Wednesday, July 22, 2009

It started with a Happy Meal

By: Ianthe

It started with a Happy Meal.

We pulled up to the McDonald's drive-thru and left the car idling, waiting for the speaker to crackle with the voice of some teenage part-time drone.

“Welcome to McDonald's, what can I get for you?” She spoke with a lilt of disinterest, the sort that grows from minimum wage recitation and repetition.

Uhhh, yes, can I get a, uh, cheeseburger Happy Meal and--”

No pickles!” I hissed quietly. In my elementary school world, everything was meant to be in nice categories, separable into clean-cut picture book dichotomies. Cheeseburgers were in the “delicious” category. Pickles were overwhelmingly in the “yuck” category. To attempt to combine these stark opposites in one instance would surely cause a universal breakdown and utter chaos.

“--no pickles on the cheeseburger, and a Coke with that.” Papa concluded.

There are several aspects of Happy Meals that make them far superior to less emotional meals – the box itself, with its bright colors, games, and Golden Arches handles. Any child can tell you, though, the absolute best thing about Happy Meals is that they come with toys. Sometimes 101 Dalmatians, sometimes Tomagotchi, always cheap Chinese plastic – it didn't matter. At least, that's what I thought.

“Is the Happy Meal for a boy or a girl?” the speaker droned.

My father was visibly taken aback by the question and replied sternly, “What does it matter?”

“There's two toys, it depends if they're a boy or a girl which one they get.”

“What's the difference?” Papa was irked. I just wanted my cheeseburger, sans-pickles. Man, did I hate pickles. They were like cucumbers that had their souls stolen by the devil.

“The toy for boys is a Hot Wheels car and the toy for girls is a uh, little Barbie doll.”

“Why can't girls play with Hot Wheels?” he demanded. I can't imagine the drive-thru attendant being anything but jarred by this exchange. This wasn't the conversation she was trained to have! Why did he have to raise such a fuss over something stupid like a Happy Meal toy?

“Is the meal for a boy or a girl?” Papa was very obviously displeased, and he turned around to ask me my opinion.

“Do you want Hot Wheels or a Barbie?” he asked.

“Hot Wheels!” It was a no brainer. You can race Hot Wheels around the inside of the car window and what could Barbie do? Sit around and look pretty. That's boring. The decision was made almost instantly.

“It's for a boy.”

■ ■ ■

It wasn't until taking AP Psychology this year that I ever really thought about the concept of “gender identity”. I mean, all children know who's a “tomboy” and who's a “girly boy”, but that was always supposed to be wrong, to not act in accord with your birth certificate. The truth of the matter is, biological sex is completely separate from gender – your own self-concept of being male or female. The idea that your biology and sense of self could be divergent, yet harmonious and complete, was an utter revolution in the way that I framed myself and my upbringing.

I learned in Psychology that children learn and assimilate into gender roles by observing behaviors and being rewarded for mimicking “the correct ones”. Sally, you're such a good mommy to your dollies – Jimmy, put your sister's tea set down, why don't you go play outside? But looking back on my childhood, these gender-specific models were absent. Mama could rock a dress and use a caulking gun and papa took time off of work to raise his kids and keep the roof repaired. My parents did encourage me to take ballet if I wanted to... as long as I didn't miss my karate lessons. I watched wrestling and HGTV back-to-back and never understood why all the good T-shirts at Kohl's were in the boys' section. I saw nothing wrong with climbing trees in a dress as long as nobody was standing under me. I could never completely fit in with “the guys”, but I never really felt at home with “the girls” either.

Alas, the world works the way I thought it did in elementary school – it necessitates dichotomies. Feminine/masculine exist to parallel delicious/yuck. And we all know what happens when you try to combine such dire opposites – utter chaos.

And chaos, I am finding out, is a pretty sweet deal.

I've taken the liberty of just completely rejecting gender. I have no concept of myself as “male” or “female”, “masculine” or “feminine”. I am free to move between all, some, either or neither with no repercussions, no strained loyalties. I will paint my nails just to have them chip when I change the belt on the power sander. I will wear my dad's old air force jacket with my black miniskirt. Sure, I'm still a girl, and I would never deny that – I embrace it fully! Sex equality! But no gender equality. Gender's just something we've made up to try to simplify the world, something we should break free of.

In the end, nothing is black and white. Dichotomies are false advertising, subject to change without warning. Things can shift and suddenly nothing fits in the boxes anymore. I'm a vegetarian now – cheeseburgers disgust me. I order veggie wraps in the lunch line, and I always ask for extra pickles.

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