“Boys can be anything they want. Girls can be princesses.”

I don’t usually find flipping through the Christian book catalog to be an uplifting experience. Take the one that was waiting on my front porch this week…

There’s yet another children’s book reducing the gospel to a formula. There’s one reinforcing the notion of heaven as a disembodied reality “out there” somewhere.

There are Duck Dynasty Valentine’s Day cards. A whole section devoted to James Dobson. Amish fiction (or as a friend of mine likes to call it, Amish porn). The only thing missing was a picture of Joel Osteen blinding me with his shiny white teeth.

And then there was this.

IMG_7680A set of companion books by fiction author Karen Kingsbury: one for moms to read with their sons, called Whatever You Grow Up to Be, and another for dads to read with their daughters, called Always Daddy’s Princess.

On the face of it, the message for boys appears to be, “You can grow up to be whatever you want.” The message for girls: “You can be a princess.”

It may not be the author’s intent to limit boys and girls to these predefined roles. But do we really need another set of products perpetuating the notion (intentionally or not) that boys can choose their identity, while girls’ identity has been determined for them?

This gender stereotype is pervasive in our culture. If you don’t think so, try raising a daughter.

Try counting the number of children’s TV shows with a female lead — Dora the Explorer, for example — versus those with a male lead (along with, perhaps, the occasional female sidekick): Jake and the Never Land Pirates, Super Why, Caillou, Handy Manny, Justin Time. You get the idea.

Try fending off the Disney princess juggernaut which, for all the refreshing progress of recent films like Brave and Frozen, still rakes in billions teaching girls that their main source of value lies in their appearance and their desirability to men.

The church should be a refuge from this kind of thinking, not a co-conspirator. The church should be the one place where we actually behave like there’s no “male and female,” as the apostle Paul once wrote.

Now, my daughter loves pretending to be a princess. She insists on wearing a dress every day. We run through tights like there’s no tomorrow. And she wants to be a ballet dancer. (She also loves trucks and airplanes and thinks farting is hilarious, for what it’s worth.)

The fact that she likes dressing up as Cinderella doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll grow up thinking she’s inferior to men. But as a parent, I’m learning that I have to be intentional about reinforcing her equality. She’s only 3 years old, and already she’s made comments like, “Boys can do this, but girls can’t.”

This breaks my heart. It’s a sobering reminder of how our culture bombards girls with a message of inferiority, a distorted view of their own value. It’s a reminder of how, despite all our efforts, the propaganda of inequality still manages to get through to my daughter.

The irony is, those in the church who insist on a hierarchal distinction between women and men think they’re being countercultural, that they’re going against the grain of this world and that this somehow proves them right.

The reality is anything but. Those who think patriarchy is a virtue are unwitting accomplices to Disney’s princess-ification of the world. They’re simply dressing up our culture’s subjugation of women in religious garb.

And it’s time that stopped. My kids deserve better than another set of books telling boys they can be whatever they want, while girls should stick to being princesses.

21 thoughts on ““Boys can be anything they want. Girls can be princesses.”

  1. My wife and I had a conversation with our daughters the other day, prompted by an article showing how so many kids toys, especially those geared towards, girls, have been froofed and poofed to a uniform “blah” of sexualized sameness. Even Legoes… you have the “real” Legoes with cars, and airplanes and houses… and then you have Lego Friends for the girls… with pink and pretty flowers and girly stuff.

    Our girls were appalled… and in response, we told them, “Don’t listen to what commercials, marketers, culture, etc, tells you that you need to be like or what you need to like to look at. Be who you are and what you want.”

    Thanks, Ben, for making the same call for the Christian world.

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    • Thanks Robert. I’m curious…how old are your girls and when did you start having conversations like this with them? Knowing that we can’t shelter our daughter from this stuff, we’re trying to navigate how (and when) to help her deal with it…

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      • They are 13 and 11… but we’ve been kind of nurturing them in this way for a while. They did grow up liking the whole princess and ballerina thing… but my eldest has always been fascinated by science, by digging in the dirt, and my youngest has never been the froofy type. I don’t think we ever determined “now is when we start” but it’s more been a “seat of the pants” kinds of thing.

        We keep our eyes open for those teaching moments, to show them women who do more than what the world says they “should” do. I think it helped having a strong grandmother (conference minister in the Mennonite church) and some other good role models of women.

        I think that’s the key… I don’t think there’s ever a “too young” or “too old” for the conversation, but to keep an awareness of those teaching moments.

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  2. Thanks for the perspective, Robert. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels like it’s a “seat of the pants” thing! And glad you’re raising your daughters to have a healthy view of themselves…

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    • You know how the song goes…

      “Whatever I’ve done wrong, I must have done something right to deserve hugs in the morning and butterfly kisses at night…”

      We’ve made a lot of goof ups in raising our girls… but somehow, some way, they are turning out to be beautiful, emotionally healthy young women… and yes, that song STILL makes me cry…

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  3. Amen to this! It really is amazing how gender roles are so engrained in our society – to the point that we hear children as young as 3 and 4 years old talking about what is “ok” for boys versus girls to wear and have. My very athletic, sweat-pant-wearing, “independent” and strong-willed 4 year old niece has gone home numerous times to my sister and brother-in-law (who are both extremely intentional about not playing into the “gender role” gymnastics) saying: “girls can’t do this or boys can’t wear that.” And last year, my 6 1/2 year old nephew at the time wanted to pick out a purple backpack because purple was his favorite color. However, only a few days after expressing what he wanted to get for the new school year, he told his parents that he no longer wanted a purple backpack. My sister asked why, and after a lot of questioning, he finally said it was because “boys can’t like purple.” My sister told him that they can… that his own daddy wears purple and pink, etc. and she said that he can choose whatever color of bag he wanted. He eventually decided to get the purple backpack, and he wore it confidently.

    Gender roles are still engrained in our society, and they are hard to avoid when they are so prevalent at our children’s schools and in their social settings and within many of our churches (even in so many “egalitarian” ones!) However, recognizing and acknowledging how they are subtly in play (like in these Christian books and magazines) helps us begin to break down some of these messages. My parents did a great job with this when I was little, which led me to confidently proclaim that my favorite color was green – even though my fellow 5 year-old friends argued that I could only like pink. (And that “color-claiming” experience has helped lead me to take a bold stand about gender equality today). I think my sister and brother-in-law are doing a fantastic job of doing this, and I think you are, too! My prayer is that I also continue the process of breaking down these damaging “gender role” stereotypes within my own ministries with children, youth, and young adults by being intentional about the language, curriculum, behaviors, etc. that I use and affirm.

    Thanks, again, for yet another excellent (and very important) post!

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  4. “The irony is, those in the church who insist on a hierarchical distinction between women and men think they’re being counter-cultural, that they’re going against the grain of this world and that this somehow proves them right. The reality is anything but… They’re simply dressing up our culture’s subjugation of women in religious garb.”

    That very thought recently came to me as well! Yes, the complementarians think they are counter-cultural but no, they really are not. They are just enforcing current cultural distinctions between boys and girls, and fail to note the many men and women in Scripture who definitely did not fit in strict gender role boxes.

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    • Rachel Held Evans makes a similar point in her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood (which I’m reading now). She argues (convincingly, in my opinion) that much of what complementarians presen as “biblical gender roles” is nothing more than misplaced nostalgia for 1950s-era family values and (thankfully) bears little resemblance to the sort of patriarchy you come across in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. So really, complementarianism is just a cultural construct.

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  5. Thank you for this. I was a little girl who played with Barbies (no they did not skew my mental self-image), cabbage patch dolls, lego (with no pink bricks), transformers and GIJoes. The latter 2 only when I played with my guy friends who owned them but I thought they were so much cooler. Despite my faith, I have always felt like a fish out of water in most of the more conservative churches, because I always believed I could do anything. And in my teens, I was the girl who wore shirts like “soccer. invented by men, perfected by women.” I was also the only girl in my grade 9 shop class, and told nobody wanted to work with me because of my gender. Now, I’m an Intern Architect where men genuinely treat me as equal. I have relaxed my views on the world as I’ve matured, because none of us are cut from the same cloth, men or women. We are all unique. I have embraced my feminine self, though I still hate being called “princess”. Unfortunately, it’s a never-ending fight for this equality. But I’m used to the daily pressure of conforming and choose to be the woman God made me.

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  6. Pingback: It’s Friday! January 31, 2014 | Jessica Veldstra

  7. While the titles may be misleading, both books are about children growing up and following whatever life path they may choose, but still having the love, affection, and support of their parents.

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    • I hope that’s the case. But as you alluded to, the way the books are being marketed sends a different message, unfortunately. Ultimately, my concern is not just with these two books but with the larger trend in gender-based marketing they represent.

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  8. I grew up in the middle 50 and sixties and we didn’t have all that pink. I played with baby dolls but also bikes, wagons and everything was primary colors or wood. My dad took us fishing, camping, to boat and auto shows. We loved to go to the lumber yard with him. Early on, I realized that I was in the “lucky” gender. I could play with dolls and cars and wear pants or dresses. Boys were the ones who could only do and wear boy things. The sixties were great for women.

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  9. Do you know how much I love this? This issue needs to be addressed in every sector of society (speaking as a person who is often called a ‘lesbo’ because of my love of cars and aircraft and political history).

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  10. Pingback: A hodgepodge of links…books, taking Bible literally, gender issues. | Enough Light

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