It all started last September when C asked for a new backpack. “Okay,” I said, “what kind of backpack do you want? Superheroes? Avengers? Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” “Hello Kitty,” C replied. “Okay,” I said, “let’s put it on your Christmas list. We took out a piece of paper, we wrote it down. “A rainbow one,” he said. I scribbled it down: Rainbow Hello Kitty backpack.
The Christmas list was a new idea this year. Instead of saying no whenever C asked for something, I would suggest we put it on the Christmas list, and it was done. Transformers? Christmas list. Fire engine Lego set? Christmas list. Paw Patrol racers? Christmas list. Eventually it got time to hone the thing, so I drew it out so C and I could go through it. I explained that the list is not a guarantee, it is a suggestion, so we want to make sure only the top things are on the list.
Item 1. Rainbow Hello Kitty backpack.
“Do you still want this?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “just like Kathy* has.” “Okay,” I said, and it stayed there at the top of the list.
My worry about the Hello Kitty backpack was that it would turn out that he didn’t really want it once it was under the tree. Over the summer we’d had a thing where he wanted a Lemon Meringue doll from the Strawberry Shortcake series. Not wanting to be a mom who is worried about my 4 year old son’s masculinity, I dashed onto eBay, picked one out, and had it shipped directly. C was excited when it arrived a few days later. We opened up the package, looked at her hair, her giant eyes, her little hair accessories. C took off her dress, wondered why she didn’t have wheels, and has barely played with her since. The result is that when C and I play together, I often take up the Lemon Meringue doll, find her dress amidst the mess of Legos, reclothe her, brush her hair, and suggest she have dinner with Captain Barnacles of the Octonauts.
I’ve been fighting my own internal “that’s a boy thing/that’s a girl thing,” and find that in an effort to combat the that’s a boy thing I might lean a little too hard in the other direction. When a whole thing came out a while ago where a mother let her son paint his nails and pose for a retail advertisement, Dave and I talked about what our reaction would be if C came over with a bottle of Chanel Vamp and demanded that we apply it. I said that I would, in no uncertain terms, say No. I expressed to Dave my concern that this made me somehow genderist. Knowing me as well as he does, Dave pointed out that if instead we had a young daughter, who came over asking for nail polish, my answer would be the same. No. No nail polish, or make up, or mini’s, or super tight things, or half tops, or low cut, or hanging low, or any of that. I’d say no to all of it, gender be damned.
Dave and I talked about the backpack. I said “C wants this, I think we should get it for him. He’s wanted it for a while, and it’s not going away.” I thought Dave would have some perspective about securing our 4 year old son’s masculinity. Instead he said “then by all means buy it for him.” It seemed that Dave, too, was combating his own internal “that’s a boy thing/that’s a girl thing.”
On Christmas Eve it landed under the tree, and in the morning, C was psyched when he opened it up, along with the Transformers, Legos, new books, and Paw Patrol racers. He’s played with his toys ever since, but the backpack lays face down under the tree. As the end of break nears and school approaches, I wonder what he’ll choose: his old backpack with Perry the Platypus on it, or the new rainbow Hello Kitty one. Dave brought it up last night after C was asleep, and he’s worried that C will get pushed around by the other kids about this rainbow backpack. The fear is not about the masculinity of our 4 year old son, the fear, as usual, is about the other kids. The other; the unknown; the fear.
When Dave and I dug into this, we realized a few things.
1) We are not personally concerned with C’s choices and their implications for gender stereotypes.
2) We know that he will have associates, be they adults of children, who see his choice of stereotypically girl objects over stereotypically boy items, and vice versa, as either problematic or proof.
3) We don’t want him to be forced into the realm of identity politics just because he likes rainbows, Hello Kitty, vehicles, and spider man.
4) We don’t want C to feel that his choice of rainbows over Perry the Platypus means anything in a sphere that is larger than his own preference. There’s a thing that happens in contemporary American culture where once you identify with a given identity that Identity starts to make demands of you. We don’t want C to feel beholden to anyone’s definitions but his own.
As of yesterday morning, Christmas break was officially over. C woke up excited for the new school day. I told him to go grab his backpack so we could pack it up for school. He picked the Hello Kitty backpack. He asked me to write his name on it in rainbow, which I did– if two colors counts as rainbow– and we packed it up. He asked me to take a picture of it, too.
When we reconnected at the end of the day, I asked him my usual question: tell me three things about school. We talked about music class and maracas, how he was disappointed that there were no math games, how he had to do an art project with coloring– his least favorite.
Eventually and casually, Dave and I asked him how the new backpack worked out. “Great!” he said. “Did you friends like it?” asked Dave.
“Regis* said ‘why do you have a Hello Kitty backpack?'”
“What did you say?” asked Dave.
“I said I got it for Christmas,” C replied.
“And what did he say?” asked Dave.
“He said ‘what?!'” and C did a face plant on the bed for emphasis.
“And what did you say?” I asked.
“I said ‘what?” said C.
Dave and I shared a knowing look of gladness. Turns out the kid can take care of himself.