Since I've already done some book events with Andi on the It's a Girl tour, including one where I screeched the car into a nearby parking lot, plunked down twelve dollars, yes twelve outrageous dollars to park in Center City near the Barnes and Noble because I was already forty minutes late for the reading, having had one of those evenings--I'm still getting used to the mechanics of our two child family--where nothing went quite right, I'd thought I'd have out at my turn on her blog tour.
On her blog, Andi's featuring my essay in her book. Since I rarely write personal essays anymore, and that's what the book is about, I'll take the liberty of reposting both her excerpt from my essay, "Cheerleader." I wrote it to make sense of what was then Samira's passion for girly cheerleader things, my usual hunch to let things be balanced by my critical sense that things are not right, gender-wise, with the world. This episode, last year, coincided with my concern that she was not being taught math well. It also coincided with a series of discussions I had with her teacher about how in the morning free time, the boys in the class were playing chess and the girls were writing their names in bubble letters on white boards. In the end, the teacher made morning free time into something more structured so that all the kids learned similar skills in school. The combination of the disparity of learning and the genderedness of the skills being taught, with the girls' immersion in a culture where, as I write in the essay, even teen heroine Kim Possible has to fight bad guys and be a cheerleader too, left me angry, and searching for the best path for educating my daughter in how to be a girl.
Cheerleader, an excerpt.
If you ask [my daughter], she’ll tell you the best birthday party she ever attended was Jeannette’s. Jeannette’s mom and dad gave everyone shiny purple pompoms. Jeannette’s older cousin Sarah—a real live high-school cheerleader—taught the six-year-olds key cheerleading moves and chants. She belted out the cheers for all of Philadelphia’s major sports teams. She gave the girls pompom instructions. She even demonstrated the split where you begin standing, and you end with one leg bent in front and the other bent behind, arms held high, up, and out in a triumphal V—and of course, a perfect, full smile on your face. My daughter loved that party. She bounced home that afternoon, shiny purple pompoms in tow, elated, to tell me all about it. I watched as she showed off her new skills. I tried not to be the dour, downer mom.
A week or so after that cheerleading party, Samira’s friend Megan came home with us after school. The two girls scrounged around the dress-up trunk and emerged with—what else—cheering outfits. ...They jolted into the bedroom, where I was folding laundry, wanting to show me their outfits and their cheers.
“And mom, you know, cheering teaches us to spell,” Samira pointed out.
“That makes it good! We can spell Philadelphia—no f’s.”
I was not in a sporting mood. I launched into a mom version of the History Channel, telling them that cheerleading reminded me of times when girls weren’t allowed to play organized sports, when we couldn’t be at the center of attention except as smiling beauties.
My daughter and her friend are both daughters of feminist moms, and both daughters of writers. They’re used to their mothers passing down mysterious, impassioned fragments about the once-upon-a-time tormented life of girls—and then telling them why they can’t do really fun stuff, like cheerlead, or hang out at the mall (not a real possibility for them at six and seven, but something they learned from Polly Pockets). ... I imagine they’re used to hearing these strange ramblings from us every so often. Which isn’t to say they can make sense of it....
After the essays were in, Andi asked me to comment on it, for the blog tour. This, I remember, is what I typed out to her:
The funny thing is this: almost as soon as I wrote that piece, Samira changed. All of a sudden, blue became her favorite color, and then of course, orange, the color featured in all the kid stores this spring, and orange paired with blue denim, well that's the T. Samira had been taking swim lessons for several years, and this winter, joined the swim team at our local Y. She loves being on a sports team, and is developing an identity as an athlete: she swims, she plays soccer in the fall, and each spring joins up with Wild Things, our local girls softball extravaganza. When "Cheerleader" came out we read it together, at least the first few pages, after which Samira looked at me and said, "I liked cheerleading? How revolting."
After writing that piece I realized that of course I don't trust the gender values of the culture she's growing up in. How can I? How can anyone? I have decided to trust her, to trust the parenting that her dad and I do, and to trust that she's growing up surrounded by good adults. She's 7 1/2 now, and sometimes will surprise me by her criticisms of the images she sees around her. I've decided to step back, to model rather than critique, at least for the time being. She'll see billboard images of girls and women that make her feel uncomfortable, usually images that are too sexy for her seven year old soul, and say, "Mom, that's gross. Why do they put that there?"
My friend Dana notes constantly, and critically, that parenting turns people into gender essentialists, more convinced than ever that boys are boys and girls are girls, by nature, and with fairly rigid definitions. I strongly agree with her, and disagree with our tendencies to go easy, to pretend it's all okay and that gender roles, well heck, it's nature so there's nothing we can do about it. The gender-is-nature line gives up, and it absolves us from having to think about the results. It's all harmless we think. It absolves us from having to rebel, and one day, we'll regret that deeply, on our own accounts, and when we realize the limitations our kids, girls and boys both, will face. I think we can't discount the huge impact of the images they are confronted with, from day one; the messages we give them (how come I constantly here people call their boys "little man" and I've never ever ever heard a parent call their daughter "little woman"), whether these messages are more or less conscious. Untill we're really committed to looking at how we pull our gender system along, how we reinforce it with the smallest acts, then we're not ready to declare, with no scientific backing at all, that girls and girly and boys are boyish. We're turning back so much of the little progress we've made, and we're doing it as the generation who was raised to be different, raised to create a bit more space in the world to just be.
So that's my once-a-trained-feminist-theorist-always-a-trained-feminist-theoriest view of things. For a batch of beautifully written, and I can attest, well edited, personal essays (I loved Catherine Newman's on her daughter's chubbiness and her own, and Ann Douglas' on her daughter's eating disorder), take a look at Andi's book. Available from bookstores and the usual places online.