Two years ago, my daughter startled us with a most unusual request for a costume: She wanted to dress up as Madonna. She was not even 5 at the time, so this raised some eyebrows in our house, and made us consider two questions:
The answers to both are nearly identical, but a subtle nuance makes all the difference.
I realize that this totally tips us right over the edge into stereotype. As gay guys who grew up in the 80s, we appreciate Madonna for being in control of her identity and defying the roles assigned to her; she was the Gaga before Gaga, telling teens not to feel ashamed of themselves. She made an empire out of sheer will and showed what a working class girl can do. My husband even likes her music, which means we own (and I am just estimating here) 394 more of her albums than we need.
At four, when our daughter was taking dance lessons, she spent a lot of time making up new moves and practicing them all over the house. She had a clear preference for music with a good beat (thank you Go Go's) and my husband instinctively hauled out his Madonna stash, which went over big. (Because the universe wanted to torture me, her favorite was Hard Candy, an album of which the less said the better.)
As is often the case with a preschooler, repetition was part of the deal: Once she had a taste of Madonna, our little diva wanted more more more. Well-intended man that he is, my hubby began cruising YouTube for videos of Madonna's best moves. Knowing that our daughter liked the song "Four Minutes," he launched that clip, only to discover that, even after all these years, Madonna's default setting is a lingerie-clad bump-and-grind.
Not wanting to make a big deal about it, he skipped the steamier bits and fast-forwarded to the images of the singer striding across the hoods of cars, in hopes of emphasizing her strength and grace. But when he tried to find more appropriate videos, it soon became clear that the Madonna universe is divided into roughly two realms: Victoria's Secret Galaxy and The Fetish Way. That ended that.
Not surprisingly, several months later when our daughter asked to be Madonna, we didn't even hesitate before telling her no. I think she was probably envisioning something black and sleek, maybe with tall boots, as opposed to, say, a whip and a corset. But whatever she imagined, we were acutely aware of the associations that would come with her chosen role. The Madonna brand is sex, sex, sex. Call it liberation, call it personal agency, dress it up in gender theory all you like, and there's still no way that what is being sold by Madonna's carefully crafted persona is at all appropriate for a child that age.
We dads may have dropped the ball in exposing our daughter to The Original Miss Crotch-grabber in the first place, but we didn't have to make it worse by letting our girl dress to emulate her at such a tender age. That didn't make us prudes -- it made us parents. Until she is old enough to have a more mature understanding of the messages that can sent by what she wears and how she looks, it our job to help her understand what is (or isn't) appropriate and why.
This opinion is not universally shared. At least one mom (albeit of the Toddlers & Tiaras variety) apparently considers a cone bra appropriate for a two year-old. For that matter, there are parents out there who seem to believe that anything goes. Why not Baby Hitler or Little Jack Terrorist?
On Halloween, when you open your door and see such costumes before you, it says less about the kids wearing them and more about the values of their caregivers: People for whom almost nothing is sacred and very little is deeply meaningful. And that, if you ask me, is truly scary.
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