On Gender: Did Joan of Arc Wear a Bow? by Layney Wells

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As we drove along Kelly Drive the other day, one of my twins in the back seat, the conversation turned to skeletons, as is not uncommon these days. I don’t know what it is about bones, but my boys are fascinated by them. Milo wanted to know if all skulls look the same.

“Well buddy, they’re all a little different, but basically they look the same.”

“But what about girl skeletons, Mamãe? They’re different, right?”

I explained to him that female skeletons have different shaped pelvis and hipbones, for carrying babies, but that otherwise, basically, we’re all the same. He pondered this for a few moments, before coming back to me for answers. The point of contention? Bows. “Girl skeletons have bows though… right?”

Of all the questions I was prepared to answer, this was not one of them. When I was pregnant, when my boys were little, I thought for hours of ways to answer the questions I knew would come. Why is the sky blue? Where do rainbows come from? Do turtles have ears? What are fingernails made of? But bows? I didn’t plan for that.

“No Darlin’ girl skeletons don’t have bows.” I told him once I had regained my composure. We talked a lot about stereotypes, about how girls are portrayed in movies and TV, that they don’t generally wear bows unless that’s something they like to do, about how boys can wear bows too if they want.

This didn’t sit well with him, reminding him of the times a family member told him in all seriousness that he couldn’t wear my headbands and barrettes, that they were strictly for girls, and it wasn’t right or OK for him to use them. My heart sank as he reminded me of this, the image of his smile fading, his brow furrowing still fresh in my mind. It took me weeks to convince the boys that they could pretend to be Wonder Woman after a similar incident, and finally it seemed to stick, but this?

Even after countless heart-to-hearts, a thousand explanations of gender being much more complicated than hair accessories, just the offer of a bobby pin to keep their curls out of their face launches them into telling me they can’t, that they aren’t girls.

Gathering my determination to give my very boyish boys a broader, clearer view of the world around them, I began asking him questions. “What do you notice about the girls and women you see in movies?” I asked him.

He answered that they always wear dresses, they always have lipstick, are always being rescued by a prince, by a boy. “Do you think that’s fair?” I asked, curious, perhaps a little nervous to hear his answer. “No!” he said. “I know girls can figure things out themselves, and save themselves, they could even save boys.”

The discussion carried on to things I never expected to discuss with my 4 year old: the ridiculousness of female super hero costumes, running in high heels, wage inequality. As we passed the Joan of Arc statue by the Art Museum, I told him the story behind it, omitting the gory details, but not the truth and not the injustice.

He was completely captivated by the heroism of the story, by the drama, and of course the knights and swords and fighting. And the bitter end? He got it. He asked to hear it again and again, drawing parallels to Mulan, always in complete disbelief that a girl would not be allowed to fight. That they would kill a hero.

My heart swelled with pride as he went on and on about all we had talked about, about things he could do to make the world a more just and fair place for everyone.

It is an uphill battle, living in the society we do and being fully committed to raising my children to embrace their bicultural identity — even though half of that culture did not grant women full equal rights until 1988. Even so, in spite of the world we live in, in spite of the fears I have, that we all have as parents, if I am honest with them, if I lead by example, if I am the change I want to see, maybe they will be too.

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