“Alan at my school says only boys can like Star Wars.”
This report came from my daughter Lenna at the dinner table recently. It’s the kind of thing that makes parents of daughters want to Force Choke someone. Lenna started watching the excellent and child-friendly TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels when she was in preschool. She graduated to the feature films and watched all six before donning a Star Wars t-shirt and sitting between my wife and I on opening weekend at The Force Awakens. We’ve bought and played every table of Star Wars Pinball, my brother got her a high-end custom lightsaber for our trip to Disney World (where we spent an unhealthy amount of time in the Star Wars section’s gift shops and rides) and the video I captured of her reaction to the twist in Empire Strikes Back has over 6,000 views on YouTube.
You could say she’s a fan.
Of course we spoke up immediately against her classmate’s statement. Both her grandmas like Star Wars, as do my wife and all three of Lenna’s aunts. There are terrific female characters in the series as well, from the completely self-sufficient Rey and the rebellion-inspiring Jyn Erso to the military general Leia Organa. In fact it was Leia who, in Return of the Jedi, kills a gangster bare-handed who had enslaved and objectified her. Lenna said that she knew all that and her fandom hasn’t diminished since, but I see the incident itself and her quick dismissal of it as opportunities to explore gender roles in early childhood and how good fathers can help our children.
Usually the primary early influence on a child is his or her family. Here’s what I don’t get. Most of the parents I’ve met at Lenna’s school, myself included, are in our middle or late 30s. Weren’t we all raised post-second-wave feminism? Haven’t we seen working women, single women, divorcees, stay-at-home fathers and childless couples our whole lives? From my conversations with Lenna’s friends’ parents, I’ve gathered that virtually all of us were raised to dismantle gender stereotypes and to treat the sexes equally. While that may have gotten us off to a good start, ultimately that’s not enough.
The next steps are to live it every day and to teach our children to do the same. If you start early, some minor course correction will set them on the right path and save you trouble down the line. Here’s how it worked for us. When Lenna was younger she asked me on several occasions “Is this only for girls?” or she’d say “I think just boys can do this.” She was testing the waters more than anything, so I politely but firmly shot those notions down.
“Nope! Girls like video games too; there’s nothing a boy can do that you can’t.”
“No, pumpkin; girls can be doctors too. There’s nothing a boy can do that you can’t.”
“You can like Batman as much as you want. There is nothing a boy can do that you can’t.”
She noticed the pattern of these exchanges pretty quickly and soon realized the other kids were wrong in making things gender-exclusive. It was as easy as correcting her concerns three or four times about who she can be because she’s a girl. Sure, this time I was annoyed that another kid had tried to burst her bubble, and with something she loves as much as Star Wars, but since she recognized the “Boys Only” red flag in her friend’s comment, she didn’t bat an eyelash anymore.
So she gets it: girls can like Star Wars. Girls can do anything boys can do. As our son grows towards preschool, we’ll be just as diligent with him about “who does what,” if not more so. But for all the great parents I know, I also sense a disturbance in The Force. Sure, our family and our peers preach gender equality to our sons and daughters, but sometimes the adult world says otherwise. I look to the horizon and see gender-based wage gaps, rape culture, victim blaming, reproductive rights battles and too little female representation both in public office and pop culture. I see 10,000 news headlines that allude to a gender bias in the United States and it’s simply too disheartening to tell our little girl just yet, whether she’d be the most dismayed about it or we would.
It’s an intimidating prospect, raising kids and sending them out into the world. We do our best, and though we stumble along the way, we dust ourselves off and learn and keep going. In order for us family men to raise our sons and daughters to believe in and reach their full potential, it’s vital for them to see their moms and dads practice what we preach. There are so many parents of young children right now; if enough of us can get our offspring started in the right direction when it comes to acknowledging and respecting our differences, we will play a colossal role in stamping out the gender inequality that affects every American family.
We’ve got our work cut out for us, but rebellions are built on hope, right?
Photo Credit: Getty Images