A couple of weeks ago, my wife, son, and I were sitting around the dining room table, discussing a group Halloween costume. My wife suggested we go as characters from our family’s favorite cartoon show, Adventure Time.
“You’d make a great Finn the Human,” she told my son, which is true. “And I can be Princess Bubblegum.”
“Will Dad be Jake the Dog?” Felix asked.
“No, I want to be Marceline the Vampire Queen!” I said.
My wife agreed that I’d make a great vampire queen, which is when Felix announced that he didn’t want to be Finn at all. Instead, he’d go as Princess Bubblegum.
We’re an open-minded and warm-hearted family, and we have very liberal attitudes toward gender. As I’ve written elsewhere, I wore my hair long in college, pinning it back with barrettes, and sometimes dressed in drag at parties. (I was wearing a dress when I met my wife.) In my early twenties, I left the corporate environment to enter the traditionally female dominated profession of teaching — my first year as a public school teacher, I was one of three men working in the building, and I was the only male classroom teacher. (The other guys taught gym and technology.) I’ve been at home with my son for the past five years while my wife has worked full-time, an experience that, in particular, led me to finally begin calling myself a feminist.
Still, my son wanting to dress as Princess Bubblegum gave me pause. Yes, Princess Bubblegum is a smart scientist and (at times) brave warrior, but she wears a flowing pink dress, and sports a tiara in her long pink hair. Felix is in kindergarten. Seeing a boy in such a getup would likely cause confusion at best, and, at worse, teasing or ostracizing. Felix doesn’t get this at home, and so doesn’t understand. When he wants to pretend being a “girl bunny rabbit” and get cuddled at bedtime, my wife and I have no problem playing along. He has no idea that people might mock or make assumptions about him if he were to come to school dressed as a girl.
This is, of course, unfair. A 5-year-old girl can dress as, say, Robin from Batman, and no one is going to bat an eye. But our rules about masculinity begin at an early age. Boys, even when very young and playfully curious about themselves and the world, do not wear dresses and identify as princesses, at least without raising concerns that they’re very confused about their gender. These stereotypes box boys into very narrow roles, ones which they continue playing into adulthood.
When we talk about gender inequality, our focus is usually on women — that women should receive equal respect, opportunities, and payment as men, and have the right to choose what happens to their bodies. These are terrible problems that women face to some degree in every country around the world. Yet as Emma Watson, actress and Goodwill Ambassador for United Nations Women, so eloquently put it in a speech at the UN general assembly on Saturday, gender inequality is an issue that affects men too. (You can watch her speech here.) Speaking on how many men don’t consider themselves feminists or get involved in campaigns for women’s rights, Watson said:
Men … Gender equality is your issue, too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the UK, suicide is the biggest killer of men between 20 to 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and heart disease. I’ve seen men fragile and insecure by what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality either.
She went on:
Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all see gender as a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. We should stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are.
By keeping the focus of gender inequality solely on women, we leave men out of the conversation, to the detriment of making real progress toward equality. Watson’s speech marked the launch of the UN Women’s He For She campaign, which states that gender inequality is a human rights issue that affects everyone — even 5-year-old boys who want to dress as princesses.
Which my son has decided not to do, at least this year. When I realized that my son was modeling himself on me — choosing his favorite female character from Adventure Time just as I was choosing my favorite female character from Adventure Time — I changed my tune. Instead of trick-or-treating as the Vampire Queen, I told him, I was going to grow a beard and go as Wolverine. Talk about embracing a male stereotype! The be-clawed X-Man embodies the stoic, darkly troubled man who would rather cut his way out of trouble than talk about his feelings. For me, that’s a fun mask to wear, if only because it’s so different from who I am at my core, which is a sensitive, talkative, loving family man. With no explicit pressure on my part, Felix decided to follow my lead and will dress as The Hulk. (He still wants to be Princess Bubblegum, but he says he’ll do that next year.)
I feel badly for using my influence to change his mind, but I honestly don’t think it’s socially and emotionally safe to send my son to school, or let him walk the streets of Brooklyn, dressed as a pink bubblegum princess. My urge to protect him from the hurt and confusion of being made fun of trumps my desire to let him dress in whatever way he would like. That’s a sad thing, and one I would like to change. This is why I stand with He For She in their fight against gender inequality, and I urge you to too.
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