Is The Nerd Middle the Cure for Kiddie Sexism?

My son has reached the dread age where the genders start to separate at school, and he’s not happy. While he likes nominally traditional boy things, such as baseball and basketball and watching cartoon explosions, he also enjoys the company … Read More

By / April 24, 2008

My son has reached the dread age where the genders start to separate at school, and he’s not happy. While he likes nominally traditional boy things, such as baseball and basketball and watching cartoon explosions, he also enjoys the company of girls. But the girls at his school mostly play sugar-and-spicy games like princess or Holly Hobbie (which, amazingly, still exists), while the boys run around and pretend to be robots. Given a choice, my son, who’s repeatedly declared that princesses are for losers, would always rather be a robot. But given an additional choice, he’d want the girls to be robots and aliens too. Somewhere in the universe, and certainly in his mind, there are tough female robot and alien role models, but they never show up on the playground. Sadly, the era of pre-school egalitarianism seems to be ending fast.

In my vast experience as an alternative-themed parenting guru, I’ve heard from a lot of parents concerned that our culture is feeding gender stereotypes to their children, almost from birth. They worry about the Disney Princess marketing juggernaut and worry more seriously about Bratz culture, with its makeover parties for six-year-olds and dolls who live only to shop, gossip, and show off their flat bellies. They seem less bothered by the culture surrounding their boys, who, as usual, are playing with trucks and beating one another with sticks, but there’s still concern. An ad for Tonka trucks says “Boys: They’re just built different.” This goes along beautifully with an ad for a hideous product called “Rose Petal Cottage,” which features a little girl doing the wash and making cookies accompanied by the lyrics “I love when my laundry gets so clean/ Taking care of my home is a dream, dream, dream!” It would be foolish to completely deny gender differences, but is it really smart to propagandize our children into Stanley and Stella Kowalski? Man as brute and woman as precious subservient flower is so last century.

We’ve all encountered the tomboy who can execute a perfect hook slide and the little guy who enjoys wearing mommy’s pantyhose. We also know the girl who wears princess dresses to school or the boy whose only mission in life appears to be pile-driving other children into the ground. But the rest of our kids, the ones whose tastes and behaviors don’t entirely seem bound by their chromosomal makeup, can occupy something I call the “nerd middle.” Therein lies the solution to gender stereotyping.

Beyond the Transformers and Hannah Montana is a rich menu of dorky gender-neutral characters that command fan fealty, like all corporate entertainment products must. But they also confound traditional notions of what boys and girls should be, and how they should behave. The major female character on Spongebob Squarepants is an ass-kicking karate squirrel from Texas, while the show’s titular hero breaks out into show tunes unbidden, can’t drive a lick, and cares for his pet snail like a little girl would her kitty.

The Star Wars movies have Princess Leia (if not much else) to balance out the portentous testosterone. The lead children in the Narnia saga and The Golden Compass are smart, capable, brave—and girls. Dora The Explorer doesn’t seem interested in makeup and boys, and her cousin Diego only has eyes for baby animals. The Backyardigans, a show that’s previously received a whuppin’ in this space, also passes the nerd middle test. Crappy music aside, The Backyardigans teaches girls that they can be pirates, spies, Vikings, or cowboys. Just as importantly, they teach boys that girls can be those things.

Even superheroes, the traditional rulers of the fortress of male dorkitude, can and should be presented to girls in the nerd middle. In the Justice League: Unlimited cartoon series, which many of my son’s friends watch, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Hawkgirl, Black Canary, The Huntress, and several other heroines are presented as the equals, and often the betters, of their male hero counterparts. Kim Possible vaults into action on the Disney Channel, and, while dropping this reference makes me feel old, let us never forget the lessons of The Powerpuff Girls, a show whose central joke revolved around the fact that little girls named Blossom and Buttercup kicked ass.

So the right messages are out there. Why, then, in a world where there’s always a Pink Ranger, has the concept of girl power been so marginalized? Why does it seem radical to suggest that it could be otherwise? For every parent who grumbles about the evils of the Rose Petal Cottage on Feministing, there are a hundred who wouldn’t think twice before taking their girls to the mall to buy Barbie’s Dream Beach House. Even Lisa Simpson, a gender-neutral girl hero if ever one existed, worships her Malibu Stacy dolls. It’s as though we’re willfully ignoring the gender-mixing messages of the media our children consume. Either that, or we never really absorbed the messages in the first place.

From age five on, boys play t-ball while girls take ballet. Coed sleepovers, which really should be acceptable up until age 10, rarely even get off the ground. My wife and I, like good self-righteous urban liberals, try to counteract this as much as possible. Our son plays flag football, but he also takes gymnastics. He likes to peg ants in the backyard with a squirt gun, but he goes to cooking class on Monday evenings. We wrestle in the backyard, and then sometimes on rainy days I take him to kiddie yoga. When he goes over to his girl cousin’s house, they have a gender-free good time: shooting hoops, playing “zoo,” watching Electric Company videos, and staging elaborate High School Musical dance parties. Well, the last activity is pretty girly, but it is her house. Sometimes you must make concessions.

American life, on the surface, has never been more gender-neutral than it is now. Women go to war, and men make dinner. Men win Dancing With The Stars, and there are female American Gladiators. Both genders, apparently, are capable of playing the role of Bob Dylan. The only real gender-exclusive things in the world are the siring of children and childbirth, though recent current events have even called that exclusivity into question. Yet the Bratz persist, and Joe Francis, the pig behind Girls Gone Wild, continues to make millions even as he stews in jail. It’s up to us parents to encourage the gender-neutral side of our culture, and to try and persuade our children that the battle of the sexes need not continue along the same path.

Elijah’s best friend (or second-best, depending on the week) is a cute, smart little girl named Ariel. They’re weird in the exact same way, and it’s obvious that they get each other. Friends like that are rare at any age. Their favorite activity is to play Star Wars, and Ariel always gets to be Luke Skywalker. The fact that a girl is playing a male lead barely even occurs to them.