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Should I let my daughter pursue ‘girlish’ glamour?

Children
Illustration by Emma Peer
Illustration by Emma Peer
Q: My five-year-old daughter has fallen for the girly pink thing. When she was younger, she practically only ever wore Queen Elsa’s dress from the Disney film Frozen, which was pretty embarrassing for me socially. Now she loves all that glitters: make-up, earrings, nail polish. Disturbingly, she talks about these things as being a way to make people ‘like her’ because they make her ‘look beautiful’. If it were up to me (a feminist and tomboy child of the 1980s), I’d dress her in gender-neutral dungarees and stripy tops. Should I let her pursue glamour? Or should I refuse to be complicit in the sexist power structures which aggressively market this notion of femininity to young girls? She has, by the way, a wild sense of fun and is fixated on the television trailer for RuPaul’s Drag Race...

A: There is a universal conflict in the life of children under late capitalism. On the one hand, there is the child’s radical imagination – their straightforward questions about life that make you rethink the world, the logical illogic of their jokes. Then there is the immense weight of the culture industry they’re made to love, which prises open their minds and fills them with tat. Your daughter’s love of Queen Elsa’s dress from Frozen irked, perhaps, because it was a reminder that your status as your child’s source of life and succour is in constant competition with the influence of the Walt Disney Corporation.

So, who wins out: patriarchal society or the right-on parent, forged by the social victories of the 20th century? My suggestion is that this is the wrong way to think about it. Would you rather your child grows up to love make-up and nail polish and was also a political activist who campaigned against austerity, which disproportionately harms women? Or that they wear gender-neutral clothes while going to work at a pink-washing PR company? Perhaps there’s an attempt to induce causality here – the right clothes will help her turn into the right person – but this is a fool’s errand. Life cannot be overdetermined by what the parents want.

To put it bluntly: enforcing gender non-conformity can be as damaging as enforced gender conformity. This is because it strengthens the binary: pink = bad and grey = good. Gender does not represent a real binary, but is a series of socially administered performances that move along a spectrum. It might also backfire: if you instil in her mind that there’s a simple good and bad in terms of gender and clothes, you will reinforce the binary’s power, and when the time comes to rebel against your authority, she might embrace the pink side with relish.

The ‘wild sense of fun’ and appreciation of RuPaul’s Drag Race suggest you think that she’s going to be OK. It’s true that some have criticized RuPaul – the ‘Oprah of drag’ – for his neoliberal transformation of the once counter-cultural practice: the show is full of individualized messages of self-empowerment and product placement. But drag itself remains utopian in the best of ways. The kaleidoscope of colours and moves that the drag performer brings, an ironic disavowal of the gender regime and heteronormative standards of beauty, is a living intimation of a better world – in which a daughter’s choice of garments can be appreciated purely aesthetically, free from moralizing. Why not be the change you want to see and liberate your daughter from your own judgements?

Send your dilemmas to [email protected]

New Internationalist issue 524 magazine cover This article is from the March-April 2020 issue of New Internationalist.
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