“Just For Girls?” How Gender Divisions Trickle Down

I’ll say up front I am genuinely happy that DC is going to put forward their girl superheroes for kids. If the writing is great, this’ll be good stuff. Kudos. Huzzah. Hurrah. A PARADE OF PONIES AND GLEE. *flings ponies into air with catapult* *explodes ponies with cannons* *glitter everywhere* *also sequins* *also ice cream sprinkles because why the fuck not*

I’m happy anytime any publisher, creator or company thinks: “Hey, weird, maybe we should be talking to everybody, not just this one group who has dominated the conversation for a good long time.” That’s a good thing. The world is full of folks who have been grossly undernourished by pop culture because of exclusion. And this is true up and down the chain — from those who run the companies to those who create the content to those characters within the content. This is a top-to-bottom, nose-to-toes problem.

And that problem trickles down to the readers, too.

I’ve talked about this before — “Boy Toys, Girl Toys, And Other Cuckoopants Gender Assumptions” — and once again, the specter of this problem rears its exclusionary little head.

I want you to take a look at the DC Comics press release.

More to the point, I want you to gaze at some of the language therein:

“…an exciting new universe of Super Heroic storytelling that helps build character and confidence, and empowers girls to discover their true potential.”

Developed for girls aged 6-12, DC Super Hero Girls centers on the female Super Heroes and Super-Villains of the DC Comics universe during their formative years…”

“I am so pleased that we are able to offer relatable and strong role models in a unique way, just for girls.”

The underlined emphasis is mine.

I’m of a conflicted mind, here.

See, I want this comic to be about the girls. Not about boys. I want it to empower girls and maintain whatever aesthetic it must to appeal to an audience of girls. I hope it’s written by amazing women authors and put on the page by incredible women artists. Like I said, this is a nose-to-toes problem. It needs to be on the page but also beyond the page, too.

But here’s my conflict:

I want my son to read this.

And the response would be: “Well, he can, duh.”

To that, I agree! He can. And will, one day, I hope.

My problem is the signal that gets sent by identifying again and again that this is “just for girls.” That’s marketing speak, I know, but it’s also something that reaches the audience. It reaches the parents who buy this stuff and that means it reaches the kids who will read these books. This attitude trickles down and it bolsters poisonous gender typing. It says, “GIRLS LIKE GIRLY THINGS, BOYS LIKE BOYLY THINGS, AND NEVER THE TWO SHALL MEET.”

The problem isn’t that things are pink.

The problem is that pink is “just for girls.”

Girls need to be reading comics about girls and by women. Honestly, they’ve had to endure comics that have been about boys and by men for a very long time, and that needs to change.

But my son — now almost four, holy crap — and other boys have had to endure the same thing. That sounds strange, like it’s some kind of punishment — but boys also need to read about girls. Girls are always expected to understand boys (“Boys will be boys”) but boys are never expected to understand girls (“THEY ARE LIKE ALIEN ARTIFACTS AND IF YOU TRY TO UNDERSTAND THEM YOU WILL FRY YOUR BRAIN TO A CRISP CINDER now go play sports or punch somebody”). And this becomes the way men and women are to one another, too. Cosmo teaches women all the sexy sex tricks (“Try oral sex at a small town carnival with a mouth full of hot, deep-fried Snickers bar!”) and teaches men to, y’know, just be dudes, dude. Just bro it up. Be a bro. The ladies will come to you and then you might get to do that thing at the carnival I was telling you about. 

Society will get better when boys have to learn about girls the same way girls learn about boys.

Boys need to think about girls in ways that go beyond objectification or alienation.

Boys need to know who girls are and what they will go through.

All the toxicity between the gender divide? It starts here. It starts when they’re kids. It begins when you say, “LOOK, THERE’S THE GIRL STUFF FOR THE GIRLS OVER THERE, AND THE BOY STUFF FOR THE BOYS OVER HERE.” And then you hand them their pink hairbrushes and blue guns and you tell your sons, “You can’t play with the pink hairbrush because GIRL GERMS yucky ew you’re not weird are you, those germs might make you a girl,” and then when the boy wants to play with the hairbrush anyway, he does and gets his ass kicked on the bus and gets called names like sissy or pussy or some homophobic epithet because parents told their kids that girl stuff is for girls only, which basically makes the boy a girl. And the parents got that lesson from the companies that made the hairbrush because nowhere on the packaging would it ever show a boy brushing hair or a girl brushing a boy’s hair. And on the packaging of that blue gun is boys, boys, boys, grr, men, war, no way would girls touch this stuff. Duh! Girls aren’t boys! No guns for you.

My son plays the LEGO superhero games of both DC and Marvel (the Marvel one is better, let’s be honest) — and he plays the women superheroes as often as he does the men ones. He loves Wasp and Pepper Potts (particularly when she’s in the Iron Rescue suit). He got so excited to unlock Batgirl. He doesn’t even know who the fuck Batgirl is, he just thinks she’s rad.

One of my favoritest shows of all time is Gilmore Girls. And I still get people who give me this look (nearly always from dudes) as if to say, “Do you have a penis? Are you sure? Do you need to turn it in — like, are you done with it?” And I’m all, oh, what, it’s cool to like quick-talking Buffy because she stabs things with wooden stakes but not like this other show which oh yeah is basically Buffy just without the vampire fights? “Well, Gilmore Girls is a girl show. It’s right there in the name.” Whatever. Who gives a shit. It’s also an incredibly funny, sarcastic, sweet, sad, quirky show. (Run by a woman showrunner — at least up until it started to suck a little bit.)

Now, this runs the risk of sounding like the plaintive wails of a MAN SPURNED, wherein I weep into the open air, “WHAT ABOUT ME, WHAT ABOUT US POOR MENS,” and that’s not my point, I swear. I don’t want DC or the toy companies to cater to my boy. I just don’t want him excluded from learning about and dealing with girls. I want society to expect him to actually learn about girls and be allowed to like them — not as romantic targets later in life, but as like, awesome ass-kicking complicated equals. As real people who are among him rather than separate from him.

DC Comics making comics about girls isn’t the problem.

DC Comics telling us those comics are “just for girls” is.

Listen, if these comics are half-good, I’m giving them to him regardless. And this one particular instance isn’t going to ruin anything or change much at all — I think it’s a great initiative. I’m excited. But I do think it’s indicative of that larger patten. That larger division in gender. You don’t have to submit to a chromosomal test to read certain books or play with certain toys. Gender is a spectrum, not two poles at opposite ends of the globe. And the characteristics we associate with gender are constantly floating, shifting, changing. We need to embrace that, not the US VERSUS THEM attitude. Not the THESE PRODUCTS ARE FOR YOU, THESE PRODUCTS ARE FOR THEM declaration. Men can read books by women, about women. A boy can play with an EZ Bake oven because what the fuck? Why not? Why can’t a boy learn how to cook? Why can’t a girl learn how to use a screwdriver? Men can’t try to learn what women actually have to go through? C’mon.

I’ll be teaching my son all this stuff. I hope others will teach their kids the same, too. And I hope companies and publishers wisen up, as well — we need to stop that idea of gender roles trickling down from company to creator to parent to kids. Because this is where it all starts. This is when we have to catch it. It’s on us to fix it.