Why I Didn’t Let My Son Wear an Elsa Dress to School

It’s hard to believe it, but my son is now 5 years old. He loves to play, and his favourite games are imaginative. “Let’s be Octonauts” he will declare on the way to school.  “I’ll be Captain Barnacles, you be a Lemon Shark.”  Bathtime consits of repeatedly drowning Sir Topham Hatt (AKA Fat Controller) with cups of water as he heads off to Tidmouth Sheds.  At any time of day, our playroom could be a shopfront, (“Hang on” my son scratches his chin “We may have some in the back. Do you have a clubcard?”) the set of Masterchef, (“I like all the colours you’ve put on the plate Daddy, but sorry-you’re going home.”) or a dentists office. (They’re all rotten, but never mind, I’ll just take them out. You probably wont be able to eat anymore.” ) 

As you can imagine, he loves dress up, and he has an inclination towards the sparkles. Unfortunately, our society doesn’t provide for boys who want a bit more flair than a Darth Vader costume can provide, so when we’re out and about at friend’s houses and he pulls out a Cinderella dress or a ladybird costume from the dressing up box, I’ve always been pretty chilled about letting him explore his theatrical side. Take a moment to look around the Disney store next time you’re in there. At last count, I could see 22 different types of princess dresses and not one prince outfit. My son could be Olaf, Luke Skywalker, or a Pirate. (White, brown or more brown.) I wouldn’t be too impressed with that selection either. So when R asked me for an Elsa dress of his own this year, we only had to pause for a moment before we added it to his make believe collection.

And then we got the following invitation from school.

“As a class treat, the Reception children have voted for a dressing up party on Friday.  Could you please send in a dressing up outfit for your child.”

And he cocked his head to one side and asked quietly, “I can’t take Elsa… can I?” 

Oh.

Anyone who knows me knows that I take real exception to gendered toys of any kind. Play is play. Make believe is make believe. And if a girl can be a fireman without a raised eyebrow in sight, my son can be the prettiest, sparkliest princess in the room. You better believe I have all the pithiest, wittiest, scathingest replies necessary if you dare to tell me that my son can’t skip around your garden in your daughters Sleeping Beauty outfit.

But at school? Without me there to give him a reassuring nod and smile when the classroom assistant automatically smiles in surprise on instinct as he walks in? What if he doesn’t remember to say “there’s no such thing as boys toys and girls toys” in response to one of his peers saying “that’s for girls”? What if a child in his class says “You’re not a princess” and he’s too embarassed to remember to say “I know- and you’re not Spiderman either”?
And worst of all, what if he doesn’t realise what he’s asking?
At home, or out with me or C, he feels completely safe to express himself in any way he chooses. If he was ten or eleven years old and he wanted to wear a dress to school in play (or even not in play) then it may take some getting used to, but I wouldn’t be worried about being supportive. If my teen goes to school in sparkles and high heels, he knows what he’s letting himself in for, and has all the information in his arsenal to make that choice for himself. But at five, does he really know what he’s asking? As an introduction to ‘kids can be mean’, letting him walk in front of the firing squad without a warning, and risking him feeling embarrassed and unprepared….

Dear reader, I agonised.

I asked my husband, I asked my best friends, I asked his teachers and then I asked my  best friends again. And while I got a wealth of opinions when I broached the question, nearly everyone pursed their lips and and looked just as agonised as I felt. How I wish someone had been confused and asked me what I was worried about. But that’s not the world we live in, not yet anyway.
As a proud feminist I wanted to be able to say “Of course you can be Elsa!” As a proud parent I wanted to be able to say “You wear whatever makes you happy”. The reasons why I ultimately steered him away from that choice, out of fear that well-intentioned people would be mean, or that he would lose some trust in me if he ended up in tears, don’t make me feel proud to be either.

I did realise one important thing though. R doesn’t care about the world we live in. He isn’t looking to make a stand for gender equality, he isn’t trying to push boundaries. The kid just wants to wear a sparkly dress. He doesn’t need to face even the risk of a ruined day because his parents believe in giving him the gift of being anything he wants. He has plenty of time to be anything he wants, and if we can give him another year or two before he learns that kids (and indeed grown ups) can be mean, well thats a special gift too.

My little Gingerbread Man came out of school that day full of stories and excitement, the grin on his face the only thing more edible than the candy buttons on his outfit. And while the little voice inside me wonders if I made the right choice, it’s overwhemingly silenced by the feeling that my Elsa wouldn’t have come out anywhere near as happy. Can you tell me that I’m wrong?

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Where has Carrie Bradshaw gone?

Most people like to think of this as a generation of sexual liberation. We have greater freedom to express ourselves, better laws to protect ourselves, and with the Internet-a wider forum than ever to indulge in whichever proclivities take our fancy.

But there is something strange about the way us 21st century women, us beacons of a sexually emancipated generation, read and view the act itself.

We are in a time of gay marriage, of open relationships, of fetish wear for sale right next to the frilly nighties. No one can deny how far we have come. So WHY am I surrounded by so many sexual myths in popular culture and opinion?

Like so many other issues, I believe the media has a lot to answer for, and that we haven’t really taken any steps forward in well over a decade when it comes to imitating life through the art of television, film or books.

I remember being 15 years old, given free rein for the first time on the wide world of the web, streaming episodes of Sex and the City, with one finger poised over the minimise button and one eye on the door in case my mum walked in. While the show has become less of a ‘guilty’ pleasure, it still holds a massive fan base, myself included. And I would argue that entertainment today cannot hold a candle to its honesty and realism when it comes to relationships and sex.

You’re crazy! (I hear you shout.) What about Girls? What about the 50 Shades phenomenon?

Yawn.

Is this really the next level for us in sexual expression? Shock? While SATC might not have got as far with BDSM as a descriptive spanking scene or images of nipple clamps, and while Girls may arguably present a more realistic version of financial life in our twenties, there is absolutely nothing remotely modern or real in their presentation of relationships.

There is no doubt that we’ve made leaps and bounds in the “how far can they go” factor. If you want someone to congratulate, find whoever is responsible for ratings and censorship, because they have had a hell of a time since the new millennium. It would seem nothing is too shocking, nothing is too sacred to plaster across screens and pages with abandon when the last ‘hardcore’ topic of conversation becomes old news, as everything eventually will.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, if it’s your cup of tea. Sex, as in the act itself has never been more revealed. But don’t mistake that for something entirely different. Because sex, as in the relationship gender battle? I believe it’s as hidden in entertainment as it was before the likes of Carrie Bradshaw ever hit our screens, erasing all the hard work those writers ever did.

I’m not talking about the extremes of Samantha and Charlotte, looking for complete opposites in the dating pool and there to surprise and reassure us respectively, giving us their own version of that “shock factor”. I mean the typical Carrie that is inside all of us while we are dating, or in any long term relationship for that matter. Not sure whether we’re searching for Mr Right or Mr Right Now, The One or the One that suits my current situation. Wondering how or if to fix challenges between partners, and how much to share of ourselves. Carrie’s relationships pushed the boundaries and honesty of sexuality and notably gender further than anything else has since.

It could be dispelling the myth that sex doesn’t get better, with Carrie and Burger’s self professed “quiet” first time leading to a meaningful relationship (pre post it of course), or the propaganda slaying of the opposing dragon, that your partner needs to be ‘the one’ to enjoy a physical relationship, her brief fling with the jazz man giving her the ‘most intense orgasm’ of her life. Either way, where modern culture may have screamed ‘sexually incompatible’ at Carrie and Burger, or placed a ‘happily ever after’ neon sign directly above the happily uncommitted latter duet, Carrie did nothing of the sort. She persevered with Burger, accepting that mood, nerves, lighting, and just simply getting to know one another better, all factor more than the world would let you believe, and after happily finding herself ‘life incompatible’ with physically compatible guy, bravely discarded him to the bonfire of relationships past.

She lived her life. And the men did too. Was Big always there in the background? Yes he was. And that’s okay too. Because her life wasn’t portrayed as a mess without him, or more importantly still- not a mess with him. Her choice (and his too) at the end of the day was to be together, whereas for Samantha her equally legitimate choice was staying single. For Charlotte and Miranda it was marriage and kids, all portrayed as decisions with pros and cons and strings attached, and not a happily ever after in sight. Just life, with all it’s ups and downs, regardless of gender or choice.

Entertainment is there for just that, to entertain you. It’s okay to get swept away in the story, romance or drama included, the same way as you might enjoy fantasy without looking for a vampire at every turn. But can you separate the fantasy of the supernatural in Twilight from the equally farcical nature of Bella leaning on a man at every turn to save her? Find Christian Grey sexy without craving Ana’s virginal experience?

I hope so. Because it doesn’t look like anyone’s creating any alternatives for us any time soon.

“What’s worse than a Male Chauvinist Pig?”

” …A woman that won’t do what she’s told.” 

That’s an actual joke someone told me, before laughing raucously, in answer to my question “Would you call yourself a feminist?”

Until recently, I’ve never thought much of feminism. Not in a disparaging way, I mean it literally hasn’t crossed my mind that much. I suppose I’ve never noticed that much sexism taking place around me. I like to think that if I had been alive a hundred years ago, I would have been one of the women throwing myself under horses for the rights of women, but in all honesty I’d probably have been obliviously popping out babies chained to the kitchen sink like the majority of that generation.

We can vote, we can work, we have birth control at our fingertips, we can be presidents and prime ministers. (ettes?!) We pretty much have it all. Truthfully, I’ve always sighed at women’s lib organisations like Femen, and asked, what more do we want?

After all, Feminism in its original meaning doesn’t exist any more, does it? We’re not campaigning to be allowed a say in politics, or for control over our own bodies. In the western world at least, life is pretty good for women. We can have our babies and return to work. We can choose not to, and that’s fine too. We can have sex, and we can even enjoy it. Of course there is working woman’s guilt, mummy guilt, stay at home guilt, basically vagina guilt, but if we were really honest we would accept that it’s mainly self judgement, and that the rest of the world doesn’t care. Real issues still exist, the gender pay gap being a massive one, but for the most part we are doing pretty well for a gender who couldn’t even go to university when our grandparents were kids.

So if I’m happy enough to let other women deal with what’s left of inequality in the western world nowadays, what’s brought feminism to my attention lately?

Caitlin Moran (in her fabulous biography how to be a woman which you must all go out and read) discusses the kind of sexism that you don’t notice right away. You might leave a situation thinking, wow-they were a massive douche, and then it actually takes another few hours to sit bolt upright and realise that you missed the word sexist out of that description.

And since that written revelation, I’ve been absolutely bombarded by my own memory, to the point where I can’t believe quite how rife my life has been with hidden sexism. And that’s what I believe we should be fighting against.

Last month, I had the displeasure of spending a few hours in enforced company with an extreme male chauvinist. The kind you can’t help but notice. He had a mini fit when his son picked up a pink buggy to play with, complete with a baby doll inside. “Sorry” I just barely bit back from saying, “I didn’t realise you want your son to grow into the type of man who won’t care for his children or help his wife.” Later that afternoon, midway through an intellectual discussion between him and two other men, I joined the debate. After his look of shock dissipated, he continued talking, making sure to explain every word over two syllables with a condescending look in my direction and an apologetic head tilt for his superior knowledge. When I correctly answered the problem he had posed, he shook his head and basically told me I’d made a lucky guess.

I went home livid. How has he got to mid thirties without someone telling him he has a huge problem? And how can his wife let him behave that way without saying something?

Attitude. That’s what the war should be waged on. The next time someone is rude to you, stop and check the conversation. Is it rudeness, or sexism? More and more I can see that what at first glance was brushed off as ‘they’re an idiot” has a horrible undercurrent of latent sexism that maybe even the speaker isn’t aware of. Sentences like “what does your husband do?” before you’ve even asked about my own work, are not just rude, they are horribly sexist. And they paint a reality. A reality where the female intern gets the coffee while the male one assists the director of the company. A world where you plan an important speech for a meeting and two men stand up to leave before you’ve finished the first sentence. A world where it’s assumed you wont want to join everyone for lunch, so you’re left alone to answer the phones.

All of the above have happened to me in the last five years, and honestly, none of them are serious enough as stand alone events to even mention, without dealing with another sexist label, “the hormonal hysterical woman.” But put them all together and you have a quite frightening picture of a woman’s worth.

It’s easy enough to solve. And bear with me here because this is quite radical. Everyone has to see women…. as people.

That’s right. The same as any other person, male or otherwise.

It’s crazy! It’s insane! It will never work!

But taking every situation I’ve outlined above, I think it may be genius. Instead of my new favourite MCP noting that a dress and heels had joined the convo, if he had just noted that another human was now involved, the only change in conversation would have been a slight body shift to include me in the debate.

If I wasn’t immediately wife, but rather person, then obviously the first question would have been “what do you do?”

“2 interns? Flip a coin, decide between yourselves, take turns for gods sake.”

“Oh, a person is talking, I’d better wait to go powder my nose until they are finished. Perhaps I’ll even listen.”

“Ah, we’re going for lunch, every person is obviously welcome.”

I’m not for one minute downplaying the important work that feminists do for women, and I’m grateful every day for our ‘sister suffragettes’ that made my own freedom and choices possible. But the work needed nowadays is different, and I believe it is mostly down to menfolk to make the changes, although of course women can be just as guilty. To see women simply as other people who coexist side by side, separate but equal. To extend the same courtesy they would to any other person, by simply not being rude. To think about an unpleasant encounter in their day and ask themselves whether they would have made the same choices had a man been standing in front of them, or at the other end of the line.

So do me a favour, and pass on the message to the man in your life. After all, they probably will have stopped reading this by now. It’s written by a woman. 

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