Monday, March 16, 2009

Three and the feminine mystique

Having just left behind her comfortable world of Being Two, E's negotiating all sorts of new terrain. She's never given much thought to gender or its meaning. She sees her father's purple dress shirt hanging in the closet and she fondles its sleeve, asking M, can you save this shirt for me to wear when I grow up and I'm a daddy? She pulls his ties off the rack and wraps them around herself like a shawl. I'm going to wear lots of ties when I grow up and be a man!

Now she spends her days in the Big Kids room. Kids as old as five, who hear me tease her, saying "are you really my E? or are you Diego?" and declare "only boys like Diego!" I watched E's face. She takes the word of the older kids as gospel, and I watch her absorb this lesson. No more Diego, I can see her little cogs whirring, so as quick as I can I address that boy: "that's silly! Girls can like Diego and boys can like Diego. And E and I both like Diego."

But I'm not in the classroom with her all day to protect her gender politics.

Last week we passed a motorcycle and E commented, motorcycles are for boys. And I asked her why? And she answered with logic: because only boys can ride motorcycles. I told her that I think it's true that many or most motorcyclists are male, but women can certainly ride motorcyles, too. I told her I've ridden one before. I watched the cogs again. Whir. Whir.

Know thyself, I want to tell her. If you like Diego, enjoy him and it doesn't matter what some other kid says. If you love your Daddy's ties, he'll teach you how to knot them. If you go for a motorcycle ride, please wear a helmet.

One of the older boys called her a cuckoo and she was sad. I reminded her that I call her a silly goose; that I call her a crazy monkey. I asked her, "are you really a goose? Are you a monkey?" She smiled but said that boy calls all the girls cuckoo and she doesn't like it.

Back when she was young, in the Land of the Twos, there was no issue of girl vs. boy.

I came to pick her up and she told me she needed to poop, so she ducked behind the wall to the girls' potty. E had a quirky little habit of sometimes removing her shirt when she poops, and on this day she was wearing a dress. After doing her thing she pulled up her unders and tights and reappeared topless at my side in the main part of the room to ask me to put her dress back on. "Ha ha, E's naked," called out one of the kids. E looked at me for help. She knew she was being teased, but she didn't understand why because she still (precious, dear girl, I wish I could preserve you this way) has no body issues. I supplied her with a retort: "sweetie, you're not naked, you're half naked." And she yelled across the room, I'm HALF naked! I'm NOT NAKED! The kid didn't say anything more because from his perspective, she had missed his point. And E, from my perspective, had gratefully missed his.

So why do these identity labels receive such value in the next age bracket? And how do we equip her to navigate the politics, make friends, deflect idiotic notions, and be true to herself? All while she's just forming her definition of self?

Away from school, E loves to watch TV as much as the next kid, and her favorites are Diego and Dora. They annoy me because of the aggressive child-directed marketing related to them, but the shows themselves are not awful. Both teach a little Spanish. Dora has adventures exploring, where she relies on map-reading and problem-solving. Diego rescues animals and incorporates some nice science lessons. So I wish she didn't want to watch so much television, and I do my best to avoid buying the books and dolls and unnecessary related paraphernalia, but as kids' shows go, they're really not bad. I think it's great that she loves the boy scientist. And Dora? She's a cute, curious little girl. Just like my girl. Her baby fat belly pokes out from under her shirt. Her sneakers say: this is a girl who is ready for the next adventure. She, like my girl, exists in a pre-gender politics world. And as role models go, that's fine with me.

Nickelodeon, who makes the show, and Mattel, who makes the schlock, recently unveiled a silhouette of the soon-to-be revised Dora:

And then much of the internet exploded. Ballet flats are not good explorer footwear! She's being feminized with the goal of keeping an audience who apparently dumps Dora upon graduation from pre-K. I understand the marketing goals, but that's what I hated about Dora in the first place - that she's first and foremost a brand. Her story comes second. But my girl is too naive to notice the difference, a quality for which I otherwise praise her.

The full image of the coming soon Dora was released today.

She's definitely tarted up, but on the whole it's not as obscene as what so many people feared based on the silhouette alone. (Although I do think the point about ballet flats is valid.) She gone from cute to pretty, though, and I know my girl will respond to that.

I know she's not the first character to be subjected to a makeover. I know it's all in the name of revenue. And I know boys will call girls cuckoo, and much worse. And I know E will soon be careful not to be naked in front of her peers.

But I want to hang on to my girl - whose lack of modesty, whose lack of shame for her body is probably fleeting. My girl who looks like the current Dora, with her belly often hanging out, or not even covered at all. My girl who doesn't see why she can't grow up to be a daddy, and really, why should she?

She's just three. Imagination should have a stronger grasp on her than limitations or conformity. I know the Dora-makers are worried about losing five-year-olds but I have a three-year-old who loves Dora just the way she is, and who really doesn't need any more help in growing up too quickly. Pin It