mothering bodies ~ adoption ~ alt.gender ~ parenting ~ work/life balance

Saturday, August 2, 2014

My Barbie Lunchbox

Classes start soon, so it's time to pull the dry-cleaner bags off my suits and pull my hot-pink Barbie lunchbox down from the top shelf of the pantry.

What?

Oh, that.

Go Ahead, Ask. Make My Day.
Photo: MLB
Yes, I am an educated, professional woman and I carry a fuschia Barbie lunchbox to work. It’s not a quirky, ironic affect; I carry it because my second-grade son wouldn’t anymore.

He loves both Star Wars video games and Barbie coloring books. What do these preferences say about him? They say that, like all nine-year-old boys, he is naturally interested in a variety of subjects.

However, most toys, clothes, and entertainment are marketed to very specific types of boys or very specific types of girls, period. Not both, not crossover (at least, not very often). Have you ever tried to buy Disney princess boxer briefs for boys? I have. Did you find any? Neither did I. On the Internet, I did find numerous blog posts and forum queries from other parents, like me, seeking princess underwear designed for boys’ bodies. Our boys instead make due with princess underwear designed for girls’ bodies. If such a robust market for boys’ princess boxers exits, then why doesn’t the product?

The answer to this question is further reaching than market analysis. It is threaded into the very fabric of how we, as a culture, teach our children to adopt narrowly defined male or female roles though our media, marketing, and consumption. When we buy gender-coded clothing without demanding cross-gender alternatives, we teach our children. When we let them watch programs that portray boys in dresses as jokes, we teach them. And when our sons ask for dolls and we buy them military figurines instead, we teach them. With such pervasive gender training, what do we think second graders will say to the new boy carrying a Barbie lunch box on the first day of school? I could tell you; but it is not nice.

My son explained to his new classmates that if a boy has a Barbie lunch box, then Barbie is not just for girls.

It’s a valid point.

He has been repeating this message for years, ever since he first wore pink, glitter-encrusted Hello Kitty flats to preschool. I had planned to buy sneakers, but he loved the Shiny Shoes instead. How could I say no simply because he was a boy? More important: why should I? He wore holes through those shoes, teaching his preschool class that Shinys are for boys and girls.

But second graders are far less tolerant than pre-schoolers when policing difference. They are older, so they have internalized a larger dose of gender training, and over a longer period of time. Two summers ago, before starting at a new school, he warned me about the gear he had chosen: “Mommy, I think my friends will make fun of this Hello Kitty backpack and Barbie lunchbox.” As it does every August, a piece of my heart died in the Target back-to-school aisle. I wanted to fold him into a baby-sized bundle, clutch him to my chest, and shield him from the harsh judges of this world. But I can’t do that.

“They will,” I agreed. “How do you feel about being teased?”

“Not good,” He replied. “But I like them, so I’m getting them anyway.”

My kid is brave, although choosing a lunchbox and backpack should not require bravery.

His friends did tease him and SpongeBob replaced Barbie. But he refused to give up Hello Kitty. He wore that backpack like a shield against teasing in the classroom, in the halls, and on the bus.

Nope. Definitely Not Hello Kitty.
Photo: MLB
The next summer he picked black gear covered in creepy light-green skulls. For a minute, I worried that he had made those choices specifically to appease the Third Grade Gender Police. Then, I worried that his choices were based on genuine appeal and that my saying anything would add pressure to his anxiety over starting the school year without any best friends in his class. I zipped lips and waited.

Ah, relief: he choose the skulls because, in addition to Hello Kitty, he likes rad ghoulish skate-dude images. And those sickly-irridescent green skulls are totally badass.

So, ever since the Great SpongeBob Switch, this card-carrying feminist has also carried that fuchsia Barbie lunchbox. I've even started to love its garish refusal to blend in among the understated purse and briefcase I also carry. When other adults tease me about it, I tell them about second graders’ internalized gender intolerance and my son's struggle against it to live his authentic self. I carry that lunchbox as a beacon to light a path for both of my sons—one of tolerance and inclusivity. Also, I want my little badass to know that he picked a rad lunch box.