Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Springtime In Eternia (5)

So my daughter spent her first full day at daycare yesterday, which was a major milestone approached in our household by equal parts impatience and dread. The latter simply because it’s hard on a gut level to reconcile the necessity of daycare with the impulse to just forget everything in the world outside of being a primary caretaker for the flesh of your flesh; the former because we knew that same necessity was essentially unavoidable and we’d all feel a lot better once we had gotten through it to the other side.

As it happened the day was utterly unremarkable. The little girl spent about six hours at the center, from 9:30 to 3:30, and reportedly had a perfectly lovely day. She drank her bottled breastmilk, she took naps, she had her diaper changed, she squirmed playfully. No freakouts to speak of. Today is Day Two and although I made a special point of heading home early yesterday, and today she won’t be picked up until closer to 5:30, I expect the debrief will run in much the same vein. She’s a little trooper.

I felt it only proper that I at least touch on my daughter’s daycare beginnings here before getting to the conclusion (long overdue, yes I know it’s no longer June and way past the end of spring) of my ruminations on the Masters of the Universe. On the one hand, it’s a significant enough occurrence that it merits acknowledgement sooner rather than later. But on another hand, while this whole He-Man riff started because I was letting the little guy play with Castle Grayskull and then wondering how said fortress should be populated with action figures, there are a few elements therein which bear directly on the little guy’s baby sister as well. So, without further ado …


I believe I made it clear early on that, in an informal poll of my friends, both Teela and Evil-Lyn made strong showings. And I mentioned that I think a large part of that is due to the formulaic constructions of heroic fantasy which tends to set up a Main Guy, His Sidekick, and the Girl (often equally formulaically mirrored by the Main Evil Dude, His Sidekick, and the Bad Girl). What I didn’t get into at the time was the fact that there were a few actively dissenting voices which I think, in the interest of fairness, merit hearing out.

Cliff Chiang, everybody.
One point raised was the idea of my little guy, or any boy aged three to seven, having any interest at all in “girl dolls”. Of course I could go round and round numerous times trying to pin down exactly what that means, in the vast gray area between toys clearly made for boys which happen to depict female characters, to toys which are intended to appeal to children of both genders but maybe slightly more to girls than boys, to toys clearly marketed right at the female side of the playground. I think it’s particularly telling that the Teela action figures have hairdos made of sculpted plastic, just like He-Man himself does, even though the body mold used for Teela is slender and curvy as opposed to the roided-up bulk of her male allies. But at the same time, the She-Ra dolls all have hair like Barbie that could ostensibly be brushed or otherwise played with. In that light I can definitely see how She-Ra, despite being essentially a distaff version of He-Man herself, would be considered a “girl doll”, whereas I would argue that Teela is at the very least a gender-neutral toy and probably a girl character made for boys.

But really, when it comes to my little guy in particular, I don’t think he would be put off by female characters. He has already demonstrated that he is convinced the character of Percy from Thomas the Tank Engine is a girl. I don’t believe he has rigid gender definitions in his little head yet, and who knows, maybe in this crazy 21st century he was born into we’ve moved quite a bit past all that than we had back in 1982. My dad was undeniably old-school about gender-appropriate behavior, and toys, and since it was just me and Little Bro growing up we didn’t have any girly stuff about. (I was too old for Cabbage Patch Kids when they came out, but my Little Bro wanted one. He was disabused of that notion post-haste.) At least partly in reaction to that, I’ve tried to be more gender-neutral with my son, and I know he plays with baby dolls at daycare and he loves his kitchen playset at home, and also his favorite thing to do with toy cars and trains is crash them, so it all balances out. The point being if I were to bid on a mixed lot of MOTU toys on eBay that had a He-Man and a Skeletor and most of a Trap Jaw and a Buzz-Off and also a Mermista (She-Ra’s mermaid friend) I would not hesitate to turn over all five of those figures to my little guy. And there’s a good chance he would think Mermista’s green nylon hair was awesome. (He would be right, too.)

And I suppose there’s something self-serving at play here, too, as I am through sheer force of will choosing to believe that every figure from Beast Man to Castaspella is gender-neutral because not only does that mean the little guy can play with whomever or whatever he wants but also that when his sister gets a little older, she can play with them too if she’s so inclined. I’m sure this verges on overthinking (as most everything passing through my mind does at one point or another) but I have to consider what I would say if my daughter were to go through a bin of Masters of the Universe toys looking for a character with whom she could escapist-fantasy identify, and she found nothing but male characters. Would I throw her brother under the bus and say he never wanted any of the girl-character toys? Blame myself? Blame society?!? Or, y’know, geez man just throw a couple of chicks with swords and guns in there too from the get-go, OK?

But that, in turn, begs an altogether different question which another one of my buddies articulated: is it ever all right to hit girls? The indisputable fact is that Teela is not some pink-gowned princess who exists only for He-Man to save her from Skeletor’s evil clutches. She’s a warrior fighting right alongside the boys. But there’s a whole host of entanglements that come along with that, which I am beginning to think of as Everything Is Different Now Redux.

The original Everything Is Different Now, you might recall, centers around the fact that I used to not mind action-adventure clich├ęs like children in peril, but now that I’m a dad they tear my heart out and otherwise make me an easy mark for emotional manipulation. The Redux, then, is the fact that I used to be aware of but not hugely in awe of gender inequities in the world, but now that that I have a daughter I am hyper-vigilant about them. So, I grew up with action figures and army men and fake guns and all that and I have no problem letting my son have access to the same. In the case of action figures in particular, I know the primary way they get put to use is not exactly to act out homilies about cooperation and sharing. They are intended to be smashed into each other in violent pantomimes on the level of pro wrestling and Saturday morning cartoons. I have no problem with the thought of a child using two action figures to act out He-Man stomping on Beast Man’s head, nor vice versa. I also don’t have a problem with Teela stomping on Beast Man’s head … but vice versa? It’s at least the outer edges of discomfort, there.

My buddy contextualized this by saying (in effect) that if you give a boy Teela you also have to give him Evil-Lyn because they’re the only two who are allowed to punch each other. The boy characters can’t lay a hand on either of the ladies, because that wouldn’t be right, not so much within the barbaric post-apocalyptic society of Eternia but in terms of the message absorbed by the real-world little boy at play. And to be totally honest I’m just not sure if I agree with that conclusion or not. It’s all well and good to say “girls can do anything boys can do” and live up to it both for my son’s sake and my daughter’s, but I get all knee-jerk traditionalist when I wonder if “anything” includes “take a shot from a spiked mace right between the eyes”. I have a feeling I’m going to be wondering about that one for a while.

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