Free to be You and Me

By Erin Dunn, age 19

A few weeks ago, I got a “lesson” from a five-year-old boy about “what girls can and can’t do.”

My uncle and young cousin came to stay at my house for a visit. I spent a lot of time babysitting my cousin, taking him to the park and the store, watching movies, and reading with him. Throughout the course of our conversations and playtime, however, one thing became evident: as a young woman, at least in the young boy’s eyes, I apparently “can’t” do or be certain things.

This first emerged when we were talking about what the boy wants to be when he grows up. I told him about all of the things that I had wanted to be when I was little, from dancer to scientist to teacher. I was absolutely NOT expecting for him to reply with “But girls can’t be scientists.” At first, I honestly did not know what to say to such a claim. I assured him that girls definitely CAN be scientists—anyone can be anything they want to be!

My message did not completely resonate with my cousin, however, as the next day whilst shopping in Target, we came across the new presidential and vice presidential candidate Barbie dolls. Though Barbie may be just a doll, for me it signaled the start of some progress in gender socialization. I was saddened, and a bit angered, to learn that my cousin did not share my enthusiasm. Having entered the doll aisle a bit unwillingly, he merely stated, “Girls can’t be president!” and walked toward the toy cars. (I was not sure whether to blame this statement completely on pervasive gender stereotypes, or on my uncle’s politics this election cycle).

As the week went on, I became increasingly disheartened that my young cousin was growing up in a world in which gender socialization can be so limiting. He repeatedly told me things like “I can’t watch ‘Power Puffs Girls’ because it is a girls’ show!” My feminist self felt infuriated that young children continue to be taught—both blatantly and through hidden gender bias—that girls love pink and are the center of domestic life; while boys must be the breadwinner and protector, and never, ever cry.

This “lesson” about gender roles is not just constricting upon women, but also upon men.

This is why we need feminism. Our society will not be truly equal, and free, until everyone can be and do anything that they dream. One of my personal feminist idols, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said it best:

“Feminism…I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, ‘Free to be You and Me.’ Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—man made barriers, certainly not heaven sent.”

Feminism, for me, is about striving for a world in which no one is defined or limited by gender, sexuality, or stereotype. It is about ending oppressive constructions of masculinity and femininity that are embedded, even to this day, within all aspects of society, and particularly within gender socialization.

It is not about what you can’t be, but about what you can.

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