Toddler son simultaneously wears Dora apron and fights sexism

August 1 | Guest post by Sarah Vallely
Photo by Sarah Valley.
Dora the Explorer has finally found our house. I've never minded Dora; my niece had a big thing with her a few years back so I'm well acquainted with her program. I love that she's a little girl who is always the hero of her own story. Dora senses the needs of her friends, does all of the planning, the guiding, the saving and helping, all on her own (well, with Boots, of course, but as far as his role goes, he is definitely a side-kick). There are very few children's programs on air now that even give equal screen time to male and female characters, let alone have a female protagonist that isn't rife with stereotypically feminine traits (conventionally attractive to the point of being "sexy", a nag, in pursuit of a husband/boyfriend/appointment to royal status, or a fairy. Or a princess. Or both). Dora, in general, is fine by me as a television character for my kid to enjoy.

Well, apparently, because Dora is a girl she is a character for girls. There's like, no way that she can just be a character for kids, according to all the people. Seriously. It started when my son decided he wanted cupcakes. I figured we'd make cupcakes and take them to work for our friends. I gave him one of my aprons but it was too big. The next week at the local farmer's market I spied homemade kid-sized aprons. They had some robots and some flowers, but what really caught my eye was, of course, a Dora apron. It is bright pink and lacy but whatever — that's not something that would register for Isaac.

He loves his Dora "shirt" as he calls it. He wore it all day that day, wore it to bed, we had to hide it from him in order to get it clean so he could wear it all day again the next day. He wore it to the bakery next door with my niece. Apparently the women behind the counter didn't approve of his "girly" look and said things like "What are you wearing? Does your father know you're wearing that?!" I mean, this kid's dad wears an apron to work every day of his life. He'd be the last person to care!

Anyway, I guess I wish I were shocked. I wish that a boy child wearing pink didn't elicit some sort of visceral, nasty response in people in my town. He's too young to have understood what they were implying, but my niece sure wasn't! (Thanks for that, bakery ladies! Certainly a young girl burgeoning on adulthood needs to be reminded of her second-class status whenever she goes to get a bagel!). So we've decided, at my brilliant co-worker's suggestion, to commission a Dad-sized Dora apron so the two of them can match next time they go grab a "fuffin" for the kid.

So here's what I can't wrap my mind around: (and complete disclaimer here: I am neither an expert in child development nor gender or queer studies, these are just my opinions, gleaned from items I've read and experiences I've had). At two, gender is still very fluid. Isaac doesn't know "boy" or "girl" at all. Like, no concept whatsoever. He calls every child "kid" and I love it that he does. I'm certainly in no rush to make my child fit into any category at all.

So, even if your average bakery worker isn't quite up to speed with child development and gender politics, it's still safe to say that "shaming" my kid (because that's what they were trying to do), isn't alright. He's a child. He's doing his thing, man! He's got a great new outfit to wear on his big adventure to the store down the street, he's happy as can be! It's got pockets big enough to hold cars and his juice! And for what, exactly, should he be shamed? Because girls wear pink and girls aren't as good as boys? Because if a boy has on clothing that was intended to be worn by a girl, then he may somehow draw the pink ink into his veins and that will cause him to be gay? Because, No to all of the above.

Girls are great! Boys are great! Trans* kids are great! Colors are great, aprons are great, hand-made items are great and Dora, at times, is great. And wearing a pink Dora apron doesn't infuse gay into your veins. I tried it and it didn't work. Anyway, why or how could I possibly care if my child or children were gay?

The truth is, it goes way beyond how Isaac presents himself and identifies himself someday in the future. The really important part of the societal conversation we need to be having is that statistically, he's probably going to grow up a straight, white male, with all of the privileges that are afforded people like him. That is all the more reason he needs to understand that other worldviews and experiences have value. He can be one of two things in my mind: an ally or a bigot. In our house, we're allies. Every day we have to fight the battle for our children so that one day they will be able to fight it on their own.

Less than important and less than meaningful. Less than exciting and less than adventurous.

I was grumbling about the whole situation to my husband the other night and a real sadness came over me. As I was going on and on about "He's young, colors don't mean the same to him that they do to society at large," I kept adding "yet." Soon enough the world is going to harden around him. Soon enough he will start to get the vibe that girls and girl culture is less-than. Less than important and less than meaningful. Less than exciting and less than adventurous.

He might observe some homophobia along the way. Hatred of trans* individuals is still, unfortunately, a very real thing and likely will still be as Isaac grows up. I won't teach him that hatred and other-ness, his father certainly wouldn't either. It is information that he will absorb, however. He may become embarrassed and deny having worn his Dora shirt. He will blush and protest when I mention that he used to demand that I paint his toenails whenever he saw a bottle of nail polish and that he loved to jump around in my heels.

That world is coming for him. It will seep in, through the cracks under the doors, through the advertisements and toy stores, through the off-hand and cruel comments by both his peers and those old enough to know better. That may happen. It may not.

My job isn't to change the way the whole world thinks, or even to keep my kids away from it. My role is just to allow the two little people in my house to think better. To think better of each other, of people they don't know, to think better than to make asinine assumptions based in ignorance and hatred.

Most of all I want them to be able to think better of themselves, so one day, when they are confronted with bigotry — even in its tiniest, most micro-aggressive forms — they are able to stand firm on the side of inclusiveness and err on the side of progress.