For years, lots of us have been talking about how young girls get mixed messages about gender and sexuality. They are told that they should work hard but that looking pretty is more important. They are told that they can do anything a guy can do, except maybe math. They are told that sex is exciting, fun, and morally wrong. They are told that they should look sexy but that really wanting sex and actually having it (certainly having too much of it) makes them a slut. They are told to protect themselves but are looked down on (again as a slut) for having a condom in their purse. They are told that it’s good to make guys want them but they shouldn’t “give themselves away.”
When we bring this up, we often blame the media — the TV show or movie of the moment whether it’s Gossip Girl or the Twilight Saga. Sometimes we aim our comments at manufacturers or retailers—like when Lego released its new pink shopping-themed set for girls or J.C. Penney’s put out a tee-shirt that said “I’m too pretty to do homework.” Magazines and advertisers are also often blamed for blatantly playing to girls’ insecurities and creating an airbrushed-ideal of women’s bodies that no real person could achieve. Sometimes we get to blame individuals like Rush Limbaugh who called a law student a prostitute for wanting birth control. But often the blame for these mixed messages is put loosely on “society” and left at that.
Last weekend I had a revelation. I was sitting in a high school auditorium full of parents and grandparents. It was well into the second hour of an interminable dance recital and little boys were twirling little girls in mock romance while the audience cheered, and it hit me; we are the problem. We are society. Each and every one of us adults is part of this society that hyper-sexualizes and confuses our girls (and our boys) and it is our fault.
It is my fault.
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My older daughter is almost six. I signed her up for a class at this particular dance school primarily because one of her good friends was going to take it and it ran at the right time on Saturday mornings. I thought she would enjoy the mix of ballet and tap and I knew she would be thrilled by the idea of the recital. As a kid, I was always a little jealous of my friends who were in dance recitals with fancy, sparkly costumes. The only dance class my mom ever signed us up for was modern dance with Lily Schraeger, an aging hippy who would never dream of putting on this kind of a show. As an adult, I’ve come to see these recitals as one small step away from beauty pageants and yet I not only let my daughter participate, I coughed up quite a bit of money for that privilege. (As I said, I am the problem.)
From the beginning of the class, I felt out of place at the school. I thought their rules requiring black leotards, white or pink tights, and ballerina buns were far too strict. (I let Charlie wear her preferred purple tights anyhow.) I didn’t particularly enjoy the sounds of older kids taking private voice lessons in the room right off the lobby (the week that a 15-year-old practiced an aria from Carmen was actually painful). But I seemed to be in the minority on all of this, the other parents I talked to during class were unfazed. In fact, I was the only one who thought the costume — a leotard made to look like a mock tuxedo with a skirt only in the back, pink and white stripes, sequin buttons, a bow-tie choker, and polka-dotted wristbands — looked Playboy-bunny-ish. Everyone else said it was kind of cute.
One day on the ride home from class, my daughter told me she knew what ambition was. For an instant I feared what this school that took itself so seriously as a “performing arts center” might have taught her. But when she told me it was a cup of coffee, I realized that she was dancing to Dolly Parton’s 9-to-5 theme song (“tumble out of bed and stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition, and yawn and stretch and try to come to life”). I found myself relieved; at least the lyrics weren’t too inappropriate. I even laughed through her dress rehearsal as 16 girls were wheeled out on stage in office chairs and then stared at their feet while desperately trying to remember both to tap their feet and swing their arms at the same time.
On show day, my husband and I brought our mothers because this seemed like the kind of event grandparents should attend. Admittedly, none of us went into this with a particularly good attitude. We are not showbiz people. My husband hates Broadway-style productions. My mother (who never even let me have a Barbie doll) had gone on record saying that Charlie’s costume offended her feminist sensibilities. And my mother-in-law, who commented that the school wasn’t “child-centered,” couldn’t believe we were going to have to suffer through 29 acts of other people’s children in order to enjoy the four minutes that ours was on stage. (The recital playbill reminded us that “per our show contract” no child could leave early.)
The first number was a medley from Cats performed by the school’s audition-only theater troupe, made up of kids ages 10 to 17 or so. I was a little disturbed by the costumes which consisted of midriff-baring shirts, jazz shorts, and purposely ripped tights. The 80’s street-walker look was offset slightly (or maybe made worse) by the long, swirling cat tails pinned to each dancer’s butt. I found myself worried for the girls who did not have the body type that one typically associates with dancers or midriff-baring shirts for that matter. I thought the adult who picked the costume should have been more accommodating to varying body shapes.
The dancing started. There was a fair amount of sexual innuendo in the moves. The girl cats would turn their butts to the audience while swinging their tail and singing suggestively over their shoulder. Who knew the phrase “rabbinical cats” could sound so naughty. My jaw dropped a little bit when a boy cat (who couldn’t have been more than 11) did his best Elvis-the-Pelvis impression essentially right at the mouths of girls who were on all fours in front of him. (That move drew cheers from the audience, by the way.) I’m used to these kind of “sexy” moves; 5-years-olds are constantly emulating Katie Perry and Beyoncé in my living room. The difference here is that since adults choreographed this they had the opportunity to dictate what the kids did and didn’t do, and chose to include these anyhow. Still, I cut the program some slack and mostly spent that opening number being impressed that the kids were pretty good. (And laughing at the look of horror on my husband’s face which was worth the hefty price of admission — 22 bucks a ticket).
It went on like this for a while. He looked dismayed (at all but the forest ballet number danced to Tchaikovsky) but I thought it was okay. A little too Toddlers in Tiaras for my taste, but okay. The really little kids were adorable in their tutus and feathers with no idea of why they were on the stage, and some of the older kids were actually talented. Of course, most of the numbers were terrible and I kept trying to calculate how much longer the whole thing would take. But I wasn’t hating it. In fact, I started to wonder if we were just too damn cynical or worse too politically correct. Maybe our children would be better off if we were the kind of parents who took out ads in the recital playbill wishing them luck instead of the parents who laughed at those ads for including phrases like “our little princess.” By the time Charlie came out beaming with pride at being on stage and having a fabulous time pretending to be a Rockette (she says she wants to be one when she grows up) I was almost convinced I was a bad mother for not liking this kind of thing more.
And then the Wednesday afternoon class came out on stage. This class was also kindergartners and first graders but instead of tap and ballet it was called something like Broadway Bound or Showtime.They were dressed in different Disney princess costumes, placed behind identical purple plastic vanities (in the shape of princess castles), and began to sing and dance to “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” The lyrics to this old Peggy Lee song include:
I adore being dressed in something frilly
When my date comes to get me at my place
Out I go with my Joe or John or Billy
Like a filly who is ready for the race
And, the chorus:
I’m strictly a female female
And my future I hope will be
In the home of a brave and free male
who’ll enjoy being a guy, having a girl like me
It was my turn to be horrified. The whole scene seemed wrong to me — the princess dresses, the make-up tables, the “I just got to be pretty for a boy” lyrics. But the majority of the parents in the room seemed to be lapping it up. The chuckling and cheering got louder when a few little boys came out on stage dressed as fifities greasers and began to sing “Last Dance” by Donna Summer. The song’s chorus goes like this:
Oh, I need you, by me
Beside me, to guide me
To hold me, to scold me
Because when I’m bad
I’m oh so bad
Except in the last verse when it ends with, “because when I’m bad I’m oh so horny.” The boys pretended to woo the girls with this song and the number ended with each boy getting down on a knee and dipping a princess backwards. The hoots from the audience suggested that no one else thought the lyrics had bad messages or the moves were inappropriate for these six or eight-year-old kids.
The biggest cheer of the day actually came during the obligatory, retrospective video in which kids were asked why they liked going to this school. One of the young boys who had been in at least half of the numbers (there were less than a dozen boys in the show so they were used repeatedly) explained that he liked going to this school because he got to hang out with so many “gorgeous young ladies.” The audience thought this was just hysterical. He’s 10, at the most.
And that’s when it hit me; we are the problem.
We can’t complain about television or retailers or advertisers treating our girls as sex objects at way too young an age if we are going to sit in a room and cheer for five-year-olds practicing the come-hither look that was taught to them by an adult. We can’t get mad at a Barbie doll that says “math is hard” if we are going to dress our own kids up in sequins and teach them songs about how important it is to be pretty. We can’t get mad at our teens for thinking about sex all time and yet applaud when they shake their asses at a room full of adults.
Each and every one of us who let our children participate in this show is to blame. Whether it’s the mom who sat in the lobby during class sewing rhinestones on her daughter’s pageant dress, the two dads who took turns dropping their twin daughters off, my friend who holds similar social views as me but was able to see past them and just have fun with her daughter’s enjoyment of the class, or me who has now ranted about it for well of 2,000 words. We are also to blame when we buy midriff baring shirts or high heels for nine-year-olds, when we give in to the demands for the bikini with the triangle top long before puberty, and when we design cheer-leading costumes that barely cover the girls’ derriere. We are adults, they are children. We should know better. We should teach them better.
Instead, the adults running the show choreographed a finale featuring the school’s theme song. The basic gist of this original song is that other people have other interests but we are performers. The lyrics included:
Some kids like math but it’s all A-squared, B -squared, blah blah blah to me.
Some kids run for student council but you won’t find me in a debate.
Some kids like art but that’s just an easy A if you can draw.
I left the show in a really bad mood not just because I was traumatized by it but because the people around me were not, and because I felt stuck. I have this kid, this lovely, beautiful kid, who loved being up on that stage dressed as a cross between a Vegas showgirl and a cocktail waitress. And she was pretty good at the tapping and the shimmying. I am a big proponent of parenting the kid you have and fostering what they love, but I can’t let her do this again.
I’m not a fan of censorship or trying to shield my children from what I see as negative influences. I bought the Disney princess crap for my daughter and am grudgingly saving it for her sister. We have our fair share of Barbies lying around. I’ve spent my hard-earned cash at Claire’s and earnestly helped her decide between clip-on earrings and fake glasses.
My argument has always been that giving in to these things is okay because ultimately she is growing up in my house and will be exposed to my values. Her father and I constantly tell her, and even her 20-month old sister, that they’re smart, that smart is more important than pretty, and that girls can do everything boys can do. And I’m sure no one will be surprised that we talk about sex all the time as well.
Still, I have to draw my line somewhere. I have no allusions that we can stick this sexualized genie back in the bottle. Sure we can throw out a lot of battle cries like this one to adults who run dance studios or clothing companies and ask that they stop putting 10-year-olds in skin-tight clothes. We might even have some success — J.C. Penney’s had to take its shirt off the market. We can plead with other parents to stop buying these clothes and hope the free-market does its thing but it’s not realistic to think my 13-year-old niece would be caught dead in my Laura Ashley Bat Mitzvah dress that looked like it came straight from the set of Little House on the Prairie. Heck, I realize that some of my friends will still send their kids to this dance school because they see the recital as harmless fun and maybe they’re right. All I can do is think critically about whatever it is my daughters ask for and then explain to them why I am saying yes or no.
When I tell Charlie we aren’t going to go back to that dance class, I will tell her why. I will tell her that I think the recital emphasized the wrong thing — showmanship instead of talent. That I think it was too much like a beauty pageant and valued pretty over smart. And, that I thought the dance moves were too grown up for the kids that were doing them. I will encourage gymnastics instead (because she’s also good at that). I will try to get her more interested in tennis which she likes to play with her father. If she wants take dance lessons, I will try a new school in town that someone just told me about which lets the kids choreograph their own numbers and has a show in the studio without costumes.
My hope is that ultimately I will have created a young woman who is capable of thinking critically for herself about the countless messages that are thrown at her every day. And if that young woman actually does grow up to be a Rockette, I will have to accept her choice— glittery costume, leg kicks, and all.
In the meantime, I’m going to think twice before I blame “society” or anyone else for the fact that she’s wiggling her hips like an adult or asking for a push-up bra at seven —because I am society and I am to blame.