What to Watch, Read and Wear to Beat Those Gender Stereotypes

Hello from North Haven!

My daughter Penrose turns three on Sunday. When she was born I imagined her growing up in cargo pants and overalls, t-shirts and jeans. I’d describe my own style as comfortable low-femme – I’m happiest with bare feet wearing something loose and cottony – but of course my female offspring wants to wear heels, lipstick, nail polish, clip-on earrings, and five tutus every day (I say no to the heels and lipstick!).

Penrose’s dreams – giant tulle skirt, tiny purse, beaded cardigan, hair styled – converged at her uncle’s wedding.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with fluffy pink skirts and glitter. In no way do they impede my child’s cognitive abilities, and she seems to run and jump and climb in her elaborate outfits just fine. And she hasn’t spontaneously decided that girls fit into any sort of narrow role in society.

Just the opposite, in fact. So when our esteemed blog editor roused herself from maternity leave with her first girl baby to ask “how do you raise a girl, anyway?”, I asked myself the same question. What are some concrete things we’ve done that have worked to raise a kid who knows girls can do anything?

Unless you’ve truly gone screen free with your kid (full disclosure, I definitely have not), there’s a lot of media out there that perpetuates some unfortunate ideas about what girls and women should and shouldn’t be. Ads for kids’ toys, for instance, can be a notorious source of gendered stereotypes. Luckily, with streaming, commercials can be avoid almost entirely. I recommend that first and foremost.

But what to watch?

The best thing in kids’ television, now or ever, is Sesame Street. But not the glossy, monster-centric Street of today. When Penrose wants some Big Bird, I go to YouTube and find episodes from the late 1970s – early 1990s. They’re unmatched in representations of women in (at the time and still) untraditional roles, people of color, and people with different abilities, and they do it all without it seeming forced or token-ish. My favorite example is an animated letter-learning segment, in which a woman’s car won’t start. She gets out of the car, resplendent in an afro and knee-high boots, pops the hood, opens her purse, takes out a letter R, and gets the motor running again with its signature growl. Rrrrr.

There are some excellent movies out there that bypass the tired gender roles we’re so used to seeing. Moana, of course, is a new addition. The heroine climbs, jumps, runs, fixes things, learns how to wayfind, and chooses her own path, little thanks to Maui, who underestimates her. My daughter adulates Moana, and emulates her, as kids do. I’m happy she has someone like that to emulate now.

Studio Ghibli, a Japanese animation studio whose films are sometimes distributed by Disney, has a number of notable films directed by Hayao Miyazaki with great female characters in them. The three we’ve shared with Penrose, My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, all feature young women and promote hard work, playing outside, disregarding physical appearances, and being brave. Ronja, a television series on Amazon directed by Miyazaki’s son, shares many of the same values.

What about books? Scholastic has teamed up with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, and together they’ve curated a great list of books with characters of every possible diversity. I’m a huge fan of graphic novels, and ordered a pile from their catalog to read with Penrose. Ghosts, by Raina Telgemeier, has been the biggest hit so far. Penrose loves the interactions between the two sisters, the supernatural elements, and the latinx culture that interweaves throughout the story. She’s a big fan of the new Jem and the Holograms comics as well, with a nearly all female cast of rock musicians of every size, shape, color and identity. Penrose jams on our keytar after reading about their musical adventures. Cleopatra in Space is the other big hit. Penrose calls it “Woman in Space,” and its mix of Star Trek futurism, adventuresome title character, and cute cats is a winner. LumberjanesMs. Marvel, and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur are waiting in the wings.

Clothing is another place where gender stereotypes are hashed out over and over again. Many a think piece has been written about how toddler clothes differ in design and cut based on the target gender, and how unfortunate it is to have to worry about skinny straps, tight pants and short shirts on a three-year-old. Not to mention the t-shirts exhorting young girls to be cute and sweet and a princess.

Luckily, a few pioneering small companies have started making clothes that meet my criteria (machine washable, won’t be immediately outgrown, covers relevant body parts, sturdy, doesn’t reinforce gender stereotypes through its text or imagery) and Penrose’s (pink or purple, twirly, has pockets, covers entire body). My favorite, because it is wonderful and because it was started by a friend, is Princess Awesome. Their stretchy, comfortable, dresses (with pockets!) have designs inspired by rocket ships, atoms, robots and more. Svaha has items with a similar bent. Mainstream companies, such as Boden, Tea and even Gap, are beginning to catch the trend and follow suit.

As heilcoptery as it might seem to worry about Penrose’s perception of gender at such a young age, she really does notice. As we watch episodes of Star Trek, she counts and reports the number of women on screen, and asks me why there aren’t more. If they’re not talking in a scene, she asks why. She is hyper aware that her doctor is a man, and her nurse is a woman. In our community, we have women who fish, work on the road crew, who are electricians and carpenters, nurse practitioners and ambulance drivers. With that evidence, and support from the media she consumes and the clothes she wears, I hope Penrose will never let go of the idea that her gender doesn’t dictate her destiny.

Courtney Naliboff

About Courtney Naliboff

In addition to this blog, I'm a contributing writer to kveller.com, a Jewish parenting site, a blogger and book reviewer for reformjudaism.org, and the author of Salt Water Cure, a column in Working Waterfront. I report news from North Haven for Working Waterfront and Island Journal, and was a speaker at the Maine Conference for Jewish Life in 2015. Follow Frozen Chosen on facebook or visit my Web site for more writing and free music to download!