Snow White and Sparkle(s) Plenty: Boys Will Be…Boys?


2005_0102_172406AAWatching Liam and Caleb trying to pummel a snowbank into submission with their feet has started me thinking (again, still) about how we do—or do not—teach our kids about gender roles. Swivelheader wrote a lovely post wondering what her twins—a girl and a boy—would think about a sparkly princess dress that had been given to the little girl, which leads to the question: what do little boys think about the fact that there are so few sparkles in their lives?

And why, exactly, do we resist giving little boys sparkles and rhinestone tiaras? Are we afraid that they will be seduced by spangles into a life of cross-dressing and Tammie Faye eyelashes?  I mean, is anyone really “all boy” or “all girl”?  Don’t we all exist at different points along the continuum of gender and sexuality (whether or not we admit it, right Larry Craig?)

When Liam was 3 or 4, he fell in love with princesses. He played a lot with the daughter of a friend of mine, whose indulgent grandpa had gifted her all things princess: tiaras, handbags, sparkly shoes, and piles of poufy dresses. Her closet looked like a mini-Disney store. Liam begged for his own poufy princess outfit but we refused, mostly because the full Disney princess is a pricey operation. I did pony up for “glass” Cinderella slippers, however, and Liam happily crammed his feet into them and clomped up and down our hall. When he reported that the shoes pinched, I said hey gotta suffer for beauty, kid. Just ask RuPaul.

more after the jump

During Liam’s princess phase, I earned serious gender-equality cred at Jane’s Exchange, my favorite East Village consignment store, when I took Liam there to buy him a party dress. I figured all he wanted was a long fluffy dress; he didn’t care much about the provenance.  So I got my need-a-daughter yayas out and satisfied his cross-dressing needs with a lovely little taffeta-skirted number, complete with big sash and velvet bodice. Perfect And he wore it happily, accessorized with glass slippers  and sometimes a crown or sometimes a long plastic sword.

During this year or so of Princess Love, Liam spent a lot of time watching the old Disney movies – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White—and when he acted out those stories, he was always the princess. I used to think it meant he was headed towards a career as a show-girl, but now I think it was just simple narcissism: all the action revolves around the princess.

(His re-tellings of Star Wars stories were equally gyno-centric: in his version, the Jedi were led by Princess Leia and an array of obscure female characters. When I remind him of this fact, he now turns 85 shades of red and tries to crawl under the furniture.)

Liam loved Snow White—something about the witch’s transformation, maybe, or all those dwarves—so one afternoon we concocted a Snow White outfit out of a blue t-shirt, a yellow crib blanket, some red construction paper and a red ribbon. One of my proudest mommy-craft moments, I have to say. (See pix at head of this post – and note Cinderella slippers peeping coyly from under said yellow crib blanket.)

Liam spent an hour or so, happily enacting Snow White for us: biting into the apple and announcing “now I swooooooonnnnnn” and crumpling to the floor.  (The swoon may have been caused by the fact that he’d never eaten an apple before. And only rarely since).  He bit and swooned, bit and swooned, and then we propped up baby Caleb as the prince to smooch Snow White awake.


Now, however, Liam would sooner be shot than put on a dress or glass slippers. And Caleb, the baby prince? Well, he loved “Sleeping Beauty,” too, particularly the battle between the prince and the dragon. When he wanted to play “Sleeping Beauty” with me, out of force of habit I would ask him if he wanted to be the princess.  But as if his babyhood role as Kissing Prince had been imprinted on his brain, he would look at me and in a voice dripping with condescension, would say “Mommy. I da prince. You da princess so you take a deep sleep.” Then he would swing his plastic sword wildly at the dragon and come charging to rescue me on his wobbly toddler legs. Caleb loves capes and crowns and masks…but poufy dresses? Absolutely not.  When he was just about three, he announced that he was a boy. I said yes, right, and why are you a boy, exactly?

He looked at me thoughtfully and said, “I have no idea.”


Liam as mashup Jedi: note long purple dress, brown cloak, belt, home-made mask

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11 Responses to Snow White and Sparkle(s) Plenty: Boys Will Be…Boys?

  1. KSB January 6, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    Love the photos–so precious!

    This article got me thinking about…..judge’s robes (and wigs), cardinals/pope’s robes, many people’s (including men’s) fascination with knight’s attire, kilts, etc. I don’t know where I’m headed with these thoughts yet, but you got me thinking. As usual!

  2. a guy January 6, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    I normally wear suits to work (especially for teaching), but I’ve been trying to assemble a still-dressy alternative wardrobe. For the past year or so, I’ve been buying men’s clothing from various non-European traditions, many of which have a full-length robe/dress as the foundation (kurtas, dishdishas). Although I already knew I liked the attention of wearing something unusual, your post is making me think about the cross-dressing element of this new style. Since I already have long hair and earrings, maybe it’s not such a stretch. I feel like I can’t explain my question but it’s something like: am I getting extra juice because these odd clothes look like dresses? Obviously it’s not intrinsic, since these are men’s outfits in their original context. Hmm. Well, very exciting and interesting post and sorry if my comment is just meandering narcissism.

  3. Deborah Quinn January 6, 2010 at 2:22 pm #

    I think it’s so fascinating – and a little depressing, actually– that in this country we insist on such rigid codification of apparel. Remember the song from “Hair” that comments on the ridiculousness of public outrage on men wearing earrings, makeup, long hair, long robes, etc? The song points out that “aaaaaaaaacktually…that is the way things aaaaaarrre in most species….” Which is to say that in most species, the male gets the plumery (finery + plumage) and the female is drab.

    What do your students think (and/or parents & administrators) when you arrive in class in a dishdisha? What about a kilt?

    And why is it, KSB, that so many “power outfits” — religious, juridical, etc– are “female” : robes and whatnot. And yet a gal in a dress is suddenly all Betty Draper?

  4. HCW January 6, 2010 at 9:07 pm #

    And my 2.5 year old daughter would much prefer her cousin’s airplane, fire truck, and/or matchbox cars than a pouffy dress!

  5. Deborah Quinn January 6, 2010 at 9:13 pm #

    EXACTLY. Although give her time…the sparkly sparkly is hard to resist…I wonder what will happen when she starts pre-k or k and finds other little girls who have been accumulating the fluffy and spangly!

  6. Dick Horwich January 7, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    I remember that when Liam was younger, he loved to play with pots and pans. Princess or domestic goddess? A touch choice for a nine-year-old.

  7. Cathy Epervary January 9, 2010 at 3:47 pm #

    I have to wonder that if a son was a daughter who wanted to act/dress as He-Man Master of the Universe (this dates me a little) instead of a son wanting to dress as a princess, would it matter to you that there were less sparkles in her life?

    I had two daughter’s close in age that in early middle school decided to cut off all their beautiful long blonde hair and wanted to shop in the boys department. This applied to bathing suits as well (they would wear boy bottoms with a surfer shirt) This went on for two years. I would chuckle when we would be at a public place and they would go and enter the girls bathroom to be told, on many ocassion, that they entered the wrong restroom. They would just shrug and say, no we didn’t and continue on. Now they are in high school and the girliest of girls with a strong sense of self. I wouldn’t trade shopping in the boys department and giving them a self for anything. I think parents tend to worry to much about gender instead of just letting their kids be who they are.

    If they like sparkles, I say give it to them. They day may come when they don’t want them any more but I think they will be stronger for it. Just my opinion – nothing more.

  8. Deborah Quinn January 9, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    Cathy – thanks for the reply. I totally agree with you – I think all thems who wants it should have sparkles and if He-Man Master of the Universe floats your boat, then okedokey. I draw the line at small firearms, basically – for some reasons swords and light sabers are, if not okay, at least tolerable, but no toy guns. In summer they are the ones with the spray bottles at the water park instead of water cannons…Probably it’s a ridiculous distinction but what can I say. It’s where I chose to draw the line. Someday when they’re both cross-dressing bank-robbers whose signature is a bullet-drawn heart on the bank-safe door, they can blame me. Thanks for writing.

  9. KSB January 10, 2010 at 6:54 am #

    Re: power outfits

    I happened to flip across The Matrix Reloaded while channel hopping, and noticed how much the “cool” long leather coats Leo, Trinity and Morpheus wear look like long skirts or dresses, and was reminded of how often the “hero” of futuristic films are garbed in such long tunics or coats. They are more often than not designated as male, and the outfits are supposed to signify both power and hip coolness; yet women dressed similarly are often still relegated to damsel-in-distress roles. Reinforcing the idea once again that it is not the clothes, but the way we encode those clothes to mark rank, power, and yes, socially coded gender. Clothes are both descriptive and prescriptive, in that sense.

  10. KSB January 10, 2010 at 7:02 am #

    By the way, we don’t have Halloween over here (although merchants are busily trying to import the holiday, inspired by the success of chocolate merchants with the relatively new holidays, Valentine’s Day and White Day–a creation of Japanese chocolate merchants, btw), nor do we have proms; i.e. we don’t really have traditions or conventions of playing dress up for fun or as remnants of the yearning for the upper class balls of Europe and the U.S. in the late 18~ early 20th centuries (what your hubby would call residual culture), and thus, dress up is not as big a part of children’s play over here as it is over there in North America, so one’s apparel and perceived deviations in that area take on different connotations and nuances, I think. I haven’t thought this through, as you can obviously see from my rambling, but it just strikes me as odd that there seems to be so much anxiety in the U.S. when the U.S. has such a tradition of dress up and a seemingly embracing attitude towards breaking the norm of dress. I am wondering if it is precisely because even those occasions of dress up and breaking of the norm have become so codified that the lines have become drawn even more strictly, or rather, the stakes have become higher for some? Or if all the anxiety can be read as a sign of the extent to which gender and gendered expectations are in flux in the U.S.?

  11. willa March 22, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    OMG . . . this post is so old but just had to post a comment here because I am about to wet my pants at how adorable Liam is in these photos. Amazing! I hope you put a couple extra dollars in his therapy fund in January. I’m way behind on deposits for mine, alas.

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