Being a child of the seventies, I was raised on Free To Be, You and Me, which was, I suppose, my parents’ generation’s attempt at rectifying the ills (intolerance, rigid gender roles, etc.) of their own ‘father knows best’ upbringings. It’s only natural; one of the major things I’ve observed about human nature is that the primary drive of many parents is to right the wrongs their parents inflicted on them, if it’s not to continue perpetrating the same wrongs on their own children (my husband, whose Baby Boomer parents are ten years younger, was raised on this recording, which I can only speculate qualifies as the former, as the Baby Boomer’s main complaint is that their parents were uncool, although if you think “cool” is Paul McCartney singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” then you have bigger problems than I can solve).

Anyway, I loved Free to Be, You and Me, because it addressed all the limiting stereotypes my parents had grown up with and which were still making themselves evident in the late 70’s and early 80’s. “William’s Doll” is one of the songs that sticks out. You may remember it, but if not, you can see the cartoon and hear the song:

Yes, that is Alan Alda singing along with Marlo Thomas, and yes, the cartoon William manages to stay cheerful and well-adjusted until his grandma finally brings everyone to their senses, despite having undergone the censorious faces of his peers jeering, “A doll…a doll..don’t be a jerk!” at every opportunity. It’s a silly and obvious song that goes straight for the schmaltz and ego appeal at the end, not to mention being tacitly complicit with homophobia (Aw! Loosen up, Dadsy. William wants a doll because someday he is going to fertilize a woman’s egg with his sperm, just like you did! He wants a doll so that he can be a man). And yet I love it. I loved it when I was a little kid and I love it now, and I think the reason is that the clever grandma manages to defeat the father’s crushing narrow-mindedness with its own logic, and the little boy gets a reprieve from phallocracy long enough to get what he wants, which is a doll. To love. Because little boys want to nurture things, too, and because it’s just awful when Alan Alda pretends to be an eight-year-old ridiculing a peer (he’s so good at it!).

So when Thing One was born, I resolved not to let his gender identity be so rigidly defined, not to dress him exclusively in the navy, khaki, and hunter green with heavy machinery or mode of transport appliqués that seems to dominate the world of young boys’ clothing, and to let him have a doll. I wanted him to see people as people first and not have to gender-pigeonhole everyone he saw, not to make assumptions about sexuality based on appearance or hair length, and not to feel self-conscious about asserting his maleness. And it was working pretty well until he started going to the co-op, where a lot of the parents are more like William’s dad than they are like his grandma, and where, apparently, some adults have managed to communicate that pink is for girls.

Now, Thing One does have a lot of navy, khaki, and hunter green, because my cousin is the main source of our hand-me-downs and she is apparently not offended by the idea that you must train little boys to look like minature G.I.s or construction workers-in-training, but he also has a lot of unisex stuff mixed in, and some things that were meant for girls: a batik flowered blouse, for example, and a set of socks that prominently features pink (pink with hearts, pink with stripes, pink argyle, etc.). And I was happy that I was inculcating in him the idea that it’s totally normal for a boy to wear pink heart-patterned socks. But one day, all my hopes were dashed: he came home from co-op and informed me, “Mama, I have pink socks like a girl!”

I inwardly groaned, but I persevered: the next time we were playing with his Fisher Price “Main Street,” I named one of the little plastic people (scroll down) K. after his father. It happened to be one with the “lace collar” that is Fisher Price code for “female,” but I figured, what the hell. Who’s to say men can’t wear lace collars? So I went ahead and named all the people, including the bald policeman (Beth) and a couple of other lace collar-wearers (Paul, who is K.’s real life best friend, and Bobby). Thing One accepted it without a murmur, and I was feeling pretty pleased, but then K. came upstairs and I shared with him the news that he had his very own Fisher Price replica, and you know what he said?

“That looks like a chick!” he said.

Never mind that my husband owns more products and wears more girly colors than I. Never mind that he’s metrosexual enough to have me do his makeup when he has an unsightly blemish. Never mind that his friend Paul would probably agree that inside, they’re both a couple of little girls and that there’s something apropos about representing them both as plastic, armless Fisher Price children with plastic molded ‘lace’ around their necks. Apparently, the plastic scalloped collar is just way too threatening to his manhood.

I was disgusted. Only two years old, and already learning a set of stupid, arbitrary rules about what it means to be a man, along with a lot of implied misogyny and belittlement of women, their abilities, and their freedoms. I don’t want my kid to be William’s jeering pals, saying “dolls are for girls,” and I also don’t want my kid to be William and have his dreams crushed because people are paralyzed by the idea of a boy not acting like Rambo all the time.

But maybe there’s hope. Because yesterday morning, Thing One was playing with his dollhouse, and you know what he said? He said, “Mama, I’m a pussyboy!”

I’m not entirely sure what he understands by that. But if he’s OK with it, then so am I.

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