I went into a Walgreens recently looking for a birthday card for my cousin’s 8-year-old daughter. I made my way to the rack and quickly noticed that not only were the cards divided by age, but by gender. There wasn’t a generic “happy second birthday” card, there were “2nd – girl” and “2nd – boy” cards. And, as you might imagine, all of the girls’ cards were pink, purple and sparkly, and talked about being princesses for a day. The boys’ cards had images of superheroes and Buzz Lightyear, in blue, green and red. The only gender-neutral cards were designed to hold cash or a check; because I was sending a gift, those weren’t helpful.
Needless to say, I was disappointed and disgusted. Not all little girls like My Little Pony and Disney princesses; not all little boys like superheroes. This 8-year-old I was shopping for enjoys dressing up, but she is far from prim and proper. She loves digging in the dirt, making messes, learning about science. She has devoured almost the whole “Harry Potter” series. I was there the day she came home from the hospital, and her whole life I’ve tried to give her gifts that any kid would like, or that at least weren’t stereotypically girly. The first book I gave her, when she was still an infant, was full of fairy tales with girls — so often the damsels in distress or minor characters — as the heroes of the stories.
When another little girl joined the family last year, I tried to do the same thing. As I looked for a cross-stitch pattern to celebrate her birth, I avoided all of the designs that were completely pink or talked about princesses. I picked one with a teddy bear and a crescent moon with the text “a star is born” — and even that didn’t completely satisfy me.
I doubt that anyone other than me even recognizes these efforts, and I don’t pretend they’re going to have a major effect on how these girls grow up. But it’s important to me to make even small gestures to let them know they have value as human beings, that they can be strong, smart, confident, athletic. I want them to know they can dream about being the next Hillary Clinton or Tina Fey, Maya Angelou or Mia Hamm, Sally Ride or Sonia Sotomayor, not Snow White or Cinderella.
The boys in my family live across the country, and I don’t see them often, but my hope for them would be to know it’s OK to show emotion and like things that society sees as feminine. That would be my wish for all children this holiday: to be unapologetically who they are, and ignore the people who try to tell them their interests aren’t appropriately boyish or girly. Kids these days have it hard enough; they don’t need the added burden of forcing themselves to fit the mold we set for them as soon as we hear “it’s a boy” or “it’s a girl.”