I love being the father of a boy. Not because I think I would’ve been bad at raising a daughter, but simply because this suits me. When The Wee Man was small, I took great delight in not buying barrettes or socks with lacy cuffs (or having them bought for me). I’m not overly fond of pink and powerfully grateful that the kid has shown no interest in Frozen. All of that said, I was a little surprised when he said he wanted an “all boys party.” It’s not that he said it, mind you; it’s why.
We were getting in the car the other day when he informed me that he wanted a Ninja Turtles party. This wasn’t surprising. He’s taken an interest in the Turtles lately, and it’s also the third or fourth different theme he’s requested for a party still several months away. What struck me was the conversation which followed.
“It’s gonna be an all boys party,” he said.
“Yeah, because Ninja Turtles is for boys, so girls can’t come.”
I was taken aback for a couple of reasons. First, his two very best friends at school are girls. When one of them was away for a week on vacation, every day was a bummer because “Julia didn’t come back again.” Plus, he adores his mommy and step-sister, to say nothing of grandmas, aunts, and cousins. Finally, I could hear the doubt in his voice. His tone was laced with something like confusion or regret, and his nose wrinkled up like it does when he’s testing an idea. This wasn’t something he came up with on his own; he was transferring it from somewhere else.
Now, I’m not caught up on the most recent incarnation of the heroes in a half shell, but neither is my boy really. He doesn’t care for TV other than PBS Kids, so my response immediately went to April O’Neil. My logic ran thus: she’s a girl who helps the turtles battle Shredder, therefore TMNT is for boys and girls. That was the end of the conversation, because he’s four and very few topics last that long anyway. All the same, the memory kept rattling around my brain through the weekend. Where did that attitude come from? It’s not in the nature of my sensitive-souled child to exclude people. Why was I so concerned about it? That’s how things were when I was his age. Except that it wasn’t. Growing up, one of my best friends was a girl. She lived a few doors down, and we constantly played together up until middle school, when we peeled off to friends of our own gender.
As so often happens when I get thinking about things like this, the Spirit pointed me to a similar conversation in a different place. On the most recent ForceCast episode, host Justin Bolger interviewed Tricia Barr and Amy Ratcliffe about the hashtag #whereshera. Hera, a female character on Star Wars Rebels, is woefully underrepresented in show-related merchandise. Never mind that she’s the crew’s captain, finding her action figure on a toy store shelf has become a task of Arthurian proportions. The show’s other main female character, Sabine, appears more frequently on stuff, but usually with her helmet on (which covers her face). For crying out loud, Hera wasn’t even on the Valentine’s Day cards! It’s an issue that female Star Wars fans of all ages find more than a touch upsetting (see above). The larger point is that toy companies are sending a message through their production and marketing. They draw very clear lines about what are “boy” toys and what are “girl” toys, and if we’re not careful, we (parents, consumers, parents of consumers) will wind up letting the corporations build biases into our kids.
I’m not okay with that prospect, not least because there’s biblical precedent for resisting stereotypes. Lots of precedent. Galatians 3:28 famously says “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This thinking applies to how Christians should view those beyond the Church as well, because it’s what Jesus did. He didn’t spend a single word of Scripture worrying about what people did for a living, what gender they were, or where they came from. When He spoke to the Samaritan woman, He crossed all kinds of boundaries. Though He mentions her checkered past, He doesn’t condemn her for it, choosing only to see her as a soul in need of salvation. If we allow toy and/or media companies to build walls unchallenged, we are giving tacit approval to work which runs contrary to the work of the Christ. That’s neither the kind of parent nor the kind of Christian I wish to be.
I have no illusions that toy stores will suddenly stop shelving things by pink and blue divisions on my say so, but I can still push back. I can explain to my son that there are girl characters in TMNT and Star Wars and others, and that girls can like the guy characters and vice versa. In so doing, I hope he sees that it’s not about the gender of a character, but about what they represent and the story they tell. If he understands and accepts this, then seeing a girl with a Star Wars lunch box will mean nothing more than finding a new friend.