When my sons were tiny, they only liked TV shows and books featuring male characters. They loved Pablo in The Backyardigans, even if it was Uniqua who told the jokes and did the fun stuff. They liked Elmo and Grover, even when Zoe was the featured monster in a storyline. It was infuriating to me, as a mom with a degree in women’s studies, that they seemed to dislike any story featuring a girl.
I understand now that it wasn’t that my sons didn’t like little girls, it was just a matter of development for them. One of the earliest ways in which kids classify who is like them is by defining gender. It seemed that part of my sons’ efforts to understand their place in the world, relative to other people, started by classifying who was a boy and who was a girl. They saw boy protagonists and thought, “Oh, he’s like me.”
It’s not surprising, considering that identifying gender starts very young, as early as 18 months. Kids almost always have a firm concept of their gender identity by the age of 3. Other concepts, like race or class, come along later.
I didn’t fight their connections with boy characters, but I also never gave up presenting them with alternatives. And fortunately, as they’ve grown older, it’s been easier to get them excited about girl and woman protagonists.
My oldest recently read (and loved) The Hunger Games, The Fifth Wave, and the first two books in the Divergent series, and my youngest recently discovered the awesome graphic novels by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm, many of which feature girl protagonists. Neither of my boys questioned whether those books were good for them.
On top of that, every single week, our family sits down to watch one show together: Supergirl.
If you haven’t yet seen Supergirl, you must. It’s fun and wholesome in the way that the earliest superhero movies and shows were, except it features a woman as its star. By day, she’s an assistant to a very powerful businesswoman, and by night she saves the people of National City alongside her butt-kicking government agent sister.
My boys love this show. They love the routine of snuggling into the couch with us to see what happens next. Seeing as it’s the only TV show we watch as a family, the message we’re sending them is strong: we value the heroics of Kara Zor-El, and stories featuring women. My sons also witness how Wynn and James, the two main male characters, believe she is capable of saving the world, and how they’re always there to serve backup to her (and her sister’s) missions.
Supergirl is far from the first woman superhero my kids have gotten to know. Before her, they loved Black Widow from the Marvel series, especially when she saved the Avengers on her motorcycle. And they joined me in absolute glee when, at the very end of the Marvel superhero film Ant Man, it was revealed that Wasp would also be appearing in future movies. Their fandom isn’t forced, it’s not to please me. It comes naturally because the content is so great.
In a lovely piece for Quartz, Caroline Siede talks about the ways in which stories today don’t let boys ignore the women and girl heroes. She notes, “For the first time young boys are being asked to empathize with female leads the way girls have long been expected to empathize with male ones. After all, I may have loved Hermione, but I spent 3,000 plus pages inside Harry [Potter’s] head.”
And it’s working. Stories like Divergent, Supergirl, and The Hunger Games do a lot more than show boys that girls can be heroes, too. They also serve to debunk the myth that girls are mysterious and foreign. For the first time possibly ever, boys get to experience the world through girls’ eyes and get to see, first-hand, that girls and boys are very much the same.
This sort of experience is crucial to creating a world that’s safer and more just for girls and women. But it’s also essential for our boys’ future success that they know how valid and important girls are as leaders. With college graduation rates for girls now exceeding that of boys, and likely to only increase, our sons’ ability to see girls as full equals is imperative. After all, our boys will most likely have women as their bosses at some point (if not most often) in their careers.
None of this is to say that books like Harry Potter have lost their value. In fact, Harry Potter is a great example for kids that big things can only happen when boys and girls work together. My husband always reminds our boys, when reading the books or watching the movies, that while Harry is the central protagonist, he would not have survived without Hermione’s leadership and bravery. And Harry is never, ever ashamed to be led by her.
The old notion boys and girls are so vastly different has to go in order for our boys to thrive in the workplace they’ll someday be entering. Fortunately for us, teaching them these lessons is becoming easier with so many awesome examples of boys and girls (and men and women) working together in their favorite books, TV shows, and movies.
But it’s up to us, as their parents, to make sure these stories wind up in front of our boys, and not just our girls.