|courtesy of Disney via Easy Art|
|courtesy of DC Comics via Comic Book Collectors|
Then one boy (the one who had already declared his fairy-hate) said rather defiantly, "No way! They aren't even in the same show!" (Ah, media culture...)
I pushed my real point – "But they have the same superpower." There was a mumbling of discordant commentary. Finally I said, "Well, Tinkerbell flies, right? I mean flying is a superpower, right? So she has superpowers. The same superpower as Superman." My words were followed by a few seconds of tense, thoughtful silence. Then one of the girls responded, using the ‘sometimes we have to remind silly adults things that everybody knows’ voice. She said, "Fairies have 'special talents.'" She didn’t overtly add “And ‘special talents’ are NOT the same as superpowers” but that was the clear message. There were nods of agreement around the table. Another boy said, “And she doesn’t even have a real cape. Superman has a real cape. She doesn’t.” I replied, “She doesn’t have a cape at all. She has wings. And she flies.”
|One of my students recently attached this image of herself|
as a superhero to her Valentine to the class. Yippee!
On the surface, this may seem like an innocuous, passing conversation, but to dismiss its implications so casually would be a mistake. Let me offer two similarly ‘innocent’ examples from the past few weeks:
First, a student and I were reading a children’s book about visiting other countries. The characters in the story travel by plane. We had a conversation that went like this:
Me: Would you ever like to be an airplane pilot, to fly a plane?Through further conversation, it became clear that there was nothing I could say to convince her that women can, and do, indeed fly planes. She was firm in her belief that this was not an option open to her. (In the moment, I was so frustrated that I didn’t have a photograph or illustration showing a female pilot, but you never have those things when you need them.)
Her: No. [A perfectly acceptable answer.]
Her: Girls can’t fly airplanes.
Me: Why not?
Her: Only boys can fly planes.
And second, on one of the recent days it was too cold to go outside to play, my student were watching a video adaption of the book Antarctic Antics: A Book of Penguin Poems by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Jose Aruego and Ariane Dewey. In one of the first poems a baby emperor penguin hatches and says, "I'm really hatched./ At last I'm free./ Hey, Dad, it's me!" My students immediately said, “That’s not the baby’s dad. That’s it’s mom,” to which I explained that male emperor penguins sit on the eggs to keep them warm 'til they hatch, so the ‘Dad’ would be the first parent a baby would see, not the ‘Mom.’ The kids were confused and somewhat resistant. As the video continued the children started seeing each penguin and shouting out, “That’s a boy. That’s a girl” – trying to identify the gender of each bird, even though the illustrations depict all of the birds as nearly identical. My students would say things like, “It’s a girl. Hear the voice?” To them it was like a playful game. To me they seemed almost frenetic in their determination to assign gender to the characters on the screen before them. It seemed intolerable and unacceptable to just not know someone's gender identity.
In all three of these examples – Superman vs. Tinkerbell, the gender of airplane pilots, and penguin genders – my students, who are four and five, have very clear ideas about acceptable gender categories and strategies for categorizing people and animals into those divisions based on appearance, other physical markers (like voice), and/or behavior. But even more so, they have concrete concepts of power attached to those gender divisions. On the whole, my students believe that Tinkerbell can’t have superpowers because she’s a girl. Only men can be airplane pilots. And it is important to be able to ‘read’ what gender category any given person or character falls into (and to my students there are only two viable categories – boy or girl). The implications of this are frightening to me. In addition to telling girls that they can only look and behave certain ways and only take on certain interests or work, the boys are being given equally clear messages, which seem to have quite a lot to do with aggression, domination, superiority, and entitlement. At the end of the day, everyone is screwed. And no one is truly free.
When I ask parents what they want or hope for their child(ren), they typically say (especially if they’re white and generally middle class or above) that they want their children to be happy and that they want their children to believe that they can be anyone or anything that they want to be. There is nothing wrong with those hopes. But, when everything about our culture – from media to books and from our schools to the socialization that takes place in our own homes – teaches kids from birth (and often before) that they can be whoever or whatever they want but only as long as they abide by very specific gender-based rules and norms, how does that make the world a more equitable place for children of all genders? How does that foster an environment where girls truly can be anything or anyone and an atmosphere where boys don’t have to be super-masculine to get their gender 'right'?
|This figurine is in our classroom's|
collection of pirate/castle gear. I adore
the unshaven, pink polka-dot look!
At the end of the day, I want the world to look different. I want my students to believe that they can be airplane pilots, even the girls. And I want my students to believe that fathers are fully qualified and capable of being nurturing primary caregivers. I want me students to believe that gender is complicated and putting people in boxes can be limiting to everyone. If we feel free to be merely who we are, that’s more than enough.
And I want my students to know that fairies have superpowers.