It started off innoculously enough – I was in a session with a support worker, I had some music on the TV, and the little one was dancing around the room, giggling, smiling and waving her arms like a happy little lunatic. ‘You’re going to be a dancer when you grow up, aren’t you?’ I said.
‘Wow,’ said my support worker. ‘What gender stereotyping! Why can’t we teach little girls to be doctors or mechanics?’
Considering my daughter is mostly pre-verbal, it might be a little early to start her on the finer points of anatomy and physiology, but since I was only half-serious, instead of leading with this self-evident statement, I said, ‘Because she likes dancing.’
‘Of course she likes dancing, you take her to ballet classes!’ the lady replied, as though I was somehow brainwashing my daughter into enjoying a stereotypically feminine pastime.
‘Well, actually we took her to ballet because we noticed she enjoyed dancing, not the other way around. And since she loves being the centre of attention, posing for pictures and watching herself on videos, she might prefer to be a model or an actress.’
‘Actress,’ the lady spat, ignoring everything but the final word. ‘Why can’t she be an actor?’
Notwithstanding the fact that the Oscars would take issue with this (gotta aim high, yo), I realised then that I had unwittingly wandered into a minefield of semantics, gender politics and societal expectation with someone who saw me as a gender-Nazi. Which is odd, because I’ve always considered my views on sex and gender to be rather liberal and enlightened.
I mean, I’ve always believed men and women can do pretty much any job equally well, regardless of what’s between their legs – with the possible exception of the adult entertainment industry. Whether it’s doctors, dentists, pilots, bus drivers, lecturers, tattooists, waiters or the police, the only real requirement is that a person can do the job and do it well. The greatest action movie ever made (Point Break, as if you didn’t know!) was directed by a woman. The best nurse I ever met was a man. Their sex didn’t make any difference at all – they were just damn good at doing their chosen professions.
Likewise, I’ve never considered there to be male and female jobs around the home. Most of my parents’ generation still believes that the man puts up shelves, disciplines the kids, carves the turkey and fixes the car while the woman does the washing, cleaning, cooking and ironing. That’s not how it happens in my household. We pitch in equally. Equally badly, as it turns out, but equally nonetheless.
And nor do traditional gender divisions restrict my interests and behaviours. As a kid, I read Nancy Drew books in spite of the teasing I got (even though they had the same authors as the Hardy Boys, since Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon never actually existed). My favourite movie is The Jane Austen Book Club, the DVD of which is bright pink and very much sits in the ‘chick flick’ section of the supermarket. For my parents’ silver wedding anniversary I did them a cross-stitch, and my favourite exhibit at the New Forest Show each year is the flower-arranging tent. I’m hardly an advocate of men behaving like men and women remembering their place.
So how the hell could she think I was an advocate for traditional gender roles, or that I want to restrict my daughter to a submissive position in society? And what’s so bad about being a dancer anyway?
More to the point, how could she twist something so innocent and beautiful as an infant enjoying the simple pleasure of dancing into some judgment of my supposedly totalitarian parenting techniques?
Apparently, it is because our daughter wears dresses, and has a toy kitchen, and plays with dolls. Good gosh, I am an awful father. Clearly, instead of obediently reinforcing the patriarchy, I should make her play with engines and models of the human skeleton until she damn well likes it!
In all seriousness, I see the role of father as a cross between teacher and facilitator. It is my job to teach my daughter about the world, and it is my job to encourage her natural interests and abilities and guide her into being a healthy, happy adult. And you know what? At play group, she liked playing with the kitchen, so we got her a kitchen. And at her friend’s house, she really enjoyed playing with a doll, so we got her a doll. And every morning when we open the wardrobe, she picks out her own outfit. We’re not forcing her to play with dolls or kitchens – she also has jigsaw puzzles, teddy bears, toy cars, a box of musical instruments – she chooses to play with them. And that is the crux of the issue.
There are extremists on both sides of this debate. Those who try to force their daughters to conform to the traditional female tropes of motherhood, housework and dancing are clearly in the wrong; but so too are those who think we should force our daughters to be doctors or mechanics simply to fulfil an agenda. My daughter is an intelligent, strong-willed, independent young lady, and she will be whatever she wants to be. If, when she grows up, she does in fact wish to be a doctor, then I will support her and nobody has the right to tell her she should be a dancer instead; but equally, if she wants to be a dancer, then I’ll support her in that too, and woe betide anybody who says she ought to be a doctor.
True equality between the sexes is about freedom – the freedom for little girls and boys to choose what they enjoy doing, and what they’d like to do when they’re older, without it being dictated to them by traditionalists on the one hand and progressives on the other. In short, when I’m encouraging my daughter to dance, keep your big mouth shut.