So this week I found out that I am just like the singer Adele. Not in the being any good at singing or having loads of money or attracting legions of fans way, but in the one way that truly counts: we both let our sons dress up as female characters from Frozen.
Turns out Adele’s son is an Anna. My middle son’s more of an Elsa, complete with a little plastic crown to hurl off dramatically whenever he gets to “the past is in the past” in Let It Go. I don’t know where Adele does her shopping, but my son’s blue dress and sparkly wig were £15 at Sainsbury’s (paid for by a grandparent, who then sent me an email expressing concern at my son wearing his new outfit anywhere other than at home. He’s since worn it twice to the school disco, with no ill effects).
My son’s interest in Disney princesses started with the film Tangled. Straight after watching it, he announced that he wanted to have long hair just like the main character. I don’t think this was down to any particular attraction to all things feminine. I think he genuinely thought that if he had hair as long as Rapunzel’s, it would have the same magic healing powers (just as I used to think that if my mum bought Ready Brek, I’d be able to walk to school with a luminous orange glow around me).
Thankfully, my partner and I managed to persuade him that while long hair would be nice, it wouldn’t be magic before the disappointment set in. By that time, he was already into Frozen, as was everyone in Reception. Only while the other boys settled for playing Kristoff or Olaf, he was aiming a little higher. After all, Elsa is one of the main characters and has superpowers! Not only that, but she’s somewhat tortured by the way in which her special gifts set her apart from others, providing just the sort of complex, light-and-shade role my little drama queen could get his teeth into.
With all my sons I’ve tried to go for a gender-neutral parenting approach. My sons have had dolls and dresses, pink items as well as blue, and we’ve always told them that there’s nothing a girl can like that a boy can’t like, too. That said, we’ve made compromises, mainly dressing them in “boys’” clothes, partly because they’re what everybody gives us, but also because of the way in which, as the philosopher Sara Ruddick puts it, “maternal thought embodies inauthenticity by taking on the values of the dominant culture” (hey, if I put it in those words, it makes me sound less of a hypocrite, right?). As a parent, you are torn between letting your children be who they “really” are and guiding them to reap the dubious yet tangible benefits of fitting in. And then there’s the fact that who your children “really” are cannot be separated from the social context in which they are growing and learning.
I’ve no idea why my older son does not want to wear “girls’” clothes while my middle son will put them on without seeming to notice they are not “meant” for him. Whatever the reason, it is gratifying to have sons who don’t all follow the same rules. The feminist in me feels smug, taking undue credit for the apparent open-mindedness of my offspring. That’s one in the eye for all those parents who claim that boys will be boys and as for the girls, well, they can be pretty. Then again, it can feel as though you are appropriating your own son’s likes and dislikes for your political purposes. My son doesn’t dress as Elsa in order to prove that gender is a social construct and maleness and femininity can co-exist. He just likes the bloody dress.
There can be unforeseen consequences to having a boy who sometimes looks like a girl. My parents once bought him a light-up toy gun at a pantomime and we then watched as another boy persuaded his parents to get him one, too, on the basis that “even that little girl there’s got one” (pointing at my son). I’m sure gender neutrality was never meant to be about defending the right of every six-year-old to bear arms, but I guess there’s a lesson in there somewhere (not sure where, but still). On another occasion, I watched my son running ahead of me to the park and, noticing how much his flower top and long hair made him look like a girl, I felt suddenly felt much more protective of him. It made me wonder how much, if I’d had a daughter, I’d have treated her differently in spite of myself, limiting her movements, stopping her from running so fast or climbing so high, just in case.
My son is less interested in Elsa now. He’s still got long hair, but these days it’s all about being Brigitte in The Sound of Music. I’m not sure whether Brigitte had nits, but we’ll let that one pass. Like his brothers, he’s just gorgeous, beautiful, himself, that difficult mixture of what you want and who you need to be.