Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Playing her way into freedom


I'm enjoying a short break, by which I mean I'm spending much more time with my kids over the summer holidays. It's a break from blogging, at least! Below is another piece from the archives, on girls and play. It was originally published in Zadok Perspectives No. 115 (Winter 2012).


For years now Olivia, my six year old, has insisted on choosing her own clothes. Recently she wore purple shorts embossed with glittery rhinestones; a pink and purple t-shirt; and large white sunglasses with pink arms. Her fingernails were painted purple; she had saved up her pocket money to buy nail polish. Her blonde hair swung in a perky ponytail, as demanded from her personal stylist (me); and as we walked to school, she dangled her sparkly sunglasses case from her wrist. I felt like I was accompanying a very short Paris Hilton.

It was a far cry from the unisex overalls of my day. Olivia wouldn't be caught dead in them and somehow that, for me, embodies a fundamental shift. I had short practical hair and no dresses with frills; and when I was a girl in the feminist 70's, my mother refused to buy me a doll. She had had to fight every step of the way to enter her profession, and so she wasn't going to have her daughters forced into the narrow roles expected of women. My sister and I were given blocks, trucks, and books, but nothing related to the domestic arts. We looked longingly at our friends' dolls; but, given the chance to play with them, usually discovered we had no idea how to make them interesting. We'd end up climbing trees, making mud pies or playing hide and seek, instead; and overalls were excellent for all that.

My mother never would have dreamed that, thirty years later, her grandchildren would be encouraged to play in narrower and emptier gender roles than even she had experienced. As a child of the 50's, she was to practice being a wife and mother, but fairy princess brides – a common conflation among the six year old set these days – were practically unheard of.

Now fortunes are made out of fairy dress ups and princess accessories and high heels for little girls; and everything, from lunchboxes to headbands, from bracelets to backpacks to bedroom furniture, come in a nauseating shade of pink. The colour is so prevalent that it takes a certain determination to dress one's girls without it. Thirty years ago, I read children's books; now many books are clearly marked by their covers as 'boys' or 'girls'. My sister and I played with Lego in primary colours; now girls can have pink Lego mansions and fairy castles, with white Lego horses to match. Many Lego women strut about with swollen red lips and little handbags, while the men continue to look sturdy and practical, nice strong firemen and astronauts and policemen that they are.

It's enough to make me cry – and yet it's unsurprising. Every revolution is followed by a backlash; and what we see now is a cultural backlash against the rhetoric of feminism. While my friends work as doctors and lawyers and architects – often maintaining all the while that they aren't really feminists – their daughters play at being fairy princess brides, just waiting for Mr Right to whisk them away. These girls will be able to work in almost any profession. They see women on road crews, women driving trucks, and women running businesses; they see a woman leading the country; and, if they are not too exhausted by the grinding combination of paid employment, childrearing and housework, they will be able to seek legal recourse when they are discriminated against on the basis of gender. Yet much of the play encouraged by the mainstream centres on being utterly useless: lovelorn mermaids or beautiful consumers, perhaps, but that's about it.

Now, there's nothing wrong with a girl playing at domesticity. I could have used some domestic games, but it was clear in our house that I was to nurse no dollies; and as an adult, I studied in the 'male' domain of pure mathematics. I never rested there. The first time I felt comfortable in my work was when I became a stay at home mum. It took a long time for me to understand that it was legitimate for me to love being at home, share in my husband's income, and not want to be professionally employed; and it took an even longer time before I became confident in the role, as I had rarely practiced as a child. Domestic games would have helped me explore and understand motherhood a little before I was thrown in the deep end with real children.

My upbringing was too narrow, in its way; but what is offered to many girls these days feels even more constricting. There is almost no unisex, now. Somewhere between my mother's banning of domestic games and the pink of the fairy princess bride, there must be a medium.

That medium resides, I think, in the integrity of daily life. We shouldn't deny that many women marry, cook, clean and have kids; we also shouldn't swallow the lie that all girls want to become vacuous celebrity idols (which is where the fairy princess bride is heading). Instead, we need to continue the as yet unrealised feminist, and Christian, project, which is to accept and enable women not as the dominant powers approve of them – sexualised, decorative or invisible – but exactly as they are. The perfect human, Jesus, loved every woman he met not for her value to him, but for her very self; and we are to model our lives on his example.

These days, whether they are domestic goddesses or professionals hell bent on success, carers for young or old, married or single, ministers or lay, bursting with energy or quietly effective or slowly dwindling, women come in stunning kaleidoscopic variety and, as followers of Jesus, we are called to love them all. Meanwhile, as parents and guardians, we can encourage and equip our kids to explore the roles of the real women they see around them. So brides, yes; cleaners, yes; wives, yes; but fairy princess muck – well, limit their gauzy wings and turn a blind eye when they act it out anyway.

So I have given my daughter more freedom than I experienced as a child. Olivia nurses dollies and rocks them to sleep; she takes them for walks in the pram. It's useful to try on the roles we see around us, and so it is good for her to practice being a wife, a mum, a cleaner, a cook – and a writer. When she's not being a mother, she often sits at her 'desk' at the end of the kitchen table to write, like me; and woe betide anyone who touches her pens and paper.

The good news is that, despite a dominant mainstream which sells training bras to three year olds, pink plastic horses poised for coitus to four year olds, and sexy pop idols to five year olds, children find ways to step aside. (Of course, this is easier when their exposure to such things is limited.) There are days when Olivia is dressed to the nines; there are days when she is a rock star, dancing and pouting round the kitchen; there are days when she is a bride, dressed in a white satin dress from the op shop.

But on other days she builds trains out of chairs, makes tickets, punches them, and roars us all off to London. She erects cubbies and digs holes in the garden. She climbs trees – tearing every long dress that she insists on wearing in the process – and yells over the front fence. She shuffles through papers and barks into her mobile phone, just like dad; she watches bugs in our pond, and catches spiders and beetles and cockroaches to examine in her insect magnifier. Her fingernails may be painted purple, but they are always chipped and grubby, a sure sign of activity and adventure.

Even when she is dressed liked Paris Hilton, she is trying on only one of a hundred roles: mother, wife, daughter, writer, lawyer, cleaner, rock star, fashionista, tree climber, gardener, plumber, teacher, entomologist, train driver, and everything else she sees. Watching her, I have great confidence that if Olivia can continue to explore life without the ideological limitations placed on my own childhood and yet without kowtowing to the consumer state we live in, she will play her way into a sure self-knowledge and the power that comes from that freedom.

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