(CNN) — When the rocket scientist Yvonne Brill died in March, The New York Times celebrated her as the maker of a “mean beef stroganoff” and “the world’s best mother.” When my 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, a wildly creative and interesting girl, finished a year of preschool last week, her teachers gave her an award for being the best dressed.
A few years ago at my son’s preschool camp award ceremony, I sat silently as well-meaning counselors called each child forward. Girls: best hair, best clothes, best friend, best helper and best artist. Boys: best runner, best climber, best builder and best thrower. My son won best soccer player. In general, girls received awards for their personalities and appearance and boys for their actions and physical attributes.
It was similar at my daughter’s ceremony, where the teacher told us that all the children were so excited to see what award they would receive; it had obviously been built up as a big deal. The gender disparity was subtle but present.
A boy received best engineer. A girl got best friend. Another girl was the best helper, and another most compassionate. A boy received best break dancer. A girl was named most athletic, and the teacher told us how when all the class raced around the track this girl “beat everyone! Even the boys!” And then my daughter got her certificate, showing her in a funky orange sweater, tight pants, and holding a bowling ball. Her award — best dressed.
Many decades after the feminist movement of the 1960s, why are we still stuck in this gender-norming rut?
The truth is that my daughter may well be the best dressed in her class. She has a terrific sense of style. One day she put on a hand-me-down Disney princess outfit, looked in the mirror and said, “OK Dad, I’m ready to dig for worms!” Another day, she went to school in a pink dress, green rain boots and a viking helmet. I frequently come home to find her in a pirate costume. She’s practical and became outraged when she discovered that her “girl jeans” turned out to have fake pockets. “Daddy,” she said, “Where am I going to put my pine cones?” If she’s the best dressed, it’s because of her creativity.
Sometimes, I find the prospect of raising a girl to be terrifying. The forces of patriarchy conspire to render girls weak, subordinate and sexually objectified. When we respond to infants by gendering our speech, strong for boys and lilting for girls, we immediately start to shape their interactions with the world.
I would once have said nothing was worse than the conspicuous consumption mantras of Barbie or thefemale-subjugation messaging of Disney, but then I encountered the hyper-sexualized elementary-school girls called Bratz. And then there’s underwear. Boys mostly get superheroes and girls get hearts and flowers, but at least Dora is an explorer. All too soon Ellie will encounter the world of Justin Bieber nightgowns and Victoria’s Secret underwear for tweens.
The teenage years with the new dangers of sex, alcohol, eating disorders and more will arrive before we know it. I can’t save her from all of this, and anyway we buy into purity culture (the notion that only a father’s constant surveillance can save our daughters) at our peril and the peril of our daughters. Our daughters need to be strong, not closeted and coddled. We have to arm them with the tools to question, resist and change our patriarchal culture.
Ellie’s teacher is the kind of smart and strong young woman I want as a role model for my daughter (she’s also a really snappy dresser), and I know she was only trying to make the transition moment special for each student. She absolutely intended to celebrate the way Ellie expresses her creativity through clothes. But gender stereotypes are, by their very nature, pernicious. They creep into our minds, shaping our perceptions of the world on a subconscious level, tricking us into betraying our values.
Our culture constantly projects the message that only appearances matter, and this message is aimed squarely at our children. We can fight this only by working against the grain, resisting gendered language and emphasizing the internal over the external.
If my daughter’s creativity shines through in her choice of clothing, then celebrate both that creativity and the critical thinking that lies at the heart of all creative acts with a most creative award. Or we could just let Ellie tell us what she wants us to celebrate. When she picked up her award, she beamed at the picture of herself holding the bowling ball so proudly. “Daddy!” she said, “I won best bowler!”
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David M. Perry.”