Teaching Boys About Girl Power

I will be the first to say that I love all that is girl power. Whether it’s Dove’s real beauty campaign or Always’ Like a Girl or Lean In circles or A Mighty Girl or petitioning to finally getting a woman on some US currency or LEGO finally adding more female minifigures. I’m with it. I’m there. Sign me up. Count me in. Girls rock.

However…

(Sorry. I think there is a but missing to these conversations. A big one. And I’m not body shaming here.) Most of these conversations are girls talking to girls. Or parents talking to girls. Encouraging girls. Telling girls they are as good as if not better than. That they are worth it. That they can be and do anything.

And they can. This is an important conversation. We, myself included, need to hear it. Again and again and again and again.

BUT.

Where are the messages to little boys about girls? Why aren’t we including the next generation of boys so that they can finally break the cycle of misogynistic thinking?

Case in point: My husband is not a misogynistic thinker. If asked point blank, he’d tell you girls and women can do whatever they want, would vote for a political leader based on qualifications, not gender, would have no trouble reporting to women (not that he ever has in the tech industry) and certainly holds my professional and personal value as no less equal to his own.

However.

He was surprised to watch me fight for an equal salary to a male colleague and lose. He never had to get off the Metro in DC and change trains because he was afraid of the handsy guy saying inappropriate things to him in a train full of people who all turned their heads instead of helping. He never had his ass grabbed on a Metro escalator. He doesn’t have to hold his keys like a weapon in a parking lot or scan a pathway for the blue emergency boxes. Being married to a woman who speaks up about these things helped him to hear all that he had been missing. Now he sees it. In a variety of places. It’s easy to say you support women, it’s another to understand what exactly it is that women are dealing with in a culture that demeans, objectifies and marginalizes them in big and small ways every day.

I don’t want my boys to be blinded to it. I don’t ever want them to think that a certain job is a boy job versus a girl job. I don’t want them to imply that certain tasks are for women and others men. I don’t want stereotypes and cultural bias to influence how they see themselves or others in this world. I don’t want them to consider a difference between women’s sports and men’s because right now, they only see sports. My greatest joy this summer has been watching them cheer for the US Women’s Soccer team – the five year old taking a victory lap through the house after the first corner kick score in the match against Japan only to be awed by the following 15 minutes of epic soccer. This summer, I have also watched them cheer just as loudly for the women on American Ninja Warrior as the men. Accomplishment is accomplishment. Period. The eight year old asked what we were talking about once when I was bemoaning the inability of equal pay for equal work to pass and his response was simple: “That’s not fair.” Nope. It isn’t.

But.

I know it’s not that easy. I know they don’t live in a bubble. I know they see toy aisles separated by gender. I know our nation’s lexicon is biased and that the media they are exposed to is lazy, relying on stereotypes and base humor to create their characters and perpetuate a storyline. I know they could probably name 20 male superheroes before ever landing on Wonder Woman. I know they see me doing laundry and dishes and putting on make up and internalize those differences.

So.

I will continue to talk to my boys openly about what I think is fair and unfair and unabashedly tell you I plan on raising two boy feminists with the support and help of their father. But I think the conversation to our boys needs to be larger. I think we can’t forget them in all our talk to girls. I don’t think it needs to be or should be at the expense of our girl power chatter. I think it needs to simply include them. All kids should feel able to realize their utmost potential and we need to teach our children how they can help each other to do that.

Let’s find a way to talk to our boys about girls. Let’s teach our boys how to work with girls. Let’s stop separating their play and thinking and teams. Let’s stop creating dress codes that punish girls for wearing leggings or shorts and start explaining to boys what their responsibilities are in the world as people of decency, integrity and fairness. I don’t know how we start doing that. All I know is that in my experience, it has started with simply talking about it with the men in my life. And so I will. I hope you do, too.

As women, we need to speak up. Not only because we have something worthy to say, but because there are a lot of men and boys out there who need to hear it. And, frankly, who else is going to tell them?

Prince vs. Princess Culture

As the mom of boys, one of the benefits is that I can ignore pretty much all things princess. Instead, I know what differentiates an excavator from a bulldozer from a backhoe (lucky me). Even though I’m not exposed to the princess thing on a daily basis, it’s still everywhere. TV shows, dress up bins, Halloween costumes, movies, Disney vacation photos on my Facebook feed. It seems to dominate the current play culture for our young girls right now. And it’s never more apparent then when I need to buy a present for a girl – my nieces or a friend’s birthday party. The toy store. The book store. The card aisle. Princesses, princesses everywhere!

I was thinking about this princess phenomena as I read an article about this cartoon gone viral. The cartoon pokes fun at Lego creating Lego Friends specifically to market to girls. I too loved Legos growing up and never for one minute thought it was a “boy’s toy.” I played with the sets I enjoyed. I built skyscrapers and houses and whatever else my little heart desired. My particular favorite, however, was one of the castle sets. I was thrilled to receive it one Christmas and loved building it, rearranging it and using the pieces in a variety of ways. Never once did I think I needed a princess in the set to make it complete.

And yet, today? Apparently we can’t just market toys to kids we have to market them to boys versus girls. And we wonder why gender equality is still a problem in the workplace?

I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with princess play. It’s creative dress-up and narrative play, and I think those are both important. The Anna and Elsa model, although not perfect, is a step in the right direction for independent girls not needing a man to solve their problems (although that storyline was so unique because of what we expected – we expected the true love to be that of her prince or even of Kristoff. The true love between sisters was considered a “twist” ending because we never saw it coming. *sigh*). What I do find compelling is that there is not a comparable marketing effort for “prince” toys for boys. There aren’t any princely role models in the same vein as the Snow Whites, Cinderellas, Ariels, Elsas, Belles, Rapunzels of the world. I’m not sure I could even name one of the Disney princes. My boys pretend to be firefighters and astronauts and chefs and puppies and construction workers. They don’t play prince. Even when they play with their girl friends. The only prince they know is his purple majesty who is a regular in our dance party rotation (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen my five year old bust a move to “What’s My Name”).

So why aren’t princes an appropriate, equally engaging role model for boys? Is it because they are unobtainable? After all, you can’t “become” a prince, you are either born one or not. Sure, the same argument could be made for princesses, but Diana and Kate have managed to capture America’s attention and prove otherwise (although the odds aren’t exactly in the rest of our peasant favor). Is it because being a prince isn’t a “job?” What exactly does a prince do? Other than rescue damsels in distress that is? But by the same token, what exactly does a princess do? Other than wait around to be rescued, according to the fairy tale model? Perhaps it’s because a prince doesn’t have any cool equipment? Or he just hasn’t had the right story line? Or is it because we currently don’t define our boys based on their relationships, but we historically define girls that way?

My ultimate unanswerable question, I suppose, is why is it okay for us to foster a culture that not only accepts but seems to encourage and expect our girls to emulate women who they can only become by marrying a specific type of man – specific type of man, apparently, that boys aren’t aspiring to become? The princes of fairy tales aren’t all that interesting. Or all that kind. Or all that bright. Why should we encourage our girls to find their “princes” when they seem to be a bunch of bums?

Kids are going to be inherently drawn to toys they identify with, whether that’s by color, feel, shape or application. I played with my share of Barbie dolls. I coveted a Cabbage Patch doll the year they came out and parents were punching other parents in the aisles for them. I made my fair share of too skinny clothes with my fashion plates imagining all the fancy places I would go as a grown up in the types of dresses I created. I baked gooey, fairly disgusting creations by lightbulb in my Easy Bake Oven that I then forced my poor parents to eat. But I also had a microscope and rock collection and the aforementioned Legos. I played in a treehouse and climbed trees in the woods. I built forts and played army games with the boy across the street.

My point is that kids will play with the toys that engage them. That might be a girl who plays with lots of traditional “girly” things or a boy who plays with dolls or a girl who plays with dinosaurs or kids who play with a balance of both. Let’s help our kids find toys that speak to them and their dreams. But maybe, just maybe, we let the girls know that the real princes of the world aren’t the two dimensional ones of story books and animated films with generic Ken doll good looks and a sense of ownership post rescue, but instead are the boys who grow up to respect the women in their life. The real princes slay dragons side-by-side with the princesses and may even stay home to make sure a delicious Easy Bake Oven strawberry shortcake is waiting when she gets home from a long day of kingdom saving.