Months ago, my housemate and I were sitting at the dining room table chuckling and carrying on about various topics. Our laughter and sentences were brought to an abrupt pause as her young daughter slammed her little hand upon the table and said, "Hey! I am not cute!"
Our eyes nearly popped out of our heads as we looked at each other and her in surprise. We had to refrain from commenting on how cute this gesture was that she made as we all shared an initial chuckle followed by comments about her strong sense of spirit and self. A few moments later, I decided to engage the little girl in a conversation.
"Why don't you want to be cute?"
She swiftly responded: "Because I want to be big!"
I looked beyond the surface of what she expressed by stating "I want to be big" and heard her assertion of what or how she wanted to be identified or described. The many things she wanted to be outside of the surface of cute. The simple, yet firm assertion that she has been declaring for weeks, and yet again with a firm hand slam against the table is a part of the bigger problem/discussion in regards to gender. More specifically, our language, ideology and politics as it relates to gender.
The simple and short conversation that I had with this young girl (who was at the time 4 1/2 year old) did not seem so simple in thinking about it afterwards. She was right, she wasn't just cute but many other things. Here I was, someone who accumulated school loans and spent years on pondering gender ideology and how it is shaped socially/culturally/historically. The many books, articles and conversations floated through my mind about how we condition girls by commenting on their outer appearance and reminding boys of their intelligence or tough exteriors. Despite being aware of all this, I still fell into the trap as I often would comment to either my housemate's or to other parents about how cute or adorable their daughters were because they did something funny or happened to just be themselves within a given moment. While I always made sure to comment on their intelligence, wit and character, the usage of "cute" often reigned as king over all the compliments.
These interactions also brought me to the doorsteps of my favorite wild and bodacious sirens that in many ways I consider personal spirit acquaintances. Kali certainly isn't referred to as cute as she threatened to undo all of existence with her infamous dance. Inanna, the goddess who deceptively and strategically won the many powers from the god of wisdom, was not seen as "cute" by her followers. Cute might be the last word that comes to mind when we envision the daring exploits of Josephine Baker or the courage of Frida Kahlo. Regardless of our focus on mythical or real-life women, my point remains that the accomplishments of these and many other talented women are beyond the surface descriptors we often use in regards to girls or women. Though just 4 1/2 years old at the time, the little girl at the table spoke up for her past and present sisters as she reminded all of us to see beyond the surface. Her little hand slamming against the wooden dining room table was a refreshing reminder within an age where Cosmopolitan, Cosmo Girl and many other similar magazines provide women with advice on fashioning themselves for the male gaze.
This little lady continues to call me on my gendered language and all other social ideology. Most recently, I was rushing out of the house and ran back to my room saying "I forgot my earrings, I NEED my earrings." She stopped what she was doing and very seriously looked in my direction stating, "You don't need earrings." At that moment, a mental argument ensued based on her response. I did in fact need my earrings but why? Why were they a need versus just something that I happened to be wearing? Did I not see it as a choice but instead as a part of the required costume for being a woman in society? While this is not the first time I have pondered my relationship with gender, this recent incident along with the clarity of her voice as she demanded not to be cute still echoes loudly in my mind. What is most present is how she, at such a young age, firmly and fearlessly demanded her respect. I was also reminded of my responsibility in the role of breaking the cycle of what we say to our girls and boys.
Shanta Crowley writes from Brattleboro. You can follow her writing on her blog, Real Talk, at www.Reformer802.com/realtalk.