“I want a cape!” he tells me as I pull a t-shirt over his head. The dark grey fabric falls over his toddler belly and a yellow bat symbol glows on his chest.
“Oh, I know you do. You can wear your superman cape.” I tell him. I fold his pajamas and toss a comforter over his bed.
“No. I want a Batman cape.”
“Ok bud.” I add ‘Batman cape’ to the running birthday list I keep for him in my head. My boy loves to dress up and he wants a cape. I think it’s adorable.
Later that day, I ask my daughter what she wants for her upcoming 6th birthday. I’ve got a few ideas of my own—Legos and books top the list. My husband has already bought her a microscope. But her deep brown eyes grow big as she lifts her face to mine.
“I want an Anna costume. The dress she wears on her way to find Elsa. Not the coronation one. I want the pink cape.” “Ok….” I pause as a running list of responses ticks through my mind. My girl loves to dress up and she wants another princess costume. I think it’s okay, but we can do better.
And then, of course, I pause a little longer. Because, as it turns out, when you have both a daughter and a son, your own double standards can hit you in the face while you’re making dinner.
As the mother of a daughter, I curate the world. Raising my girl to push past glass ceilings and reject airbrushed fantasies of perfection is important to me. So, in addition to modeling these actions as best I can, I seek out characters, stories, and role models to help me show her how it’s done. The old-fashioned princesses with their sparkly gowns and ‘save me’ pleas weren’t telling the full truth. Thankfully, today there are far more truth-tellers in our world, fictional or otherwise. The groundswell of girl power floods nearly every form of media, and very rightly so. Google “strong female role models in books” and you will find the reading list of your dreams. Look for alternatives to the traditional princess story and you’ll be busy for hours with everyone from Ladybug Girl to Olivia the Pig, from the new Princess in Black to Hermione Granger. Not to mention the new hero of the Star Wars franchise.
We have many miles to go but we have great role models to demonstrate to our girls how to get us there. Today, girls are learning that they don’t have to be quiet, delicate, or fragile. They are growing to know that they are powerful, smart, and brave. The definitions of ‘girl’ and ‘woman’ are changing.
But what about our boys?
As Common Sense Media noted,“From chisel-chested action stars to scorched-earth video game heroes to tough-talking TV guys, the media’s images, characters, and messages are loud and clear: to be a man, you must be intimidating, stoic, and domineering.”
I’ll admit, I didn’t consider this before my son was born. But watching him, it’s not hard to see that superheroes speak just as loudly as princesses and that their messages can be just as damaging. I don’t want my son to think that he needs to be intimidating, stoic, or domineering any more than I want my daughter to think she has to be submissive, sparkly, or saved. I want him, too, to know that he can do anything, be anything, and try everything, even if those things don’t require muscles or superhuman powers. But when I look to curate the world for him, to find characters, stories, and role models to help us show him the full truth—that being a boy isn’t all about being tough, scary or strong, I find very little. Surprisingly, finding the kinds of role models I want for my son between the pages of a book or getting them to appear on our TV screen is not an easy task. Google “strong male role models in books” and Esquire will top the results list with 62 guys to emulate. The list includes at least one athlete with a spotty history and a tagline that reads “Because just being male doesn’t make you a man.” Well, Esquire, I’m afraid to ask, what does?
I decided years ago that my approach to the princess phase would be to indulge my daughter’s interests but to keep well-rounded role models in her worldview. She deserves to love a sparkly blue dress. Hey, I love it too. But she also deserves to dream of life beyond the ball. And together, the two of us have created a world with sparkle, spunk, and smarts and it’s a pretty great place to be.
And now, I’d love to approach the upcoming superhero phase with the same balance. I want to buy my son that Batman cape but also nurture his passions for art and baking and his love of pretty flowers. I am looking for well-rounded male characters that are human and relatable, strong but also sensitive. I don’t mind going against the grain in the way I parent him, but I can’t help wondering why raising a sweet, superhero-loving boy feels like swimming upstream in a way that raising a strong, princess-loving girl doesn’t.
And I know that someday soon, influences outside our home will shape him more than those within. Where will we turn when he needs someone other than his parents to demonstrate that boys don’t have to be made of steel, that men can and do cry, and that the world is desperately in need of his sweeter and softer sides?
I’m not saying that we should pull back at all on flooding the airwaves with strength for girls. May girl power live forever. But it might be time to, once again, put some effort into balancing the scale.
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