Let me begin by being completely honest: I'm completely addicted to Marvel.
I'm one of those fans. The obnoxious ones. The ones you probably roll your eyes at. I run a Tumblr devoted to my favorite Marvel character (Loki, of course). I can make absolutely any conversation relevant to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I write fanfiction. A lot of fanfiction.
And the most debilitating facet of my addiction is that I hoard mountains of Marvel merchandise. My wallet is the foremost victim of my addiction. Clothing, school supplies, candy, pins, even washcloths. If it has an Avengers logo, not only will I buy it, I will pay extra for it. I will throw money at you until you give it to me and it's mine. I'm not kidding. I have a real problem.
The point is, I love superheroes. I love villains and campy violence and explosions and men in latex. I love the comics, the movies, the merch, all of it. I love Marvel and I make that love very, very, obnoxiously obvious.
Which brings me to an interesting thing that happened to me. I was on the way out of a local restaurant with a to-go order. I was wearing my favorite Thor shirt. I wear it probably 2-3 times a week and it shows. There's an array of little holes decorating the front. The colors are super faded. Thor's hair looks more the color of dingy bathwater than blond. It has specks of red sauce all over the collar from this one time I got into a fight with some delicious spaghetti. I'd like to say I only wear it on my lazy days, but that would be total lie. I wear it whenever it's clean.
As I exited the restaurant, there were two little boys eating outside with their dad. The younger one looked over at me as I walked by. His eyes got big and excited. He pointed at my shirt and yelled, "THORRRR!"
I smiled and said, "Yup, I love Thor." The older boy was unimpressed. He scoffed at his little brother and then at me. He put his hands on his hips and said, "Girls can't like superheroes."
Ouch. Tell that to my obsession and more importantly, my wallet. Believe it or not, I resisted the urge to pull up a chair and spew every single piece of Marvel information I know before screaming "I WIN" and throwing the remainder of his dinner in his face. No. I knew it wasn't my place. Instead I looked to their dad. These are his children and I don't want to overstep his authority. I waited for him to say something, anything, to set this misconception straight. But he didn't. Instead, he offered me a half-smirk and shrugged one shoulder.
There are moments when a shrug speaks louder than words and this was one of those moments. This father, sitting with his two impressionable young sons, chose to voice his apathy with a shrug. He doesn't care that his child thinks superheroes are only for boys and that girls aren't allowed to like them.
And this boy is at an age where he's starting to find importance in gender classification. And as his younger brother's excitement at seeing Thor faded, he looked to his older brother and his little forehead scrunched up in thought. I saw his wheels turning. In that moment he learned that girls can't like superheroes from someone he trusts. Maybe he'll pass the information along to other boys his age and pick on little girls who like superheroes. Those little girls will put down their action figures and pick up something that girls are allowed to like, something that isn't a superhero.
So begins a vicious, damaging cycle that forces our children to choose their likes and dislikes according to what's considered gender appropriate. Today, it's toys and superheroes, but tomorrow, it's hobbies and sports. These same boys are constrained to trying out for football or wrestling when maybe they would have enjoyed cheerleading or dance instead. These same girls want to take JROTC or try woodworking but instead they opt for volleyball or home economics. Before we know it, these kids are older and heading for college where the young women choose liberal arts programs despite having always had a love for the hard sciences. And those young men were convinced to take engineering or business classes even though that liberal arts program sure looks interesting.
But we can move away from gender classifying and it begins with those seemingly innocent childhood moments and approaching them with more than a shrug. It doesn't have to be an essay on feminism. He's just a kid and kids respond to simplicity. How about asking him why only boys can like superheroes? Kids love to ask why! Chances are, it'll be a silly kid reason (because superheroes are boys!) and that gives you the perfect opportunity to tell him it doesn't matter. And if you're me, you can tell him that Black Widow is a kickass superhero and she just so happens to be a girl, thank you very much.
When it was clear this father had nothing to say, I leaned down to the little boy's level and smiled. I said, "Well, I am a girl and I love superheroes." That one sentence was all it took. His nose wrinkled up, his brows lowered thoughtfully, and I watched him process this crucial piece of information: Yes, this is a girl, and yes, she likes superheroes. And that's okay.