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Adeline and I sit on the floor in her room, looking through her favorite books. We come to a page with a picture of a little bunny and a short poem about hopping around and eating grass. The bunny is grey and totally adorable.

“Look Addie, isn’t he so cute?”

Despite the fact that the bunny is completely gender neutral and there are no gender clues in the poem, I’ve automatically and without thinking made the bunny a boy. I do it all the time, even though I don’t want to, and I hate it.

I think the “he/she” or “he and/or she” formulations are awkward at best, and I used to shrug off the feminists who complained about the almost-exclusive use of ‘he’ in our culture. “What’s the harm?” I thought. But then I had a daughter. And, finally, I understood.

When I make every animal, character, and even anthropomorphic car a ‘he’, I’m giving my daughter a lesson: men are dominant in our culture. All the animals who are worth writing books about are boys. All the cars that are cool are boys. All the characters who have adventures and do amazing things are boys. Anyone who’s worth talking about is a boy. And you’re a girl. So good luck with that.

Of course, parents of boys aren’t exempt either. Boys learn those same lessons, and therefore come to believe that they are better than girls. We can’t expect our children to believe in equality if the unspoken messages that they receive are telling them that equality is a fairy tale. We all know by now that our actions are immensely more powerful than the lessons we try to teach. But our actions are also more habitual and unconscious and much harder to control.

I know I’m not the only one who falls into this trap. My mother and my mother-in-law are both intelligent, accomplished women, who are both feminists in their own ways. But I’ve watched and listened as both of them, completely unconsciously I’m sure, have sat with Addie and labelled toys and characters that aren’t obviously girls as ‘he’.

Which is it’s own lesson: the only girls are the ones who are obviously girls. They wear pink and have bows in their hair and have big doe eyes and long eyelashes and they strike poses and, well, you get the point. So how could Addie not then believe that in order to identify with her gender she has to be and do those things?

I know the obvious solutions: get her books with strong female characters, give her permission to wear whatever and look however she wants to, discourage Barbies, watch Brave instead of Sleeping Beauty. But the problem is more insidious than that. I need to change my language.

It’s not that easy, though. Even when I’m aware enough to call an animal or character ‘she’, it’s still a struggle. I want to do it. I believe it’s important and I know there’s no reason not to. Yet I still feel awkward doing it. ‘He’ is so ingrained in my psyche that I can’t get over it. I can’t get over “He’.

Do you struggle with this? Or do you think it’s no big deal? Or are you a gender-neutral pro? And if so, how do you do it??

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