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I can still remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of gender expectations. I was in the second grade and I proudly walked to school in my brand new, neon green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles high-top sneakers. I thought I was so cool, because I thought they were so cool — a group of “heroes in a half shell” who saved the world while still maintaining a sense of loyalty and brotherhood.
But, later that day, my heart sank when a little boy in my class pointed at my shoes and announced loudly: “Hey! I have those shoes too. Why are you wearing BOYS shoes?” I heard laughter behind me. I swear I can still feel my ears burning from embarrassment. Being a fairly outspoken child myself, I asked him what it was about my shoes that made them a “boys only” accessory (although I’m fairly certain it came out as a sputter, and not as self-assured as I just made it sound). I can still recall how he simply shrugged and said, “Because girls don’t like the Ninja Turtles.”
Girls don’t like the Ninja Turtles. My mind was blown. At the tender age of seven, I was (jarringly) introduced to the sad realization that some people perceived me differently now because I liked something commonly associated with boys. My parents hadn’t raised me to think that way. If they knew I liked something, they never denied me that interest. They never thought it was weird that their daughter loved Batman and Ghostbusters. It wasn’t until I was out in the real world (i.e. that fateful day in elementary school) that I realized not everyone played with a variety of toys like I did.
As a child, I couldn’t wrap my head around what was so wrong with liking both Ninja Turtles and Barbies. I still don’t get it, even as an adult.
You’d think we’d have come a long way by now, but earlier today I read this recent Jezebel headline: “NYC Parents Bring Gender Exclusion to Comic Book Party.”
In a nutshell: a New York mother was prepared to bring her five-year-old daughter to the birthday party of a male classmate when she suddenly found her daughter “uninvited” to the party due to its “masculine” comic book theme. A separate party for the boy — with all his female classmates — was prepared as an alternative on a different date.
Because girls don’t like comic books and superheroes, right?
Sadly, I can’t say that the story took me by surprise. Working at Today’s Parent, I read about similar situations all the time.
The frustrating part isn’t the double birthday parties for the little boy or the fact that there’s a comic book theme. It’s that sometimes we can still get caught up in the mentality that boys and girls don’t share similar interests. Yes, girls may be more inclined to dress like princesses and boys may be more eager to play with a Hot Wheels car, but assuming that all kids fall under these gender divisions is a mistake. It’s an error we still make as adults — we make assumptions based on gender norms, often without even realizing it. Some people may brush it off as not a big deal, but it is. I wish the seven-year-old me hadn’t been made aware of gender norms because I became a little more self-conscience about expressing my interests while at school. Our kids pick up on these attitudes and carry these assumptions through into adulthood. And it will just continue as a vicious cycle.
That being said, I don’t believe it means we should deny our daughters the right to wear pink simply because we want them to avoid “princess culture.” We should just be more cognizant of the fact that our seemingly harmless throwaway comments about gender norms actually do have an impact on our little ones. I don’t know if the little girl in the Jezebel article will ever find out the actual reason she wasn’t able to go to the birthday party anymore, but I can only hope she never knows. For all we know, she could be a future graphic artist in the comic book genre, and I wouldn’t want her feeling as self-conscience as I did about my Ninja Turtle shoes.
The best we can try to do is raise our kids to be imaginative in as gender-neutral a household as we can, instead of depriving them of interests that may provide them with a sense of creative individuality down the road. I wish I could tell those New York parents in the article that I know of at least one little girl who would have loved to have gone to a superhero party as a child — and she would have proudly worn her Ninja Turtle shoes.
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