With Santa prepping to deliver millions of toys to good boys and girls tonight, I thought I’d take a moment to consider McKenna Pope and her quest for a gender-neutral Easy Bake Oven. McKenna Pope is an eighth grade student who composed and advertised a petition to Hasbro that garnered more than 44,000 signatures on Change.org’s website. According to McKenna, her 4-year-old brother loves to bake, but Hasbro’s Easy Bake Ovens are pink and purple, which leads him to believe that they are only for girls. She feels this is unfair to boys with an interest in the culinary arts. Many male celebrity chefs rallied around her cause. Hasbro eventually invited McKenna to their headquarters in Pawtucket, RI, and unveiled a new gender-neutral version of the oven in black and silver.
McKenna’s youtube post received comments ranging from whole-hearted support to enraged anti-gay sentiments. One point of contention between McKenna’s respondents was whether Hasbro and other companies should shift their marketing approach toward more gender-neutral marketing or if parents should look past the gendered colors of pink and purple and, by doing so, embrace pink products for boys. I’d like to think that both approaches are valid and both should have some momentum thrown behind them by this Easy Bake Oven movement.
Looking back on my previous posts, I’ve obviously a proponent of interests that could be considered hyper-male: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Legos, Ninjago, and zombies to name a few. Of course all of these things can (and are) loved by girls (awesome girls), but if we’re speaking in generalities, I’d have to say they’re pretty boy-biased. Yet in many ways, my family tries to practice flexibility with gender roles. While I hold those interests, I’m not much of a sports fan, and I cut my son’s hair because I used to be a cosmetologist. My wife is very athletic and could probably kick my ass. My son, for all his love of Star Wars and Ninjago, has also taken ballet and is a My Little Pony fan (more on that later).
I believe one of the easiest ways of practicing mindless parenting, or being an undead dad, is going with the flow of conventionality and refusing to question and evaluate one’s own stereotypes. I know many people, some of whom are in my family, who do things because “that’s just the way things are,” or “boys like X and girls like Y”. I’ve had nephews who have been clad in Chicago Bears paraphernalia before they could hold their heads up straight, and the same for nieces with princess gear. I think it’s fine for boys to like football and girls to play princess, but it’s the automaticity that I have a hard time with. These kids haven’t had a chance to express their own interests before their children were molded in a certain direction.
To be mindful as a parent means understanding your own biases and intents and making conscious decisions about them.
This point being established, I too have found myself uneasy with certain of my son’s interests, based completely on my own biases. About a month and a half ago, we were at the house of family friends. Our son has grown up with their little girl. The two were playing with her My Little Ponies (MLPs), and my son fell in love. He was fascinated with brushing the ponies’ manes and tails. I thought this was just a fleeting interest, but in the days that followed, he kept asking for one. Eventually, we visited Target, and we looked for the MLP aisle. I knew the MLPs would be in the pink-clad aisles, along with the Barbies and other “girly” things; the aisles that my son never gravitated toward in the store. Part of me thought (hoped?) that when he saw the aisle he’d probably abandon the interest, but that wasn’t the case. My son wasn’t deterred and searched diligently for an Apple Jack pony.
What was my deal? I always supported his interests regardless of how gendered they were, but couldn’t get behind this one. I think there’s a part of me that remembers my sisters playing with My Little Ponies, and back then I was a hardcore GI Joe kid with strong anti-MLP sentiments. Perhaps I was just riding that wave of childhood rejection. Also, my son’s gender-flexible or gender-neutral interests up until that point had not been ultra-commerical. This was the first commercial, super-pink interest he’d had. I’ve always had a problem with uber-gendered marketing, and maybe that was the reason for my discomfort. Regardless, by showing any sort of rejection of his gender-unconvenional interest, I could have sent the wrong message: for him to like things that girls like, or things that are pink and purple, was wrong.
This is why I like McKenna Pope’s plea. Boys and girls can like the same things, whether they’re toy ovens, plastic ponies, or metal cars. I do think that companies aggressively market to one gender and therefore squeeze out the opposite sex to the point of it appearing problematic for boys to show any interest in these hyper-feminine products and vice versa. Moving toward marketing that is more gender-neurtral might prompt more boys to consider Easy Bake Ovens or more girls to pick up lightsabers. But on the family front, we as parents have to look at our own biases so that we’re mindful of why and how we push our own interests on our children.
I’ll conclude by writing this: I don’t think that mindful parenting equals gender-neutral parenting. I can respect parents with strong conviction about maintaining conventional stereotypes so long as they have explored why they find these gender roles helpful and think about how they want to encourage them in their children. Mindful parenting means exploring one’s beliefs and consciously enacting them.