What Happened When I Called Out My Friend’s Sexist Pregnancy Announcement

Spoiler alert: Things went down exactly as anyone could have predicted.

A few years ago, it seemed like everyone I knew was getting married, and this summer has been the season of births and pregnancies. My social media feeds have been dominated by pictures of babies, bellies, and all manner of clever and cute announcements of family additions.

Usually my reaction to this sort of news is delight mixed with awe (someone I know is growing a person inside of them!), but recently I came across the grinning visage of one father-to-be that struck a less joyful chord. Posted on Facebook by his wife, Cathy*, a high school acquaintance of mine, the picture is of her husband, who is wearing a blue t-shirt that says “Princess Protection Agency” and holding a pink onesie that reads “Sorry Boys! My Dad says I’m not allowed to date ever.” The image, which was originally published on Cathy’s Instagram, was accompanied by the hashtags #ShesNotAllowedToDateEver and #MostProtectedPrincessEver.

My feminist alarm bell started going off.

I bit my lip. Was this a teaching moment or one of those times when I should just be glad I got the hell out of my conservative hometown and say nothing? To do the latter would be easy—not stir up any trouble, not piss off a probably hormonal pregnant woman whom I admittedly hadn’t seen since the late ’90s. No one had commented yet on the photo, but it had received many “thumbs up” emojis. In Cathy’s culture bubble, the picture was harmless and funny. But I found it sinister, all the more so because of her apparent obliviousness re: the troublesome implications. Doesn’t change start with us trying to politely engage with those we disagree with? I had no delusions that me commenting would result in Cathy becoming more woke, but maybe some minuscule piece of my argument would resonate with her. That was, at least, my hope.

I crafted what I thought was a kind but constructively critical comment, and even tried to lighten the mood by starting it with “Liberal feminist reaction alert!” to poke fun at what I anticipated would be condemned as an overly-PC reaction. I conceded that while I understood the playful intention, the idea that women are princesses in need of protection is at the heart of patriarchal sexism that keeps us from achieving equality. That ideally little girls should be taught that they have as much agency as men. Then I made a topical pop culture reference—shouldn’t we want our daughters to aspire to be Wonder Woman, not the damsel in distress who needs rescuing? I concluded by saying “I post this with love, in the hopes of starting a productive conversation, or at least offering a little food for thought. Sincere congratulations on the baby!”

Spoiler alert: Things went down exactly as anyone could have predicted.

Cathy wrote that she was offended that I would bring politics onto her Facebook wall and use her post to project my beliefs. She said she was “surprised” that I would infer from the photo that she and her husband would not be the kind of parents that would praise their daughter “for being an amazing soccer player, class president, artist, etc.”

Well, Cathy, that’s great to hear, but that’s not what the onesie says. The onesie refers only to your daughter’s worth as a future object desirable to men whose dating life will be strictly controlled by her father. It also presumes a cis hetero identity. What if your baby is trans? What if your child wants to date girls instead of boys? If you were expecting a boy, would the onesie have the same overly protective message? Nope: The equivalent messaging on male infant apparel boasts things like “future heartbreaker” and “ladykiller.” Which is also icky in my opinion—the only difference is that it is promoting, rather than policing, the sexuality of a human being who is literally still in diapers.

Cathy also wrote that she hopes her daughter someday realizes, like her, that “it’s important to marry someone who treasures her for exactly who she is and celebrates the wonderful differences a woman brings to a relationship.” Oof. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and I think traditional gender roles should be shoved up Uranus. I have a hunch those “differences” probably include things like being “naturally” better at cooking and childcare.

At this point, I knew it was a lost cause. So I responded that I was sorry and that it was not my intention to upset her. That my reaction was in part due to the fact that I have many friends with young daughters who have expressed frustration at the inundation of Disney princesses in our society because it drowns out the empowering messages. That I had no doubt that she and her husband would be wonderful, loving parents, and I would understand if she deleted my comments and unfriended me.

Many of Cathy’s friends predictably rallied to her defense, calling me disrespectful and ignorant. One wrote, “Seriously? Does everything have to be so serious? It’s a cute FB pic, let it be just that.” Look, maybe I am overly sensitive right now to this kind of stuff (perhaps because of how the leader of our country talks about and behaves toward women), but I do think it’s serious when girls, before they are even born, are scripted into an outdated, restrictive narrative of male possession, with marriage representing the transfer of property from father to husband when the bride is “given away.”

Children are constantly absorbing all kinds of messages about what is gender-appropriate, from the toys they are encouraged to play with, to the clothes they are dressed in. Countless studies have shown that as we learn to walk and talk, we are simultaneously internalizing how to do those things as a member of the gender we were assigned at birth. For my money, the only thing this kid is going to need protection from is her parents’ toxic gender essentialism.

I may not be a mom (yet), but as a writer, I believe words matter. And seemingly innocuous things like goofy onesies add up and give credence to limiting, binary definitions of gender. If I do end up having kids, you can be damn sure I will, to the extent it is possible, surround my children with empowering messages that focus on their autonomy, their potential, and their intrinsic value as human beings—even before they can read them.

*name changed

Katie Vagnino is a writer, educator and poet currently based in Eau Claire, WI. She holds an MFA from Emerson College and has taught composition and creative writing at a number of schools/institutions including Roosevelt University, the Newberry Library and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. For more, visit katievagnino.com.

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