Gender Benders

Yesterday, my daughter told me about her recent school picture session. The photographer asked her name and she told him. His assistant came over and asked her what her name was again. He whispered loudly in the photographer’s ear, “He says that IS his name”. My daughter’s name is decidedly a typical girl’s name – even in most foreign languages. They were not to be dissuaded from a quickly drawn, preconceived opinion, despite evidence to the contrary.

My daughter insists on a Harry Potter haircut and refuses to wear girl’s clothes. She has a clear case about the clothes, as those marketed to girls are not utilitarian, primary colors or found without “bling”. Somewhere between the cute-animal-primary-colors toddler clothing and turning six, my daughter was supposed to become a corporate shill for Hannah Montana, with the clothing preferences of a “Jersey Shore” resident. So believe me when I say, I’m thrilled she loves blue jeans and simple cotton t-shirts.

It’s a beautiful age for children to be wild and wonderful, before society steps in and tells them what they are supposed to look like. An elderly family friend expressed concern that my child would become a lesbian if she never wore dresses. That was at least laughable. Less funny was when one of my daughter’s teachers made her draw long hair on a self-portrait, so that people would know she was a girl. I hardily endorsed a subversive replacement of the drawing.  On a fairly regular basis other girls at school tell my daughter that she is in the wrong bathroom. When she relays these stories, I ask her if it bothers her. The mistaken gender doesn’t bother her, it’s being called a liar when she tries to correct them.

My daughter has a lot of friends who are boys and during play dates, they’ll pull out the costume box. He’ll be a wood sprite and she’ll be a Jedi knight – no judgments, no questions, just being what appeals to them in the moment. She’s drawn to adventure and action stories. There are very few fictional venues where girls are the action heroes (at least ones that don’t have pointy Madonna bustiers). There’s lots of super smart sidekick action, but she actually wants to be in the heat of battle with Voldemort or the Sheriff of Nottingham or the White Witch.

I worried early on that I somehow made being a girl seem so incredibly unappealing (housework, discipline, mysterious monthly stomachaches – what the hell kind of imaginative play is that?), that she was simply rejecting gender stereotypes out of hand. That was egocentric of me, since it has become obvious to me that kids are born with their personalities from the get go. This girl kicked her way through my entire pregnancy, already roundhouse kicking my rib cage and having imaginary sword fights with my bladder.

It took me years to become as enlightened as my daughter is at this moment in time. I never questioned dresses or forehead stretching ponytail holders. My tomboy self came in the form of ripped tights, torn lace, missing buttons and “lost” barrettes. I climbed trees, fences, did death-defying skateboard and bicycle stunts, ran with a mob of little hooligans, all at the expense of my ill-fitting, uncomfortable clothes.

I didn’t know anything about gender wars or feminism or how I was supposed to look – I just was. In my preteen years, when boys held more than a passing interest, I recognized that I would rather be a boy than kiss one. I just couldn’t see what the appeal of being a girl was – painful hairdos, being told how unladylike I was and the insistence that I be quiet, be still, be invisible. I knew who had the power and it wasn’t girls. I became quiet and well-behaved, all the while daydreaming that I was the new sheriff in town, six guns a-blazing, with a wild West holler.

These days, it’s easier for girls to cross gender lines in terms of doing, but the expectations of how girls should look have such a long way to go. My daughter is going as Robin Hood for Halloween and wrote a sign to wear: “I am NOT Peter Pan”. She’s my hero.

44 thoughts on “Gender Benders

  1. Your daughter sounds awesome! I wonder if she might like the Darkover series by Marion Bradley. Anne McCaffrey did a number of books with female heroes. Or the Witches books by Terry Pratchett. She might be young for the Resident Evil movies, but there’s one heck of a kick-ass female hero.


    1. Thanks for the great book ideas! I’ll be sure to check them out, because she loves to read adventure stories, but it is a challenge to find heroines in the thick of the action and not as some brainy sidekick or arm candy.


      1. I thought of the book, Contact, which features a strong (and smart) female scientist. That, of course, made me think of the movie, and that got me thinking about Jodie Foster’s body of work; many of her films feature aggressive, strong characters. The Brave One, Flightplan, Panic Room, Nell, Maverick and, of course, Silence of the Lambs. (And quite a few others.)


        1. Thanks – we might be sticking with her more juvenile work at this point – more Freaky Friday and less Taxi Driver (as a preteen prostitute). I don’t want to scar my child for life (Clarice….)! I haven’t read the book Contact yet, but that might be worth checking out.


        2. I think Contact would be fine. You want to might hold off on the Bradley books until she’s a teen. The Pratchett books would be fine (it’s possible some of the humor might be over her head), as would be the McCaffrey books. I did try to name the milder Foster movies (with the obvious exception). Maverick should be okay (if I recall it right) and maybe Flightplan and possibly Nell.

          Might be worth poking around the web… I’d bet there are some mothers of daughters who might have posted better lists somewhere.


        1. I love that trilogy. It’s fantastic in every way. Like the Harry Potter books, a whole world is created in intricate detail. Far better than the HP books in detail, actually.


  2. She’s my hero, too. Life can be difficult for those of us who don’t fit the norms or expectations of others, but there is great freedom in being true to onesself. XO


      1. I agree that it does; a strong sense of self has helped me through many tough situations. Your daughter is already a strong person. I’m just sorry that people’s cruelty can hurt so much…it can be especially painful when one is young…say, under 40.


  3. Bravo to you and your daughter! She sounds like a strong, young lady and she has a super mom backing her. My youngest daughter, (who is now 27) played with “action figures” for as many years as I can remember. She played basketball, and rarely wore a dress (I can count the times on one hand). She dresses “girly” at times, but will toss a baseball cap on in a heartbeat. She finally knows who she is, and even when she wasn’t sure, she had me to support her while she was trying to figure things out. That’s how we as parents make our kids stronger, by supporting them.



    1. I’ve noticed that she is still at the age that when she relays these stories, she looks to me for cues on how to react. I am very careful not to overreact and to let her tell me how she actually feels. It’s sometimes hard to not turn into Tiger Mom and defend my young. My goal is to empower her to decide how she feels and how she wants to react to things. I know I’m her mom, but I think she’s pretty marvelous in her resilience and understanding. I learn a lot from her!


  4. I KNEW it, we ARE kindred spirits. I, too, wanted to be a boy when I was a kid… or more precisely, I wanted the same adventure, dignity, and opportunity that boys had. I hated smock dresses (they show your underwear, or worse… frilly bloomers that make your butt look “cute,” how friggin’ embarrassing). I always begged my Mom to let me wear pants, even at age 3 or 4. I was Little John when my brother pretended to be Robin Hood. I climbed trees and fences, caught tadpoles and played with frogs and snakes. I built forts in the yard. I hated my baby dolls, but played with my brother’s cap guns and Army jeep. I was last mistaken for a boy at the age of 15.

    True to form, I ended up as an adult playing with real guns in the real Army.

    These things don’t make me gay or confused. They mean that I want to be a full citizen in the larger world, and not confined ONLY to the roles of wife and mother… Or… as our girls today have to contend with… the role of Slutty Sex Toy, assigned to us by girls’ clothing and earlier and earlier expectations of makeup, manicures, high heels and padded bras. I want to do meaningful things, see what’s out there, do things on my own merit, be independent and strong… and not just hanging on some man’s arm in the hopes he’ll take good care of me in exchange for sex. What the hell is THAT?


    PS/ you might like several things over on my site – in a similar vein –

    Transgendered: How Young is Too Young?
    Am I Transgender By This Definition?
    Bra Construction and What it Means About How Society Views Women


    1. I loathed the homemade pioneer/prairie dresses, like I was about to be married off to a polygamist cult. I ended up in the Army as well, for a multitude of reasons, but one was definitely because of the image of toughness and adventure.

      The clothing thing really has me baffled. I’ve talked to a lot of other mothers who either felt the same way growing up or who are frustrated by the limitations of girls’ clothing choices for their own daughters. There seem to be a lot of us running around, but major retailers are determined to compartmentalize.

      I haven’t read a couple of the posts you mentioned, but I did read the very enjoyable bra post. I’ll take a look at the others. Thanks for reading and adding the great comment!


  5. If a girl doesn’t wear a dress…..?
    I was a tomboy. My daughters were tomboys. Tomboys have more fun.
    Your daughter sounds like a fantastic female.


    1. Yes, we let that particular no dress/lesbian comment pass since the elderly person who said it had a long history of saying whacky shit.

      I almost hesitate to use the word “tomboy”, because the feminist in me says that it is also gender-defining. But, until we come up with a better word, I’m going with it.

      I can only speak as her mother, but my girl constantly amazes me. Although I really wish she’d stop leaving a trail of dirty socks in the car, the house, the yard and other people’s yards, cars and houses. Some things – not so amazing…


  6. You are spot on about the evolution in women’s abilities, but not their looks. Shame on her teacher for having her alter her self portrait. I was under the silly assumption children should have full creativity to envision themselves in any way. Clearly that teacher is light years beyond the rest of us in her knowledge that women only have long hair. Ugh!


  7. I’m impressed with your daughter’s courage to express herself, and glad that you support her. It seems that girls and women’s clothing options can be quite impractical even today. I don’t blame young women at all for wanting to wear clothes that aren’t the considered the cultural gender norm.


  8. I got teary-eyed when my youngest daughter outgrew Gymboree sizes. All that’s left, it seems, are inappropriate, highly sexualized clothes. She loves nothing more than cotton leggings and solid colored tees. What’s wrong with that? Nothing!


    1. Nothing at all, of course. It took me a little bit to adjust that we’d head straight over to the boys’ section for clothes at a store, but I completely understood where my daughter was coming from. I don’t know what will happen when she enters her preteens, but one transition at a time!


  9. I was a tom boy well into my teens. Being yourself despite societal pressures means your daughter will, no doubt, turn into a strong, well adjusted adult. There’s nothing wrong with short hair and jeans and I think it is terrible that teachers tell her to draw long hair on her pictures!!! By the way, I can vouch for the Northern Lights Trilogy! Have you also heard of the Pink Stinks movement?


    1. I have heard of the Pink Stinks movement, which is where I fortunately learned about the A Mighty Girl website, which has also been very helpful with book and movie recommendations as well.

      I think my daughter is already pretty strong – she’s certainly more confident than I ever was! You’re right, though, being yourself whatever the outside pressures is definitely a precursor to being a strong adult. Thanks for reading and commenting!


  10. Have you read the Jo Paoletti book about the history of gendered clothing? It’s called Pink and Blue…. There is a little summary on may blog, but the book is worth checking out! I’m reading your post while my two year old son is playing ball with a pink princess Disney ball. He’s what they call “all boy” but is too young to clue in to the gender cues of toys and clothing. I love it. I’m hoping it will last, and he’ll feel free enough to choose whatever he likes rather than getting stuck in the boy clothing ghetto of boring colors and toys that are limited to sports and war themes. Having one of each, it’s dawned on me how the gender stereotyping cuts both ways.


    1. I hadn’t heard of that book, but I just requested it from the library, because it sounds interesting – thanks for letting me know about it! It is definitely a tougher uphill battle for boys. I hope, too, that my daughter’s ability to stay the course of individuality doesn’t weaken in the face of her peers, but so far, she seems confident about her choices. Yay!


  11. Can I just say I wish more people took your views on rearing girls. Your daughter is happy and confident, and even when other people say she’s doing something wrong, she’s getting support from the one place it matters – you.
    Don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but there’s a blog about a women raising her daughter with similar issues:
    Its really worth reading.


    1. Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out. That’s one thing I think can make all the difference in the world for kids – that they have a place where who they are is celebrated and appreciated. She’s taught me so much!


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