It’s not often I find myself in a New Jersey Walmart, much less find inspiration there, but that’s exactly what happened when my mother, my son and I hit one for supplies during a recent family trip. I was wandering through the disorienting and oversized aisles when somewhere just past the Budweiser-printed cowboy hats, I came across this:
That’s a giant display of 16 freaking superhero T-shirts for girls ― superhero T-shirts reading things like “Strong” and “Girls Will Rule The World.” And, as previously noted, almost none of them are pink.
First, I teared up with the surprise of it all. Second, I wished they came in my size. And third, I turned my head slowly toward my 5-year-old son, who apparently knew exactly what I was thinking because he automatically yelled out, “I’m not wearing one!”
It was a moment that crystallized the one little thing that keeps me from fully enjoying the flood of Wonder Woman merchandise that’s become recently available to girls ― these T-shirts, the “Wonder Woman” line at Gap, Wonder Woman Barbie, among others. Girls around the country are being empowered and inspired by finally having a mass market female superhero and I couldn’t be more into it. They deserve it. We deserve it.
When I share that I wish places like Walmart and The Gap would make just a few of these T-shirts for boys, people respond that I can just put the girls’ shirts on a boy, which, of course, is technically true. (Although as moms of boys who prefer stereotypically “female” characters will tell you, there are sometimes prohibitive fit issues.)
But the thing is, my son is 5. I can’t put anything on him that he doesn’t want to wear. And when he sees a shirt in the girls’ section, with a tag that says “girl,” he doesn’t want to wear it. Blame the gender normativity that started coming home with him along with the regular cold and flu germs once he started school and became exposed to lots and lots of opinions and ideas about what boys and girls are supposed to like. (And blame the rest of our culture, advertising, media, etc. that started socializing him basically from before he was born. After all, I’m a tried and true feminist mom, but I’m just one woman.)
So it’s not about whether or not my son can fit into a “girls” shirt. It’s about the fact that when you put Wonder Woman in the girls section, when you market strong female icons to girls only, what you end up with is a little boy who had the gall to tell me over breakfast the next day that he doesn’t think Wonder Woman is even “cool.”
In fact, he thinks Hawkman (which has got to be the most ridiculously third-string example he could have even come up with) is much cooler than Wonder Woman, simply because she is for girls.
Strong women shouldn’t be just for girls. Female role models shouldn’t be just for girls. And I can’t help but think that if those Wonder Woman T-shirts had been sold in both sections of the clothing store for my son’s whole life, he never would have thought they were.
It might be too late for Wonder Woman and my son. But it’s not too late for the next little boy to never know that the badass female cultural icon isn’t “for him.” Because it’s not just girls who need a strong female role model. It’s boys, too.
You shouldn’t worry too much about my son, though. He may not be into Wonder Woman, but he proudly wears the ornate, sparkly mood ring I bought him. The kindergarten boys haven’t entirely won yet.