As we walked to school recently, my 9-year-old daughter asked a question that made me stop short. She generally doesn’t care much about what she wears, but on this morning, her mind was on her shirt, a turquoise “Girl Power” crew neck I’d slipped into our cart on a family shopping trip, swept up by a wave of mama-bear feminism. “How come none of the boys in my class wear ‘Boy Power’ shirts?” she asked. I stood there, flustered, and then I hurried her along. “Let’s talk about this later!” I chirped as I kissed her goodbye, a sinking feeling in my gut.
It had never occurred to me to buy my 6-year-old son a “Boy Power” shirt — not that I’ve even seen such an item. But “Girl Power” products are everywhere, spawning variations. “Girl Powers Are Superpowers,” says a shirt at Old Navy; “I Got the Power,” reads one at Walmart. Retail sites like Zazzle and Redbubble feature dizzying rows of girls’ empowerment merchandise, including mugs, keychains, buttons, and pillows. Our local bookstore now stocks a section of titles with similar messages, like 5-Minute Stories for Fearless Girls and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, which my daughter has received as a birthday gift — twice.
These items are all so tempting! They beckon parents with their handsome dustcovers, their silk-screened assurance that our daughters will move smoothly through this world, propelled by their own fortitude. But my daughter’s question made me wonder if they might do more harm than good.
I now see that the T-shirt drew a sharp line between my daughter and her male peers and — counterintuitively — hinted at deficiency. It conveyed to her that she, as a girl, has a questionable power, while her best friends Zach and Henry possess strength so obvious it need not be stated. “The lady doth protest too much,” declares Queen Gertrude in Hamlet, reminding us that excessive claims have a way of implying their opposite. My daughter never pitted herself against boys until I did, and it never occurred to her she had something to prove until I gave her the shirt to prove it.
We should consider, too, what particular type of power these products exalt. “It’s important that we help girls embrace power not as the existing brand that came out of the patriarchy, which is strength and fearlessness,” says Simone Marean, cofounder and CEO of the nonprofit Girls Leadership, based in Oakland, California. “Power lies in the countless small choices you make, which have influence on those around you. When you walk into school, do you make eye contact, or do you not? Do you raise your hand, or do you not?”
With a record number of women in Congress and entering the 2020 presidential race, the moment is certainly ripe for celebrating women’s capabilities. The ability to assert oneself boldly is crucial among these. But there’s a difference between honoring this form of strength and peddling it to the point of enforcement, messaging to girls that it’s the single most essential quality to aspire to. In cheering on our daughters toward a conventionally “masculine” vision of power, we ignore a whole spectrum of virtues that make a good leader and person, such as integrity, flexibility, creativity, and — more critically than ever in our current political climate — undervalued “feminine” traits like compassion.
There’s a harmful message for boys here, too. Seeing their sisters and classmates armed with “Girl Power” reinforces the message drilled into them every day — that they must constantly project toughness and conceal their vulnerability. “Girl Power” just ups the ante, making this requirement more urgent.
Our culture still has a long way to go before it’s equitable. But to get there, we’ll need to dig a little deeper than our wallets. “There’s data about biases against girls that needs to be counteracted intentionally,” says psychologist Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard lecturer and author of The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development. “This work needs some scaffolding. And so, when it comes to ‘Girl Power’ merchandise, it’s important to ask questions: How can we move the conversation forward? And is wearing these T-shirts a good way to move the conversation forward?”
On the walk home from school, I explained to my daughter as best I could the connection between her shirt and our country’s inequality. It was a start, and I’ve been working on keeping this discussion alive daily. We need to be on the lookout for real-world inequities and have honest conversations with our kids — daughters and sons both — about them. Why do we mostly watch men playing sports on TV? Why are there only male faces on our paper money? Why do Lego sets with cute dogs and cats only come with girl figurines? These are the sorts of questions Marean suggests parents pose, stressing that “it’s important to point inequity out on both sides.”
We can’t limit the conversation to sound bites laser-focused on female might. In the end, is it strong, fearless, daredevil daughters we most want, or thoughtful, ethical, empathic daughters and sons, aware of their own roles in transforming our world into a more just place?