There used to be a wardrobe in the corner of my parents’ bedroom. Think ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’. Well, a more budget version maybe; an Easyjet version that brings you out around 20km on the outskirts of Narnia. It was a wardrobe of wonder for me as a young child because, as well as a collection of clothes, it held the family history: a tin with a bible that used to belong to my great grandfather, my parents wedding cards, the hospital ID bracelets that my brother and I had when we were born and more. For one short period when we were both doing Scottish Dancing there was also a set of swords at the back of the wardrobe, for my elder brother to practice his Highland Fling with and for me, under strict instructions, not to touch (though I longed to).
The main reason for me to love the wardrobe though was because it contained The Shirt. My mum’s Gold Lamé Shirt from the 70s to be precise. I don’t know if I actually remember her wearing it to be honest, maybe it wasn’t suitable for wearing to the CO-OP with 2 children. But I remember wearing it. Loads. Probably mostly around the age of 4,5,6: it was my dressing up shirt. It was what I wore when I was pretending to be a Prince. Yes, a prince not a princess. I wanted to be a prince. I wanted to be a prince who rode on a horse, did lots of swashbuckling and had adventures. Or a pirate who did lots of swashbuckling and had adventures (in a gold lamé shirt) or a musketeer who had…yes you guessed it…swashbuckling adventures.
I loved Cinderella’s dresses in the film ‘The Slipper and the Rose’ but if I ever pretended to be her or another princess or female character, I would have to be one that I imagined at some point would disguise themselves as a man so that adventure could happen. Sure, Cinderella looked gorgeous in her dresses and got to marry Prince Charming/Richard Chamberlain (sigh) in the end and had a cute dog, but she also had to do a lot of scrubbing and peeling while he got to gallop at full speed and do a lot of acrobatic dancing with his best friend. I don’t know about you, but actual scrubbing isn’t my idea of excitement now and pretend scrubbing definitely wasn’t then. It doesn’t move a story along. Even in a pretty outfit.
I wanted to be Doctor Who’s youngest companion in the Tardis, I wanted to jump through car windows with The Dukes of Hazzard, I wanted to boldly go through space as Captain James T Kirk’s annoying but clever little sister. In short, I felt if I wanted to have fun I had to hang out with the boys or pretend to be one. I was never the boss though…I didn’t have that role model until I was older. In a way, I was breaking barriers in my mind, in my bedroom, playing out what I wanted to see in popular culture but – apart from a few cases – wasn’t really seeing. I wanted to believe I, a woman, should be able to be anything I wanted to be.
Move on 30 odd years. I’m a mother to a son. I’m a feminist. I shout at the television when I see a token female on a comedy panel show. Aargh; women are the majority, let us speak. I still believe women should be able to be anything they want and I also strongly believe that so should men. I want my son to be a feminist and live in a world where there is genuine equality. I don’t want him to limit himself or anyone else. I’ve always been a tactile, huggy person (a dream volunteer job is Chief Hugger at the Olympics to congratulate the winners and commiserate with the losers) and that’s been passed on to the Wee One. He loves to hug. He’s like a smaller, less beary version of Hugless Douglas. That’s important. Sharing his feelings and knowing it’s okay to be sad, to cry is also important. Knowing that showing his feelings is not a sign of weakness is also okay and he will not need to ‘Man Up’ (Urgh horrible phrase) at any point. Sad songs make him emotional and loud, rhythmic songs make him want to dance and play the drums. He likes fire engines and fairies. Football, swashbuckling and dancing. Dinosaurs and butterflies. Red and Sparkles. He likes to pretend he’s a bride at a wedding swishing his beautiful dress or Spiderman shooting a web and rescuing people. He’s both sensitive and bonkers. He loves babies and Star Wars (despite never having seen it!). He is himself and I want him to know that is enough. Two of his very BFFs are girls. I need him to always know that they are enough too, that there’s no reason why they can’t continue being friends forever, that anything he can do they can do too. Not better, but too. It’s important for them all to know it. To be proud of it. And for it to actually be true.
To achieve that end, I try to bring him up ‘in the ways of the Force’.This is not the word you’re looking for…) but, at times it just feels such a frustrating battle to negotiate before he even reaches old enough to deal with more ‘meaty’ feminist issues; there are clothes, books, tv/film, toys, casual phrases and words to contend with. I’m signed up for the fight (which is ironic for a pacifist) but why does such a simple thing as EQUALITY have to be a struggle? Why is there always something or someone making it harder than it should be? Why am I often having to make decisions (and I’m awful at making decisions…Dither should be my middle name) about little things that shouldn’t matter but suddenly, actually realistically do? (Like shopping for socks. Am I the only person that spends ages staring at socks in shop corners, internally debating whether I’m perpetuating the gender divide by buying them from the ‘boys’ side all dark colours, heroes or wild animals or alternatively causing upset, teasing and disappointment with my choice if I head over to the ‘girls’ side? When did socks get so hard? Probably about the time they gained scalloped ruddy edges).
All the little things that 5-year-old me – who played with Sindy dolls which came in BROWN boxes – may not have considered would be issues in the future (you know the future where all the doors will open with a Zchoom without the need for handles…glorious), still are. All those little drips together can still get you drenched.
Take words and names for instance. In our house we have Firefighters, Police Officers and Posties (because ‘person who delivers the mail’ or even Post Deliverer seems like such a mouthful). We see Person at Work sign and wait for the Green Person at the traffic lights. Yet, we are still bombarded with Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, friendly kind-hearted relatives and others saying “Do you want to be a fireman when you grow up?”ť, “No a firefighter” (either said by me or beautifully by him!).
There are rubbish collectors, road builders and digger drivers that I try to remember instead of slipping into binmen and workmen. (But Grandma says Binmenť, Yes but they could be ladies too). When Wee One was 2, he used to shout out enthusiastically at diggers:
Digger! Look! Digger!
Yes darling, a Diggerť
What driving? Yes. Or a lady
Or a lady
Because I think I like to have the last word (think huh? Yes right!) I would always try to finish emphatically with OR LADY. But you know what? It always was a man. How dare he have his childish stereotypes reinforced. Then one day we were visiting a friend in her new build and there was still building work going on. The Digger conversation began. Or a lady. I looked at the digger driver carefully. Actually, Lovely look, mummy is in fact correct – it’s a lady! (So Nanananana. I win. Hah! I’m right. Lady digger driver in your face!).
*The word lady was a tough enough choice for me…I’m definitely not A Laydeeeť in a David Walliams way but then I thought woMAN, feMALE (who says look at that female anyway!?) all had male parts within them. Atleast lady was a word in its own right (totally failing to see the LADy part until after)! Argh…minefield. Important but still a minefield!
When you’re 4, television and books are a window to the world and then you repeat that world with your toys (I made a big effort when he was little to identify just as many of his toys as girls as I did as boys). We can’t pretend it doesn’t hugely influence our children (see the Gold Lamé Shirt), so it really saddens me when I’m watching things with the Wee One and I can feel the ranty questions bubbling in my brain (that I often direct at Jimmy Carr in my adult viewing):
Why is there only one female Go Jetter and one main female Paw Patroller?
Why are there no female Octanauts named in the opening song?
Why are there so many cartoons that are named after their male protagonist (Sam, Pat, Bob, Noddy, Tree FuTom, RaaRaa etc,) and yet only a handful of female ones (Peppa, Rosey, McStuffins, Sophia)?
Why often when there is a strong female character must she be surrounded by a majority of male characters? (apart from Peppa of course…we do like that Pig…she’s real, she’s honest and Mummy Pig in the Fairground episode was AMAZING!).
Why is Fireman Sam the hero next door and yet capable, sensible Penny is so often ignored?
Why do these female characters tend to disappear when we try and buy clothes with them on so mummy has to make up a story that they’ve gone to rescue someone? Why? Why? Why?
Don’t get me wrong, there are great things going on in children’s TV too…Nella the Princess Knight, Gaby the mechanic in Blaze, Bing’s best friend being Sula and Flop being the carer (We loved that in this house; it resonated with us), Topsy being the outgoing twin and Tim being the more sensitive one. If I’d watched Nella as a child the Gold Shirt would undoubtedly have been my chainmail and I would have definitely pretended I was a princess…who likes to swashbuckle, gallop on a horse and have adventures!
So F is for Feminism folks. I know I’ve hardly scratched the surface. I could write and write. We’re a team, aren’t we? Team Parents and we’re in it together. Together Everyone Achieves More. So, let’s teach our children well and let them know that if we mop up the little drips together, then the world is their Oyster. All of theirs. Together.
A Mighty Girl is a great website and Facebook page that has recommended books, films, clothes and toys to empower girls (and teach boys and girls about empowered women from the past and literature.) https://www.amightygirl.com/
This post is part of our A-Z of Parenting series where we take a look at the whole alphabet of things that can go right – or wrong – with parenting. A new letter is added every couple of days. Check out what’s happened so far here.
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