The question I should have asked my daughter was "What fancy dress would you like to wear?". What I actually asked was "Would you like to wear your Darth Vader costume?". Halloween week at pre-school was an opportunity to enlighten her peers that I couldn't let slip by.
Recently, a local mum recently made a good point to me. Many of the children my two year old daughter goes to pre-school with will be classmates when she goes on to school. They may continue to be her closest peers until adulthood. The same goes for lots of the children we see at playgroup, at the local park, soft play, the library, or even just the high street. What these children think, how they perceive the world, how they treat my daughter, will have a massively influential impact on the woman she becomes.
Part of my approach to parenting is to constantly refer back to my memories of growing up, and use that to positively inform my approach. The fantastical worlds of comic books and Star Wars loom large in my childhood (and adulthood too). They fired my imagination, but perhaps more importantly provided both escapism and inspiration to make sense of the world in the darkest times of my youth.
I want my daughter to have access to this as well. Luckily, superheroes and Star Wars are still very much in vogue.
This is also about me offering her an alternative to princess culture before she heads into the school system, and peer group pressure becomes a driving force in her development. So far, my daughter really enjoys it, as do girls who come over for playdates - they love to play with our Star Wars and superhero toys.
However, it's very clear that to the likes of toy company Hasbro and Disney (who own Marvel and Star Wars) these brands are just for boys. That's another battle being fought by myself and others, but in the meantime, here in the trenches, our kids are forming opinions on what is and isn't for boys or girls, based on the way these brands are marketed.
As she grows older, I do worry my daughter might be singled out for displaying an interest in this geek stuff, simply because she's a girl. I don't want her to be perceived as 'weird', perhaps even teased, ostracised, or bullied.
This mentality starts young. One time, a little boy saw me with my daughter, looked unsure, then asked me: "Is she a boy or a girl?". When I confirmed 'she' was in fact a girl, he countered "Then why is she wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt?". "Because she likes Spider-Man." I replied. The boy's older sister then chimed in, "Yeah, girls can like Spider-Man too y'know!". The boy went away with a new concept to contemplate, while hopefully this exchange supported his sister's seemingly healthy outlook on gender.
It also exists in adults who should know better. A friend who recently became a parent asked me 'Why are you trying to make your daughter into a boy?'. Grasping for a calm answer, I replied 'I'm not. There's nothing inherently male about any of this stuff. I think whatever she wears are girl's clothes, her toys are girl's toys, her books are girl's books. Because she's a girl.' After mulling it for a moment, they agreed with me. This had never occurred to them before, but now it makes sense.
My daughter & I get so many positive comments from parents when we're out and about. I often then hear telling their son or daughter how cool my daughter looks. Perhaps we are influencing some parents too.
I am confident I am doing right by my daughter, providing her with positive cultural influences on her developing personality. But in order for her to not be socially excluded because of it, I also need her peers and their parents to accept girls can be just as engaged with these things as boys.
So I feel that each time she runs around with a cape, carries her cuddly Spidey to the playground, wears her beloved Batgirl dress yet again, or goes out dressed as Darth Vader, she is doing her part to challenge (some) people's idea of what it is to be a girl.
My hope is that by the time she gets to school, and her attire will switch from geek chic to school uniform, her fellow pupils will be so used to the idea that girls can like this stuff too, that it won't be weird at all.
Originally published as How Darth Vader defends my daughter's right to be a girl at Man vs. Pink.