And Why Feminism Matters For Boys, Too
My seven year old son, Jasper, loves My Little Pony. A lot. He watches the show; he reads the books; he collects the mini-figures. He can tell you everything about the Equestria universe and the creatures who live there. He can tell you, for example, that the world of My Little Pony is not just a world of ponies. There are ponies, of course, but there are also Pegasi (“that’s how you say more than one Pegasus, Mommy”), and Unicorns, and Alicorns, which are different from Unicorns but also sort of the same. He told me that Applejack and Pinkie Pie are Earth ponies, but that Fluttershy is a Pegasus and that Twilight Sparkle is an Alicorn. He told me that Princess Celestia is an Alicorn pony, and that she has a pet Phoenix named Philomena (#petgoals.) Jasper knows everything about this world and these characters, because he loves them.
But don’t tell his friends that. Really, please. Just don’t.
Jasper is emphatic about this: his friends can’t know that he loves My Little Pony. They can (and do) know that he loves Pokemon and Star Wars and blueberries and trampolines and LEGO and chocolate. They can know that he wants to be a scientist or a teacher when he grows up, and that he’s afraid of going into outer space. They can know that he loves his mom, although he’d prefer that I not make him say it when they’re around. But they can’t know, mustn’t know, will never know that he loves My Little Pony. Because, he tells me, they’ll laugh at him.
“Why will they laugh at you?”
“I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT.”
“I don’t want you to feel embarrassed about the things that you like.”
“JUST DON’T TELL THEM.”
“I would never tell them, but I don’t want you to feel like you need to hide it.”
“MOMMY. JUST DON’T.”
We’ve had this conversation three or four times in the last few weeks. He’s never said, explicitly, that the reason his friends would laugh at him for his love of My Little Pony is because it’s a ‘girl thing,’ but the idea crackles beneath the surface of our conversations. Liking My Little Pony is something that Jasper just should not do, because it’s something that his friends would not do. And it’s something that his friends would not do because they are boys. Liking Pokemon is okay, because other boys like Pokemon. Liking My Little Pony is not okay, because other boys avoid My Little Pony. Because My Little Pony is something that girls – and (crucially) only girls – like.
(A note before anyone asks about Bronies: yes, I know about Bronies. But Brony culture has not yet trickled down to second graders. In any case, I would argue that Bronies are the exception that – given their cultural perception as at best hilariously weird or at worst fully transgressive – proves the rule here.)
This where it gets a little complicated. It’s not just that girls like My Little Pony. I don’t think that Jasper and his friends much care what girls like or don’t like. They know that girls also like Pokemon, and soccer, and puppies, and many other things that they like. Jasper in particular knows this, because he has a big sister who likes all of those things, and more. And it does not bother him a bit that Emilia or any other girl likes any boy-approved things. Girls liking Star Wars doesn’t ruin Star Wars for him. On the contrary, I think he’d be surprised to encounter girls that don’t like Star Wars. What’s there to not like about Star Wars? Or Pokemon, or dragons, or soccer?
But My Little Pony is different. Not everybody likes My Little Pony. Boys don’t like My Little Pony, and that makes all the difference.
For Jasper – for most boys, arguably – the world is not divided according to boy things and girl things. It is divided according to everyone things, and girl things. There’s the gender universal, and there’s the gender particular, and whereas the former can accommodate both boys and girls, the latter simply does not. Boy things are universal – girls can like them, too. Star Wars is universal. So are sports and pants and superheros and bicycles and the color blue. They’re for everybody.
Girl things, on the other hand, are not for everybody. They are for girls, and for girls alone. Girl things, like pink and glitter and Barbies and princesses and fashion and, yes, My Little Pony, reside in a separate, particular domain – the feminine domain. They embody or signify qualities or characteristics that are coded or associated with the overtly feminine, with what we often identify as ‘girliness.’
The problem with My Little Pony is not, in other words, strictly that it is something that girls enjoy. It’s that My Little Pony is a girly thing, a thing that only girls can or should enjoy. The fact that girls like My Little Pony isn’t the main issue; girls (like his sister) like Rey and Princess Leia from Star Wars, and so does Jasper – openly and proudly. But Rey and Princess Leia aren’t “girly” – they fight, they get dirty, they wear pants – so they’re okay. Fluttershy and Rainbow Dash and Twilight Sparkle, on the other hand, are ‘girly’, and explicitly so. They’re pink and polished and sparkly and cute. They’re not just girl things – they’re girly things.
It’s not helping things that we, as a culture, tend to be disdainful of ‘girly’ things. ‘Girliness’ is more often than not associated with weakness or silliness; it’s perceived (broadly, culturally) as a condition of delicacy, of distraction, of superficiality. It’s tulle and sparkles and tiaras and waiting for your prince to come. It’s giggles and easy tears and screaming at spiders. It’s tea parties and pretty dresses and never, ever getting your shoes dirty. When was the last time you heard the word ‘girly’ used as a compliment?
The current popular discourse of girl empowerment reinforces this: girl ‘power’ aspires to everything that has been historically coded masculine – we celebrate (rightly) girl athletes, girl scientists, girl engineers – and it defines itself, for the most part, with a condition or posture of rejecting girliness. The celebration of girls breaking gender molds is, of course, a very good thing – I often err on the side of over-encouraging my daughter in her inclinations to break gender molds – but it matters that we only tend to celebrate the breaking of one, and not the other. We’re busting feminine molds, but we’re still celebrating masculine ones. If I post a photo of my daughter in full dirtbiking kit, I’m told that I’m an awesome mom; if I post photos of her Little Mermaid-themed birthday, more than one person is going to express surprise that I’m ‘okay with princesses’ (both examples based on lived experience.)
“We’re busting feminine molds, but we’re still celebrating masculine ones.”
Boys pick up this message. Jasper certainly has. Dirtbikes are cool; princesses are not. Dressing up as a space cowboy is cool; dressing up as a fairy is not. Coding is cool; crafts are not (unless you call it ‘making’ and swap yarn for robot parts – then it’s different.) Again, it’s totally understandable, to Jasper and his friends, why girls like Star Wars. There are spaceships, and light saber battles, and the one princess in the series is actually a general who wears pants. But My Little Pony? That’s all about sparkle and unicorns and kindness; it’s a world full of puffy clouds and rainbows and friendship, where the character’s powers are signified by ‘cutie marks.’ It’s the very definition of girly. And so, Jasper has come to understand, it is something that he should not like. He should make fun of it, probably, because it’s all so silly, right? He should certainly not have a Fluttershy minifigure stashed under his pillow.
That he believes all of this – despite my efforts to reassure him that he can and should like whatever he damn well wants to – is a terrible shame. It narrows the landscape of possibilities for him just as much as telling girls they shouldn’t like Batman limits theirs. Not just because it means that he doesn’t get to play with this particular toy or watch this particular show, but because of the deeper message: that if something is too closely associated with the lives or preferences of girls and women, he should and must avoid it. This is why we still find it surprising that some men choose to be stay-at-home dads, and laugh at jokes about male nurses. This is why we have Girls Who Code (which is great) but not Boys Who Nurture. This is why ‘women’s work’ is still devalued. This why girls have to break their own gender mold in order to claim power.
This is why feminism matters for boys and men. This is why interrogating our assumptions – all of our assumptions – about gender and identity and how these are framed matters. This is why feminism needs to reach beyond just empowering girls and women to break into the spaces that have historically been dominated by men. This why feminism needs to encourage and empower boys and men to embrace the spaces and postures and identities that have long been associated with women. Because boys like Jasper should – like girls – be free to like what they want to like, to dream whatever they want dream, to aspire to whatever the hell they want to aspire to. Because the world needs more stay at home dads and male nurses and, yes, Bronies. Because we should value kindness and gentleness and all the things that those girly Equestrian cutie marks represent.
Because My Little Pony is really kind of awesome, and the boy in your life would probably like it, too.
Can I ask a favor? If you have a son (or grandson, or friend) who loves MLP – or anything else that might be seen as gender non-conforming – could you contact me? What I’d love is to be able to show Jasper messages – or, better, photos – about boys like him. Show him that he’s not alone. I won’t share anything publicly – this is strictly for him. Because he doesn’t believe me when I tell him that he’s not alone, and that breaks my heart. (Reach me at herbadmother at gmail.)