What a Drag: Why Can’t Little Boys Wear Dresses?

Anat Shenker-Osorio

Tomorrow, on the Jewish holiday of Purim, my three-year-old son will dress as Queen Esther, the star of this show. But reactions to his choice show just how little room boys have for exploring different gender roles.

Tomorrow, Jews will celebrate Purim, my contender for all time best holiday in a religion. Not only are we encouraged to drink enough as to not be able to distinguish the names Haman and Mordecai (since those don’t sound remotely similar, that’s a lot of Manischewitz), we get to dress up and make lots of noise in the synagogue. And there are special cookies.

More importantly, Purim is one of few holidays in any liturgy that centers around the achievements of a woman. Not only are men in the foreground of our other holidays honoring specific people, they take center stage in many of those of other major religions: Passover (Moses with best supporting actor to Aaron and a walk-on for Miriam), Hanukah (Judah Maccabee), Christmas (Jesus with Mary supporting), Easter (Jesus again) and Laylat Usra and Miraj (Mohammed.)

Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim tale, defied expectations to help save her people from planned annihilation at the hands of her husband’s no-good advisor, Haman. Every year, Jewish children dress up as one of the main characters in this drama. And when asked, Mordecai, Haman or King Ahasuerus — my three year old son quickly chose Queen Esther. A no brainer, really — she’s the star of this show.

While I happily borrowed a dress of the frilliest, shiniest available (and went wild at Walgreens on a plastic crown with matching jewelry) my husband is not so keen on this little gender-bending adventure. A close friend, your liberal by habit kind of corporate lawyer, declared — upon seeing him in full regalia — “that’s child abuse.”

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There’s been a spate of articles remarking on a burgeoning preference for girls. Change.org asked readers “so what do you think of this modern-day girl fetish? As we fight for equality among men, could it be possible that women in the United States will end up outgrowing the ‘boys club’?” And Elle magazine caused quite a stir with an article that chronicled several women’s obsessive desire for a girl.

Perhaps it’s only fitting to want a girl, in this age when girls can be Superman or fairies, lumberjacks or princesses. Girls, in many cases, have the whole range of gender expression open to them. We may call them tom-boys but climbing trees and playing matchbox cars is a possibility for girls.

Not so for boys — from the clothes they wear to the toys they play with — there is a proscribed set of options. Boys not only will be boys, we seem determined to ensure that’s the case. And this is not just a re-enforcement of the importance of masculinity above all things — it’s an implicit and powerful devaluation of what’s feminine in all of us.

Make no mistake, my son will be the cutest little Queen Esther in my eyes but it’s troubling that this role playing will surely cause double-takes for others. My son is no more likely to actually think he’s a queen than he believes he is a frog, his choice for Halloween costume. He understands Esther as a character he’s learned about in pre-school — one he desires to play. To me, she symbolizes courage, non-conformity, loyalty and faith — if these are traits my child wishes to emulate, I couldn’t be happier.

Happy Purim to you all!

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