(Cross-posted from Head in Books)
I’ve had a version of this in my drafts pretty much since I started this blog. I wasn’t planning on revisiting it any time soon but a real life conversation earlier today and then a brief Twitter exchange this evening have me wound me up so much on the topic that – weeeeee – off I go on an autorant.
It’s the whole boy thing. Or the girl thing. The pink/blue thing. The nature/nurture thing. I suppose, it’s the wilful blind eye turned to the fact that children (people, really) are an exercise in and-and-and rather than simply either/or.
My youngest child (who happens to be a boy) has brought this book home from nursery for the last two weeks running. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that he doesn’t want to be the youngest anymore (which is a burden he will have to live with). We’ve read it what feels like endless times, but in case you’re not familiar with the work, Little Princess wants (you’ve guessed it) a sister, because a brother will be smelly, rough and have all the wrong toys. She wants a sister, notwithstanding the gentle reminder from the maid, the admiral and, er, the Prime Minister (I wonder if David Cameron will have a word with No3?) that she can be just as smelly, noisy and various-toyed as the boyiest boy of her imagination.
Of course she goes on to have a brother. Of course it all ends happily.
There seem to be a lot of grown-ups who would benefit from reading it too. Grown-ups who treat girl babies as a prize, a lucky escape from the one-step-up-from-bubonic-plague-unwelcomeness of a smelly, noisy, rough boy. Grown-ups who like girls because they are determined that they will be quiet, and affectionate and amenable to dressing up. Grown-ups who know that girls will play nicely whereas boys will blaze a trail of destruction through their parents’ homes and lives. Grown-ups who believe, in short, that girls enhance, while boys, on balance, detract.
It’s not everyone, of course. I’d hope it’s not even the majority, despite the inexorable increase in gendered toys and books and clothes and the rest. It’s a lot, though, and it’s not fair.
It’s not fair to the girls who want to wear a superhero costume and go out to save the world rather than waiting, hair intact, to be rescued. It’s equally unfair to the boys who are afraid of heights and aren’t so keen on the prize awaiting them at the top of the tower anyway. It demands one thing and one thing only of both boys and girls, and makes any form of deviance from that one thing problematic. I don’t want my little girl to be constrained in what she can do, but nor do I want that for her brothers.
Are my children different from each other? Well yes, of course, but not necessarily along “boy/girl” lines. Plus, I only have a sample size of three – and for all my good intentions, I know that I treat them differently and project my own experience and expectations on to them. The theory and debate around gender and socialisation fascinates me, but don’t worry, I’m not trying to add to it.
I just think that we are, too often, unrealistic in our expectations of parenthood and unrealistic in our expectations of what our children will be. We need them, increasingly, to cause as little upheaval as possible, and the image of a cute, biddable daughter seems to fit the bill most nearly.
To the people who want a girl because of that, I want to say: what will you do if she doesn’t match up? What will you do if she wants to run around, and play fight; get covered in mud and wear scruffy clothes? Even if she doesn’t, how do you think she’ll get on with boys in later life if you tell her to expect them to be rough and noisy and train her to notice it whenever she sees it? What are you telling her about those who don’t meet the expected standard of maleness: that they are somehow not real boys, real men?
I think it’s normal and natural to have a sneaking preference for one or the other. That little, guilty, sinking feeling when the preference isn’t realised – no matter how much delight there is in the actual, rather than the dream, baby – is no cause for shame either. But if you’re sure that you don’t want a boy because they’re noisy or rough or smelly, or because the clothes or toys that come with him aren’t quite the thing, I’d show you my loving, dreamy, imaginative, boisterous, beautiful boys and ask if you’re absolutely sure.
Or perhaps I’d just introduce you to the Little Princess.
picture from amazon.co.uk