Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Season of the Witch

"What do you want to be for Halloween, Austin?"

"I want to be the Witch from Room on The Broom."

My son is five. His birthday was nearly a month ago, and his favorite things are Lego, Minecraft, Star Wars and animals. He also loves outer space, fighter jets and pretty much anything that flies. And he loves Room on the Broom.

Room on the Broom was a book and then a short movie that we recorded last Halloween on Sprout. It is about a Witch and her Cat who meet other animals as they fly over fields and mountains. These other animals ask if there's room on the broom and the Cat doesn't want to share, but the Witch always says "Yes!" Eventually, under the weight of the Witch, the Cat, the Dog, the Frog and the Bird, the broom breaks. The Witch is separated from her animal friends and chased by a dragon. The other animals band together to save her, and in the end, the Witch creates a new broom that really is big enough for all of them. It's a wonderful story.

I am proud that my child wants to dress as this character, who shares and has an expansive and joyful love for all the creatures she meets. She is kind, but also powerful and fearless, casting spells and flying at high speeds through the wind. These are the kinds of things I want my son to hear about.

I am anxious about this costume though. Just a few days ago, the local news was featuring a three year old who wants to be Elsa for Halloween. And who wouldn't want to be Elsa? She's a queen who can create snow and ice castles through her fingers. She makes living snowmen, and snow monsters. She is a bad ass, by far the coolest character in Frozen, definitely with the best song.

But this kid is a boy. So the news picked it up, because it was A BIG DEAL. I'll not comment on the fact the news was covering a three year old's choice of Halloween costume:

And people are praising the parents. Some people. Others were not shy about their opinions:

On what planet does it make sense to link a 3 year old boy in a princess costume to mass murder?

I was really struggling with my feelings about all of this. I want my children to figure out who they are and feel safe and confident with their choices. I want them to choose their own heroes and I am not sad or angry that my son loves a character who is kind and generous and powerful. But what if people are mean to him? What if kids tease him at school? What if, god forbid, we run into those assholes leaving comments on my local news channel's Facebook?

The thing that I find especially distressing are the less hateful, but still negative comments. This is not the first time he's dressed as a witch: he also loves Kiki's Delivery Service. He wanted to dress as Kiki one night, so I gave him one of my sweaters and put a bow on his head. He was 3, and adorable, so I took a picture and shared it on Facebook. And it was my own, very progressive mother who said, "He'll hate you for this when he's older."*

And I knew what she meant. She meant that someday, when he's a teenager or close to it, his peers might go seeking out pictures of each other from their little kid days. And if they find a picture of him dressed as a witch, or really, as a girl, he'll get teased. And she didn't mean any harm. And most importantly, she has a point. But I love Kiki. I take pictures of my children to share with family and friends. Why wouldn't I share a moment when he's dressed as one of his heroes, when it's so adorable and great? And if I shouldn't share a single picture from a moment at home, what should I do if he wants to wear a witch costume outside the home into a crowd of strangers?

Am I supposed to protect from this?

Isn't it kind of sad that I'm asking this instead of expecting other kids not to be jerks? And this wasn't the first or only place I saw all of this playing out. And while that was hard for me to see, it was also good, in the way it forced me to think really hard about my own feelings here, as a parent and a feminist:

I am really freaking out this year. Not because my kids are having a hard time picking a costume: they're both 100% sure. Nope. It's because my 5 year old wants to be the Witch from Room on the Broom. And he's a boy. And I just saw a story on the news about a 3 year old boy who wants to be Elsa. A story on the news about a 3 year old's Halloween costume! And there are so many assholes in the comments talking about what bad parents these are and how spoiled this kid is BECAUSE THEY LET A 3 YEAR OLD PICK HIS OWN COSTUME.

So yeah, I'm not worried about the fact my son is going to be a kickass witch this year. Instead I'm worried about running into these assholes who think the world is going to end because a boy wants to wear a dress for 1 day. WTF.

What do you think it teaches a little boy, when people act like this? I can only tell you what I saw: I saw a little boy who wanted to dress up, and adults comparing that to a kid dressing like a terrorist. To a kid dressing like Hitler. To a kid actually growing up to be a mass murderer. So, in a lot of adult's minds, dressing like a female character is equivalent to dressing like Hitler or actually killing people. What does this say about women? About boys?

I was lucky to find something else at this time, an article describing the effects this kind of thinking has on men as they grow up:

"Men often minimize their gender policing by calling it “teasing,” “ribbing,” or “ball–busting,” but it usually manifests as ridicule meant to point out behaviors which are not coded as masculine in an effort to correct them. This may be done with or without malice; parents, for example, may feel that by discouraging feminine–coded behaviors, they are protecting their sons from future ridicule by firmly correcting them early. Yet the cumulative effect of this is to circumscribe a section of acceptable behavior, such that by the time the average man reaches adulthood, he has internalized an extensive checklist of behaviors that must be avoided lest ridicule result. In essence, male children are subject to trauma in an effort to spare them from trauma."

Not only does this kind of treatment send negative messages about women and girls, it also internalizes this extremely narrow concept of masculinity. And it's weird; in all the comments I read about boys dressing as female characters, there was this recurring idea that "boys are a certain way," and that this is "a teachable moment":

And none of them seem to pick up on this discrepancy:  If you have to teach a boy that boys are "a certain way" then maybe that's not what boys are really like at all. It's the box referred to in the article about masculinity.

There is this notion promoted daily, about feminism and history, that says that the hard work of equality is done. The bras were burned, the suffragists marched, the glass ceiling was smashed by our grandmothers and mothers. But this is a dangerous way to view culture and identity. If feminism were finished, we would allow individual girls and boys to tease out their own interests and identities from a broad, ungendered field of choices. Instead, we see that things are incredibly stratified. The toy stores are full of signals directing girls to certain things and boys to others. Lego has created lines of building toys that are full of these signals. And that would be fine, if it weren't for all the cues that drive boys not to choose them. I know my own son asked for a lot of Lego kits over the years, and one was from the Lego Friends line. The girly one. And I bought it for him when he asked for it, before he realized that he's not supposed to want it. This is not a secret. Many people have written about this division and bemoaned the impact on girls and STEM. And I have a daughter, so I'm concerned about that, but I wish more people would realize that there's also this impact on boys. If a boy wants to build a pink sailboat or a pastel colored veterinarian's office, there ought to be nothing wrong with that. Veterinarians and sailboats are awesome. They don't belong to one gender.

And when my son wanted to be the witch for Halloween, I was very careful with it. I stifled all my own anxiety and gathered as many pieces as I could, matching the Witch from the movie: hat, red sweater, purple skirt, black cloak...

And it wasn't until I gave him the pieces to try on that I realized he wanted pants instead of a skirt. So the next day I hunted down a pair of purple pants, but he also tried the skirt on. And I painted blue polka-dots on both of them, so he could be exactly the kind of Witch he wanted to be. I also made him a ginger braid, which he loved, and wore it so often that, on Halloween night, it was too loose and fell off somewhere. 

It wasn't until a few days later that I heard him say, "Witches are girl costumes." I'm pretty sure I know which kids said so, but I'm glad it didn't seem to bother him. And hopefully, if I'm supportive when he makes these kinds of choices, whether about Halloween costumes or tv shows or whatever, he'll trust me with his real ideas and opinions, instead of feeling circumscribed by the people who are supposed to help him grow. 

I am so glad to live in a world where girls are encouraged and celebrated for choosing superhero costumes and dreaming about astronauts and being rock stars. Now it's time to also make a world where boys aren't afraid to be witches or princesses for a day or two. I will not be the one to teach my son that there's something wrong with women or femininity. But I will always be there to teach him and his sister that women are amazing.

And I will share the pictures, in the hope that other parents might feel a little less apprehensive supporting their kids. It is a big world and most of us are not out to ruin a kid's Halloween. And choosing to be a princess or a witch for Halloween doesn't mean your kid is confused about gender, any more than a kid who wants to be a truck or a dinosaur is confused about whether or not he's a human being.

*When I spoke to my mom about this post, she told me that my cousins had trick or treated one year as the Phantom of the Opera and Christine. The big sister was the Phantom because her brother still had a better soprano voice. This was sometime in the early 90s, and no one was hateful to them, even deep in the heart of Texas.

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