When I was a kid, all my dreams revolved around being famous, beautiful or a really great dancer. As a result, there were only four things I worked really hard at:
1. Roller skating while twirling a baton (or two).
2. Walking an imaginary runway.
3. Singing earnestly into a hairbrush in front of a mirror.
4. Acceptance speeches for awards shows. Mostly for the Grammys, but also for random dance awards, such as the one that Sarah Jessica Parker won in the epic 1980s dance flick “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
I was terrible at all of them, too. I mean, really bad. Turns out I’m quite physically awkward. I would put on pink sparkly outfits and perform shows for my family that featured lots of crashing-down acrobatics, errant batons, and my brother saying, “Is it done yet?”
My mother told me I had “great form” but that none of it suited me, and I think I knew that. Putting on overalls and a turtleneck always felt … better.
These days I really don’t enjoy being looked at. I also loathe fashion magazines, and generally prefer men’s jeans and boxy T-shirts. On top of that, people love to joke about how serious I am. My friend Rebekkah and I once got in a friendly argument at a party about whether silver is the only metal that’s bacteriostatic. I said it wasn’t; she said it was. I think I was wrong. One of our other friends said, “I cannot believe this is a real conversation.”
I’ve tried to think about why I worked so hard to be (or perform) “girlie” as a kid, even when it didn’t fit my nature. I liked Cabbage Patch dolls, but I also loved running through the lower pastures of our farm, climbing stuff, and watching snakes chase mice through the compost pile. So why was I trying so hard at being a proper girl?
It’s a complicated answer. First, I think most of us like both “boy” and “girl” stuff to varying degrees naturally, but our culture is constantly informing us (subtly or not-so-subtly) as to what is OK and not OK. The further we look back in the 20th century, the stronger the prescriptive gender binary becomes.
In the 1970s and '80s, there were definitely women breaking out of the June Cleaver homemaker mold, but they were still very much the exception. On TV, women were wives or moms first, and rarely anything else. If you didn’t see yourself growing up to be Carol Brady, your other option was to be beautiful and sexy like a pop star.
Even today, if you see an advertisement with a doctor (er, an actress playing a doctor) endorsing a product, the priority is always on her beauty: soft lighting, impractically perfect hair, whitened teeth, lots of make-up, improbable wardrobe. Almost all of our family doctors are female, and some are very lovely, but none look like that.
That’s why I froze when I came across this ad for a Microsoft tablet. I had to watch it eight times. My children thought I’d lost my mind. On the surface, there is nothing remarkable about it.
Here she is, a young woman in a paramedic’s uniform, sitting in the back of the ambulance we presume she drives, talking about why she needs this tablet. She loves her job, but she wants more. She’s pre-med, but she also uses social media and plays Xbox. She plays Xbox!
But it’s more than that. She is a woman on TV, cast to sell a product, who isn’t primarily beautiful. Sure, she is beautiful, but her character and her presence in the ad have nothing to do with it. She has realistic hair for a paramedic -- imagine any other ad or TV show: She’d have long, tumbling locks, perfect for a patient in cardiac arrest to aspirate or an alcoholic in the middle of DTs to accidentally yank out of her head.
On top of that, she’s wearing an actual paramedic’s uniform. Not some super-tailored version to show off her lovely curves (which I’m sure are there, but I can’t really tell, since she’s in an actual uniform). It’s the real deal. She looks like the person you hope arrives if you get in an accident.
She’s also not fulfilling any female stereotypes. She’s not your doting mother, your sassy sister or your gossipy best friend. She’s a woman doing a job, getting an education, and having a life. She is, essentially, you and me. And her script could have been handed over to a male actor and been just as convincing. Why? Because this paramedic’s gender is irrelevant to her career and to this product -- just like in real life.
How different would life have been for those of us who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s had we seen more women like this on TV? Women doing something great, with no mention of them being “lady doctors” or “woman lawyers”? What if, even today, the women on TV were featured for their skills and intellect before their beauty? What if being a woman included being a paramedic while going to medical school and playing Xbox? This is what freedom, in the world of gender, might look like.