When I was five and six, I begged my mother for two things: spinach and vitamins. Both were because of cartoons. The first was Popeye, the high gravelly-voiced sailor who would get anvils in his biceps when he’d down a can of the green stuff. The spinach would always come near the end of an episode when Olive Oil or one of Popeye’s other friends were bound up by Bluto or trapped in a sinking boat. A rush of adrenaline always accompanied my watching these scenes: Popeye with the speed of a fighter jet. Popeye with legs of iron. Popeye with a spinning roundhouse that could send you to the moon. I was in awe of his invincibility and I hoped that spinach would unlock the same physical traits in me. I would beg my mother to make it and she’d occasionally oblige me even though nobody else in the family would eat it. She always boiled the leaves in water until they had the consistency of ectoplasm or slime. I doused the watered-down vegetable with butter and salt and slid the slimy stuff down my esophagus until I could feel a little warmth in my forearms. Then I’d go into our basement and punch our bean bag chair until my knuckles were dry and cracked.
And an excerpt from the middle of the essay:
To show how society constructs notions of gendered identity, I once bought a Superhero Starter Kit for a class I was teaching. I wanted students to look at the book as an artifact, to analyze assumptions that it made about gender. There is a blond boy on the front with wrist bands, a shiny red cape, and lightning bolt stickers affixed to his t-shirt. The caption reads, “Saving the World Made Simple.” All of the pictures in the book are of boys. Boys leaping, hanging, falling (it happens), landing, hiding, running, swinging, spinning. Boys spread-eagled on chairs, boys scrunching their faces, putting up their toddler dukes. In one picture, a boy flexes his biceps into a mirror and mimics a look of strain and anger as he flexes. Other photos have boys with hands on hips, boys reaching for the sky, boys pointing up, fingers raised in number ones. These boys are masked, tough, superheroes with missions and powers and secret identities. There is a solitary picture of a girl. Like the boys, she is mostly smiles but her action is less dramatic. She wears a pink polka-dot shirt and flips her hair.
When I take the book home, my four-year-old daughter asks, “What’s that?” Before I can explain, the book is out of its wrapper and she’s trying to remove the red super cape. Soon it’s velcroed around her neck and she’s running through the house yelling “Wooooo!” She jumps off our couch, takes stairs two at a time. In the hall mirror, she poses, shows me her muscles, “almost as big as yours!” and screws up her face in a look of fearsome exertion. I’m not surprised that the cape has this effect, that she so readily transforms herself into a brawny pre-schooler. As new parents who are conscious of the impact of gendered advertising, we’ve done our best to steer her from passive female characters, submissive princesses and fairies who long to be led or saved. But the way she takes to the cape makes me wonder if we’ve over-compensated. Have we demonized these female representations so much that she misses out on some of the positive attributes of empathy, understanding, and caring? Of our three children, she’s the most assertive, the most willing to take risks. And besides an occasional narcissistic comparison to their hair, she hasn’t shown any interest in princesses. I want to videotape her reaction and send it to the publishing company, evidence that they’re reaching the wrong demographic. Girls can be super too.
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