until Kornacki’s article got me thinking.

Most people who are supportive of and wish to protect young, queer people understand that attitudes obfuscating LGBTQ identities, and corresponding policies like the infamous (and — as of today — erstwhile!)  “neutrality” mandate in my region’s Anoka-Hennepin (Minnesota) School District, pose a danger to children.  They (1) implicitly sanction violence against and abuse of LGBTQ youth; and (2) unapologetically marginalize these kids, isolating them from some of the most fundamental sources of encouragement (i.e. teachers,  school personnel and other professionals tasked with advocating for young people) to which they should reasonably expect access. The climate resulting from the collision of these two factors has spawned a rash of widely-reported-on suicides and suicide attempts.

Unspeakably tragic though this is,  we need to remember that LGBTQ experiences’ absence from very basic, “life skills”-oriented discussions also has an impact on those who make it through this stage visibly unscathed.


In an opinion piece on the Anoka-Hennepin neutrality policy, Jeremy Tedesco wrote, “…  schools are places for education, not indoctrination”: a sentiment echoed by many supporters of maintaining the status quo.

If taken at face value, it’s hard to argue with Tedesco’s logic, especially when use of the term “indoctrination” conjures images of  drone children,  spouting political slogans.  But I believe one of the purposes of school is priming kids to be functional, healthy, self-actualized grown-ups who can Play Nicely With Others. Yeah, parents “should” be the pace-setters with regard to all that stuff. Having to put these skills into practice at school, though, gives children and young adults the opportunity to navigate less insular waters that more closely replicate, in microcosm, the challenges they will face in the real world.

Okay, then: by exclusively acknowledging heterosexuality and gender binary conformity (the premise behind the so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill” in the Tennessee legislature, which applies to students in kindergarten through grade eight),  kids won’t be tempted to ‘try out’ LGBTQ ‘lifestyles’.  The truth of the argument, similar to the “If we don’t teach comprehensive sex ed in schools, teens will be less likely to have sex” line of reasoning that was prevalent during my high school years, simply isn’t borne out by anecdotal reality. With regard to Abstinence Only education: teenagers didn’t abstain from sex without mandatory, comprehensive sex ed curricula in public schools; they were simply sexually active in more precarious ways.

Ibid., what does happen with alarming frequency: LGBTQ youth are left floundering and are forced to either retreat into emotionally difficult — and socially stunting — self-denial, or forge their own path in the domain of dating and sex … without much of a safety net, and with unpredictable outcomes.


Assuming that Kornacki’s account is more thorough than not, he was a relatively “lucky” one. That luckiness, of course, still involves 17 years of hiding his sexuality from family, friends, and other important people in his life; a coercive sexual encounter with someone he met online; and a lot of fear and uncertainty.

For many others, even those who are out, by degrees, this  represents the tip of the iceberg. They are the not-so-“lucky” ones.

My small-ish and decidedly Midwestern-ish circle of friends who identify as … something other than one hundred percent straight and cisgender … have an alarming number of stories, from their teens and early twenties, of sexual assaults, relationships mired in physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, survival sex that included instances of rape and battery, high-risk alcohol and drug use, and semi-anonymous sex that could have easily turned dangerous.

Somewhere along the line, this simply became part of the script: not good, certainly, or a mandatory rite of passage. Just common and unsurprising.

Why? Templates for young, queer Americans’ first forays into dating and sex aren’t stamped onto our collective unconscious: not the way straight kids’ experiences are, at least.  Hetero coming-of-age narratives have been a national obsession for — what? 50 years? But LGBTQ correlatives are not exactly writ large for eager minds seeking a direction.


Say you’re a — coughcough – comfortably middle class, white, gay male high schooler living in moderately-sized community in the US Heartland. You have, frankly, quite a lot of privilege going for you, other than the whole liking guys thing.  And, speaking of which, you want to find one with interests similar to yours, talk about and partake in said shared interests, and make out a bunch. Now,  how to achieve this goal?

Genders of the main players notwithstanding, this is pretty much the woebegone thesis of  every wretched teen romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. But our plucky protagonist has more hurdles to overcome than his straight counterpart pursuing … Selena Gomez or whoever.

1. Where do you meet someone your age?

The obvious answer is “at school,” which presents additional hurdles. How do you know who is safe to approach? If you express interest in a classmate who does not share your feelings, can you be sure that they’ll simply decline your advances instead of, y’know, murdering you? And if you’re fortunate enough to go to a school with an active Gay-Straight Alliance (or similar), do fellow participants really represent the entirety of your dating pool?

Outside of school, though, the rules are even more nebulous.  The city where I grew up — with a population in the neighborhood of 65,000 — offered a LGBTQ support and social group, facilitated by volunteer human services professionals, for under-21s. Even in that environment, where one could  assume a certain degree of security, you run into the difficulty of a small number of prospective “candidates” to work with, made even smaller by the reality that there is no promise of encountering anyone who has much in common with you beyond your shared non-heterosexuality.

Then, lest we forget, there’s the internet.

As I’ve written before, it’s a double-edged sword. The internet allows people to feel less isolated and forge self-defined community … while simultaneously providing a refuge for those inclined to prey on vulnerability. And if you’re a queer-identified young person in the United States, regardless of where you live, and through no fault of your own, you’re vulnerable.

2. What do you do on a date?

One of the most compelling parts of Kornacki’s article is a throwaway comment about a realization that occurred, for him, at age 24: “I found myself hoping [he and a man he was interested in] could get dinner or go to a movie. Dating, I think it’s called.”

It’s easy to write this off as naive, until you think about all the ways in which the stars must align for someone to date “normally” in high school. If you’re a kid who is, in any way, dependent on your parents for transportation, money, or a place to non-platonically watch TV and eat pizza, they have to be somewhat cooperative. Want to go anywhere in public? Hoping that no one you know sees you, suspects that you and your date aren’t “just friends,” and then relays this information to someone who could make your life miserable … well, that doesn’t exactly smack of equality.

And if you plan to attend some kind of Teen Milestone Event, like prom or a homecoming dance, it might be No Big Deal (in which case you also run the risk of well-intentioned people demonstrating just how progressive and open-minded they are by rubbing your face in the NBD-ness at every opportunity), or it might be a Very Big Deal — like the Constance McMillen case, which involved school district subterfuge, the ACLU, and a nationwide media circus. Whither the simple promise of spray tans and limo rides to the Red Lobster?

3. Who gets to know?

Okay, so I understand that “your parents” isn’t going to be an inevitable answer for any teenager. Flying slightly under the radar regarding the particulars of your dating life is a common tactic for young adults trying to assert an autonomous identity. I don’t look forward to being the nervous parent in this scenario. But I get it.

Are you comfortable with at least one friend knowing about the relationship, though? And, if so, is that friend someone whose opinion you value? Someone you trust to speak up if she or he notices any red flags? To know when it’s acceptable to keep your confidence, and when to call in reinforcements? Would the policies in place — either tacit or actual — allow a teacher or counselor at your school to respond to your direct requests for advice, or even act on their suspicions that something is amiss?

Herein lies the crux of my fear.

The fact is, intimate partner violence (and I use “violence” loosely to include myriad physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual behaviors) among teenagers, in general, is staggeringly common. Fortunately, this is finally getting more recognition; and programming to educate young people on how to strive for equanimity and mutual respect with their dating partners is becoming increasingly prevalent in schools. Students are given the opportunity to critically examine the components of a healthy relationship, define their personal values, and cultivate the skills necessary to communicate these to their partners. They also learn to identify features of an abusive relationship, and how to respond to threatening situations in a safe and productive manner.

As someone who has actually worked with students on these issues, in a classroom setting, I can’t place enough emphasis on how important such curricula are, or how much potential good they can do. Nonetheless, we are doing a huge disservice to many young people if we stand (solely) by a heteronormative model when hawking our message — even if that is more politically expedient and palatable.

We must start actively welcoming LGBTQ kids to the table, being unafraid of their sexuality, and divesting ourselves of the idea that they are not a sizable enough population to matter.


Doing so might register as more radical in practice than it initially seems in theory, though: owing largely to the above-mentioned complications.

Simply leaning on ambiguous pronouns and leaving it up to kids to infer the rest isn’t going to cut it.  If we do not directly signal to LGBTQ youth, who have spent so much time in obscurity, that we are speaking to them, they will assume that we are not.

Moreover, we need to acknowledge that their experiences — if not their fundamental feelings — are different due to the ever-present specters of homophobia, transphobia, heterosexism, and a whole lot of other compounding oppressions. It is hard to reconcile this with an impulse to will everything into fairness by pretending the disparity doesn’t exist.  Yes, LGBTQ youth should be afforded the same rites of passage, on the same timeline, as straight, cisgender youth; but, in order to help them now, we also have to let their current realities steer our outreach efforts.

Although I don’t have a proven formula for making this happen, it is something I have been discussing with other personal and professional stakeholders, including young people themselves. And a handful of key points seem to be raised, time and time again:

  • Tell kids it’s okay to be queer. Like, really: just fine. Value-neutral. Period. If you find yourself harboring a kernel of doubt about this — but still have a child in your life who you love and think deserves health and happiness — keep on repeating that mantra until you do truly believe it. But tell kids they’re okay anyway, without adding any disclaimers or provisos. Because introducing your “personal belief” boilerplate into the conversation isn’t going to result in anything positive for anyone involved. Trust.
  • Assure young people that it’s also fine to accept or reject (or take an a la carte approach to) the trappings of “regular” adolescent social patterns. Personally, I feel that this could stand to be applied to all young adults. I was pretty firmly situated in the REJECT camp during my youth. Then again, my gender and sexual orientation lined up well with the implicit defaults; so I had greater license to be a sullen malcontent (wink).

Queer kids may take some extra convincing that, no, they don’t have to capitulate to (frankly, fantasy-based) archetypal high school experiences in order to be accepted for who they are; and, by the same token, they don’t have to shun these in order to legitimize their queerness.

  • Meet them where they are. Some life lessons have the greatest impact if learned through trial and error. When adults acknowledge this, we also accept that our children are entitled to try and fail, and, thereby, achieve personal growth. Shifting into harm reduction (that is, providing people with tools and resources to make their choices — however subjectively “unhealthy” — less permanently or fatally detrimental) mode with your beloved kiddos is no small task. But I feel vesting LGBTQ youth with this level of trust is especially  important in order to underscore the point that their sexuality and gender aren’t “risky behaviors” in and of themselves: a fallacy that these kids are all-too-susceptible to internalizing.

The Anoka-Hennepin school district suicides I mentioned earlier? In a widely-quoted blog post by Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council, the author wrote, “[Y]outh who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [for suicide], because they’ve embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle.”

Let that sink in for a second. If Prichard — and others whose opinions his statement represents — is blaming young people’s sexuality and gender identities for directly precipitating their deaths, it stands to reason that similar attitudes exist about what they should expect from their involvement in relationships. It’s a vicious cycle that goes something like this: sanction willful disregard for promotion of safety in LGBTQ young adults’ relationships -> lacking the resources to properly navigate the proverbial minefield of love/dating/sex, LGBTQ youth end up in situations that compromise their safety ->  “See, I told you ‘homosexuality’ was inherently dangerous!”

 My point, then, is this: we, as adults, need to counterintuitively resist using an aggregate of scary information to put the kibosh on  LGBTQ young people experimenting with dating and sex altogether. This only functions to (1) reinforce the message that being queer is dangerous, (2) ensure that they are, developmentally, behind the curve established by their straight/cis peers when they reach an ill-defined “magical age” at which relationships are suddenly deemed “safer”, and (3) in effect, dare them to defy this edict and retreat even further from our watchful eyes.

Remember that the “particular vulnerability” I keep mentioning is entirely predicated on environmental conditions. So educate, inform, equip, and support away. Just don’t ensconce them in bubble wrap and sequester them from the world. There are threats, sure. But there are a lot of great, formative experiences to be had, too.


Where do we go from here, on a larger scale?

I am developing both inclusive and LGBTQ-specific curricula and teaching tools — following on the path forged by a handful of pioneering individuals who have also observed this need in their own schools and communities — for use in my work with interpersonal violence initiatives.

If you have any suggestions or insights to contribute to this effort, I welcome your comments.

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Chewbacca’s Senior Portrait

I framed a photo of Chewbacca the Wookiee for MaryAlice's nightstand. The girl loves Chewie.

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My Two-Year-Old: The agony and the … well, just agony

Look at this face:

Now ask yourself, How could this child’s mother ever be moved to write the following on Twitter?:

Based on my 2-year-old’s behavior this evening, if I had to speculate about future career prospects, “Courtney Love” would top the list.
One of the things I admire most about MaryAlice is her, uh, “spirited” temperament. She is a girl, so I give her a wider berth. It’s not because I believe girls are delicate creatures who should be dealt a more forgiving hand, discipline-wise. Rather, it’s because I know her behavior often strays pretty far afield of what people generally accept as “appropriate” for girl-children, and I don’t want to even be perceived as joining the chorus of gender-enforcing “Shhh!“-ers. I’m not saying that’s a rational or “right” choice: only that I have this fairly well-substantiated fear that, if she is told to shut up often enough and by relevant enough stakeholders, she won’t just turn the volume down a notch, she’ll turn it all the way off. (For the record, I don’t discourage my son’s gender-binary-non-conforming behaviors, either. Those simply tend to be less disruptive and inconvenient. Shrug). 
 
In light of all that: truth time. If she was an adult — and possibly even if she wasn’t my kid — I would think she was a total jerkstore.
 
Maybe this feeling of desperation is related to being in the home stretch of the Terrible Twos. Oh, yeah: they exist. They aren’t universal, though. My son, who will be five in December, struggled a little, in the usual “I HAVE BIG EMOTIONS AND LACK THE VOCABULARY TO EXPLAIN THEM” vein. But because he was a colicky nightmare as a newborn, anything that fell short of an eight-hour stretch of ceaseless screaming registered as un-noteworthy.
 
Aside from the occasional a-hole days or weeks, Stuart has only gotten progressively “easier” as he’s aged.  
 
MaryAlice has not.
 
 
Here are some delightful little affectations that have materialized since her second birthday, last September:
    1. Reactions to crises(-of-her-own-perception) are completely unmodulated according to the severity of said crisis. “I DROPPED MY FORK!” hysterics are virtually indistinguishable from what I’d imagine “MY HEAD IS CAUGHT IN A BEAR TRAP!” hysterics would sound like.
    2. When she has a tearful meltdown, she runs into the bathroom to check the mirror and see how sad she looks, then modifies her face for maximum pathos.
    3. Like most toddlers, MaryAlice has a knack for finding and walking around with objects that we’d rather she not have: our phones, expensive-ish electronic doodads, knives … . We have to use the utmost caution when trying to coax her into surrendering the object, and can never, but never, attempt to “wrest” it away. (She has a vise grip). One false move, and our DVD player remote or camera or mezzaluna is hurled  — often at our respective heads.
    4. Whenever we are anywhere in public, and MaryAlice can’t be strapped into a shopping cart or otherwise physically restrained, there is a 50-50 — no, let’s say 80-20 — chance that she will take off running, heedless of (A) her personal safety, or (B) anything (people included) in her path. But, wait! If we chase her, she just does that thing that dogs do, looking over her shoulder at us with a mocking glint in her eye while maintaining the established pace. This has resulted in a full-throttle crashes into  doors, trees, columns, and (literal) brick walls.
    5. Oft-heard fit-of-rage phrases: “Back off!” “Fine! I go home!” “You so damnit!” and, my personal fave, “Stupid hate!”

I can’t emphasize enough how ill-equipped to manage this I am. Actually, scratch that and replace “manage” with “tolerate.”  Logical, natural consequences? Zzzzip! Out the window during a Terrible Twos Fugue State (particularly because I don’t want to be the object of demonstration when it comes to following through on the logical and natural consequences of launching a pair of manicure scissors at my cornea).   The only management, so far as I can figure, involves containment and removal. Like kudzu or zebra mussels or something.

Oh, and P.S.: before you say, “Well, at least you’re a parent who is considerate enough to take their disruptive child out of social settings mid-tantrum,” know that I don’t — not always. When I am in public spaces with the kids and without my partner, there is usually a task at hand that, for whatever reason, couldn’t wait until reinforcements were available. (Family grocery shopping outings that involve four adult hands instead of two are a  comparative cakewalk). If the threat of an “episode” was enough to keep me home, I would never leave the house.

Which brings me to the second reason I’m not totally committed to the retreat-and-surrender approach. I have this bizarre notion that, if children are going to learn how to function as full-fledged members of society, they sorta hafta be in it. Trust me: you aren’t going to want to meet the fragile whelp who has been sequestered in his home, every whim bowed to like that kid in The Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life“.

(Quick aside: I know the subject of exclusive spaces for adults has been a hot-button issue lately. My thought is, aside from locations that are patently inappropriate for children [a porn store  or ... I don't know. A hookah lounge?], accepted patronage of people of all ages should be generally behavior-specific. You know: “Disruptive individuals may be asked to leave.” This is all very relativistic, of course. The definition of “disruptive” is probably different if you are dining at Chuck E Cheese’s versus, say, The French Laundry . But I do feel that, bad apple horror stories aside, most parents are acutely aware of when their child, and those around their child, have reached the tipping point. A little latitude on the part of the non-child-having public is always much-appreciated as well).

Anyway: tolerance.  My own reserve is all but sapped. Part of me is genuinely worried that turning three won’t cure her, or even be the gateway to recovery. Do I have the mettle to effectively parent a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder? Thanks, but I think I’ll just lie on the floor while she dances on the empty-shell-that-was-my-self, brandishing that mezzaluna, and yelling “Stupid hate!”  … probably all while naked, too (something I forgot to add to the list of grievances, above. Those cute butt dimples are losing their luster from over-exposure).

Really, then, this post is less a rumination than a cry for help. As someone who works an average of 60 hours a week outside the home, I’m with my daughter for precious little time; and I’d like our interactions to be spent with less open combat on her part, and less ducking and wincing on mine. Any suggestions for making peace with a child who is easy to love, but can be difficult to “like”?

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How is This Not a Non-Issue Already?

It’s July 3, which means it is also three days after the end of Pride Month (recognized both informally since Stonewall [42nd anniversary on June 28th, folks!]  and, for the last decade or so, in about as official a capacity as exists). And I messed up.

Instead of bringing the kids to the area Pride parade and festival last weekend, as was our original intention, my husband and I sent them away for a few days’ vacation at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Why? I was exhausted. I had to start a 16-hour shift at work later that afternoon. The money for gas and parking and food vendor concessions hadn’t been figured into our already-tight budget. Plus, I’m just gonna say it: the Pride festival makes me grumpy. It’s gotten bogged down with corporate-shilling-in-the-guise-of-goodwill; with political niceties and empty appeasements and pandering. (Dykes on Bikes do temper this harumph-ing, though. A little).

But the sum total of all these roadblocks doesn’t result in me being willing to let myself off the hook.


I’ve mentioned here on Pax (Ro)mama that I live in a small town in Western Wisconsin, the nearest major metropolitan area to which is the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. I grew up in a more middling community, an hour’s drive east of my current digs, that was located just a smidge outside the “Minnesconsin” subsumption radius, and had a fairly distinct civic identity.

Since college, I’ve been gradually creeping eastward: first to the cute riverside commuter city where I did my undergraduate degree, and then, thanks to the real estate bubble at the end of the last decade that rendered all other options unaffordable, to the  to the tiny village where my family has reluctantly put down shallow roots for three-years-and-counting.

Weirdly, the paths my husband’s and my professional lives have taken have had an inverse relationship with our homesteadin’ direction. My primary job is at a branch of a State agency in one of a handful of non-suburban, self-contained communities directly outlying the Twin Cities metro; and my husband works for a non-profit headquartered in an ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged neighborhood in St. Paul.

For me, going home at the end of the work day often feels less like returning to my sanctuary than returning to my cell. I mean, it would conclusively feel this way were it not for the fact that I’m living in a age that affords me 24/7 access to an incomprehensible volume of information from the (relative) comfort of my own home. The internet also allows me to connect with others whose backgrounds, interests, challenges, and self-defined cultures are similar to or at an incredible remove from my own: freely, and at any hour of the day or night. It’s an incredible lifeline for taciturn, socially anxious and situationally isolated people like me.

But I’m an adult. I can make, with few limitations, choices about what information I seek out, what types of entertainment I consume and participate in, and with whom I associate. My kids, who are four and two, don’t have that luxury. Not just them: all young, pre-literate children. They still have to, by and large, accept what is handed to them; and what is handed to them subsequently becomes the foundation of their worldview. I wrote about the ridic level of psychic tension this has caused me — perhaps with greater hopefulness at the time — here.

It’s not all bad. In fact, because of the unfortunate reality that, in the U.S., kids are a cash cow of a demographic, if we want to rail against simple uniformity, we don’t really have to lift a finger. (Ni Hao) Kai Lan and Dora and the grand dame of them all, Sesame Street, have our backs (and our wallets). It’s clear to me that there has been a concerted movement, amongst children’s entertainment taste makers, to diversify offerings. Regardless of whether this is simply the result of revenue-motivated lip service, I think most people would agree that it is a step in the right direction.

There’s at least one big exception to the general trend, though, and it’s making me increasingly livid. Few in the field, or parents of the children that partake of this entertainment, seem to care much about heterosexism, homophobia, or cis essentialism. And even when they do, people tread lightly: myself, I’m sinkingly realizing, included.


Some context:

When I was in high school, I had a lot of queer friends. Like, a lot (proportionally speaking). In my free time, I watched VHS tapes of Derek Jarman and Gregg Araki movies from the only  (miniscule, independent) video rental place that shelved them, and borrowed Sarah Schulman books on inter-library loan. I tend to play my cards pretty close to the chest; so people who meet me as an adult — and ohmygod especially those who have only known me as a “mom” — are either unaware of my nearly-20-year-deep history as an unlikely stakeholder in the LGBTQ-what-have-you (we’ll talk about acronym-pain another time) movement , or suspect I’m working some angle but can’t quite isolate my motives.

The real story is … there is no story. And I think that’s what paints me as a curiosity for some, and has made me question, on many occasions, whether my support is even appropriate or desired.

By way of quasi-explanation, then, here’s where I’m coming from:

  • I identify as, and probably read as, a straight, cisgender woman; but I’m not wrapped up in this identity. Nor anyone else’s identity. Whether a person wants to firmly stake their claim in an incredibly specific way , or stays pretty flexible: it matters not one whit. I should also mention that I’ve been partnered with a cis man for 12 years.
  • I never had an epiphanic moment that guided me to “embrace teh Gay.” There’s no pat narrative. Many similarly-inclined heteros are like, “[Such-and-such close friend or family member] came out, and so I dedicated myself to the cause on their behalf.” I got nothin’. Except …
  • I’ve always been alienated from the (broadly-defined) Mainstream for reasons difficult to pin down, and have endured truly cruel, baseless bullying. So my empathy barometer is sensitive. I’m also culturally Catholic; my extended family is — frequently in practice, but universally in a philosophical sense — social-justice oriented and knee-jerk moderate-liberal. Is this the recipe that yields a straight, Midwestern girl who is fluent in the oeuvre of David Wojnarowicz, though? Eh.
  • And, no, I didn’t and don’t have any “sexually non-threatening gay male quasi-boyfriend” fantasies, or a desire to seem outre and rebellious, or a hope to be praised for my “progressive” attitude, or an anthropological sense of curiosity.

Lots of people and events and writings and works of art have informed, modified, and refined my attitudes. But, fundamentally, I continue to be motivated by the queasiness I feel when I think about queer youth — especially those who are still largely invisible, in rural areas or conservative, religious enclaves — trying to eke out a life without knowing whether their subsistence needs will be met, or if they will be safe from physical, emotional, and psychological harm, should anyone correctly speculate about their identity. For all the internet’s powers of connection-beyond-borders (be they geographical or cultural), in this case it may be (1) giving some vulnerable kids a false sense of security; and (2) allowing adults to feel all “mission accomplished” when the work is, in fact, not finished.


Ergo, when I became a parent, I knew I was being presented with a new opportunity to set things right in my own, small way. After all, the only anti-queer argument that appears to be given any non-fringe-legitimacy these days is, to quote Helen Lovejoy, “Won’t someone think of the children?!”

It’s a total strawman, of course, because clearly the people putting it out there don’t universally “think of the children” (with regard to educational opportunities, health care access, adequate nutrition, safe housing, et cetera).

Yet, somehow, we still allow it to retain trump card status.

Well, screw that, I thought. I’m a person with children. I want them to know that they can love and partner with whomever they choose, and so can everyone else. (I have had to break it to my four-year-old that marrying Grandma isn’t a possibility).

It’s recently dawned on me, though, that non-exclusivity isn’t the same as inclusivity, particularly if we’re dealing with a child’s developing consciousness. When I wrote about the call for accepting (traditionally) gender-normative behavior while still promoting gender-diverse parenting practices, I suggested,

If taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?

The always-amazing and oft-cited Arwyn (my bloggy hero!) from Raising My Boychick responded,

While there’s a very big and important difference between anticonformism and nonconformism …, the cultural indoctrination around gender (among other things) is so very strong that to a certain extent, we need to lean far the other way just to make a difference in the overall trajectory of our children’s lives — and in part because we unconsciously, will we or nil we, aim them toward the gender typical ourselves.

Point well taken.  And, when I applied the lesson to my so-called efforts to ensure that my kids’ outlook didn’t have a heteronormative “default” (without exotifying or othering queerness [okay, so that sounds like an oxymoron]), it was apparent that I had set the bar way too low.

Unfortunately, I also learned that there were relatively few resources to help me raise it.


This is where living in a small town really complicates matters. As does, I guess, the fact that both my husband and I have (multiple) outside-the-home jobs, which means that the kids are with non-family caregivers for much of their day. (Although I hardly need an excuse to induce further guilt, there).  Due to Stuart’s and MaryAlice’s homogeneous surroundings, diversity awareness is something that has to be actively facilitated: and facilitated in a way that doesn’t favor the lens of the Dominant. (E.g. A children’s book about a Hindu family celebrating Diwali would be preferable to a story about a white, Christian kid going to his neighbors’ house to participate in their Diwali celebration and learn about the holiday).

As I mentioned earlier, this is now a breeze — requiring little-to-no effort — when it comes to fostering an understanding of differences in ethnicity, religion, ability, and socioeconomic privilege. But look for child-aimed literary, cinematic, and, most especially, television representations of  queer people and it’s largely … tumbleweeds.

Perhaps even more so because of the caveat that’s always at the front of my mind. I demand that these representations be unspectacular.

There are a handful of good children’s books (I am not aware of any widely available movies or television shows for preschool and early-elementary school-aged kids, although I do harbor suspicions about Victor and Pedro on Clifford the Big Red Dog), like King and King and 10,000 Dresses , that address non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities in an Issue du Jour way (and, I should add, with the hetero/cis parents portrayed as kind of assholish); or, like Daddy, Papa, and Me and Mommy, Mama and Me , that talk about families with same-sex parents. But I’ve been hard pressed to find titles where these factors are totally incidental to the “real” story. The one in our pretty extensive home library that most closely fits the bill is And Tango Makes Three. Which is about penguins.

(By the way, if you want to have an idea of what sort of conversations make me prickly-slash-hysterical, check out any of the unfavorable reviews for the aforementioned books).

In 2005, the PBS children’s animated/live-action hybrid television show Postcards From Buster (about a globe-trotting, anthropomorphized cartoon rabbit who meets kids and learns about their lives) notoriously attempted just the sort of casual approach to LGBT inclusivity that I advocate. And everything went kablooey.

In an episode called “Sugartime!”, Buster learned about … (gasp!) maple syrup harvesting and sugaring in Vermont. Some of the real kids featured on the episode had parents who were lesbians. Witness the horror.

PBS decided not to distribute “Sugartime!” to its member stations; in fact, the then-Secretary of Education sent out a missive warning against airing it, later explaining, “Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode.”

We took Stuart to a maple-tapping demonstration last March. Should we be expecting a visit from Child Protective Services?


The conclusion I’ve drawn from all this ruminating is that, unless I want to awkwardly use my friends and their lives as object lessons for Stuart and MaryAlice (Um, no. Besides being inappropriately entitled, going  that route would also mean I’d need to leave my house more frequently [snerk]), the Pride festival is pretty much all there is for us. A less-than-perfect, once-a-year event, an hour’s drive away.

That. Is. Pathetic.

See, while I know the statistical likelihood is that my kids are (or will be) straight and cisgender, they are also my stand-ins for all the other children their age who aren’t. My ultimate vision is not that, in ten years or so, Stuart and MaryAlice and/or their peers won’t have any qualms about coming out to their parents, relatives and loved ones, but that the idea of coming out at all will be anachronistic. No one will care anymore, one way or the (/an) other. The kids will moon over stupid celebrities and shuffle through awkward proto-dates and openly sulk about unrequited crushes. And the parents will furrow their brows about more important things. That’s my hope.

But.

The chance to realize this wish may be quickly evaporating for today’s children, as our adult-governed culture of fear is allowed to continue to use the supposed “best interest of youth” as a smokescreen. It’s more than discouraging; and, try as I might, I can’t buoy my optimism by thinking, Well, maybe my grandchildren’s generation, then. Just 30 more years, and then  — then things will really be different. Forever, this time.

Because how many kids are we going to needlessly lose in those intervening years? And, when the sea change finally does come, how will I answer the question, “What took you so long?”

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You Make Me Sick (?)

Consider this convenient compendium of factoids from Wikipedia’s breastfeeding article …

  • In a 1993 University of Texas Medical Branch study, a longer period of breastfeeding was associated with a shorter duration of some middle ear infections (otitis media with effusion) in the first two years of life.
  • A 1995 study of 87 infants found that breastfed babies had half the incidence of diarrheal illness, 19% fewer cases of any otitis media infection, and 80% fewer prolonged cases of otitis media than formula fed babies in the first twelve months of life.
  • Breastfeeding appeared to reduce symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections in premature infants up to seven months after release from hospital in a 2002 study of 39 infants.
  • A 2004 case-control study found that breastfeeding reduced the risk of acquiring urinary tract infections in infants up to seven months of age, with the protection strongest immediately after birth.
  • Infants exclusively breastfed have less chance of developing diabetes mellitus type 1 than peers with a shorter duration of breastfeeding and an earlier exposure to cow milk and solid foods.
  • In children who are at risk for developing allergic diseases (defined as at least one parent or sibling having atopy), atopic syndrome can be prevented or delayed through exclusive breastfeeding for four months.
  •  Atopic dermatitis, the most common form of eczema, can be reduced through exclusive breastfeeding beyond 12 weeks in individuals with a family history of atopy.

 … and this recent study, from Denmark:

An observational study of 69,750 infants born in Denmark has concluded that breastfeeding may decrease epilepsy in childhood. Information on breastfeeding was reported by mothers at 6 and 18 months and information on epilepsy retrieved from the Danish National Hospital Register. Breastfeeding was associated with a decreased risk of epilepsy, with a dose-response like pattern. For example, children breastfed for 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 12, and >13 months had a 26%, 39%, 50%, and 59% lower risk of epilepsy after the first year of life, respectively, compared with children who were breastfed for <1 month. The authors conclude that the observed protective effect of breastfeeding may be causal.

Now hear me out when I say that, rather than feeling self-satisfied, as a former breastfeeding mama, reading these statistics always gives me pause.

Another follower of the site that referred me to the last precis (on the incidence of epilepsy in BabyDanes) commented, “How bizarre that you have posted this! I saw a woman in town today who has two epileptic children under the age of 4 and I wondered as I walked past her, if breastfeeding reduced the risk.”

This got me thinking: about how we peddle breastfeeding; about the false  dichotomy of “sick children” and “healthy children”; about whether kids in either imaginary category should be used as marketing pawns. And about why we are making mothers feel like they must produce their “vetted breastfeeder” card before they can be held faultless for their child’s illness.


I’ll put myself and my kids out there as an informal case study.

I am the parent of two children who were sickly babies, and still face some health challenges — so far not-insurmountable ones — at ages four and two, respectively. They will likely deal with illness, to one degree or another, through adulthood. What’s to blame? Probably the confluence of my and my husband’s genes. There’s a lot of auto-immune hinckiness going on in all branches of the family tree.  We’re just lucky that, with accommodations, the stuff that Stuart and MaryAlice have experienced hasn’t had a big impact on their quality of life.

Thing is, many of the symptoms of and secondary conditions related to  their illnesses are ones for which extended breastfeeding is often touted as having near-prophylactic qualities. And both of my children were breastfed from day one: Stuart for 16 months (self-weaning about four months into my pregnancy with his sister), and MaryAlice, who also self-weaned, for roughly 30 months. What else? We introduced solids, on a conservative  schedule for allergen-avoidance, at six months. They got a combination of homemade purées and finger foods; but breastmilk was still their primary source of nutrition until toddlerhood. Brownie. Points. To. Meeeee.

A friend of mine, who did not nurse her first child (for sundry reasons, and despite valiant attempts), remarked, when Stuart was an infant (gaunt and anemic with a hyper-sensitive GI tract and weeping plaques of dermatitis): “You know, they say that breastfed babies are healthier. But when I see what Stuart has been through, I have my doubts!”


Therein lies the problem. Or a problem.

“Hold the phone!” you might be (reasonably!) saying, “Are you suggesting that these studies’ findings shouldn’t be circulated? Or that the studies shouldn’t be conducted in the first place? If you look at that data, it doesn’t imply that breastfeeding prevents or cures illness across the board, or that breastfed infants can’t get sick!”

No, and no. True, true. 

Breastfeeding advocates are regularly coming up against the challenge of how to disseminate our message persuasively and memorably while remaining on the sunny side of factual certitude. Formula companies have advertising dollars in their arsenal that we never will. (I’d add, “because breasts can’t be commodified.” But ohohoho how shortsighted that statement would be!). So why not at least co-opt their approach?

Except, unlike formula companies, breastfeeding advocates don’t have a centralized clearinghouse for our information or the vehicles we use to get the word out.  And, by dint of the “product” itself, we aren’t going to. (That would be weird and dystopian). Wonderful resources like Best for Babes aside, breastfeeding “proselytizing” probably goes over best at the grassroots level.

That great, potential strength is also a great, potential pitfall. Why? Because wielding logical fallacies is so, terribly (and I do mean terribly!) … well, fun. And easy. But they’re also easy  — and, I’d venture to guess, fun — for naysayers to dismantle.

The way this sickness-impervious-breastfed-babies fable makes the rounds is by way of misleading vividness couched in the actual outcomes of the above-mentioned studies and trials. (It’s a kissing cousin of the sickness-impervious-babies-of-stay-at-home-parents yarn). The positive take on this fallacy is, “My baby is robust and thriving and hasn’t had so much as a case of the sniffles since birth! We owe it all to breastmilk!” It’s an argument I don’t mind at all because it is person-specific and self-referential. Celebrate your healthy baby and celebrate breastfeeding, by all means. Is the implicit argument, “You should breastfeed, too, so your baby is healthy like mine”?  Perhaps. But it’s subtle and non-damning enough to be pretty innocuous (no pun intended), from where I stand.

At least when compared to the negative flip-side: “All the formula-fed babies I know are little mucous-buckets: always coming down with something. And their parents wonder why their kids are sick all the time! Could it be because they’re mainlining ‘crap-in-a-can’ [or alternate, disparaging euphemism for infant formula]?”

Sure, that exact sort of vitriolic take on the subject is probably reserved for preaching-to-the-choir internet fora. But the sentiment shines through, even in more tempered renditions (e.g. “That baby sure is sick a lot. I wonder if s/he is breastfed“). At least it does for me, as the parent of two, breastfed-to-the-gills children who struggle with chronic health problems.

Here is the snowball effect of the thoughts it evokes:

  1. Parents who choose to formula-feed their infants invite illness into their babies’ lives. There is direct, anecdotal causality between formula-feeding and illness, despite the studies drawing no similar conclusion.
  2. Sick children are undesirable.
  3. Sick children are not only undesirable because of the difficulty managing their illness poses to the children themselves and their families and caregivers. No, they are “gross.” And they spread their ick to more pristine, hardier kids. Yuck.
  4. This undesirability serves as a testament to their parents’ — their mothers’ — shortcomings. A sick baby is your punishment for Doing It Wrong.
  5. If you were a competent parent (read: if you loved your child), your kid would be healthy.

All sorts of other permutations of the same, basic idea feed this last point. I mentioned the non-parental caregiver/center-based daycare factor earlier. There’s also the chemical exposure factor (“I bet she used diaper lotion with parabens!”). The non-organic food factor (“Mom ate at McDonald’s a lot during her pregnancy …”). The medical intervention factor. (“They head straight to the pediatrician for antibiotics every time their baby coughs!”). Etcetera ad infinitum.

What are otherwise objectively reasonable convictions — avoid harsh chemicals; make healthier food selections; don’t jump the gun on prescription drug use (all “choices” fraught with their own privilege, by the way) — get mired in this over-zealous correlation-inflation. The fallout, here, is two-fold. First, we’re taking the offensive and using shame as a battering ram. I know I’ve harped on this topic before; but, since it continues to be massively uncool, I don’t feel bad about pointing it out again. The second issue: we’re leaving the door open for similar flights of empirical fancy that contradict our own. Like, “Breastfeeding can’t be the best choice for all babies: look at Stuart.” (“Heroin can’t be that bad. William S. Burroughs made it to 83!”).


More upsetting to me than the tenuousness of the rhetorical devices at play (and leave it to a former English major to be upset about rhetoric at all) is the idea that Well Children have cachet, whereas Sick Children are a liability to one’s reputation as a parent.  I mean, occasionally, in these discussions, there will be a hurried amendment to the opining: “Andreallyit’stoobadthatthekidshavetodealwithbeingill.Thatmustsuck.”

But, for the most part, the children that are held sacrosanct, the children we are supposedly jumping down each other’s throats to protect, are reduced to symbols. It’s almost as though bodily fortitude stopped being something that is desirable in and of itself (“I am so grateful for my health!”)  and started to have  … moral overtones.

(I want to take a moment, too, to acknowledge that parents of children with cognitive and psychiatric disabilities undoubtedly face even greater reproach in this doctrine of blame-assignment. It’s simply a topic for another time!)

At the heart of the matter: when someone learns about my kids’ rather storied history of illness, I don’t want their first thought to be, “How did you fail them?” And I don’t want to have that whole earlier spiel about my breastfeeding cred tattooed on my body for easy reference a la Memento. Because, yes, being obligated to prove myself is tiresome; but, more fundamentally, because I don’t feel others are entitled to information about Stuart and MaryAlice’s actual, corporeal, cellular-level selves for the purpose of reifying or calling into question their basis for discrimination. I’m using the term “discrimination,” by the way, to mean determining who deserves praise, and who deserves criticism; who should be given sympathy, and who is getting their just desserts.

(This piece by Julia at Kidneys and Eyes about the site Too Big for Stroller [which doesn't merit a hyperlink, because ew] offers a variation on the same theme and is well worth a read).


Does mentioning potential benefits to maternal and infant health still have a place in discourse about breastfeeding? I would say, yes. Absolutely. I don’t have a concise vision for how this piece of the puzzle would ideally fit (how to find that impactful, consumer-friendly balance of fact and plain-spoken coherency?) ; but “yes,” nonetheless. However, I also believe that we need to examine our tendency to use wellness as a way to patly incentivize breastfeeding, because of the ease with which such promises are misconstrued and either (A) end up having an inverse effect on the reliability of our message, or (B)  “other”(-as-a-verb) certain mothers.

Let me reiterate: when you are as passionate about breastfeeding as I am, I know how enticing it is to cling to any and all affirmative-seeming associations and proffer them desperately against what often feels like a deluge of disadvantageous societal messages (“booby traps” in Best for Babes parlance). I’d submit, though, that we also have a responsibility to consider the potential fallout from leaning on shaky logic.

And, yes, it’s pretty common to cast aspersions and flippantly over-simplify Big Thoughts in our interactions online when we would never do so “IRL.” On the other hand, if we give ourself a “pass” because of this, we’ve set up a holding pattern: that is, we want to re-normalize breastfeeding; we have determined that safe spaces for doing so are far too rare “out there” … so we create an antithetically hostile climate “in here”?

Where does that leave our fellow mothers, but stuck in a limbo between competing spheres of judgment?

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Tardy Slip

My patience has reached new heights  this week as my oldest dog recovers from surgery on his ACL, my husband finishes an almost 2 week stretch of being on-call, and regular life refuses to accommodate for that by slowing down.  Here’s how our morning went today.

*To be clear: I provide this for your enjoyment, because I had to laugh even while it was happening.

9:00  Naya is fed. We are mostly dressed.  I am even showered.   It is looking like we’ll make it to our morning activity with plenty of time.
9:01 Pass cat box. Notice a cleaning need.  Take care of it.
9:02 Naya refuses to have her hair combed and put up. I try for about 2 minutes (choices, sprays, songs, acrobatics– you name it) and then give up– leave her in room to finish other tasks telling her to let me know when she’s ready.
9:03 Take Mancho (the identified patient) outside for his potty break on leash– because 1. apparently I need to worry about him hobbling away with three legs in our fenced yard and 2. he refuses to move without it.
9:05 Come in. Fill Kongs.  Naya comes out ready to do hair.
9:06 Wash hands. Hair done. Naya decides to give Kongs to dogs.  Excitedly throws Kong at Mancho in living room (does not hit Mancho).  CHICKEN EVERYWHERE.
9:10 Chicken cleaned off carpet.  (THERE WAS CHICKEN ON MY CARPET)  Put Benny (other, very concerned dog who is not to be trusted without supervision– he cuddles too close) in dog crate.
9:12 Wash hands.  What is that smell?  Clean up cat diarrhea next to cat box. Yes, that’s right.
9:13 CRASH! 
9:13:02 “Uh oh, Mama!”  Naya has pulled down the lamp in her room in order to get the unused collar cone that husband inexplicably thought should be stored there.
9:15 Lamp is cleaned up. (But not before sending a photo text of the devastation to the hubs entitled “This is Why We Don’t Have Nice Things!”) Where is Naya?
9:17 Naya found.  WHY IS BENNY WALKING AROUND THE HOUSE?!?!
9:18 Benny is back in dog crate.
9:19 Naya wipes her nose on my shirt (2 year old molars).
9:23 New shirt selected and donned.
9:24 Coats and shoes on
9:25 Reheat coffee whilst assembling diaper bag, snack, juice, and kid–then leave it to cool, forgotten on kitchen counter as we head out the door.

9:26 Realize Naya has pooped.  Go back in and change diaper.

9:32 On our way to Funshop.  Which started two minutes ago.

So, some days we ponder the big stuff, and some days we just try (often futilely) to leave the house on time without anything stuck to our pants.

-Jen

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Pink Apologia

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Is there a more divisive color?
 
I’ve written about the utility and frugality-influenced decision to dress my son in pink clothing as an infant. (And, on the very day I caught wind of the flap surrounding a J Crew ad featuring a five-year-old boy with pink-painted toenails, guess whose toenails were,  indictingly, sporting a Wet ‘n’ Wild shade called Bar-B ).  Based on the feedback I got, it’s pretty clear reasonable people  understand that (A) boys, of any age, wearing pink clothing is not an offense worthy of comment — or an offense, period; and (B) gender performativity and gender aren’t one-to-one correlatives. To say nothing of sexual orientation.
 
However! What is considered defensibly boundary-defying when applied to boys still inspires pushback from some high-minded, unorthodox parents when applied to girls.  I’m talking about parents, usually of a pedantic ilk, who question the implications of various childhood rules and rituals, and talk their way around the acceptance or rejection of these. (See also: “What we concern ourselves with when we aren’t concerned about where our next meal is coming from”). Yeah, I’m talking about parents like me.
 
 A lot of these … whatever … parents have no problem saying, “I would never dress my daughter in pink clothes” or deriving pride from their little girl’s pink-repulsion.  And, I admit, I might have done the same. In fact, this issue probably wouldn’t even be a blip on my indignation radar if not for MaryAlice, my two-and-a-half-year-old (in case you missed it in the slide show):
 

MaryAlice, whose current hair-hue comes courtesy of Manic Panic’s Hot Hot Pink, has a certain appreciation for the color: one that Stuart really doesn’t.  Her mindset hasn’t reached an “I will forsake all  other colors!” plateau. But, when given a choice between a pink object and a non-pink object, it isn’t hard to guess which one she’ll select.

“Why?” doesn’t really matter. We didn’t deluge her with pink from birth or eliminate it from her realm of awareness. In fact, she mostly wore hand-me-downs from Stuart — which, again, meant her wardrobe included pink items but was not exclusively pink.

As a child who has been around other children, most of whom are products of traditionally-inclined  households, since she was eight weeks old, has MaryAlice digested the idea that Girls ♥ Pink? Well, sure, probably. On the other hand, if taste indoctrination is what is raising hackles, shouldn’t counter-indoctrination be viewed with an equally jaundiced eye?


I think it’s difficult to divorce emblems from their perceived connotations or historical, cultural, or iconographic roots. And it’s less complicated  to put the kibosh on, essentially, an aesthetic preference than it is to “say what you mean” — to quote the eminently quotable Lewis Carrol.  Just like it is less complicated to forbid branded and cross-branded toys and apparel and food and household products than to have a frank, age-appropriate discussion about the detriment of consumerism and insidiousness of advertising. (Believe me, I’ve been there. In the past month, my four-year-old has exclaimed “Trix are for kids!” and questioned, “What does that Cheetos cheetah [shady and beshaded spokestoad Chester Cheetah] want us to do? Should we eat Cheetos all the time?”). Or to put princess-blinkers on our daughters than to celebrate and cultivate the multifarious characteristics that make them special people. (This is also territory I’ve covered before).


Ah, princesses. Without deviating too far off-course — because this topic probably deserves a post unto itself — I want to briefly bring princesses into the discussion, if only because they, and the alleged damage they cause, are often conflated with the color pink, and vice versa.

Peggy Orenstein has been getting a good amount of press for her latest offering, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. Full disclosure: I haven’t read the actual book in its entirety, but have seen it excerpted widely. Here is a quote from the afore-linked NPR interview: 

Orenstein says very young children don’t yet understand that your sex is fixed — that you can’t go to sleep a girl and wake up a boy. So little girls may be drawn to pink, sparkly princess gowns as a way of asserting that they’re definitely girls.

But an overemphasis on pink can eventually be harmful, Orenstein says. “Those little differences that are innate to boys and girls, if they’re allowed to flourish by having kids grow up in separate cultures, become big gaps.

“When your daughter is sitting there in her room, with her pink princess dress and her pink Scrabble kit … and her pink Magic 8-Ball, it just makes those divisions so much bigger and so much harder to cross.”

I understand why archetypal fairytale princesses make people squeamish. They are demure; delicate; in need of “rescuing”; objectified; valued only for their beauty. Their chief goal is to be desired, and subsequently obtained, by a prince. 

This is not a revelation.

I will point out, though, that (A) the whole trope has been revised significantly (if imperfectly) in many cinematic and literary interpretations of the past several decades; and (B) I don’t think princesses’ appeal, for young children, is even rooted in those classic traits. From observing my own children, who are pretty typical, I’m all-but-certain that they are mesmerized by the pageantry, the sparkle, the ostentatiousness : l’art pour l’art. Pink figures prominently into this schema — and tulle and glitter and cupcake-like embellishments. All of these things are value-neutral in a vacuum.

For example, Stuart and MaryAlice call Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz a “princess.” Does her lack of monarchical lineage contradict this assumption? Or her disinterest in princes/men, her ability to act independently, and her role as a font of guiding wisdom in the story? Of course not! She’s a “princess” because she’s got an absurdly impractical dress that looks like it’s made from cotton candy, a disco-mitre crown, and travels in an incandescent, fuchsia bubble. Just like, in their minds, I’d be a doctor if I donned a white lab coat and wore a stethoscope. (Thankfully, few people over the age of eight or so could be similarly fooled).


Here’s the thing I don’t get: why the princesses — and pink — are being singled out, as supposedly hyper-gendered signifiers, for lambasting. Why should girls be steered toward so-called “crossover” interests (more on that in a bit), and boys, by and large, left to their paradigm?

To try to respond to my own confusion from Orenstein’s perspective: she  may be castigating them because she’s built a career on writing about social challenges foisted upon girls. Plus, she has a little girl. It’s an immediate concern for her.

Nonetheless, some of her quotes and conclusions give me pause:

 I wanted [my daughter] to be able to pick and choose the pieces of her identity freely — that was supposed to be the prerogative, the privilege, of her generation. For a while, it looked as if I were succeeding. On her first day of preschool, at age two, she wore her favorite outfit — her “engineers” (a pair of pin-striped overalls) — and proudly toted her Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox … My daughter had transcended typecasting.

Then, of course,  disappointment sets in when, under the influence of her Princess Svengali classmates, Orenstein’s daughter takes up the pink-loving torch:

As if by osmosis she had learned the names and gown colors of every Disney Princess — I didn’t even know what a Disney Princess was. … [F]or her third birthday [she] begged for a ‘real princess dress’ with matching plastic high heels.

Shame. Failure. Bad feminist mommy.

So many of these feelings that one needs to write an entire book to expiate them? That’s a bit of a reach on my part.

It isn’t too farfetched to say that Orenstein  is not alone — not by a longshot —  in stamping implicitly or explicitly boy-aligned toys, colors, interests, even behaviors and emotions, with gold-star status, and declaring them honorarily “gender neutral,” while taking their girl-aligned counterparts to task. 

As  the proverbial “snips and snails and puppy-dog tails” are given nods of approval from every direction, boys are still the clear default target demographic, and girls a mere afterthought. Orenstein herself bemoans Thomas the Tank Engine’s tokenistic treatment of female characters:

I complained to anyone who would listen about the shortsightedness of the Learning Curve company, which pictured only boys on its Thomas packaging and had made Lady, its shiny mauve girl engine, smaller than the rest. (The other females among Sodor’s rolling stock were passenger cars — passenger cars … ).

Dressing in pinstriped overalls to emulate a conductor on Thomas  might be “transcend[ing] the stereotype”; but is it a victory for girls? And, critically, is it better than an infrastructure  that deliberately places girls’ existence at its center? After all, even in the most abhorrent, outmoded fairy tales in which princely acceptance is regarded as the ultimate goal, and physical beauty is viewed as paramount, those princes are just kind of set-dressing, plot devices. Heck, they usually don’t even have memorable names!

So, regardless of intention, this reactionary favoring of “boy stuff”  makes boys the litmus test. Again. Still.


I have a sneaking suspicion that many of us — especially women — continue to unwittingly devalue, and even demonize, the traditionally “feminine” because we are trying to shield the young girls in our lives from the imperatives that we, ourselves, may have struggled with. We wanted a Transformer and got a Barbie instead. Science and Math were seen as masculine subjects in school, so we were encouraged to make our mark in English and Art. We babysat, while our brothers had paper routes. There was internal  dissonance  if we followed the mandates to a T and  external tut-tutting if we didn’t.

This, I absolutely agree, is unhealthy for girls, and unhealthy for boys.

But not because newspaper-hurling is a worthier pursuit than babysitting. Or because excelling at English or Art has no merit. And neither Barbie nor Transformers are the ideal role models for children of any sex or gender. (Can I note, though,  that Barbie and the Magic of PegasusBarbie Fairytopia: Mermaidia and Barbie of Swan Lake meet Bechdel/Wallace standards? Anything from the Transformers franchise of films: uh-uh).  


 The way to counteract gendered pigeonholing is not to give a figurative cookie to girls who say their favorite color is blue and roll our eyes at the “false consciousness” of girls who say their favorite color is pink. As I said earlier, challenging though it may be, we need to divest these empty symbols — pink, princesses, frippery — of their connotative power. It’s adults who enthroned them, and adults who need to topple the regime. Unfortunately, a whole lot of tastemakers don’t care about this in the least … or , even more discouragingly, are so convinced of the importance of upholding gender codification that a kindergarten-aged boy wearing pink nail polish makes international news.

It does, then, need to be an individual effort. If your daughter is offered a pink balloon without being asked what color she would prefer — something that offended Orenstein — you ask her what color she would like, thereby giving her permission to state her selection with impunity. Shopping with your child for his or her friend’s birthday gift? Don’t simply stick to the “boy aisle” or “girl aisle” as a matter of course. And, importantly, when confronted with a transparently objectionable message, point it out for what it is and tell your child why it bothers you.

Arguably the hardest part of all this is avoiding the temptation to get sucked into an “either/or” fallacy. You don’t “win,” as a parent,  if your daughter loves construction machinery and karate, and “lose” if she favors butterflies and cheerleading. There is an undeniable desire, especially among those of us whose tastes run in a countercultural vein, to have kids with an enviable coolness quotient.  But, in the end, their lives are their own, and their likes and dislikes will probably follow a very circuitous path before cementing. Just like ours did.

Your daughter can still win, though: provided she knows you support her ability to make choices, and demonstrate this by giving her the latitude to do so. Even if she is wearing a tutu, brandishing a fairy wand, and twirling, twirling …

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