All I wanted for my fourth birthday was an Esmeralda Barbie doll. My favorite movie that year was The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, and I was obsessed with the sassy, street-smart femme fatale at its center. Her purple skirt, tambourine, and sultry voice were too much for four-year-old me to handle (thanks, Demi Moore).
When I finally got to open my presents, I yelped with joy as I tore off the wrapping paper and saw Esmeralda smiling back at me. But my Barbie bliss was short-lived, because I immediately heard my grandpa grumble:
“Who the hell got him that?”.
I deflated, and I don’t remember playing with Esmeralda again.
But I do remember that I loved all things deemed ‘girly’ when I was little. I wore my mom’s clothes and put on her makeup all the time. I ran to my sister’s presents on Christmas morning before my own. And more than once, I threw on my mom’s wedding veil and channeled my inner X-Men warrior goddess by running around the house and shouting:
“I’M STORM, MISTRESS OF THE ELEMENTS!”
No one dared tell me otherwise, at least in the comfort of my own home. Outside was a different story – I was ashamed that I was friends with only girls. I tried hard to relate to the boys in my class, but it never felt right.
I poured my childhood experiences into a web series I wrote and directed called Danny the Manny. It follows a gay babysitter who discovers the six-year-old boy he’s watching likes to cross-dress. The titular Danny sees a lot of himself in Quinn and decides to be the queer guardian angel he wish he had growing up. Danny crosses the line of his mannying duties, risking his job, his rent money, and his conscience but the question remains:
Is he helping or hurting Quinn?
And what the heck does he tell the mom?
My own story, coupled with my work as a babysitter, made me wonder about how we should raise kids in a day and age when being LGBT is more accepted than ever before. Seeing kids divide pretty much everything into ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ categories made me realise how early we gender and divide children.
As adults, why can’t we allow kids to explore and question these norms? Encourage gender creativity, even!
We’re now living in this grey area where gender is being questioned and roles are being capsized. I’m not sure if ‘grown-ups’ know how to talk to kids about these changes in our culture. My goal is to bring the subject out of the shadows, to urge others to question our own ideas, and to open up our imagination about what it means to be a girl or a boy.
I can only imagine how little me would have felt if he were encouraged to explore and express himself however he wanted. As a babysitter, I encourage my kids to play with whatever they want – colours be damned! If that means it’s a truck so be it, and, if it’s an Esmeralda doll, please wait your turn because I’ve been practising my Demi Moore croon for years.
Mike Roma is the writer and director of the new web series ‘Danny the Manny’. All 5 episode are available on YouTube and DannyTheMannySeries.com.
Check out episode one below: