“Minnie and Daisy are girls. They wear bows and high heels and help the guys.”
The two children squeezed together in the seat next to me at the gate in the airport were beyond giddy. All it took was a smile from me, and they took it as a sign for permission to speak. I travel so much these days that I tend to avoid conversations in the airport or on the plane – it’s precious time to reconnect with everyone and dig through the dark abyss I call my email inbox. Chit chat is a luxury for people on vacation and the rare trip; business travelers learn that sitting time is working time.
But this time I couldn’t resist. Within minutes, the two had shared the exciting news that they were leaving the below zero temperatures of Chicago for Orlando, Florida – and not just Florida but to take a Disney Cruise. As they shared their excitement, I recalled the wonderful memories of my husband and I taking our own children to Disneyland – precious, happy memories. Well, most of them. My son had a few issues with The Beast getting very close. I smiled as the young girl showed me her workbooks with word searches of Disney words, and I listened patiently as her younger brother pulled out his collection of little plastic Disney character figurines and told me who each of them were. He named each of this toys – Pluto, Captain Hook, Donald Duck, and Mickey Mouse. He saved his last two figurines, holding them separate from the rest. “These ones, they’re, they’re … girls,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, half glancing at my inbox which was still as full as when I’d sat down.
“Yes,” he said. “Minnie and Daisy are girls. See? They wear bows and high heels.” He turned the figurines over to point out their fancy purple and pink heels. “And they help the guys.”
Just as he was ready to launch into more of his description of his girl characters, his mother called him over, and the moment passed. I went back to my inbox, but now I couldn’t focus on any of the messages needing my attention. His words kept ringing in my ears – this well-behaved, sweet little boy – and what he already understood in his own mind about what girls were for.
Please don’t get me wrong – I am not a Disney-hater, and I absolutely love that my daughter loved her Cinderella constume I hand-sewed for her one year. I’ve even pushed back against the idea that we shouldn’t call our daughters princess. I think it’s just as wrong to prevent our daughters from exploring the whimsical, fanciful side of feminity as it is to put them in a stereotype box and keep them there.
But as I listened to this tiny little man with stereotypes about girls already firmly in place, I cringed. But how could he conclude anything else from his toys? When the girl characters have their hands folded under their chin in a helpless, hopeful pose and boy characters have their arms stretched wide in powerful poses, what else is a little lad to conclude? And what little boy doesn’t fancy himself the rescuer, the powerful, brave man who wins the girl’s heart by saving the day for her? And isn’t some of that good? Don’t we want our sons to hold our daughters precious, to protect their hearts, reputations, and values? Don’t we want a bit of chivalry, the part that causes a young man to put forth the effort to treat his young date like she is the most precious gem in the world?
So how do we foster both of these very conflicting attitudes – the need to allow our children to explore fictional, larger-tha-life stereotypes and the need to foster respect for equal rights and support for women?
I started this same morning in our nation’s capitol visiting with Congresswoman Michelle Grisham of New Mexico. We talked about the challenges of empowering women in our state to take on larger roles in building corporations capable of changing economies, of holding up powerful role models to inspire women to explore new roles, of our desires for our daughters to have more opportunites and better support to not have to choose to either raise a family or contribute to the brain trust of our state. When we leave women no palatable options for balancing their professional careers and raising a young family, most women will choose to sacrifice their careers to focus on their family – and while this is a completely valid option, it cheats our state out of years of their contributions to the growth of businesses, industries, laws, and inventions. What if more women had access to on-site daycare and better options for flexible work schedules that would allow them to balance both without being so exhausted and burned out? I left her office inspired and hopeful for the young women in our state – that with enough of us banding together to evoke change, we might lift our own state’s economy and opportunities.
I spent the next hour touring the Capitol Building Visitor’s Center – with a few behind-the-scenes opportunities – and I marvelled at the women honored throughout the buildings – women who changed our history, who changed attitudes, who changed the course of history. It left me both in awe of their courage and willingness to walk a much more difficult path because of their own convictions. It also left me a little weary that we are still talking about this issue at all.
But as long as little boys grow up believing girls are for wearing bows and high heels and helping the guys, we’re likely going to have this conversation for quite some time to come, because I, for one, am not willing for that to be the stereotype perpetuated into yet another generation.