Dear Mattel. I know you are unpinking. But why did you leave out boys?

barbieIn the last two weeks, I received a link in my inbox from at least four different sources for the new Mattel ad for Barbies that “empowers girls to be anything they want to be”. I had, of course, seen it ample times on my Twitter and Facebook feeds by then, and smiled to myself.

The ad has been playing out in my house for a few years now. In just a few thousand forms. Except the chief protagonist is a boy. And he happens to be my child.

I did notice that the ad didn’t feature a single boy and that got me thinking more than its unpinking. Or its alleged attempt at turning Barbie into a feminist.

It is more happenstance than design, but our family of dolls now includes three Barbies, four Disney Princesses, four magiclip dolls, one mermaid and a few others (Re will be upset I don’t remember their names, but I don’t). I also learned fairly recently that Barbies and Princesses were two different breeds and mixing one for the other was sacrilege. In our home of course, they all play with dinosaurs and wear Playdoh dresses.

Together, and with a real cat thrown in every once in a while, as well as other toy animals, puppets and random toys, they have been part of several adventures that include (but are not limited to) extempore plays, concerts, various rescue operations that involve fire, building collapses, a vet’s clinic, a hospital, a warship, a shipwreck, a chef’s kitchen, a submarine, a traffic management situation, a construction site and several others.

When Re likes someone enough to want to include him/her in his universe, the first thing he tells them is that he likes playing with dolls and has ___ of them (again, I cannot be accurate about the number). This has not been choreographed by me or his father, but I guess after being mocked and ridiculed to some extent by his peers about his preferences of play, he has realized that he would rather be choosy about his friends and that they should have full information when they choose to be friends with him. We now have a select, but beautiful universe of friends that he would like to keep for life, although not all of them like playing with dolls; it’s just that they don’t judge him for doing so.

I was a little amused that people were celebrating Mattel for finally getting it right. One website actually said: “After 59 years, Mattel gets it right.” What are they getting right anyway? That girls have the power to be anything they want to be? But didn’t you already believe that? And if you didn’t, and it took a toy company to tell you that, I would worry more about you than the toy company.

All around, I see mothers frothing at the mouth when their girls go through the princess or Barbie phase, wondering what the hell went down when they had done their best to simulate conditions for this not to happen. When mothers who have been so conscious about the whole ‘no princess’ thing, yet discovered that their three-year old daughter obsessively wants everything to be pink and loves “tacky Disney Cinderella”. Mothers say it quite proudly when their daughters don’t like pink, or that they prefer green instead.

And oh, in case the ad got your hopes up, “Barbie won’t be turning into a feminist anytime soon,” warns Jessica Valenti in this Guardian piece.

Interestingly, the same mothers that are allergic to their girls veering towards girls stuff wouldn’t have minded if she had an obsession with robots for instance. Some blame it on schools and peer pressure. But why must it be the product of external pressure? Isn’t it possible that a girl might just really like princesses? Or pink?  I do get what “normative gendering” is all about; what I don’t get is pushing girls who love dolls towards building model planes or trains or some such. It seems to be some sort of denial of her female-hood.

Much like I didn’t see the point of pushing Re away from dolls either. And if you are the mother of a boy, you would know that the world is more accepting of a girl playing football than a boy playing with dolls.

Here’s the thing: What Mattel or Disney is selling you is just a structure. What you make of it is entirely your imagination. What about the immense value of role play with dolls in developing relational skills and empathy? I see those as priceless.

Removing boys from the context entirely and pretending they don’t exist is not helping at all. It is just genderization in an entirely different way. What I would be more concerned about is a child self-selecting out of anything on account of gender (whether it is toys, play, sport, ballet, science, math etc). The sooner we give up trying to control how their personalities SHOULD form, choreographing their likes and dislikes, the more fulfilling this parenting ride will be.

Not all girls who like princesses at age three grow up to be senseless bimbos, just as not all “tomboys” (although I detest that word) who love decapitating dolls grow up to be independent and strong.

The only reason there are “girl and boy toys” at all is because adults decided what girls and boys should be like, how they should act, and what they should play with. If we let the kids decide, I doubt the division would be so clear.

Perhaps it would be interesting to note the original intent of Barbie creator Ruth Handler, who wrote in her autobiography: “My whole philosophy of Barbie was that through the doll, the little girl could be anything she wanted to be. Barbie always represented the fact that a woman has choices.”

Sure, Barbies and princesses are way too skinny for my liking, but it is for you to decide if she is a role model for your body image. I don’t think any girl is unrealistic enough in today’s times to let her body image be affected by what a doll looks like. Just like it is unrealistic for us to want to date boys with six pack abs.

Toy shops and supermarkets categorize things as “boys”and “girls” so they find it easier to keep inventory. Would you find anything at all if you went shopping and the men’s and women’s stuff was all mixed up? Every girl’s parent who complains that all the interesting toys are in the boy’s section, well, who’s stopping you from shopping in the boys’ section? On the rare occasion that Re and I go shopping, we still get asked if it’s for a boy or a girl. I have learned to keep my calm and say we are just browsing thank you, and Re invariably goes to look in the girls section.

My point is, if you are constantly looking for subtext, you will always find it. As long as we let our children do their thing and keep those conversations open and going, we are fine.

(A version of this post appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 26th October, 2015)

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Raising a boy in times of rape

Last week, I was woken up one morning by a text from a friend in Dubai. It said, “Adi came and asked me, mamma, what is the meaning of gang rape?”

She has two boys; Adi, 8, is the older one. The child was obviously reacting to newsfeed from Mumbai, a city he lived in before they moved to Dubai. She told him it was an important question, but she wanted to think through the answer so that it would justify the question.

Owing to the time difference, she got restless waiting for my answer and hence told him, ten minutes later, “Rape is the worst form of bad touch that one person does to another, and gang rape means many people doing bad touch to one.”

Understandably, he looked disgusted. And then she told him that these things wouldn’t happen if boys stopped thinking that girls were silly and instead, treated them as smart.

She didn’t want to probe into the source of his questioning, but she wasn’t sure if she said the right thing, and so she reached out to me. She felt that as a mother to two boys, she should really start worrying about their attitude towards girls.

My son, Re is four. He hasn’t started asking such questions yet. But I think it’s about time I started thinking of the answers too.

Call me paranoid, but I can’t help notice that after he started school and began mingling with boys and girls I don’t know much about, Re has started sounding slightly divisive about gender. He has started saying things he never said. Things like, “You take the pink one, because you are a girl!” I can’t track the source of this, much as I can’t track the source of him telling me one day that boys don’t wear bangles.

A few days back, his school celebrated rakhi. Re (and other boys at school) were asked to bring a small gift. They were told that the girls would tie them a rakhi and the boys would have to give them a gift. A friend asked jokingly on Facebook if that meant that the girls in his class were now his sisters. I resisted explaining the significance of rakhi to him — that girls tied rakhi to boys, and the boys promised to protect them.

I didn’t like the word ‘protect’. I thought I’ll wait till I come up with a suitable alternative. May be I never will. It doesn’t matter, really. He doesn’t have a sister and never will. The word ‘protector’ screwed up rakhi for me, and I didn’t want to transfer the angst onto him.

When the Shakti Mills incident occurred, and once again the focus was on the brutes that raped and the mothers who raised them, it sent shivers down my spine. It scares me, this. It raises alarm bells of a kind that I never knew could. The questions are always, “What is their upbringing? Which mother has raised such a son?” It is never “What did their fathers say or do? To them, to their mothers, sisters, wives?”

But the fact remains that almost everyone is under the radar.

Every man or woman who makes a joke about rape is guilty of rape.

Every man who thinks his nobility comes from protecting women (sister, wife, lover, friend) is guilty.

Every parent who says, “Boys will be boys,” is guilty. Every time you use a bangle metaphor for a ‘weak’ man, you are guilty. Every parent who thinks that a daughter should be married off lest she falls into wayward ways, is guilty. Every parent who has different bars for sons and daughters is guilty of rape. Every time you are told you need a man to complete you, you are raped.

Every time you think a woman needs a man to protect her, whether it’s her father, husband, brother, the Khap Panchayat, the police, or the State Home Minister, you are guilty.

Because there is a very thin line between protector and perpetrator.

When I was 13, a tall boy in a white kurta-pyjama who was walking behind me, grabbed my breasts. This was at Teen Murti Bhavan. I was trailing behind my parents while looking at the exhibit, and the boy decided to take his chances. I was so shocked, I picked up the nearest thing I could to hit him. It was a stool. The security came charging (they were more worried that I might break the glass), nabbed him and made off. I was left trembling with fear as my parents found me. What happened, they asked? “He physically assaulted me,” I said, not realising how the words came out of my mouth. My parents didn’t pursue the case. “It’s Delhi, it’s notorious” my father said. I remember feeling very angry that day. I still remember the boy’s face.

I remember another incident from my youth. I was 16, and used to attend college, a two-hour commute from home. On days I had practicals, this meant leaving my home at 5.30 am. I used to walk to the station alone; a 20 minute walk. One November day, when it was darker than usual, I heard a bell ring behind me. I turned around and recognised our milkman. “Why are you walking alone in the dark? Can’t your father or brother drop you?” he asked. I was already on the verge of being a feminist, and brushed him off. “I can look after myself, and this is none of your business,” I said.

But that conversation spooked me out. I told my mother about it when I got home. She vented on my father. “How can you sleep when your young daughter is walking alone on the street early in the morning?” I remember feeling very angry that day too.

A few days back, my husband, who works in advertising, was on his way to Delhi to pitch for an account. The client ran a girls only boarding school. I don’t remember the exact words, but the campaign was positioned around female foeticide and how we needed to empower our girls; hence a girls-only boarding school. I don’t know why, but it made me angry.

But I still don’t know what I am going to tell my son. Perhaps I can tell him the story of the rape survivor, the girl who didn’t just stay angry, but did something about it. She continues her fight for justice, her fight to get her life back, to work, travel, and live free. Her parents continue to support her in her fight.

For all I know, Re may cry over something in school tomorrow and someone is likely to say, “Why are you crying? Are you a girl?” And then I’ll have to start all over again.

This piece originally appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on 3rd September, 2013

That boy in yellow nail-polish

A few months ago, I took Re for his first real haircut. His locks had grown beyond my ability to manage, but he never said “yes” to a haircut, so I had let him be. Before I knew it, his hair was long enough for a braid and had enough volume for four heads. I often got asked if he was a “baba” or a “baby” and I smiled through it. These were not the battles I wanted to fight.

We went through the butterfly clip-banana clip-scrunchy-hair-band route, and one fine day, he said, “Don’t put anything in my hair!” It was finally time to let the hair go. A new kiddie salon had just opened in the area; I decided to try my luck. Since Re doesn’t take well to sitting on swivel chairs in capes and strangers touching his hair, we had to try something different. We tried stickers and doodle pads, but what really worked like magic was nail polish. For the next 10 minutes, an assistant painted away on Re’s fingers and toes, while the hairdresser went snip-snip. And just like that, he went from Rapunzel to cute mop. On the way home, I asked him if he liked his new hair. He said, “I like my new nail polish,” beaming at his fingers and toes.

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Off he went to school the next day, low maintenance hair, feet adorned with bright yellow nail polish, happy as a bird. On day two, he came back from school and announced, “Mamma, boys don’t wear nail polish. Only girls wear nail polish!”

So his first lesson in stereotyping had begun. It made me a bit sad, but it was a sign of things to come. The nail polish, of course, wore off in a few days, but the boy-girl statements would erupt every once in a while and I would never miss an opportunity to tell him they weren’t true. But then, for a child, seeing is believing. If he never saw a boy wearing nail polish or long hair, he would probably think that was the norm, right?

Since birth, I hardly bought Re any toys. There were hand-me downs from his male cousins (strictly gender-specific) and the rest he found on his own. A tea cup here, a ladle there, a pan, a cooker, a colander, some spoons and a few cupcake moulds. I realised the kitchen was where his heart was. Till today, his portable plastic kitchen and the more elegant Ikea version (gifted by my brother) are the only pieces of toy estate he really cares about. “Why don’t you buy him cars?” said a friend. “Yes, he has cars too,” I said. She seemed relieved. It was as though liking cars redeemed his boy-ness in some way.

Things are more extreme in the girl universe. A fellow mommy on Twitter took pride in the fact that her girl doesn’t sleep with a cuddly girly toy, instead chooses a crocodile. She said that by allowing the girl child to look after a mock baby, we are, in fact, reinforcing the nurturing mommy stereotype. Another mother prided over the fact that her daughter always chose boy toys and clothes.

There is this enormous sense of relief when children don’t fall into clichés. But what is disturbing is when they are veered into anti-clichés. Why do we celebrate it when our girls do boy things and not enough when our boys do girl things? Why should I worry that my boy likes pink when I am relieved that my girl doesn’t? Why should it bother me that my girl likes to play with toy kitchens when it doesn’t bother me that my boy likes cars? If we constantly aspire for our girls to do boy things, isn’t that a stereotype as well? Are we not victims of our own fight against stereotypes? At this rate, there will soon be a whole generation of androgynous women, and not enough men in touch with their feminine side to balance them out.

What I don’t get is a mother who veers her girl child towards things that are un-pink simply because she is a girl and it would be uncool to fall into a stereotype. That, to me, is sad. I don’t have a daughter, but I love to see girls dressed up, wearing pretty shoes and beads and purses. Unless we allow our children to get in touch with their yin and yang in equal measure, we will always make them versions of what we want them to be. The thing is, kids don’t know stereotypes. We do.

It breaks my heart to know that I have no control over Re’s school friends or what they or their parents think. I want my boy to get in touch with his feminine side in equal measure and find a balance that works for him. Unfortunately, that may not be so. There are school friends, park friends, building friends and bus friends, a collective which has enough stereotype to beat careful nurturing.

But home is still a place where he can drape a dupatta like a sari, dress a doll, wear bindis, bangles, nail polish and anything that makes him happy.

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(This piece first appeared as my column in the Indian Express on 9th December 2012)

Children of no lesser God

In a politically correct world that is duly celebrating the girl child, in a world where it is almost in vogue to wish for a girl or adopt one, I begat a boy.

It was a time when most of my friends were dealing with troubled teens at home or, at the very least, had graduated to baby number two. I found myself telling the husband within a few months of our marriage that we should adopt a baby girl in two years if we don’t have a child of our own. I had, at that point, underestimated our ability to procreate.

Exactly a year after this talk, Re arrived. I, who was proud of my womanhood and had bashed men for the longest time in my gender column, had finally given birth to a man. I felt nothing except mild shock. Poetic justice, I thought. “At least he has curly hair, and my cleft,” I consoled myself. I was ready for another man.

Something told me that this project would not work on auto-pilot. I had no clue about how to raise a man: how to understand his layered complexities, how to let him be, yet let him grow and what to expect of him. Plus, the world around me displayed a kind of reverse snobbery about the boy child. In it, boys are best underplayed, or not played at all. Mothers of boys are constantly scrutinised for subtext. Consider this: Boy throws a tantrum and he is shrugged off as “boys will be boys”. Girl throws a tantrum and she is said to have a mind of her own. Boy climbs on to the table in a restaurant and he is “not brought up well”. Girl does the same and she is slated to be the next gymnast. It’s as though in the race to celebrate our girls, we are trying to pretend our boys don’t exist.

As soon as Re’s hormones surfaced (and they show up intensely close to age two), I was at sea. I think a lot of the confusion arose because of my own expectations from men. We want our men to be sensitive but robust, quiet but communicative, accomplished but understated, generous but thrifty, leaders but followers. We want them to be independent and successful, yet we like it when they can’t do without us.

Boys have to prove they can make good friends, good boyfriends, good husbands, good sons, good brothers and good fathers. The men in my life, whether it was my father, my brother, the boyfriends and the husband, constantly had to prove that they were “men enough”. They still do. We are constantly raising the bar for our men. There seems to be this daunting task of making a good man out of a boy, but it is somewhat assumed that all girls grow up to be good women. And for some reason, mamma’s boy is not as cool as daddy’s girl.

I found myself extrapolating every tantrum of Re, every sign of defiance, and wondering, alpha-male, bad boy or just age? By some twist of fate, Re is surrounded by mostly girl children, whether it is in our apartment building or my circle of friends. The ratio is skewed in favour of girls, at least in our world, whatever the statistics might say. He is usually the aggressee and never the aggressor, and I still don’t know whether I should ask him to fight back or let go. I don’t know what would make him a real man. But I will always be okay with him crying. After all, vulnerability is a valuable thing. It’s what the world looks for, I am told.

I looked. I got sensitivity with bravado (“Don’t hold my hand, mamma. I want to hold your hand”), free-spiritedness with extreme attachment (“I don’t want to go to school, mamma. I want to be with you”), defiance with understanding, noise with silence, aggression with empathy and “I” with “you”. Re hurts easily, he loves animals to a fault, he gives me a foot massage on my wretched days, he puts my cup of tea away, he brings me my slippers, wherever they are, he bakes me mud cakes. He likes cars and kitchens and I don’t care which way he goes. He is often mistaken for a girl, because of his locks. I am asked why I don’t cut his hair and I just try and fix a beatific look on my face and shrug. The real reason is, his locks remind me that he is still me.

So there you are. He is me. I am him.

I realised we can never be enough woman without the man in us and they can never be enough man without the woman in them.

Yes, it’s important to celebrate our girls and boys. But it’s more important to celebrate our children.

Pic by Rahul De Cunha of Treestock

 

This piece first appeared in my column in the Eye section of the Indian Express on 29th July, 2012