Adapted from an article originally published on Mom-101.com
Each year, our annual Brooklyn Fresh Air Fund trip to visit friends in suburban Massachusetts leads to our semi-annual fast food drive-thru lunch.
(Oh, come and get me Sanctimommies. My kids love the Apple Dippers.)
Years back I pulled up to the drive-thru menu board, put in the request for two Happy Meals, and I heard the strangest response through the crackly speaker.
“Boy or girl.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, having no idea whatsoever what she was asking me.
“Boy or girl.”
Suddenly I had this image that there was some new variety of apples that appealed to one sex or the other. A blue pack of apples versus a pink pack of apples? Or are the apples actually blue? Are they shaped like boys? Do they come with dress-up clothes, paper doll style? I mean, what the could could she possibly…
Suddenly it clicked.
“Do you mean…for the toy?” I asked. “A boy toy or girl toy?”
“Yes,” she mumbled back, surely wondering about the idiot on the other end of the speaker who didn’t understand such a basic question that she probably asks 679 times each week, in turn, receiving 679 prompt and decidedly non-cynical responses.
I quickly scanned the menu board to see what kind of toys-with-purchase she might be referring to.
For boys: Some kind of awesometastic space fighting Ben 10 alien something-or-other that looked BIG and FUN and had the word ALIEN in the name and arms that moved — basically something that could help my young kids kill a few hours in the car without a video.
For girls: A keychain with a sparkly plastic shoe on it from Sketchers. (Hours of fun!)
“The Ben 10 toy” I said as quietly as I could into the speaker.
“What?” she asked.
“Boy,” I said a little louder. “Two boy toys”
Now my girls heard me.
“Why did you say boys, Mommy?” asked my five year old. “Why don’t you tell them we’re girls?”
And that’s when I was got pissed at the Great American Home of Happy Meals for putting me in this position. For letting my daughters think that given a choice between two toys, there is one they are supposed to be genetically predetermined to choose. For leading them to think there might be something not normal about a girl who’d have more fun with a toy that’s been labeled “for boys.” For training the employees at the register to ask “boy or girl?” instead of asking, “Ben Ten alien toy or sparkly branded sneaker keychain?” which would be SO DAMN EASY, if a few words more. And above all, for making me have this conversation about gendered marketing — all when I was totally unprepared to do that and my blood sugar was already low and all I wanted to do was inhale a mediocre chicken sandwich, suck down an iced tea, and get back on the road.
It’s not that I hate sparkly keychains or pink tulle or princess costumes and tiaras. Or even that I’d be bummed if my girls would have prefered the keychain (which they wouldn’t; not that there’s anything wrong with that).
It’s just that so often, our girls hardly seem to get a choice.
So I turned around to face the back seat, and tried to explain, best I could to my three- and five-year-old daughters, that the one the company called a “boy toy” wasn’t actually just for boys and that the nice woman behind the counter was mistaken and that they could actually choose either of the toys — but that I had a feeling that they wouldn’t be as excited about a keychain.
At the time, I struggled a bit with the worlds as I tried to describe how sometimes there are companies that are lazy and don’t think about how all kinds of kids like all different kinds of toys, and so they gather up all things sparkly and pink and call them “girl toys” because they forget sometimes that girls also like to dress up like superheroes and build things and climb trees and read about aliens and do science experiments and finish math puzzles. They can even do these things wearing sparkly sneakers and tutus, if they want.
It’s their choice, not a fast food marketer’s.
And sometimes, I explained, these same companies forget that boys like to wear nail polish just like your friend Bryan does, and sometimes they like to read about fairies and princesses and wear pretty clothes or go to ballet class wearing pink tights like your friend Asher does.
Those companies just…forget, I told them.
“Well that’s not fair!” Thalia exclaimed.
“And I can be Geo!” Sage said, referring to her favorite Team UmiZoomi character. Because she was always Geo.
So I smiled, suddenly reminded of just how awesome the next generation of kids are going to be when we have these conversations early.
And how I have no doubt that our kids just might be able to change the things we still haven’t been able to.
Today, my girls are twelve and ten. My youngest loves LEGO and she loves stuffed animals and she adores I Am Elemental action figures and she wants the Stranger Things kids to be her best friends. My oldest likes to cosplay like Heather Chandler and Peggy Schuyler, is obsessed with Broadway soundtracks, but won’t wear a dress to school.
Looking back at those tough conversations (well, tough for me) that we had when they were younger, I think it really helped them grow up knowing that all interests, all choices were open to them, and I see it reflected in the young women they’re becoming.
I even hear them say things like, What do you mean it’s a “girl toy?” Does it HAVE A VAGINA?
(Yep, they’re my girls.)
Now, eight years after that conversation, I love that they’re growing up in a world where they understand more about gender constructs than I ever did as a kid. I love that it’s a world in which Target has ditched the boy/girl toy aisle labels despite some customers losing their proverbial sh*t over it; and boys wear Wonder Woman tees (not just because of her boobs); Abercrombie has evolved from selling push-up bikini tops for 7 year olds to launching the Abercrombie Everybody collection of gender-neutral clothes.
But we aren’t all the way there yet.
Just yesterday, my friend Kale tweeted this:
Stop it with the genders on toys @McDonalds. My daughters love Yo-kai Watch and staff insisting it’s a boy toy is insulting.
— Kale D. (@ameliasprout) January 21, 2018
And so, we keep working.
It matters. It really does.
Because girls: You need to know you’re okay just how you are. And boys: You need to know you’re okay just how you are. And above all, whatever it is you like — — tutus or trampolines, superheroes or sparkles, or some combination of all of the above — your parents are going to love and support your choices you no matter what. Even if marketers are still catching up.