It was Valentine’s Day this past Monday and, on Tuesday, Stuart’s preschool did a card exchange. Both Stuart and MaryAlice (who is only two, and lacks a “social circle” save the rather de facto one composed of her daycare chums) chose their own Valentines: store-bought, because inspiration and patience for making homemade cards were in short supply. Stuart’s Valentines were dinosaur-themed, and MaryAlice’s featured Tinkerbell.
(Let me take a moment to stress that both Stuart and MaryAlice are fans of the 2009 cinematic triumph Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure . Far from being a Disney apologist, I will say that, if this movie is any indication of the thrust of the character’s recent rebranding (deviating from the original character of 1953’s problematic-for-a-whole-host-of reasons Peter Pan), today’s Tinkerbell and her Pixie Hollow friends seem to be rather benign spokestoons for a highly-glossed treatment of animism. Animism with lots of sparkly bits and sassy costumes. They even seem to have dispensed with a gendered division of labor. Tink herself is a mechanic-slash-inventor in this incarnation. So … pillorying averted? Nonetheless, I definitely acknowledge that the target demographic for this arm of the Disney pantheon is girly-girly-girls).
Anyway, when it came time for Stuart to select individual Valentines for each of his classmates at preschool, he had two themes to choose from. We sat down with the teacher-provided list of the five girls and two other boys in Stuart’s class.
And then, it happened:
“I know!” Stuart exclaimed. “We can give the dinosaur Valentines to the boys, and the Tinkerbell Valentines to the girls!”
Well, I knew the day would come sooner or later — especially taking into account the amount of time Stuart spends outside the home, with peers and older children. And the fact that he’s kind of a media-head. We don’t have TV. I mean, we have a TV: just no broadcast television. But we do make use of inter-library loan to acquire DVDs, and, because both my husband and I are huge cinemaphiles (I’m an adjunct film studies lecturer, too), we have a pretty impressive movie collection, which includes a healthy number of children’s titles. Plus, there are fewer checks on Stuart and MaryAlice’s viewing habits when they’re at their grandparents’ house. Or visiting friends … . You get the picture. They ain’t cloistered.
I’m not in denial. I know Stuart has osmotically absorbed some binary-oriented thinking when it comes to gender. After all, my husband and I haven’t engaged in a Pop-level offensive to screen these messages. (If you don’t feel like following the link, I’ll mention that Pop is a Swedish child whose parents did not disclose hir sex [not hir “gender,” as claimed by the article’s title] to others). This was just the first time I heard Stuart isolate “masculine” and “feminine” so clearly.
Remember how I said my resolve was too ground-down (read: I was too lazy) for homemade Valentines? The same applies to making ev-er-y-thing a teachable moment. I envy the parents who can do it. But, most of the time, I stick with a broad definition of “negligibly important.” I did, however, decide to turn the Tinkerbell Valentine of Much Consternation incident into an object lesson in … well, why dinosaurs and fairies aren’t inherently aligned with boys or girls. And, guess what? It turned out to be no big.
“Say, Stuart,” I replied. “I bet there a lot of boys who love Tinkerbell. And I’m a girl who happens to think dinosaurs are so cool. Think about what your friends like. We should pick out a very special Valentine for each of them.”
Then I painstakingly made my way through the list of names (okay, the “pains” I “took” weren’t that great. There are only eight kids in his class, after all), reading them aloud. Stuart carefully reviewed the avaiable designs, holding each friend’s name in his head and trying to find its perfect complement in an image of a lurching t-rex or coterie of fairies tiptoeing through the tulips.
Of the five girls, two were given dinosaur cards, and three Tinkerbell cards. Both boys got dinosaurs.
You might think I’d be disappointed that my little didactic exercise produced results not too dissimilar from Stuart’s original intention. But, working with him on his project, I could tell that the path he took to get there was much more well-considered. He didn’t just chuck a few dinosaurs into the girls’ mix to appease me, either. He actually thought about his friends as people — which is the precise point that mandating an expectation-reversing “dinosaurs for girls, Tinkerbell for boys” would have missed.
Ours isn’t a household that promotes a wholesale squelching of all things pink or blue. When the kids were infants, sure: we took a decidedly a-gendered tack. Now, though, instead of trying to neutralize gender by limiting their options, we find ourselves reminding Stuart and MaryAlice of the limitless possibilities when it comes to investigating their interests and aptitudes: dinosaurs to fairies, baseball to ballet.
What’s so amazing (and relieving) for me to discover is that, with their minds being as permeable as they are, it seems just as easy to counter the messages of compulsorily gendered, rigidly segregated preferences and behaviors as it is for the kids to become passively indoctrinated in the first place. Good news! I don’t need to adapt the works of Judith Butler for the pre-K set, and enforce a strict dress code with entirely muted-earth-tone pallette garments. I don’t need to be hyper-vigilant, raising them in some kind of house-sized Skinner box. And I don’t need to shame them for mirroring the dominant tropes of “gender-normative” behavior. If I just remind them, once in a while, that their horizons are endless … they will be.