Practicing slightly subversive parenting: Toddlers and gender

Gender representations in popular kids’ storybooks make me sigh. Books based on TV programs and movies seem among the worst offenders; yet they’re inescapably popular.

To manage them, I do two things:

First, I keep movie- and tv-based books to a minimum in our household. There are so many better books out there!

Second, I employ a slightly subversive strategy whenever my son and I read together: If I have a problem with how something is presented, I alter the story ever-so-slightly to improve it.

For example: My three-year-old son loves Disney’s Cars. It’s the story of an anthropomorphic superstar race car, Lightning McQueen, who overcomes his self-absorbtion to develop real relationships with other cars.

Unfortunately, the film’s only major female character, Sally, exists primarily as a love interest for Lightning McQueen; he even hits on Sally when they first meet. (Ugh.) But Sally is a lawyer, clearly much smarter than McQueen, and at that first meeting, she puts him in his place swiftly. (Thank goodness.)

My son owns a copy of the nicely illustrated Disney-Pixar Little Golden Book Favorites, in which the movie is retold. In the book, the plot is simplified. In the interest of brevity, Sally’s role is reduced so much that only five sentences refer to her. Three of these describe the occasion when she and Lightning first met:

“Then Sally, a blue sports car, arrived. Sally was a lawyer. Lightning thought Sally was pretty.”

For my part, I don’t appreciate the emphasis on Lightning’s perception of Sally’s appearance–and with no mention of Sally’s evident disgust at his smug approach, either! So when I’m reading this book, here’s what my son hears instead:

“Then Sally, a blue sports car, arrived. Sally was a lawyer. Lightning realized Sally was smart.”

This has been fun during playtime with my son’s toy Cars. He often plays Lightning McQueen while I, per his instructions, play Sally. If he drives Lightning up to Sally and says, “I’m a race car! Zoom zoom!” I respond, “I’m a lawyer! I’m really smart!”

His response? “No, I’m a lawyer. I’m a lawyer, too! Zoom zooooom!”

That’s right, honey. Lightning McQueen can be anything you want him to. 🙂

“Let’s go to law school together, Lightning! Zoom, zoom.”


Mom: 1; Disney: 0.

Parents: Have you used similar tactics with your pre-schoolers? What works for your family?

4 Comments on “Practicing slightly subversive parenting: Toddlers and gender

  1. Oh yes! My pre-schooler is a girl, so I often comment how smart and talented a particular princess is. How she’s able to do things as well as everyone else. The stories I tell both kids (7-year-old big brother too) have themes in which sometimes the little sister figures out how to solve the puzzle, and sometimes the big brother figures it out. But they have to work together using all their skills.

    Sometimes I think I might be overdoing it, being so obvious… but I hear them play together and I realize those messages are sinking in.

    A few days ago someone told my daughter she was “so pretty”. She responded, “I’m smart and talented too!”

    • Lydia, that is a FANTASTIC response on you’re daughter’s part!

      You know, I think that as parents, we have to be obvious with kids for our messages to sink in. Nuance is for older children, not the littlest ones.

      This really hit home for me in the research I did with girls for my book, because the girl power television shows that had positive morals to their stories about body image, etc. were often completely misunderstood by the girls. These stories in the cartoons couldn’t compete with the more negative messages the girls had learned elsewhere. So unless we’re blatantly obvious in our parenting, how can we possibly compete??

  2. I am subversive with my toddler in that I try to real. Our GP is a woman (most of our specialists are) so all doctors are women in our house. I think he was a little confused when they sang the Miss Polly song differently at daycare. I also say smart instead of pretty and try hard to have a balance of toys. This is hard when buying for boys when I have a natural aversion to pink!

  3. I do this reading-substitution also! For instance, in “One Fish Two Fish” by Seuss, on the page with the creature with the long blue hair “Brush Brush, Comb Comb, Blue hair is fun to brush and comb. All GIRLS who like to brush and comb should have a pet like this at home,” I change the word “girls” to “kids.” So far, my toddler is unaware of the world of movie-related books and much of the pop-culture based ones. She really likes the Knuffle Bunny books, and I think those have a positive portrayal of a little girl.

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