When you’re a little girl, you get to dream of growing up to be a princess.
When you’re a little boy, you get to dream of growing up to be an astronaut.
This is the lesson I recently learnt whilst shopping for a child’s birthday card. The pink, girly card stated the former, while the blue, boyish one declared the latter. Amidst the large selection of other cards, the majority of girls’ ones displayed princesses. But it was this blatant distinction between what you get to aspire to when you’re a girl versus what you get to aspire to when you’re a boy that had me staring slack-jawed at the card racks.
Seriously? When did this even happen? Everything aimed at little girls these days is dyed pink and/or covered in princesses. I have no recollection of this when I was little. I was never encouraged to aspire to the lofty yet entirely unattainable goal of princessdom. Virtually none of my toys were pink. Generic toys in the eighties were unisex. They weren’t specifically for girls or boys; they were just toys, and anyone could play with them. I was a Lego nut… my first Lego set was a stable, with horses and stablehands and instructions for building a barn and house or a stable on its own. I was delighted when I got another set which consisted of a Jeep and caravan, as they seemed to complement the stable setup perfectly.
Guess what? None of it was pink.
I’ll admit that seeing those two children’s birthday cards side-by-side may have touched a particular nerve with me. I don’t recall ever even considering being a princess. I never played princesses. I didn’t own a single princess dress or tiara. I didn’t have any princess dolls. The only princess I ever admired was Princess Leia… the blaster-wielding, torture-resisting, Hutt-strangling, kick-arse Rebel leader. She never wore pink.
But you know what I did want to be when I grew up? An astronaut.
I wanted to go into space. I wanted to see the stars up close. I wanted to walk on the Moon. I wanted to look down on Earth from above and have my mind blown. That was my greatest desire as an eight-year-old girl.
If I was eight years old today, I’d get given that stupid princess card instead of the astronaut one. The one I really wanted.
‘Why does it matter?’ you may ask. ‘Kids aspire to all kinds of things as they grow up. It’s part of the fun of playing and getting to exercise all that imagination. Their dreams and desires change and mature as they grow.’
You know why it matters? Because none of the little girls out there who want to be princesses will ever attain that goal. (If they’re already princesses, it doesn’t count. And the odds of them marrying an eligible prince? Yeah. One in… five million? Ten?) But every little girl who wants to be an astronaut stands an actual chance of becoming one. It’s a tough goal, sure. It takes training and dedication and a determination to pursue that goal to its end. But it’s attainable. It’s an actual career that someone can aspire to and grasp. Just ask… you know… all the astronauts.
Even if she doesn’t become a space-traveller, that little girl who’s fascinated with the solar system and black holes and nebulae has every chance of pursuing any number of science careers in that field. Or any other scientific field. I think my dream to become an astronaut faded when a well-meaning adult told me about the Challenger shuttle disaster. It frightened me off. I’d never considered there was actual danger involved. As a sensitive eight-year-old, the thought of blowing up or crashing or getting lost in the depths of space was enough to make me think again. But I still wanted to be a scientist.
We encourage boys to do this stuff. They get toy microscopes that actually look like real microscopes. Microscopes for girls? Better make those pink. Better make sure they come with a princess doll in case the little girls get bored. Better make them look like toys instead of the real thing, because, aww, bless, she wants to be a scientist! How cute! It’s patronising. It demeans girls’ interests in a way boys’ interests are never demeaned. And it’s a recent phenomenon. It never used to be this way.
Little girls have every right to love princesses. Don’t get me wrong. But if that’s the only message we’re sending them (and it certainly seemed to be if the aforementioned card selection is anything to go by), something needs to change. They can do anything. BE anything. They don’t have to limit themselves to sparkly dresses and pink castles. There’s a world to explore. Actual goals to aspire to. Real people to admire.
An entire freaking universe of space to discover.