Son: Look Dad, it’s Skye!
Father: Oh, I don’t like her.
Father: She’s a girl. She’s boring.
Some context: Skye is the female-gendered (and dressed in pink) dog character on the kids’ TV show Paw Patrol; the father and son were looking at a playset featuring her. I work at a small toy store and exchanges like this are unfortunately all too common. Parents steering their children away from certain toys and children themselves avoiding certain toys often just because of their color. A toy store is a cesspool of gendered notions. While I do my best as a sales associate to subvert them, at the end of the day when someone asks for help finding a toy for their “girly” granddaughter, I have to help them.
Comments like the above are not uncommon at the store but it stung me particularly acutely this week. This exchange occurred this past Sunday, my first time working at the store following the election. I heard the dad say this to his maybe five-year-old son and I first thought I’d misheard, but then I confirmed with another woman who works with me that she had heard the same thing. I think there are a few factors about this that felt different and more painful to hear than other gendered conversations that we so often overhear in the store. First of all, the sexism was coming straight from the parent rather than from an ignorant or naive child, as often happens. And this kind of comment felt more malignant, too: the parent wasn’t just guiding his child towards a more “boyish,” toy, he was instead steering his son away from a toy that wasn’t even “girly” to begin with — it just featured a female-gendered character. The father’s use of the word “boring” to describe her was likely an unprepared response to his son’s questioning, but in this context indicates that a female-gendered toy figurine is incapable of being good enough for his son. And then, of course, I had the election on my mind. I heard this and thought of how this boy would grow up, how all these little comments he heard from his father over time could help lead him to grow up to be at worst a rapist. Yes, maybe this is too much to imagine for a small child in a toy store, but after last week that’s where my mind went.
There is one saving grace from this snippet of conversation. The boy questioned his father. While we can’t expect knowledge and understanding from children all the time, we can expect intuitive wisdom. Whether he knew it or not, this boy saw that there was something wrong with what his father said and questioned it, and we adults have something to learn from that small action.
And here’s where I look to the theatre. As the results came in I frantically looked for something, anything, to turn to. I went to Harry Potter, to Ecclesiastes, to Absurdism. I later landed on one song that right now is working to help me process: “Where Do I Go” from Galt MacDermot, Gerome Ragni, & James Rado’s Hair.
Where do I go
Follow the children
Where do I go
Follow their smiles
Is there an answer
In their sweet faces
That tells me why I live and die
Maybe we’re feeling powerless right now in the face of systemic patriarchy and rampant sexism. But at least we can look to children to help us forge a more progressive path ahead.