My roommate 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 four and a half year old 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 sprit 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 a 4 ½ 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 roommate’s or friend’s daughters about how cute or adorable they 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 recent 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 4.5 years old, 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. It still echoes loudly in my mind alongside the clarity of her little voice as she 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.