Children and Genderplay

When I was a young person, I wanted Pretty Pretty Princess for my birthday. I can’t remember exactly which birthday it was; I want to say it was my eighth, but I could be wrong. It was all I talked about and all I asked for from anyone who asked me what I wanted. For those not familiar, the game (which is still on the market) came with a set of costume jewelry which you got to don as you rolled your way around the board. It would have gone well with my Barbie collection and assortment of dollhouses, as well as my plastic horses.

Going into my room in those days, you would have seen a stereotypical ‘little girl’s room’ in a lot of ways, what with the dolls and the dollhouses and the horses and the costume jewelry and everything else. My drawers contained a riot of floral leggings and bright printed skirts and ridiculous sequined sweaters. You also would have seen hints of other things, too, like bookshelves running the length of one wall and wrapping around the other side, and dinosaur action figures.

But I wasn’t a little girl, something I knew even then, and I didn’t grow up to be a woman. For me, all of this was play, and I loved nothing quite so much as dressing in drag and prancing around the house. I forced my long-suffering father to dress in drag too, and he’d wear his fairy godmother costume and prance around the house with me, waving his wand at my direction. My friends would come over and play too—good thing I ended up with two, or maybe three, I can’t remember, copies of Pretty Pretty Princess, because that game got a workout, and I tended to wear the costume jewelry even when I wasn’t playing.

Genderplay is really common among young children, and it’s always fascinating to me to watch because there’s less self-consciousness about it, until parents start interfering and children start getting hardcore social messaging. Obviously, social attitudes had a profound influence on how I expressed my gender play and how it was accepted. I was engaging in normative behaviours for someone assigned female and thus they weren’t a cause for ‘concern,’ except of course among my feminist teachers, who were appalled that my father would let me come to school in a tutu and fairy wings, dripping in costume jewelry and carrying a sparkly pink Lisa Frank notebook.

I loved dressing up and playing ‘girl’ and it wasn’t until later that I understood the game had much higher stakes than that, and that what I saw as a funny game, as drag, as pretend, was serious business for some girls, who were practicing to be women in a way that would be accepted by society. In part, that’s because my father didn’t assign values to what I played with, how, and when. Whether I was running Dino Island or Princess Emporium, he rolled with the punches and dutifully obtained cheap plastic crap for me to play with, and he didn’t pressure me one way or the other. Although I suspect he was privately deeply thankful when I grew out of the sparkly princess phase, which tended to lead to glitter all over the house. He also didn’t let other people pressure me, about my play or my gender expression.

Genderplay can be fantastically fun, and it can be a great way to explore gender in a risk-free environment when a safe environment is created by parents and people in positions of authority. All too often, though, immense pressure is put on young people who just want to wear frilly dresses or learn to shoot an air rifle. It’s all so laden with meaning for the adults around them that young folks tense up, realising that something is going on below the surface that they don’t quite understand. When a young person with a penis wants to wear dresses, it doesn’t mean that person is a girl, just that dresses are a subject of interest at the moment. Another young person with internal genitalia might prefer playing with dinosaurs and stomping around in mud puddles, but that’s not a gender or sexual preference either.

I worry sometimes that the obsession over childhood gender expression is swinging in the opposite direction. Historically, there were a lot of uptight attitudes about genderplay and beliefs that children needed to play with ‘appropriate’ toys for their assigned gender, resulting in oppression for young people who wanted to play in ways that didn’t fit the norm. Now, people are very caught up in worries about normativity and enforcement of gender and thus discourage people from playing with strongly gendered toys like sparkly jewelry and firetrucks. They also seek out gender-neutral toys, even when children are screaming for dump trucks or costume jewelry or whatever else it is that they want to play with. On the one hand, this is good, a recognition that gendering starts early and can be damaging, but on the other, it can be very, very bad.

Genderplay is also life play; it’s a chance to explore who you are and who you want to be. And when someone’s constantly hovering to tell you you’re doing it wrong, it becomes a source of agitation and misery instead of happiness, whether you’re a little girl being told you can’t play with miniature trains or a little boy being told you shouldn’t play with dinosaurs or a tiny genderqueer being scolded for liking drag makeup. In our haste to push back on gendering, to allow children to grow up and be who they want to be, to release some of the pressure from childhood play, some parents seem to unwittingly reinforce the very things they claim to hate.

Playing with Barbies doesn’t mean a little girl is brainwashed and won’t grow up to be a feminist. Maybe it means she just like Barbies for a while. Especially if she’s growing up in a supportive and loving household where all kinds of play are encouraged. Maybe she just isn’t into the gender neutral toys on the table at this moment in time; and maybe that will change if her toys aren’t laden with tremendous pressure.