On Halloween and gender stereotypes

When you have a kid, you realize how ridiculous the whole idea of gender stereotypes is. Why would people want to restrict their children’s healthy development by some random boundaries? I’m used to this ridiculousness, but some days this idea makes me particularly frustrated.
Koopa is still at that wonderful age when he is blissfully unaware of any gender stereotypes.
His favorite color is pink (I happen to hate this color but who cares, as long as he likes it).
He loooooooves planes and cars and buses. He has recently learned all car names and takes a lot of pride in recognizing them on the street.
He likes bows and hairpins and other accessories.
One of his favorite activities is wrestling with papa.
He often asks me to make little creatures with pink bows and purses out of play doh, and then he makes them wrestle. (Since he likes bows AND wrestling, this is a reasonable way to combine two of his favorite things).
His absolute favorite character lately is Minnie-Mouse (also not enforced by me in anyway since I’m not a big fan). She has a bow and wears a pink dress – what’s not to like? In a role playing game that he often plays with one of his daycare friends, he likes to be the Minnie and his friend is the Mickey.
He likes to play family and always chooses to be the mom.
He still “breastfed” all his dolls and stuffed animals until a couple of months ago.
He likes to put on my tank top at home and pretend that he is wearing a dress, put his hair in pigtails, and color his fingernails and toenails with markers.
He likes robots and firefighters.
He takes his doll for a walk in a toy stroller, but makes frequent stops to see how the wheels of the stroller are operating.
He wants a baby sister. (Are boys supposed to want a baby brother? I forgot what the rule on this one is.)
The other day we read a story about a boy and a girl and the boy was a very “typical” boy and the girl a very “typical” girl, and at some point in the story the boy destroys her dollhouse and turns it into a garage and says that dollhouses are stupid. I was worried that he would pick up the stereotype idea, but after reading it he said “Mama, I want a dollhouse”. (So now I have to make one out of cardboard).
So why do we need gender stereotypes again? Not clear to me. And I wouldn’t be spending too much energy venting about it, except that this weekend I became painfully aware of how you just can’t escape the stereotypes.

On Sunday we went together to look for a Halloween costume for him. We were looking for a shark costume. (He wanted to be a blue shark, very specifically). He has been talking about being a shark for weeks now. The particular store where we looked didn’t have any shark costumes, so we were just about to leave and go somewhere else (or buy one online), but we got into a situation. We turned the corner to go towards the exit and there it was: a pink with polka dots Minnie Mouse costume. I was hoping that he wouldn’t notice it (and I hated that I had to hope that), but of course he did, and immediately exclaimed, his eyes glistening with excitement: “Mama I wanna be a Minnie-Mouse!!!” My heart sank. I tried to remind him in an excited tone of voice how he really wanted to be a shark just a minute ago. No, he forgot about the shark and now was determined to be a Minnie-Mouse. What do you do in this situation? What do you do when your 3.5 year old son wants to dress up as a Minnie in a world where people have very clear ideas about what boys and girls (and men and women) are and aren’t supposed to like?
Of course I had to take the costume and proceed to the cash register, with Koopa jumping with joy beside me. I wouldn’t have the guts to break his joy and tell him that the costume is not for boys. I wasn’t sure at all that I was doing the right thing. On the one hand I felt angry at the whole world and determined (“My son is going to be a Minnie Mouse and I don’t care what anybody says!”), but on the other hand I felt like a totally shitty and irresponsible parent. This was one of those situations where you would feel like a shitty parent no matter what you do. The thing is that I’m pretty sure that the kids in his class are still at the age when they probably wouldn’t care much (or maybe I’m wrong, I don’t even know). But the kids in the senior preschool class would notice. The teachers would notice. They probably wouldn’t say anything but it would be “a thing”. Somebody might make fun of him. There would be looks. Even if it would be subtle, he would definitely notice since he’s a sensitive kid. The idea of him being hurt in this way was unbearable. So what on earth do you do when your son wants a Minnie-Mouse costume for Halloween and you want to support his personality and all his decisions, but you desperately don’t want him to be hurt? Do you decide to be the one to hurt him, in a more gentle way, and say that boys don’t dress up as a Minnie-Mouse for Halloween? Maybe this would be a wiser decision. I really have no idea what the right thing to do would be. Luckily for all of us, I didn’t have to make that difficult decision. As I was standing in line to the cash register, with the Minnie-Mouse costume in my hand, angry at the whole world, Koopa suddenly spotted a robot costume nearby and got as excited as he was about Minnie five minutes ago: “Mama I wanna be a robot!” Phew. Robot it is. I grabbed the robot costume and we left the store as quickly as we could.

About Tanya Mozias Slavin

Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer, linguist and a mother of two. She was born in Russia, grew up in Israel and has lived in Canada and the US, where she worked on Oji-Cree, an endangered aboriginal language of Canada. She now lives in the UK and writes about parenting, languages, multiculturalism, and everything in between. Her essays and articles have appeared in Washington Post, Brain, Child, The Forward, Scary Mommy and other places.
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