Happiest Place for Gender Norms

This past December, the world saw another celebrity sex scandal. Suzy Favor Hamilton, the three-time U.S. Olympian, was outed as having a “secret life” as a high-priced escort.  As a resident of Madison, there was no way I could have avoided hearing about the fall from grace of one of Wisconsin’s golden girls.  Her name and face was plastered all over the local news and she has been publicly dropped from representing local groups such as the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.  The notoriety has also cost her a position as a spokesperson for the Walt Disney Company.  Since most of the outrage and denigration of Favor Hamilton has focused on the fact that she is a wife and mother, it is probably unsurprising that Disney dropped her.

Beginning with the creation of Disneyland in 1952, Disney (theme parks and films) has worked to reinvigorate conservative family values.  Family, order, and respectability all fall along explicitly delineated lines.  In the world of Disney, Suzy Favor Hamilton became a failed wife, a bad mother, and a sex-worker all rolled into one.

Incidentally, I was scheduled to go to Disney World a couple weeks after the news of Favor Hamilton broke.  My partner Nate-Dawg, our five-year-old son, Pluto Fan (PF for short), and I decided to take a family vacation — something we have never done.

Like many feminist parents, Nate-Dawg and I have been lukewarm about introducing our kid to Disney.  All that mindless consumerism!  The conformity!  Gender normativity!  Unadulterated cheerfulness!  But, once you become a parent – or, once I became a parent – my ideologies became a bit more…flexible. (I remember with quaint fondness the days when I believed my child would crave neither processed foods nor toys made from anything but wood.  And today?  Today I am bribing PF with candy, television, and the promise of a new Power Ranger in order to get this blogpost finished.)  So, the draw of Florida weather and the chance to have a few days of “family fun” ultimately prevailed.  I decided to take it as an opportunity to observe Disney in its natural habitat.

Disney World: Magic Kingdom – Partners and Cinderella Castle. (Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

I want to begin by stating that PF is, in a word, beautiful.  Not in an “every child is beautiful” kind of beautiful, and not in an, “I’m his mother so of course I think he’s beautiful,” kind of beautiful. Beautiful, as in “the particular chemistry of physical attributes and personality of this child gets him massive amounts of attention everywhere he goes and just about every teacher / babysitter / classmate has a crush on him” kind of beautiful.  I say this not to brag (although, now that I mention it, holla! that’s my kid!) but to point out that his kind of beauty can be confusing in a place like Disney, a place where gendering is strictly observed.  GIRLS = pretty; pretty = princesses; BOYS = anything else (as long as it does not rely on being “pretty”.)   Luckily, in our ordinary lives, PF still lives in a world where he feels comfortable expressing himself in his own ways; ways that sometimes comport to but sometimes also defy typical gender norms.  He definitely notices the ways boys and girls get divided, but doesn’t seem to be too bothered by it; not yet, anyway.  Still, PF chooses to dress and present himself as a boy, refers to himself as a boy, and is usually identified by the world as a boy.

So I was a little surprised when one day, while playing in the pool of our hotel, another child swam over to PF for the sole purpose of asking him if he was a boy or a girl.  Some of the confusion may have stemmed from the fact that PF was wearing a wetsuit-type of swimsuit, a garment that covered his chest.  In the land of Disney, a boy doesn’t wear a one-piece.  PF just answered, without shame or embarrassment, “a boy.”  The other boy then said , without malice I might add, “Oh. Because you kinda look like a girl.”  PF shrugged, the boy went away, and we continued to play in the glory that is a heated pool in January.

In a way, this comes back to the Suzy Favor-Hamilton scandal and the notion that “wholesome” “family” “fun” does not, can not, include gender non-normativity.  Boys can’t be girls.  Women can’t be whores.

But what about those of us who need a Disney-type place, a place dedicated to whimsy and children and family, but a place without all the cultural baggage of who has what genitalia and who makes family with whom?  Does such a place exist?  Could it ever exist?

For more on Disney, see Eric Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), and Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, and Laura Sells, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

Meggan Woodbury Bilotte is a co-founder of Nursing Clio. Originally from Wyoming, she is now one of the many transplants to call Madison, Wisconsin home. She is a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as a mother, a partner, a teacher, and a student of the world. In her academic life she studies midwifery, motherhood, and modernity in the American West. In her home life she studies crayon drawings and the physics of flying kisses.