Let kids be kids — without gender stereotypes.
That’s the message Rachael MacFarlane, the voice behind Miss Tammy on “Family Guy” and Hayley Smith on “American Dad!” is preaching in her new children’s book “Eleanor Wyatt, Princess and Pirate.” It’s a story about gender neutrality she hopes will allow children to embrace their self-identity and empower parents to support them.
The book, out now and illustrated by MacFarlane’s husband, Spencer Laudiero, was inspired by their 9-year-old daughter, Bella. In it, the main character Eleanor thinks she can be anything she wants to be, whether it’s a princess, a pirate, a ninja, cowgirl, rockstar, superhero or ballerina.
“Our oldest daughter has always been one of those kids that just completely marches to the beat of her own drum. She’s so incredibly unique and the way that she plays, she made it very clear from the moment she could talk that she was not my girly girl,” MacFarlane told Moneyish. “I had a closet full of princess dresses and she was like ‘I’m not having it, mom. This is not me.’”
So MacFarlane and her husband let her do her. For Halloween she’s dressed up as characters like Darth Vader, a stormtrooper and a cop.
“When she was in preschool she loved to play dress up with this little boy. The boy would dress in a princess dress and my little girl would be the prince or the king,” MacFarlane recalled. But while she promoted gender neutrality at home, some kids at school questioned it.
“Some of the kids would ask her, ‘why isn’t he the prince and you the princess?’ I took that opportunity to say ‘there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Whatever feels good to you, you should do,’” said MacFarlane. She tried to find a children’s book that taught messages of gender equality, but when she couldn’t find the right one, she decided to write it herself to support her daughter and send a message to all kids that you don’t need to be restricted by your gender when you play.
“The book itself it just follows the story of Eleanor as she kind of just goes through this exploration of being both. She just follows what feels good to her. Some days she a princess, and some days she’s a pirate. She loves her fluffy tutus, and her ninja gear,” MacFarlane explained.
For decades there’s been a lack of both female and gender neutral characters in children’s books. A Florida State University study from 2011 that examined 6,000 kids books published between 1900 and 2000 found that just 31% had female central characters, while 57% of the central characters were male, the rest gender neutral.
“Eleanor” is the latest in a number of children’s books that have set out to change this by celebrating self identity and defying societal stereotypes. Last year, “Today” show co-anchor Savannah Guthrie and educator Allison Oppenheim put out the book “Princesses Wear Pants” with the underlying message that girls can be girly and still be strong woman who get things done. The book is being turned into an animated series produced by actress Drew Barrymore. “Ballerino Nate,” originally published in 2006, tells the story of a little boy named Nate who wants to learn ballet, despite his big brother who tells him boys can’t be ballerinas. Then there’s “Jacob’s New Dress,” published in 2014, about a little boy who loves wearing dresses and pretending he’s a princess at school; and Perez Hilton’s “The Boy with Pink Hair,” about a boy who loves the color pink that debuted in 2011.
MacFarlane says that parents can do their part to teach their kids about gender equality by first being more self aware of their own biases.
“I grew up in a tiny town in Conn. on a campus of a New England boarding school and I wanted nothing more than tulle and lace and satin, and I just wanted to be a princess everyday and my mother responded with kilts and turtle necks and cardigans,” MacFarlane remember. “I always said if I had a little girl, I’m going to let her be the princess she wants to be. Bella rejected it rather rapidly, and my first instinct was ‘no, no, no. You’ve got to wear these.’ That lasted for a hot minute before I realized I’m sort of doing the same thing; sort of forcing her into this idea and I’m not letting her be her.”
Letting kids be themselves without feeling judged or ashamed will have an outstanding impact on their confidence. Research has shown that by age 6, girls already think that boys are smarter, and they become less likely to associate intelligence with their own gender. They’re also likely to avoid intellectual, a study by New York University, the University of Illinois, and Princeton University found.
MacFarlane already has plans for another book in the series slated for next year, and hopes to create a children’s cartoon with the same themes in mind.
“It’s a soft entry point — we’re not hitting anyone over the head here — to maybe think, ‘Huh, if I have a child or a little boy who wants to paint his nails pink, what’s my problem with that? It’s just a color. It’s just fun,” she said.
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