Let me describe them to you. They look like Chuck Taylors: low-tops, black canvas, with a thick white sole. The canvas is decorated with pink hearts, purple peace signs, and baby blue stars. The laces are purple and shiny. The toe is covered in neon-colored rhinestones. These were the least ostentatious pair of shoes this store carried for little girls. Then, as I was packing them into the box, I discovered yet another feature: when pressure is applied to the soles – for instance, when stepping in them – three bright lights on the toe and three lights down the outer sides of the sole flash in alternating sequences.
As you might could guess, our little girl loves them. LOVES THEM. When she first wore them, she spent five minutes stomping her feet and giggling uncontrollably. She cries when we have to take them off for bed. We have to hide them when she’s not wearing them. When she is wearing them, we have to be careful she doesn’t hurt herself, because when she runs she watches her feet instead of where she is running. Daddy was quite the hero for giving her something so great. And it’s safe to say that Daddy was quite pleased.
I tell you about the shoes because this week as I have been doing laundry, clipping tags from 24m blouses and dresses, I have begun to struggle with a realization. Nearly two years ago, I wrote about our prohibition against princess paraphernalia because of how the princess narrative reinforces harmful stereotypes tying a woman’s worth to their beauty and ultimate helplessness. And I took a lot of shit for it. The only comment on the page came from a friend warning me that princesses were inescapable, but I got a lot of other comments on Facebook and in person telling me I was overreacting and being an unreasonably fuzzy-headed liberal.
Maybe. We’ve held up our boycott on princesses, and it’s actually been pretty easy so far. She’s still at an age where she will play with any toy, and she has not protested that none of her toyboxes contains a princess. None of her clothes have princesses or princess-related slogans. But you know what she does have? Dolls. Several shirts and onesies that proclaim her “Daddy’s Girl” (which she unquestionably is). Lots of clothes declaring how cute she is (again, 100% accurately). And if her clothes don’t have actual slogans on them, they are very likely to feature flowers, kittens and puppies, ribbons and bows, and plenty of the color pink. Or, as featured on her new favorite pair of shoes, hearts and rhinestones.
What are we supposed to do? We shop for her at the appropriate stores and this is what is available in the little girls’ section. I guess we could buy her clothes from the boys’ section, but do you know what’s featured there? Dump trucks, baseballs, airplanes and a lot of dark blue and camouflage. Sure, there’s nothing that would prohibit a girl from being into baseball and mass transportation. But it’s pretty obvious that children’s clothing is meant to clearly announce the gender of the child wearing it by relying on classic stereotypes: sugar and spice and everything nice, or slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails.
Now, the color pink and cutesy pictures of butterflies don’t immediately convey the stereotypes of the princess narrative. But there is something definitely “girly” about them. And I’ve found myself suddenly stricken with worry that we have inadvertently and unconsciously been programming our daughter to be “girly.” Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “girliness.” But are we imposing an expectation or narrative on our daughter that doesn’t naturally fit her? What if she’s not really a girly girl? Are we just colluding with unhealthy social gender norms?
I think I’m overreacting. Because, God help me, she is adorable. And she looks even more adorable dressed in bright colors with a smiling elephant on her shirt that declares how huggable she is with a bow in her hair. But then again, do I find that adorable because that’s my assumption of what makes a girl adorable? Would I still find her adorable if she were wearing a camouflage outfit with a picture of freight train on it?
Actually, yes, I would. The truth is all children’s clothing is cutesy. And what makes it cutesy is that it plays on and reinforces gender stereotypes. I’d like to believe that as my little girl grows, I will understand her personality as it develops, and dress her and treat her accordingly. She’s not yet quite two, so I probably am over-thinking this right now. When she’s eight and tells me she doesn’t like the color pink, then she can stop wearing pink. But I wonder if I can trust that if she really doesn’t like pink, she will be able to say instead of feeling like she is supposed to like pink because she’s a girl. And if she does like pink, does she really like pink or only think she likes pink because that’s the norm?
Questions of determinism like this make my head spin. Ultimately, my primary concern is that my little girl has the freedom to be exactly who she is supposed to be. But no one becomes a fully realized human being in a setting of complete freedom. There is no cultural vacuum within which to raise a child. You have to raise your child in the culture you live in, with all of the expectations and stereotypes that come with it. Maybe that’s why I so strongly stand up against princesses. I can’t completely reject all the girly things of American middle-class culture, so I’ll reject the princess. Just like I can’t completely live off the grid, so I get passionate about high-efficiency lightbulbs and my hybrid car.
Who knows why any of us are the way we are. How much of it is inherent, or how much of it comes from our upbringing. Why do I like the color green? Why is my style what it is? Why do I worry about how I’m gender-typing my daughter before she can speak sentences? Who knows? The confluence of influences in this world is unbelievably complex and ever-changing. Who knows what my little girl will be like in ten or twenty years? And is it really good for me to worry so much about whether I’m constricting or defining it for her? Because, of course, there are things I unequivocally want to constrict or define for her. But I still want her to be free to be herself and like what she likes because she really likes it and it reflects her true personality. Whatever that is.
Well, no matter what else, I can say this. She likes – nay, loves – flashing jewels on her feet. And I kind of love them, too.