For the past year, my eight-year-old daughter had been scheming to be a can of tuna fish for Halloween. When the design proved too daunting, she switched to wanting to go as Donald Trump, until I gently suggested that maybe the world had enough of that right now. Her next choice was Hillary Clinton, but all the blonde wigs at the party shop were sold out and the masks were too itchy. The navy blue skirt on the female police officer costume she liked was suggestively short, and there may have been a fake gun involved—too fraught, I thought. The rest of the Halloween store had been picked over, but there were dozens of clown costumes to choose from, and she went right for a unisex white-polka-dot suit, squeaky rubber nose, and day-glow wig. Perfect, I thought.
Apparently we were the only two people left in the country who hadn’t heard about the recent rash of scary-clown violence. When I learned that some schools (not hers) had banned clown costumes, I debated whether or not to steer her toward something more traditional and “appropriate”—a fairy or princess—but decided not to. Pippa is still young enough not to have heard about the violence or get hung up on traditional gender roles. She and her six-year-old sister (who dressed up as a bat) ride mountain bikes and play Legos and build forts out of cardboard boxes. “You can do anything you set your mind to,” my mother always told me when I was little. In my girls’ minds, there are no limits, least of all gender.
Their innocence seems especially instructive at the tail end of a tortured election season, a contest which has brought to light the sexism that still persists, both blatantly and latently, in this country. When I voted early a few days before Halloween, I cried a little as I cast my ballot, trying to imprint the landmark moment into memory. There are women voting today who were born before women had the right to vote. There are women who make less money than men doing the same job. There are women who give up their careers because they don’t have maternity leave or can’t afford quality child care. There are women who are objectified daily based on their appearances. There are women who speak up in meetings whose ideas are rejected only to hear the same idea proposed moments later by a man to wide approval. There are single mothers who work two jobs, and working mothers who still do the bulk of the childrearing, and women whose years of experience, stamina, and tenacity are overlooked or, worse, scorned.
In the world I envision, my girls—all girls—are educated to be caring, curious, and open-minded. It’s a world in which they’re encouraged to succeed and supported when they invariably fail. A world where they have wild spaces in which to explore and exert their strong wills. In which they’re not intimidated to shine with all their fierce brightness and bravery, where they’re judged by their hearts and minds and gutsy determination, not their bodies or their clothes. Not by the tone of their voices but by their voices, ringing loud and clear for compassion, for sanity, for conviction.
After trick-or-treating, we went back to a friend’s house to eat green chile stew while the kids stuffed their faces with Butterfingers and sorted their candy. Suddenly Pippa ran into the kitchen to find me. She was crying, tears streaking her white clown makeup. “Mama,” she sobbed, “I need to talk to you!”
She yanked me into the next room, heaving so hard I could barely understand her. “A boy just said you were ugly! And he called me a creepy clown!”
There it was, in a flash: her first your momma joke, her clown-bubble burst, her innocence nicked. In his defense, the 11-year-old boy probably didn’t know what the joke meant, what subtle implications about our society’s views of gender he was expressing. He probably didn't know how pervasive they are, though, these slights that insinuate their way into our lives, so casually we sometimes barely notice. But for those of us who are old enough to recognize them, they cut deep.
I hesitated for a moment, wondering if I should tell her about the violence and the gender biases, then stopped myself. She has all her life to know about violence and biases. Instead I pulled her close. “Don’t worry,” I said, feeling stung for how she’d been stung. “I’m not upset. He wasn’t really talking about me. It’s just a bad joke, a mean joke.”
“But I don’t get it,” she wailed. “Why would he say that?”
I told her I didn’t know. I don’t know. The world I envision is big and beautiful with room to roam and freedom to be exactly who we are, to pick ourselves up and to keep going. Pippa wiped her tears and strode out of the house, frizzy clown wig held high, unashamed. And I followed. I’m with her.
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