My father isn’t the first person to ask my son if he has a girlfriend. The question pops up frequently when we’re visiting friends of my mother’s over the holidays or talking to affable cashiers at the supermarket. It’s always asked in the same way — with genial good humor and an air of expectation, as if they already know the answer.
My son typically responds with a blank stare — not, it should be noted, the aggressively vacant stare I cultivated in my 20s to discourage the apparently benign interest of family and friends in my romantic life, but an actual stare of incomprehension.
He doesn’t understand the question because he’s 4 years old. Five months ago, he started prekindergarten. Three weeks ago he learned how to calculate seven minus five on his hands. Yesterday, he had a dry overnight diaper for the fifth morning in a row.
Unable to let the moment play out, I jump in with an answer: Yes, I say, he has girl friends and boy friends. He has, in fact, lots of friends.
I say it calmly and pleasantly, with a polite smile that reveals nothing of how I truly feel about this question — this ludicrous question that follows little children around like a puppy sensing scraps. I understand that it’s just the meaningless chatter of adults trying to make conversation with children. I get that their intentions are 100 percent harmless.
And yet every time this question is posed, I hear insidious rumblings. I hear heteronormative expectation: You’re a boy, so naturally, you’ll like girls. I hear the gender indoctrination: Girls aren’t like boys, so you should treat them differently. I hear the premature insertion of sexual politics: Girls aren’t your friends; they’re potential objects of desire.
In this one seemingly innocuous query, I hear one generation imposing on the next one its resolute idea of How Things Are.
And these messages aren’t confined to well-meaning relatives and kindly salesclerks. If only this were a battle being fought on one front. Alas, the global entertainment complex seems to have joined forces with my mom’s college roommate’s husband to provide furtive lessons on how young boys and girls should interact. The G-rated “Peanuts Movie,” for example, which is not only aimed at 4-year-olds but is also, according to one of the early “Peanuts” comic strips from 1950, about 4-year-olds, has more romantic entanglements than an episode of “The Love Boat.” Charlie Brown blushes and stammers around the girl he’s crushing on, the cute little redhead who lives next door, while Peppermint Patty pines away for him in unrequited love. His sister, Sally, ardently pursues Linus, her “sweet babboo” (a term, incidentally, that Charles M. Schulz’s own wife actually called him). Lucy throws herself at Schroeder. Even Snoopy — a dog! — models romantic behavioral standards by courting a beautiful poodle named Fifi.
Why do we do this? Why do we endlessly replicate mature patterns for young audiences? Are we, like the men chasing the maidens on Keats’s Grecian urn, locked forever in “mad pursuit”? Do we instinctively reach for the same worn blueprint, or do we collectively make the choice to pass it along?
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