Mama w/ Pen

Is Time Travel Easier than Passing Affordable Childcare?

Wishful Thinking“That’s your solution?,” asks a character in my She Writes co-founder Kamy Wicoff’s debut novel. “Time travel is easier than passing affordable childcare?” Rarely do we cover novels here at Girl w/Pen, but given the subject matter (and, full disclosure, the fact that I think Kamy is the bomb), I’ve become interested anew in the question of fiction as a mode of advancing public conversation. As someone who once considered writing a dissertation on popular feminist fiction from the 1970s, I’m obsessed with the portrayal of women’s issues — and working mothers’ issues in particular — in popular discourse, imagined and real. Can fiction centered on work/life issues bridge research and reality? Here’s how our conversation went down. -Deborah

DS: Wishful Thinking joins working-mother dramadies like Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It and Where’d You Go, Bernadette–a contemporary genre in which a middle- or upper-class protagonist tries and fails to “do it all,” breaks down, puts herself back together. What do you see as the advantages, and limitations, of fiction as a mode of advancing the conversation around working mothers’ dilemmas? Is this a domestic drama, or a social one?

KW: Is the pressure to have, do, and be it all so great that only science fiction can solve it? In a way, I wrote the book as an argument against the notion that the increasingly impossible demands placed on working parents are each individual’s problem to solve, by showing how crazy it is that my protagonist, Jennifer Sharpe, thinks forcing her body through a wormhole is a perfectly rational response to her out of whack work/life balance—more rational than trying to reform the out of balance system itself. (One of my favorite lines in the book comes from Jennifer’s coworker, Alicia, who, when she finds out about the app, says, “That’s your solution? Time travel is easier than passing affordable child care?”) Jennifer believes it is a domestic drama, but it is absolutely a social one, and I think by writing a novel rather than a nonfiction book on the subject, I was able to underscore that in a fresh way.

The other inspiration for Wishful Thinking was very personal, and inspired by fiction—I was reading the Harry Potter books with my older son, and I thought, I love this, but I wish it were about a woman my age, not a ten-year-old boy. And then I thought, if I could give a working mom any power, what would it be? The answer, the ability to be in multiple places at once, came immediately, because it’s a need I and every mother I know shares, whether she is juggling a job and kids or raising her kids full-time. But even that first impulse was feminist and socially conscious. I hungered for a fun, fanciful but thoughtful and grown up book about someone like me, by someone like me—not something written for a YA audience or with yet another male protagonist I couldn’t relate to—because in the current fiction marketplace I was starving. (I Don’t Know How She Does It came out fourteen years ago, if you can believe that. And I have never gotten over the fact that they made Multiplicity about a man. Really? It’s the guy who feels like he has to be everywhere at once?) The premise I instantly arrived at is in itself a critique.

Overwhelmed, by Brigid SchutleMom's RisingNonfiction, of course, can be more explicit in its critique and its calls to action. In an ideal world, a working parent would read Wishful Thinking, then read Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: Work, Love And Play When No One Has The Time, and then join MomsRising and start petitioning her Congressperson like mad.

DS: When we first created She Writes, we were two entrepreneurial mamas on a mission to start something and simultaneously be there for our very young kids. You, in fact, were an early model for me of what living two passions looks like. (Recall those staff meetings on my bed while I was on bedrest, carrying twins!) Five years later, I look around me and see mothers of all stripes struggling as if the decades of advocacy for better workplace policies in support of working families hasn’t moved the dial. What’s it going to take, other than wishful thinking? Any latest initiatives you’re aware of that you’d like to shout out here? 

KW: It is easy to be discouraged, isn’t it? (And how could I forget those staff meetings?) One of the things I liked most about Overwhelmed, however, was Brigid’s determination to tell success stories, most prominently in her “When Work Works” chapter, providing models for change rather than only pointing to what, in workplaces, is broken. (And that’s a lot, like the fact that America is one of only 4 of 167 countries in the world with no paid leave for parents—the others are Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland.) It was through Brigid’s book that I found out about MomsRising, and also about A Better Balance, founded by Dina Bakst in New York. I also love LeanIn.org, with its circles for peer support. And for many years I was on the Advisory Council for the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, which does fabulous work under the leadership of Shelley Correll on supporting scholarship and research designed to move that heavy, heavy dial—and gets that research into the hands of people with the power to make change. I’m also looking forward to Laura Vanderkam’s upcoming I Know How She Does It, for some practical, actionable tools to alleviating some work/life stress.

DS: As much as your novel is a comment on work/life condundrums, it’s a satire of app-for-that culture and technology. Are our hyperconnected lives fuller lives, or lesser lives? Are we more connected to each other, or just to our apps?

KW: This is so hard to answer. On the one hand, I witness, as I think we all do, the clearly deleterious effect of our devices on our personal relationships; the other night my son and I were at a restaurant and the entire family at the table next to us was glued to their devices, oblivious to one another—I’m happy to say my son noticed first, and was appalled! The book is certainly about that, and a commentary on our addiction to our phones. (In the first scene Jennifer realizes she’s lost her phone, and the panic and despair she feels are emotions I have to confess to having had in the same situation.) I’m pretty good about managing my use when I’m with my kids, but the pull to check email, Facebook, and the rest is very powerful, and does feel like an addiction at times, which is scary. On the other hand, my dad, who lives in Austin, can read stories to my kids, in Brooklyn, on Skype, which is magic. We have a shared family photo stream we all subscribe to, and I just saw my nephew have his first bite of rice cereal. I know what’s happening in the lives of many more people than I would have ever thought possible, and am alerted to news, social justice issues, and causes I might never have been exposed to, through these platforms. Yet I fret about it. I feel often feel that while I may have more knowledge about more people in my life, I don’t have richer relationships with them for it. (And as we all know, Facebook posts notoriously skew sunny.) Our generation is in a funny spot, not having grown up with any of this, but being so fully immersed in it now as adults, and as parents. Sometimes I wonder if our fretting will someday sound like the worries that television would spell the end of culture…but maybe television has done that. Ha.

DS: I don’t want to give too much away, but a significant plot line in your book concerns a brilliant female physicist whose discovery goes unrecognized by the scientific authorities. What was the impetus for a strong woman scientist at the center of this text?

KW: There was never any question in my mind that the physicist who invented time travel would be a woman, for a variety of reasons. The obvious one, of course, is that the story of science and its major breakthroughs is told by and about men, leaving countless brilliant and deserving women out. Physics is particularly bad—the Nobel Prize in Physics has only been awarded to two women in its history, and hasn’t recognized a female physicist’s work in fifty years. In this notoriously sexist field, I wanted to create a character who had fought her way through, and in some cases inventively worked her way around, a system stacked against her. (I’m also an amateur physics lover. Have you see Particle Fever? There are some fabulous female scientists featured in that movie.) I also chose to make her a passionate collector of artifacts of female scientists who had come before her; for Dr. Sexton, these women are the muses. Researching that part of the book was a delight—did you know Florence Nightingale was an accomplished mathematician, and invented infographics? Or that Hedy Lamar co-invented spread spectrum and frequency hopping technology? I also felt strongly that I didn’t want to have magic in this book—there’s enough of that mushy, bibidi bobidi boo stuff out there already featuring women. Who needs a fairy godmother when you can have the greatest physicist of all time at your side? There was another, very compelling reason I wanted a strong women scientist at the center of my book. So I could make a Larry Summers joke. Which I did.

DS: Virginia Woolf wrote, “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” You’ve had some terrific literary mentors in your life—Diane Middlebrook, Nancy K. Miller, Alix Kates Shulman, Francine Prose… Barring (ha!) for a moment the complicated maternal metaphor, in what ways have these women influenced your writing or your sense of yourself as a woman who writes?

KW: Well the late, great Diane, of course, is the model for Dr. Diane Sexton, the physicist who invents the app in the book. (Diane Middlebrook wrote the seminal biography of Anne Sexton, hence the name as homage.) I miss her every single day, and writing this book was a way of having her voice, her presence, and her inimitable style close to me for the year and a half it took to write it. Diane completely changed my life. She was the first person to look me in the eye, when I was a young graduate student who felt that, without an agent or a book, I could not call myself a writer, and say, “You are a writer!” in a way that made me believe it. She told me to write the truth about my life, and I have tried to honor her ever since then by doing it. We founded the Salon of Women Writers together in London in 2003 (again, when I was a young nobody, and she was an established badass, but she saw what a good team we’d make), which led to my founding SheWrites.com with you, and ultimately She Writes Press with former Executive Editor of Seal Press Brooke Warner.

Diane believed that as a woman who writes, it’s pointless to insist on being viewed simply as a “writer” because the world doesn’t view you that way—the best thing is to resist that prejudice by critically responding when it inevitably rears its head, and always to combat it with wit, fearlessness, and of course, brilliant writing. Francine, Nancy and Alix all do that too. I derive so much courage and strength from their example. Hopefully I can do the same for a young woman writer or two someday. But as a debut novelist at forty-two, I’m a little behind in the game.

For more, check out Kamy’s post on Moms Rising. Visit Kamy’s website. Meet her on a stop during the She Writes Press National Spring Book Tour – coming to Chicago on June 29 (I’m hosting!). And go buy the book.

And as always, I invite you to join my Facebook community, pin with me on Pinterest at Tots in Genderland, follow @girlmeetsvoice, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.

 

Mama w/ Pen

Paying Attention to Princesses

 

The Princess Problem

The Princess Problem

As the mother of a preschooler who’s enjoying princesses while her mama tries to make sense of it all, I’m more than pleased to bring you this guest review of Rebecca Hains’ The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years, penned by Susan Sapiro. Susan is a New York-based grant proposal writer with a background in program development in womens and girls issues.  Enjoy! – Deborah

* * * * * * * * * * * *
“That’s the problem,” said Olivia. “All the girls want to be princesses. At Pippa’s birthday party, they were all dressed in big, pink, ruffly, skirts with sparkles and little crowns and sparkly wands. Including some of the boys.” (Olivia and the Fairy Princesses)

This profound comment, spoken by the porcine heroine of Ian Falconer’s series of books (and a Nick Jr. TV series) stayed in my head as I immersed myself into feminist media and communications scholar Rebecca Hains’ new book The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls through the Princess-Obsessed Years. What is the Princess Problem? According to Hains, a children’s media culture expert and a professor of media studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts, it isn’t so much actual princesses who are the problem – many cultures have princess figures and stories. Rather, it’s the Disneyfication and branding of princesses, the large-scale marketing of Princess culture, which has become such a prevailing force in the lives of preschool girls that parents are troubled by how all-encompassing Princess culture has become in their daughters’ lives. They are concerned by how limiting its imagery of beauty, romantic relationships, and racial representation are to contemporary girls in North America. They are alarmed when their daughters who dont participate in Princess Culture are shunned or bullied in school or on the playground. And they are desperately seeking alternative images, products, and media to show the breadth and depth of real girls and women’s lives.

For her research, Hains interviewed over 50 parents psychologists, educators, media-literacy experts, girl empowerment advocates, and academics that focus on popular culture and race issues. She also did participant observation research for her study, working as a princess birthday party performer, dressing up in shiny ball gowns and blond wigs, and entrancing young girls by reading them fairy tales, painting their faces, and making them balloon animals. The money she made from these parties helped to fund her research trip to Walt Disney World where she observed “the Disney brand of princess culture in action”(xiii). Her undercover work also helped her gain an appreciation on the importance of princess culture in girls’ lives.

As Peggy Orenstein before her has made profoundly clear, the sheer vastness of princess marketing, mainly by Disney, is responsible for the seeming every-where-ness of princess culture. In 2012 Disney Princess – the brand – sold $1.52 billion US in licensed merchandise in North America, more than Star Wars and Hello Kitty! Hains explains how since Disney has created or rather, re-created the princess brand, other brands from Barbie, to Dora the Explorer, to animal characters like My Little Pony have seized on the princess premise as the holy grail of marketing to the target demographic of young girls. Yet, not only has the Princess brand been absorbed by Disney’s competitors in the toy industry, it has also oozed its way into products in every area of life, becoming a “lifestyle brand” – featured in food, clothing, home goods , making sure that today’s preschool princesses turn into lifelong loyal Disney consumers. (A search on Amazon.com for “Disney Princess” yields an astounding 64,979 items in 31 departments.)

One of Hains’ most intriguing points is that princess marketing is so effective because it takes advantage of a stage of childhood in which boys and girls start to focus on gender. The way they try to figure out what it means to be a boy or a girl is to hone in on external and stereotypical qualities – short hair for boys, long hair for girls, skirts and frills for girls, superheroes and blue for boys. Researchers cited by Hains note that many 3-4 year old girls and 5-6 year old boys develop “appearance rigidity,” which means they become, in Hains’ words, “completely obsessed with wearing stereotypical clothing – which for girls often equals pink frilly dresses.” I was amused to learn that there’s even an acronym for this in scholarly literature – PFD. This phenomenon may be familiar to readers who have or may know three-year-old girls who refused to wear pants for a certain period of time, a phase that occurred with both of my daughters. (Reading Hains’ book, I was pleased to learn this was a developmental stage, not a moral failure on my part as a feminist mother trying to push her gender-neutral views on a reluctant preschooler.) During this phase of “appearance rigidity” among preschoolers, each gender celebrates their own types and fiercely rejects the other. Disney has exploited this with its pink frilly princess marketing extravaganza to girls but still hasn’t been quite as successful in marketing cars, pirates, and superheroes to boys.

Go! Go! Sports Girls

Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls

Subsequent chapters of the book focus on various aspects of the Princess Problem. The “Pretty Princess Mandate” is harmful to young girls, who end up focusing on appearance, to the exclusion of active play. The princess narrative makes the equation that beauty = happiness and goodness, and young girls who become women spend countless hours of self-scrutiny (and judging other women), trying to live up to an unrealistic beauty ideal. Hains’ personal example of how hard it is to fit into this ideal is amusing. When she worked as a birthday party princess entertainer, she found it difficult to fit into the princess costumes she was required to wear, because the measurements were based on the company owner’s teenage daughter. Hains offers good examples of how parents can combat the Pretty Princess Mandate, including not discussing your weight or dieting and buying realistically proportioned dolls such as the Go! Go! Sports Girls dolls instead.

As has been well documented, on this blog and elsewhere, outdated gender stereotypes abound in the traditional princess narrative. In a chapter titled, “The Problem with Gender Stereotypes, “ Hains writes about how parents have noticed their daughters’ play changing from active to passive after they enter the Princess stage. One therapist she cites chronicled her attempts to recover her daughter’s spunkiness after she saw her formerly active toddler engage in a new form of play – sitting and saying, “I’m waiting for my prince.”

While a number of anti-Princess books, such as Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Jennifer Harstein’s Princess Recovery touch only briefly on the racial issues inherent in the Princess Problem (i.e. all of the Disney Princesses, except Tiana from the recent The Princess and Frog, are white), Hains, a self-described white academic, devotes a chapter to race and diversity issues raised by Princess Culture. Hains acknowledges her own privilege and calls for alternative models for girls of all colors. Included in the book are a critical discussion of how children learn both racial prejudice and acceptance, the history of Disney’s problem with racialized characters, and strategies for encouraging children to become increasingly conscious and respectful of racial diversity.

Bridging academic and popular realms, Hains’ response to the negative lessons taught by Princess Culture about consumerism, gender stereotypes, beauty ideals, and racial stereotypes is a method she calls “Pop Culture Coaching.” In Pop Culture Coaching, parents start by reflecting on their own values and issues relevant to girls. Then they coach their children to think critically about media – its content and the messages conveyed. Hains assures readers that this is not to show girls that princesses are negative or to “‘de-princess’” them. Instead, media literacy will help girls see the complications with princesses and realize that there is a multiplicity of ways to be a girl today.

The Princess Problem is filled with practical tips: Diversify our daughters’ media diets to show them a range of images of women and girls. Read books that offer alternatives to traditional princess fairytales (she includes a list). Teach children about how media is created and the thinking behind advertising. Her website (www.RebeccaHains.com) she includes parent-child discussion guides for all of the Disney Princess films and other types of movies. A discussion guide for the recent Disney Princess hit, Frozen, is included as an appendix in the book.

In a refreshing twist, Hains doesn’t think that there is anything wrong with princesses, sparkles, frills and pink. In her words, “Princesses are pretty, and sparkles and frills are fun! Girls have been playing princesses for generations.” What she objects to is the marketing of frilly pink princesses as the only type of girlhood available to young girls, especially as compared to a wider range of choices for boys.

Parents are right to be concerned, she notes, about what their daughters are learning from the ever-widening reach of the frilly princess culture. As the mother of two young daughters, one kindergartner still in the throes of princess-preoccupation, one third-grader now thankfully (and disdainfully) past it, I can confirm with hindsight what the scholars find: that it seems to be a developmental stage that passes. Yet, that doesn’t negate the harmful impact it can have on young girls, influencing not only what they wear, but also how they play, who they play with, what they watch, and how they think about their looks, and what they want to (or want their parents to) buy.

Even those who rail against Princess Culture can find it hard to refuse their children these sparkly indulgences. When friends offered us free tickets to Disney’s Frozen on Ice this past fall, after much internal debate, pleasure won out over principle. Earlier this winter, as I watched the graceful skaters ins Frozen on Ice with my daughters , a line from the show’s dialogue struck me as the essence of Hains’ book. In the scene, Anna is explaining to Kristoff why her sister Elsa froze the land of Arendelle:

Frozen on Ice

Frozen on Ice

Anna: Oh well, it was all my fault. I…I got engaged, but then she freaked out because I’d only just met him, you know, that day. And she said she wouldn’t bless the marriage, and…
Kristoff: Wait. You got engaged to someone you just met that day?
Anna: Yeah. Anyway, I got mad and so she got mad and then she tried to walk away, and I grabbed her glove…
Kristoff: Hang on! You mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?!
Anna: Yes. Pay attention!

Pay attention. Pay attention to the media children are consuming. Pay attention to the problematic messages for girls in seemingly benign but ever more all-encompassing Princess Culture. That is what Hains wants readers to do.

Manly Musings

Bronies, Anti-Rape Chants, and Gendered Change

rainbow_glasses_by_j_brony-d4cw4aoUpon first glance, men who identify as “bronies” (a subculture of men who like My Little Pony) seem to illustrate a fundamental transformation in masculinity. These men appear to be less stigmatized by association with something “feminine” or “feminizing” (like children’s toys initially marketed to young girls). New research by graduate students John Bailey and Brenna Harvey, however, found that even in a subculture formed around a seemingly emasculating hobby, participants still lob gendered and sexualized insults and epithets at one another. In his write-up on the research in The Guardian, Adam Gabbatt explained some of Bailey and Harvey’s findings in this way:

Bailey and Harvey found that even men who fancy My Little Pony cartoon characters are likely to scrap with each other using similar terms and putdowns to “normal” men, even to the point of using the same terminology, such as “faggot,” to police their environment.

One particular incident was a putdown from one member to another in an online brony forum that read: “Go be normal somewhere else, faggot.” While we might expect “fag” to be lobbed at members of the group by outsiders, it might seem odd that (at least some) bronies use the term as well.

AP_OREGON2_150102_DG_16x9_992Contemporary Western masculinity is in many ways characterized by these seeming contradictions. Consider what happened when the University of Oregon defeated Florida State University at the Rose Bowl earlier this year (to which CJ would like to add: “Yeah we did! GO DUCKS!”). In the post-game revelry, some of the Oregon players began to chant “No means no!” to the tune of the (racist) “War Chant” regularly sung by FSU fans. As ThinkProgress reported,

The chant was almost certainly intended to target [Jameis] Winston [Florida State’s quarterback], who has been embroiled in a sexual assault scandal since 2012, when a female student accused him of raping her. He has not been officially charged or sanctioned for the incident, and won the Heisman Trophy amid the ongoing controversy.

Commentaries on this incident widely lauded it as a moment in which young men were collectively, publicly, shaming another man accused of sexual violence with a long time feminist slogan.

While on the surface these two events are incredibly different, elements connect the two. Among the bronies, a man chastised another as a “fag” in part to defend his own gender transgressive interest and identity and the community in which he participates. Among the Oregon Ducks, a group of men appear to be embracing the feminist principle that Sarah Silverman recently tweeted so eloquently (to the anger of at least a few men), “Don’t rape.” These examples involve men telling other men, “You are not masculine, and here is why… Oh, and I am (just in case that wasn’t clear).” The content of what makes someone masculine doesn’t actually matter nearly as much as the ability to deny that powerful social identity to others.

Now, don’t get us wrong; we are thrilled to see high profile athletes embracing the notion of consent and refuting sexual violence. Men publicly condemning sexual violence are important and can be extremely powerful. But, behind these statements is a protectionist ideology that involves men claiming to symbolically protect women from other “bad” and (importantly) “less” masculine men. The White House-sponsored “1 is 2 Many” public service announcement combats sexual violence using a similar tactic. 1is2ManyPSA60Second-YouTube7-tile_zps0c2a2e3fIn the PSA, a group of professional actors, along with Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, call for an end to sexual violence and assault. Many say things like actor Daniel Craig, who says, “If I saw it happening, I’d never blame her. I’d help her.” Craig is probably most identifiable as having recently portrayed James Bond—a character who, among other things, is best known for having his way with any woman he chooses. But positioning sexual assault as something that other, bad, less masculine men do (like those, say, who lose football games) allows some men to say, “Real men don’t rape. And WE are real men.” But the “real men” discourse may be problematic in and of itself. (See the “My Strength is Not for Hurting” campaign for another example of this tactic).

What all of these instances illustrate and what draws us to them is that they seem to illustrate (positive) changes in contemporary masculinity—young men engaging in activities stigmatized as feminine, athletes shaming one of their own for sexual assault, male politicians and actors publicly espousing an end to sexual violence. If, as activists have argued, a problematic aspect of masculinity is the fact that it entails putting others down, distance from femininity, and sexually dominating women, then we should be unequivocally celebrating these changes.

However, as we have written about before, gendered change is complicated. These changes illustrate that masculinities are flexible—sometimes incredibly so. Masculinities can be prodded and reworked in ways that incorporate practices and symbols not historically associated with masculinity at all. But, in reworking them, masculinity reveals that depriving others of this powerful social identity is often the key ingredient of the social identity. These transformations hold incredible potential. But, whether that potential is realized is an entirely different question. And that, it seems, is the next project: realizing potential for gendered change that does not revolve around repudiating less socially desirable gendered identities or rely on the methods of dominance involved in sustaining some forms of social inequality in the first place.

Second Look

Human Rights, Women’s Rights: Plodding Toward Progress

“Fighting for women’s equality is an arduous but necessary process, ploddingly pursued by dedicated women and men who refuse to accept a lesser role for women in society.” Jean Hardisty (1945-2015)

      March is Women’s History Month, but the history being made in the US is far from uplifting. Women continue to be an easy batting ball for political impasses. We continue to struggle for basics readily available in most other developed nations: e.g. paid family and sick leave, adequate childcarehealth and reproductive rights. As an antidote to setbacks in this country—where we seem to be in the two-steps-back phase of the old ‘three steps forward, two steps back’ adage—I’ve looked at reports released in conjunction with this month’s 59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). There are some encouraging signs. But progress is slow, uneven; the struggle for women’s rights and equality is far from over. Nevertheless, celebrating positive accomplishments can provide motivation needed to keep us all plodding ahead, no matter how soggy the road. Jean Hardisty knew better than anyone how critical plodding along is. For all of us around the country—and in various corners of the world— who knew Jean as a beloved colleague, mentor and leader in the battle for human rights and justice, there is no better way to honor her life and her work than to keep on plodding.

So, some good news gleaned from reports on progress for women since the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing:

  • The global rate of maternal deaths in childbirth has dropped by over forty percent;
  • Adolescent births have fallen by more than thirty percent;
  • Many countries have made significant gains in girls’ education, particularly at the primary school level;
  • And people everywhere are paying more attention to gender gaps in access and opportunities on everything from health services and education to leadership, employment and earnings.

Sadly, for almost every positive statement one can make, there is a ‘but’. And some ‘buts’ are so overwhelming it seems pointless to mention the positive. For example, awareness of violence against women has grown, but the violence itself has not lessened. One third of the world’s women have experienced physical or sexual violence. It is estimated that the number girls among trafficking victims has increased by more than ten percent in the past seven years.

The Beijing meetings two decades ago were electrifying. A total of 17,000 women and men from 189 countries attended the official Fourth United Nations Conference on Women. Another 30,000 took part in the parallel NGO Forum held outside the capital in Huairou. We returned to our homes around the globe committed to doing whatever we could, both individually and collectively, to implement the Beijing Platform for Action. Many of those unable to attend the meetings in China were eager partners. In country after country, women and men worked together to ensure the ‘full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.’

But the transformative promise of the Beijing Platform for Action has not yet been fulfilled. The Platform was a call for a change in focus from women to gender. A call for recognizing that the structure of society and relationships between women and men must be rethought if women are to be fully empowered as equal partners with men. The Platform affirmed that women’s rights are human rights, that gender equality benefits everyone. In retrospect these called for changes in thinking and action were exceedingly ambitious given the ten-year time frame originally stated. Even after twenty years we have not succeeded. But ambitious goals generate ambitious plans, and ambitious plans are required to sustain commitment, passion, and determined action.

As the Women’s Rights Caucus stated last week in response to the draft declaration from CSW: “At a time when urgent action is needed to fully realize gender equality, the human rights and empowerment of women and girls, we need renewed commitment, a heightened level of ambition, real resources, and accountability.” Some UN member states may not share this perspective. Nations that do must speak loudly. Within a few days over seven hundred and fifty organizations had signed the caucus statement. NGOs representing women from all parts of the world and all strata of society must push, and push hard to ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the Beijing Platform is carried forward.

None of this work is easy. Much of it is unpopular in certain circles. But we have pushed and plodded our way this far. A forty percent decline in maternal morbidity is a major step forward. The progress in access to primary education for girls is impressive. Many more huge steps await. We have done it before; we can do it again. And again, and again, and again!

 

your ink

New Dolls Inspired by Boys Break Gender Barriers

Girl w/ Pen is excited to present this guest post from Laurel Wider, a psychotherapist with a speciality in gender, relationships and identity.  She’s also a mom and Founder of Wonder Crew, a new line of toys that brings connection and kindness into boys’ play.   

Play is how children learn, which means toys have the power to create change. As I began to pay more attention to toys marketed to boys, it occurred to me that so many of them emphasized muscles and aggression and NONE offered a play experience that encouraged connection or even friendship.  Thrilled by the surge of toys that encourage  STEM and positive body images for girls, I want to help expand the way boys see themselves and the world around them.

I’m a mom, psychotherapist and now founder of Wonder Crew, a line of dolls that bring connection and feelings into boys’ play.  In my therapy practice, I’ve worked with several boys and men who have painfully grappled with impossible stereotypes of masculinity. Boys are raised to prioritize toughness and self-reliance – in my work with clients I’ve seen this lead to isolation, depression and sometimes aggression.

And then about a year ago, my son came home from preschool with the idea that “boys aren’t supposed to cry.”  I was floored that my own son had gotten a hold of this message. These stereotypes impact and harm everyone.  This is how I ended up a toy inventor.

questionphotoChange is generally something that happens gradually. With this in mind, I thought long and hard about how to create a “hybrid” toy, one that still resembled familiar play scenarios for boys, but also offered the opportunity to connect and nurture.  So I came up with action figure meets favorite stuffed animal.  This morphed into Wonder Crew:  a line of Crewmates (aka dolls) that come with a matching piece of adventure gear (dress-up) plus mini open-ended comic book.  The formula:  Child + Crewmate = Wonder Crew.

Right now we have one Crewmate, his name is Will and he comes in three adventures with a fourth in the 4_crewmates (1)pipeline:  Superhero, Rockstar, Builder and Chef.  These adventures were based on interviews with over 150 parents, educators and kids that spoke to me about play that they’ve observed/ kids’ favorite play scenarios.

At first I thought that these adventures were too stereotypical, but I’ve come to realize that it’s important to show that nurturing fits in with all kinds of play, even the kind that’s stereotypically masculine.  And really the big picture idea is that anyone can be a connected, empathetic, nurturing person.

group2bestfavorites_webready-43Wonder Crew is all about friendship and adventure and clearly this is not just a boy thing!  I plan to incorporate a girl Crewmate, while keeping with the same adventures. This would have been my preferred doll growing up.

While inspired by boys, Wonder Crew will be an interest-based brand, not gender based.  And the plan is for Crewmates to represent all kids (race, gender, ability).

Wonder Crew’s Kickstarter launched last week. We’re already over 40% funded, but we’ve got a ways to go. IMG_5037Please check it out and help spread the word!  It’s our goal to not only fund first production, but also to show public interest.  A large toy company told me that dolls for boys will never work; help Wonder Crew enlighten them!

Quick Hits

Hot New and Forthcoming Books on Gender, Sex, Protest, and Culture!

Screen shot 2015-03-10 at 11.59.22 AMTwo new books have recently come onto my radar, both too good not to share.

The first is by Jo Paoletti, Associate Professor of American Studies at University of Maryland, and is titled Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution. I’ve been a fan of Jo’s since reading (and rereading) her previous and excellent book, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Here’s more about her new one, published by Indiana University Press, and now available:

Notorious as much for its fashion as for its music, the 1960s and 1970s produced provocative fashion trends that reflected the rising wave of gender politics and the sexual revolution. In an era when gender stereotypes were questioned and dismantled, and when the feminist and gay rights movements were gaining momentum and a voice, the fashion industry responded in kind. Designers from Paris to Hollywood imagined a future of equality and androgyny. The unisex movement affected all ages, with adult fashions trickling down to school-aged children and clothing for infants. Between 1965 and 1975, girls and women began wearing pants to school; boys enjoyed a brief “peacock revolution,” sporting bold colors and patterns; and legal battles were fought over hair style and length. However, with the advent of Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dress and the launch of Victoria’s Secret, by the mid-1980s, unisex styles were nearly completely abandoned. Jo B. Paoletti traces the trajectory of unisex fashion against the backdrop of the popular issues of the day—from contraception access to girls’ participation in sports. Combing mass-market catalogs, newspaper and magazine articles, cartoons, and trade publications for signs of the fashion debates, Paoletti provides a multigenerational study of the “white space” between (or beyond) masculine and feminine.

You can read more about Jo’s work on “gender mystique” at her website, www.pinkisforboys.com.

The second is an anthology edited by my pal and former Girl w/Pen blogger Shira Tarrant, Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach.  Gender, Sex, and Politics: In the Streets and Between the Sheets in the 21st Century (Routledge July 2015) isn’t available yet, but you can sign up here on Amazon to get notified when it is. Here’s a descript:

Gender, Sex, and Politics: In the Streets and Between the Sheets in the 21st Century includes twenty-seven chapters organized into five sections: Gender, Sexuality and Social Control; Pornography; Sex and Social Media; Dating, Desire, and the Politics of Hooking Up; and Issues in Sexual Pleasure and Safety. This anthology presents these topics using a point-counterpoint-different point framework. Its arguments and perspectives do not pit writers against each other in a binary pro/con debate format. Instead, a variety of views are juxtaposed to encourage critical thinking and robust conversation. This framework enables readers to assess the strengths and shortcomings of conflicting ideas. The chapters are organized in a way that will challenge cherished beliefs and hone both academic and personal insight. Gender, Sex, and Politics is ideal for sparking debates in intro to women’s and gender studies, sexuality, and gender courses.

 Happy reading, Penners!

I invite you to join my Facebook  community, pin with me on Pinterest at Tots in Genderland, follow @girlmeetsvoice, and subscribe to my quarterly newsletter to keep posted on coaching, workshops, writings, and talks.

Manly Musings

Beyond “Bossy” or “Brilliant”?: Gender Bias in Student Evaluations

Not surprisingly, the new interactive chart Gendered Language in Teacher Reviews, drawn from RateMyProfessor.com (produced by Ben Schmidt—a history professor at Northeastern), has been the subject of a lot of conversation among sociologists, especially those of us who study gender. For example, it reminded C.J. of an ongoing conversation she and a former Colorado College colleague repeatedly had about teaching evaluations. Comparing his evaluations to C.J.’s, he noted that students would criticize C.J. for the same teaching practices and behaviors that seemed to earn him praise: being tough, while caring about learning.

Ratemyprofessor "genius"We’ve long known that student evaluations of teaching are biased. A recent experiment made headlines when Adam Driscoll and Andrea Hunt found that professors teaching online received dramatically different evaluation scores depending upon whether students thought the professor was a man or a woman; students rated male-identified instructors significantly higher than female identified instructors, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart provides a bit more information about exactly what students are saying when evaluating their professors in gendered ways. Thus far, most commentaries have focused on the fact that men are more likely to be seen as “geniuses,” “brilliant,” and “funny,” while women, as C.J. discovered, are more likely to be seen as “bossy,” “mean,” “pushy.” These discrepancies are important, but in this post, we’ve used the tool to shed light on some forms of gendered workplace inequality that have received less attention: (1) comments concerning physical appearance, (2) comments related to messiness and organization, and (3) comments related to emotional (as opposed to intellectual) work performed by professors.

Physical Appearance

The results from Schmidt’s chart are not universally “bad” or “worse” for women. For instance, the results for students referring to professors as “hot” and “attractive” are actually mixed. Further, in some fields of study, women are more likely to receive “positive” appearance-based evaluations while, in other fields, men are more likely to receive these evaluations. A closer examination, however, reveals an interesting pattern. Here is a list of the fields in which women are more likely to be referred to as “hot” or “attractive”: Criminal Justice, Engineering, Political Science, Business, Computer Science, Physics, Economics, and Accounting. And here is a list of fields in which men are more likely to receive these evaluations: Philosophy, English, Anthropology, Fine Arts, Languages, and Sociology.

Ratemyprofessor "hot"Notice anything suspicious? Men are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “femininity” and women are sexualized when they teach in fields culturally associated with “masculinity.” Part of this is certainly due to gender segregation in fields of study. There are simply more men in engineering and physics courses. Assuming most students are heterosexual, women teaching in these fields might be more likely to be objectified. Similarly, men teaching in female-dominated fields have a higher likelihood of being evaluated as “hot” because there are more women there to evaluate them. (For more on this, see Philip Cohen’s breakdown of gender segregation in college majors.)

Nonetheless, it is important to note that sexual objectification works differently when it’s aimed at men versus women. Women, but not men, are systematically sexualized in ways that work to symbolically undermine their authority. (This is why “mothers,” “mature,” “boss,” and “teacher” are among men’s top category searches on many online pornography sites.) And, women are more harshly criticized for failing to meet normative appearance expectations. Schmidt’s chart lends support to this interpretation as women professors are also almost universally more likely to be referred to as “ugly,” “hideous,” and “nasty.”

Level of (Dis)Organization

Christin and Kjerstin are beginning a new research project designed to evaluate whether students assess disorganized or “absent-minded” professors (e.g., messy offices, chalk on their clothing, disheveled appearances) differently depending on gender. Schmidt’s interactive chart foreshadows what they might find. Consider the following: women are more likely to be described as “unprepared,” “late,” and “scattered.” These are characteristics we teach little girls to avoid, while urging them to be prepared, organized, and neat. (Case in point: Karin Martin’s research on gender and bodies in preschool shows that boys’ bodies are less disciplined than girls’.) In short, we hold men and women to different organizational and self-presentation standards. Consequently, women, but not men, are held accountable when they are perceived to be unprepared or messy. Emphasizing this greater scrutiny of women’s organization and professionalism is the finding that women are more likely than men to be described as eitherprofessionalorunprofessional,” and eitherorganizedordisorganized.”

Emotional Labor

Finally, emotional (rather than intellectual) terms are used more often in women’s evaluations than men’s. Whether mean, kind, caring or rude, students are more likely to comment on these qualities when women are the ones doing the teaching. When women professors receive praise for being “caring,” “compassionate,” “nice,” and “understanding,” this is also a not-so-subtle way of telling them that they should exhibit these qualities. Thus, men may receive fewer comments related to this type of emotion work because students do not expect them to be doing it in the first place. But this emotional work isn’t just “more” work, it’s impossible work because of the competence/likeability tradeoff women face.

There are all sorts of things that are left out of this quick and dirty analysis (race, class, course topic, type of institution, etc.), but it does suggest we begin to question the ways teaching evaluations may systematically advantage some over others. Moreover, if certain groups—for instance, women and scholars of color (and female scholars of color)—are more likely to be in jobs at which teaching evaluations matter more for tenure and promotion, then unfair and biased evaluations may exacerbate inequality within the academy.

your ink

Call for Papers: Pleasure and Danger: Sexual Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century

Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society invites submissions for a special issue titled “Pleasure and Danger:  Sexual Freedom and Feminism in the Twenty-First Century,” slated for publication in the Autumn 2016 issue. The deadline for submissions is April 1, 2015.

At the heart of the feminist project is a persistent concern with thinking through the “powers of desire” (Snitow, Stansell, and Thompson 1983) and expanding the potential for sexual and gender freedom and self-determination at the same time that we combat sadly persistent forms of sexual danger and violence.  Exemplified in the US context by Carole Vance’’s landmark collection, Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, feminist debates over sex, gender, and society have been incendiary.  First published in 1984, as proceedings of the infamous “Scholar and the Feminist” conference at Barnard, which initiated the equally infamous “sex wars,” this volume reproduced intense dialogue while also contributing to a much broader investigation of the politics (and pleasures, and dangers) of sexuality within feminist theory and culture. Articles that threw down gauntlets were subsequently canonized and celebrated.  Much has changed since that explosive conference and book. Even the subtitle, – “exploring female sexuality,” – would now be more deeply interrogated (biologically female? presumptively heterosexual?) and certainly pluralized.  But however reframed, the paradoxical joining that is “pleasure and danger” remains poignantly relevant.

For this special issue, we invite transdisciplinary and transnational submissions that address questions and debates provoked by the “pleasure and danger” couplet.  Submissions may engage with the historical (how different is our moment from that formative “sex wars” era? have the sex wars moved to new terrain such as trafficking and slut-shaming?); the representational (how does the digital era transform our sexual lives? what does “livestreaming” sexual assault do to/for feminist organizing? what possibilities are there for feminist and queer imagery in an era of prolific porn, commodified otherness, and everyday inclusion?); the structural (how do race, ethnicity, religion, and national cultures enable and constrain sexual freedoms? how do carceral and governance feminisms frame and perhaps contain earlier liberatory impulses?); and/or the intersectional (how do we analyze the mutually constituting relations of sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, class, nationality, ability, age, and so on?). There are local and global questions to be asked and strategic arguments to be resolved.  And the very terms are themselves constantly debated (whose pleasure are we speaking of and for?  who is the “we” doing that speaking? who is imagined to be “in danger?” how does “gender” signify differently in that couplet from “sexuality?”).

We particularly encourage analyses from all regions of the globe that address pressing concerns and that do so in a way that is accessible and, well, passionate!  We encourage bold and big thinking that seeks to reckon with the conundrum still signaled by the pleasure/danger frame.  We especially seek submissions that attend to the couplet itself, to the centrality of pleasure/danger within the project of making feminism matter and resonate in ways both intimate and structural, deeply sensual and liberatory, simultaneously championing multiplicities of pleasures and a lasting freedom from violence and abuse.

Manuscripts may be submitted electronically through Signs Editorial Manager system at http://signs.edmgr.com.  Please choose the article type “Pleasure and Danger – Special Issue Article.” Guidelines for submission are available here. This Call for Papers is also available as a PDF. Please email the journal office with any questions.

References

Snitow, Ann Barr, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. 1983. Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. New York: Monthly Review.

Vance, Carole. S, ed. 1984.  Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Manly Musings

It turns out male sexuality is just as fluid as female sexuality

Originally posted at The Conversation
conversation-logo-a169934cb682c6bb4532560172df9046

If women can kiss women and still be straight, what about men?

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When Madonna and Britney Spears kissed during the 2003 Video Music Awards, no one questioned their sexuality. Win McNamee/Reuters

Some scholars have argued that female sexual desires tend to be fluid and receptive, while men’s desires – regardless of whether men are gay or straight – tend to be inflexible and unchanging. Support for this notion permeates popular culture. There are countless examples of straight-identified female actresses and pop stars kissing or caressing other women – from Madonna and Britney to Iggy and J-Lo – with little concern about being perceived as lesbians. When the Christian pop star Katy Perry sang in 2008 that she kissed a girl and liked it, nobody seriously doubted her heterosexuality.

The story is different for men. The sexuality of straight men has long been understood by evolutionary biologists, and, subsequently, the general public, as subject to a visceral, nearly unstoppable impulse to reproduce with female partners. Consequently, when straight men do engage in same sex contact, these encounters are viewed as incompatible with the bio-evolutionary coding. It’s believed to signal an innate homosexual (or at least bisexual) orientation, and even just one known same-sex act can cast considerable doubt upon a man’s claim to heterosexuality. For instance, in 2007, Republican Senators Larry Craig and Bob Allen were both separately arrested on charges related to sex with men in public bathrooms. While both men remained married to their wives and tirelessly avowed their heterosexuality, the press skewered them as closeted hypocrites.

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Close quarters: sexual encounters between men and ‘fairies’ were commonplace in the dense neighborhoods of working class Manhattan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jacob Riis

Despite the common belief in the rigidity of male heterosexuality, historians and sociologists have created a substantial body of well-documented evidence showing straight men – not “closeted” gay men – engaging in sexual contact with other men. In many parts of the United States prior to the 1950s, the gay/straight binary distinguished between effeminate men (or “fairies”) and masculine men (“normal” men) – not whether or not a man engaged in homosexual sex. Historian George Chauncey’s study of gay life in New York City from 1890-1940 revealed that through much of the first half of the 20th century, normal (i.e., “straight”) working class men mixed with fairies in the saloons and tenements that were central to the lives of working men.

With sex-segregation the general rule for single men and women in the early 1900s, the private back rooms of saloons were often sites of sexual activity between normal men and fairies, with the latter perceived as a kind of intermediate sex – a reasonable alternative to female prostitutes. Public parks and restrooms were also common sites for sexual interaction between straight men and fairies. In such encounters, the fairy acted as the sole embodiment of queerness, the figures with whom normal (straight) men could have sex – just as they might with female sex workers. Fairies affirmed, rather than threatened, the heteromasculinity of straight men by embodying its opposite.

Deep kissing was an expression of brotherhood among Hells Angels gang members. thisisthewhat

Deep kissing was an expression of brotherhood among Hells Angels gang members. thisisthewhat

The notion that homosexual activity was not “gay” when undertaken by “real” (i.e. straight) men continued into the 1950s and 60s. During this period, the homosexual contact of straight men began to be undergo a transformation from relatively mundane behavior to the bold behavior of male rebels. The American biker gang The Hells Angels, which formed in 1948, serves as a rich example. There are few figures more “macho” than a heavily tattooed, leather-clad biker, whose heterosexuality was as much on display as his masculinity. Brawling over women, exhibiting women on the back of bikes, and brandishing tattoos and patches of women were all central to the subculture of the gang.

Yet as the journalist Hunter S. Thompson documented in his 1966 book Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, gang members also had sexual encounters with one another. One of their favorite “stunts” was to deeply French kiss one another – with tongues extended out of their mouths in a type of tongue-licking kiss often reserved for girl-on-girl porn. Members of the Hells Angels explained that the kissing was a defiant stunt that produced among onlookers the desired degree of shock. To them, it was also an expression of “brotherhood.”

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Fraternities often engage in hazing rituals that involve same sex contact. Wikimedia Commons

Today, sexual encounters between straight-identified men take new but similarly “manly” forms. For instance, when men undergo hazing in college fraternities and in the military, there’s often a degree of sexual contact. It’s often dismissed as a joke, game, or ritual that has no bearing on the heterosexual constitution of the participants.  As I document in my forthcoming book, fraternity hazing has included practices such as the “elephant walk,” in which pledges are required to strip naked and stand in a circle, with one thumb in their mouth and the other in the anus of the pledge in front of them.

Similarly, according to anthropological accounts of the Navy’s longstanding “Crossing the Line” initiation ceremony, new sailors crossing the equator for the first time have garbage and rotten food shoved into their anuses by older sailors. They’re also required to retrieve objects from one another’s anuses.

One relatively recent example of the pervasiveness of these kinds of encounters between straight men was revealed in a report by the US-based watchdog organization Project on Government Oversight. In 2009, the group released photos of American security guards at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul engaging in “deviant” after-hours pool parties. The photos show the men drunkenly urinating on each other, licking each other’s nipples, and taking vodka shots and eating potato chips out of each other’s butts.

Individuals often react to these examples in one of two ways. Either they jump to the conclusion that any straight-identified man who engages in sexual contact with another man must actually be gay or bisexual, or they dismiss the behavior as not actually sexual. Rather, they interpret it as an expression of dominance, a desire to humiliate, or some other ostensibly “non sexual” male impulse.

But these responses merely reveal our culture’s preconceived notions about men’s sexuality. Look at it from the other side of the coin: if straight young women, such as sorority pledges, were touching each other’s vaginas during an initiation ritual or taking shots from each other’s butts, commentators would almost certainly imagine these acts as sexual in some way (and not exclusively about women’s need to dominate, for instance). Straight women are also given considerable leeway to have occasional sexual contact with women without the presumption that they are actually lesbians. In other words, same-sex contact among straight men and women is interpreted through the lens of some well-worn gender stereotypes. But these stereotypes don’t hold up when we examine the range of straight men’s sexual encounters with other men.

It’s clear that straight men and women come into intimate contact with one another in a range of different ways. But this is less about hard-wired gender differences and more about broader cultural norms dictating how men and women are allowed to behave with people of the same sex. Instead of clinging to the notion that men’s sexuality is fundamentally inflexible, we should view male heterosexuality for what it is – a fluid set of desires that are constrained less by biology than by prevailing gender norms.

____________________

Jane-Ward71i3LOTI0nLJane Ward is an Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at The University of California, Riverside, where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and heterosexuality studies. She has published on a broad range of topics including: feminist pornography; queer parenting; gay pride festivals; gay marriage campaigns; transgender relationships; the social construction of heterosexuality; the failure of diversity programs; and the evolution of HIV/AIDS organizations.  This post is based on research for a forthcoming book with NYU Press–Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men.

Mama w/ Pen

The Whiplash and Dream of Raising Boy/Girl Twins

legwarmers

My twins

Raising pre-school aged boy/girl twins in a rigidly gender-bifurcated universe where attitudes sloooooowly change is one big gender bender, my friends–I swear. Some days, I get whiplash. Let me show you what I mean.

Last month, the Australian-based initiative called No-Gender December made a valiant stand against the gendered marketing of toys to our children, raising both eyebrows and awareness. I loved it. Huzzah and yay!

But with January comes announcement of the arrival of Heartlake City, a “girl” section of Legoland Florida’s hit theme park scheduled to open this summer. Look at the picture (below, right), and read this post about how the introduction of the girl section (which includes a shopping mall, a convertible where girls can take selfies) implies that all the other sections (dinosaur exploration area, fire station, city streets, pilot school, archeology-themed ride, science area, jousting, playground) are for boys. The creepy tune and lyrics of “Girl Land” from the Free to Be You and Me album come to mind (“you go in a girl, and come out a lady!”). Hiss. Boo.

Heartlake City Legoland

Heartlake City, aka (IMHO) Girl Land

I love Lego, and so do my kids, and I hate that Lego bricks themselves—that once gloriously gender-neutral toy, a Danish toy, for irony’s sake—now have gender.

But the same day I learned about Legoland’s launch of Girl Land, I came across a poster in a coffee shop located on my town’s main drag announcing that come February, About Face Theater is bringing A Kid Like Jake to the Greenhouse Theater Center, along with “weekly post-show discussions around the topics of gender development in children, contemporary parenting and discovering identity for young people.” Huzzah and yay!

Screen shot 2015-01-16 at 5.59.08 PMThis play by Daniel Pearle, an urban drama about an upscale couple annoyingly obsessed with getting their kid into prestigious private kindergarten (the kind that cost an annual $40K), is simultaneously a modern portrayal of a kid with enthusiasms for gender-variant play. The poster I saw in the coffee shop features a little boy, backed turned to the viewer, gazing longingly at a wall onto which a shadow image in the likeness of Disney’s Cinderella is projected at five times his size. “Why can’t a boy be a princess?” the caption reads. Right there on Main Street. Granted, mine’s a progressive town. But I still find cause to celebrate the fact this play, and with it its sweet and beautiful poster, is going around the nation. So I repeat: huzzah and yay!

No Gender December. Girl City. A Kid Like Jake. Yay boo, yay boo, yay.

This whiplash reminds me of a handmade book made by some kid in my elementary school (hello Greeley!) and housed in the school’s library. The book’s title was Fortunately, Unfortunately. On one page, something good would happen to the pint-sized protagonist. (“Fortunately, when I woke up today, Mom made me my favorite pancakes.”) The next page featured the reverse. (“Unfortunately, we were out of syrup, so I had to eat them plain.”) Something delicious would happen, then something annoying would happen that would take that deliciousness away.

Our preschool rocks

That’s how I feel about our culture’s one-step-forward, two-steps-back slouch toward a world in which a very young boy (like mine, pictured up top) can wear pink and purple legwarmers without bystanders batting an eye. He’s five, and who cares. And fortunately, my two five-year olds go to a remarkable preschool, where messages like this one are plastered on the walls:

Unfortunately, not everyone in our wider community may feel the same way as my preschool community does. Yet.

Fortunately, my daughter does. When my son told his twin sister he was jealous of her new legwarmers, she let him “borrow” them without missing a beat.

Unfortunately, he came home without them on. (Not sure what happened at school – highly likely he just got hot.)

And for one final moment of whiplash, while walking down a main street in town the other day returning to my office, I passed by the new French bakery, with a sign on its door that read “Nous sommes Charlie.”

"Nous Sommes Charlie"

“Nous Sommes Charlie”

It broke my heart. And then my spirits rose again.

Because right next door, at an indoor playspace for babies and tots, I saw this:

“Raise courageous people”

“Raise courageous people,” the rainbow-colored sign in the window reads. There’s a second sign above the first, with a quote from Matisse: “Creativity takes courage.”

I have a dream, that my two little children–and all our little children–will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by their anatomy, and what they like to play with, and what they like to wear, but by the content of their character.

Raise courageous people. Raise courage, people.

Though I may have whiplash, I, too, have a dream today.

 

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