Cepeda column: The crippling legacy of gender stereotypes
CHICAGO — As a lifelong lover of the ballet — and as a child of immigrant parents who could not afford to start me in classes when I was little — there was no question that my own kids would be enrolled in dance training as soon as they hit preschool.
When my son was 4, the movie “Billy Elliot” had already come out, telling the story of an English coal miner’s son who, at age 11, battles masculine disapproval to study ballet. The heartwarming film hardened my spine against skeptical family members who wondered why I enrolled my firstborn in level-one tap and ballet classes.
When, predictably, he was the only boy in his class, no amount of assuring him that many big, strong men were proud to call themselves ballet dancers would assuage his shame. Especially when all the mommies fawned over his teeny black slippers.
He cried at his recital and, when it was over, I let him quit. That was that for his dance-related college scholarship.
Sixteen years later, after I came out to him and the rest of my family as queer, we got to talking, and he said he understood why I had never mentioned being gender nonconforming to my family.
“I remember I really liked wearing your pink ballet tutu around the house,” he told me. “But, one day, we had company over, and I remember the looks on their faces and how they laughed nervously when they saw me in it — I knew right then that this was not OK and not something I should ever do again.”
It’s amazing that no matter how much a society evolves in its view of gender — whether it’s states mandating gender-neutral bathrooms or localities electing transgender people to offices for everything from local school boards to Congress — the pull of gender stereotypes is still visceral.
In those calcified archetypes, boys win soccer championships and girls are the only ones who get to wear tights to dance — unless, of course, we’re talking about gay boys or men, in which case some people feel that’s acceptable.
No matter how many World Cup wins the U.S. women’s national soccer team delivers, or how many male ballet dancers get caught up in #MeToo scandals in which they’re accused of sexually degrading women, people still largely believe in “boy” activities and “girl” activities.
This apparently includes people like “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer, who had a laugh at news that England’s Prince George of Cambridge — the 6-year-old child of Prince William and Kate Middleton — takes ballet classes along with religious studies, computer programming and poetry.
Spencer apologized after internationally renowned male ballet dancers and choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied weighed in to complain about such small-minded and homophobic comments making it on-air at ABC.
Her ignorant remark came as no surprise to people who don’t fit into the neat gender and sexual-identity expectations that are constantly shoved down everyone’s throat.
For instance, even in the post-#MeToo era, it’s big business to sell pricey makeup to women who want to channel their inner little girl.
I wandered into an Ulta beauty store on an errand recently with my partner and was shocked to find Barbie co-branded lipstick and eyeshadow prominently featured in a display stand near the checkout area.
Upon further research I learned that the PUR x Barbie collection was designed for the 60-year anniversary of Barbie. “This celebratory collection helps you bring out your inner girl boss with fierce colors, bold pigments and high-performance beauty products that are sure to take your confidence to new heights! … Look, feel and live however you want with this collection that embraces and highlights the inner-Barbie and true uniqueness found in each of us!”
To each their own, of course.
But the irony of enticing grown women to paint their faces like the literal icon of the blonde, busty — and silent — late-50s toy girl/woman seems less like dismantling the patriarchy and more like the cursed brainchild of a multibillion-dollar corporation’s marketing department. Each lipstick, after all, costs nearly $20.
Despite all the new acceptance of fluid gender roles, too many entities are still invested in the narrow ideas of femininity and masculinity that humiliated my son 16 years ago.
But even though the prince of England wasn’t immune to being laughed at for training in what is a difficult and physical discipline, he gave all the boys-in-ballet-slippers of the world an opportunity to be recognized for how normal they are.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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