There are two children playing. Not a boy and a girl. Two children. Let’s imagine no one tells the little boy that the little girl is his girlfriend. Imagine there is no grown-up smiling a grown-up smile and asking if he likes her, if he loooves her. No one tells the little girl that since her closest friend is a boy, he must be her boyfriend. Aww, is she going to marry him? Let’s imagine no one does that. Imagine that when the little girl says she’d like a sleepover, and the little boy jumps up and down and says, “Yes, yes, can I sleep with her, Daddy?,” their grown-ups don’t melt into a puddle of laughter. The boy’s father doesn’t say, “That’s my son, third base at four!” And the girl’s father doesn’t say, “Not with my girl, you don’t, young man!” That the fathers don’t laugh at each other’s jokes, while the kids stand there confused, wondering if the sleepover is on or off and why their dads think they want to play baseball.
What if we didn’t see this as harmless fun, but saw it for what it was: a handing over of adult perceptions of gender to children who had till then been unaware of anything but their excitement about sleepovers or the immediacy of their game of dragons and unicorns. Because the truth is, before we told a toddler that his friend was his girlfriend, and that he was going on his first date and had to be a man and treat her like a lady, he was doing much better. He was treating her like a friend, a playmate, a two-headed monster. And the little girl, she was doing what two-headed monsters do—pinning the boy to the floor, sitting on top of him and eating him for dinner.
That was until someone told them to get a room. They didn’t know what that meant, but everyone laughed and made them feel awkward. They didn’t pin each other down like that again. What did it mean, “go get a room?” Why did the grown-ups laugh funny? They don’t laugh when a boy sits on top of another boy. They don’t say, “Aww, look at the lovebirds!” when two girls hug.
Even when these questions are not articulated, they’re there. Through these questions, the children’s world is being figured out. They’re making mental notes of what we say, reactions we make, and slowly segregating gender into its stereotypes.
An innocuous start: A little boy makes a new friend at preschool. Let’s give them names: Ben and Maya. They’re not yet four. When Ben comes home, his mother asks him if he’s made any new friends. He tells her about Maya. “That’s a lovely name! Is she pretty?” his mother asks. She hadn’t asked Ben if his other friend, Tom, was handsome. His brain registers this difference. If his mother had asked him if Maya was fun/nice/friendly, it would’ve been easier for him to answer. But she’s asked him if Maya is pretty. This is more difficult; Ben hasn’t thought about it, but he thinks about it now. There was nothing wrong with Maya—her eyes and nose and hair were all in the right place. He looks up at his mother and nods, yes. “Aww,” his mother says.
A few days later, when Ben’s mother meets Maya’s mother, they talk.
“Ben adores Maya. He thinks she’s very pretty!”
“Oh, sweet Ben! They’re so cute together.”
Over the next few months, things progress. The fathers meet, the two families hit it off. Ben and Maya are now called The Cutest Couple in the World. They turn four.
“Look at them! So adorable holding hands.”
“See how she takes care of him?”
“His eyes light up when she walks in!”
The father posts a photo of Ben and Maya on Facebook. Caption: My son and his future wife. Comments pour in, along with red hearts:
Lucky girl, what a catch!
Score at four! Go Ben!
I die! They’ll be showing this to their grandchildren.
Your son’s game is stronger than mine, haha!
Oh my heart. Look at how he’s holding her! (This comment gets lots of likes.)
Like all photographs, this too has cropped out the moment that preceded it. Like the part where Ben’s mother put his little hand on Maya’s waist, then shuffled back to take the picture. Often, it’s the seemingly harmless, innocuous, good-natured things that are a child’s introduction to sexism.
Many of the problems we’re fighting today, issues we have hashtagged #gendergap, #metoo, #equalpay, #domesticviolence, #campusrape, are not gender clashes that suddenly cropped up between adults in the adult world. The seeds were sown in our childhoods. The seeds of how we see people. It’s in the childhood of every adult who undermines a woman’s brain, who thinks men and women cannot be just friends, who misreads friendliness for flirting, who looks at their friend or classmate or colleague as a body first and a person later. All of it can be traced back to how a little boy or girl was made to see not just another gender, but also made to see themselves in relation to another gender.
What if we didn’t give children our version of role-playing—this is how boys are, this is how girls are, this is how boys and girls are together—but allowed them to interpret each other in their own time? What if we kept our teasing insinuations to ourselves while they played, and let them get on with seeing each other as a Person first, instead of a Girl or a Boy? So that when they’re adults, they have those eyes to see each other with, and those friendships as foundations. Till then, there are far more exciting things for little girls to be than someone’s girlfriend, and far more interesting things for a little boy to do than act like a man. There’s time enough for that. This is their time, precious little time, to be blissfully ignorant of the neat and faulty boxes we adults have created for ourselves.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.