Thursday, March 27, 2014

My Uneasy Relationship with Femininity

I've always known I wanted to be a parent someday. As a child, I felt loved and accepted by my mother, a single parent of three by the age of twenty. In my young adult years, I formulated strong notions of social equality and justice, firmly rooted in the basic principle that everybody is good and unique and deserving of happiness. I imagined my future self as a parent, carrying forward my mother’s legacy of unconditional love.  I would create an environment where my child is free to be themselves.  As a burgeoning feminist with a growing toolbox of gender theory, I also assumed that my progressive parenting would empower him or her to develop a full spectrum of masculine and feminine qualities.  

Nokomis at my wedding, doing her Diva pose.

None of this quite prepared me for my daughter Nokomis, and her persistent obsession with princesses as a small child. It started with a penchant for jewelry and pretty dresses. Her imaginative play became consumed by endless scenarios of princesses in need of rescue by brave princes, dilemmas always ending in swooning and marriage.

My instinctive reaction to all this was to challenge Nokomis. I asked, "What does a princess do?" Her response: "They twirl." "They twirl?" I replied. "Couldn't they also have magical powers or help people or save the day?" She would look at me with toddler exasperation as she asserted, "No. They just twirl." I was appalled and disgusted. How lame! How could Nokomis possibly think that simply being the passive object of a male gaze is a worthwhile pursuit? I wanted to discourage it, to keep her from limiting herself in this way. When she asked to wear a dress every day and play princess, I'd make a face and try to suggest other clothes and activities, to no avail.

At some point it hit me. By attempting to suppress the princess in Nokomis, I was the one restricting her potential. If I truly wanted her to be able to express all of her many facets, it would be hypocritical of me to deter some of them, including the traditionally feminine traits that historically have been compulsory. By doing so, I realized, I was essentially participating in the cultural devaluation of femininity that justifies sexism.

Seen in this light, the situation felt a lot less dire, and a lot more like a normal part of Nokomis's development as a human female. I learned to relax a little, and remember that regardless of where she "got it from" or whether it's "just a phase" to be waited out, this was a part of who she was at that moment. Through her princess play, Nokomis explored such concepts as the majesty of beauty, the magic of one's hopes and dreams, and the power of falling in love. She navigated feelings about attachment and separation when the little plastic princess couldn’t find her way home. It wasn’t helpful for me to impose my adult interpretations about the ideological implications of her play.

I ended up questioning a lot of the principles I held dearest, like the idea that the only healthy expressions of gender are the ones in the middle of the masculine/feminine continuum. By sticking to that principle, I had been violating another one: my belief that children have the right to be themselves. I rethought my beliefs about gender, and it was this compromise with myself that allowed me to grow, and form better, stronger principles.

At the same time, however, my job is to continue to challenge her to push the boundaries of the ideas she is (re)producing, by asking questions and suggesting alternate endings that defy the simplistic fairytale plots. It’s easy to get stuck in the same narratives we tell ourselves about love, life, and The Way Things Are. I can let her regurgitate the same narratives that surround her, or I can push her to write new ones. Either way, the most important lesson I can teach her is that she’ll never have all the right answers. If she can learn that, she’ll know all she needs to know.

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