My daughter Cassie was troubled when she told me about it. The little boy, a classmate — I’ll call him Gregory — was being called “girly girl” by other boys because he likes My Little Pony and the color pink. Cassie had witnessed this on the playground.
I know Gregory slightly, and I was as bothered as Cassie by this. He’s a nice kid; last year at her birthday party he was polite and seemed to get along well with classmates. I fired off an email about the incident to the principal and she was bothered, too. She related that there had been a lot of talk about “boys’ colors” and “girls’ colors” at school. I, too, had heard this from both my girls. But I knew that while some of the kids — boys, mostly — had told girls that red and blue were boys’ colors, the girls had fought back and there wasn’t a lot of intense teasing.
The principal told me that she’d tried to nip it in the bud by telling the kids that her own husband wears pink shirts. Apparently this hadn’t made as much of an impression as she had hoped. When I relayed this back to Cassie, she was happy I had contacted the principal. She vowed to tell the recess monitor if this happened again, but she had a question for me. Why hadn’t Gregory’s parents contacted the principal themselves?
I know Gregory’s father. He’s very involved with his children; I’ve seen him often at the school, and he was one of the parents who stayed with his child for Cassie’s entire party. My guess is that Gregory did not tell his parents about the teasing — maybe because he was embarrassed. Kids often internalize teasing; they think it’s their own fault, for being “different.” I remember, after my father died when I was 8, feeling ashamed of not having a Daddy, an anomaly in our small suburban school. I never once told my mother how I felt.
We’ve come a long way in what we, as a society, view as appropriate behavior for girls. The term “tomboy” isn’t acceptable, although I know from my girls it is still occasionally used. But today’s girls are often encouraged to be athletic and they wear jeans as often as they do skirts. My daughters, who, as I did, wear school uniforms, have the option to wear pants; they are amused and amazed when I tell them that my only uniform option was a plaid jumper.
A little girl who likes red and blue, who climbs trees and likes to build things, isn’t subject to ridicule as much as boys who like pink and My Little Pony. Still, I hear that some of the boys talk among themselves, saying that the girls should be pretty and not like sports. “They know they aren’t supposed to say that,” Cassie said. “I’m not supposed to hear, but I do.” She is curious about why boys feel this way, and her inquiring mind also wondered why, when there is something heavy to be moved in her classroom, her teacher asks one of the boys to do it.
When I decided to write about Gregory for this column, I planned to talk about the sexism boys who don’t fit the standard “male” mold face and how girls don’t have that burden. But as I sat on the couch writing this column my husband, Jonathan, told Cassie the meaning of the word sexism; Cassie asked why, in Disney’s “Mulan,” the title character sang about how, if she were herself, she’d break her family’s heart. I realized that really, things haven’t changed as much as I wanted to believe.
Many girls today still face family or peer pressure to look or act a certain way. Little girls are still often encouraged to be cute and affectionate. And the reason we applaud programs that involve girls in the sciences is because there are few of them. So the sexism that little girls experience is more hidden and subtle than that which boys face. In a way, I find that almost more insidious. It’s easier to deal with the open behavior than it is the hidden.
I don’t have a neat and tidy answer. I guess we just need to listen really closely to what our children say — and don’t say — and what they hear. A little boy who prefers Dora to Diego may have a harder role than my friend Jill’s daughter, who loves to build things and currently wants to be a soldier. Maybe. But maybe not.
Michele St. Martin is the editor of Minnesota Women’s Press. This article originally appeared in the Women’s Press as her column, “The Editor’s Chair.”