This is part of a new sometime series titled “Thinking Thursday.” While striving for the elusive work-family balance is so common it’s become a stereotype, I find it particularly difficult to reconcile the feminist, political, cultural, social, and economic theory I contend with in my academic work with my work as a mother and domestic partner. Some days the two seem so obviously and inextricably in sync, and others I find myself baking cupcakes and scouring the store aisles for the perfect white noise maker by day and reading and writing critiques of our expectations of women’s domestic labor and our failure to see women as nothing other than mothers by night.
I actually take pleasure in much of my creative domestic work–the baking, the art projects, the sewing. I see these things as “extra,” not necessary, and I wouldn’t do them if I didn’t enjoy them. I don’t depend on them to define my self worth. But I’d be kidding myself if I thought social and cultural expectations didn’t in some way shape both my behavior and that of my husband and children. This new series is meant to be a space for me to reflect and work through the collision and concord of my academic and family lives.
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Xavier’s obsession with Batman began with a bin of superhero action figures at the home of the child care provider he and his brother stayed with two days each week. The toys were probably purchased secondhand cheaply and in bulk without much thought, but Xavier and his friends returned to them every day and soon each of them had identified his favorite Batman figure that the others would save for him if he arrived late. Slowly, despite my insistence that our home be free of branded toys and products, Batman toys slowed found their way in.
Accepting that this Batman obsession was inevitable, I sought out ways to steer it in positive directions. I emphasized the imaginative side of superhero lore, and talked about how superheros can fly, jump high, and, in the spirit of teamwork with their superhero friends, use their powers to help other people. I rejected the cartoons designed for older children with bulging muscles and violent clashes in favor of the Superfriends of the 1970s (while all the while biting my tongue about the troubling and simplistic trope of the “bad guy”).
While I wasn’t crazy about the idea that “good” and “bad” are so perfectly clear cut, at least the Batman of the 70s relied on trapping his enemies rather than destroying them in bloody battles. My worry that the ethos of the male superhero simply perpetuated the myth that helpless and weak women need strong muscled men to protect them didn’t seem to bear out in this older version of the cartoon where Wonder Woman often played a leading role.
This teamwork-loving, gentler hero is the version of Batman I strove to recreate in costume form when Xavier decided, shortly after his birthday (in July!) that he would dress as Batman for Halloween. And the same little boy who sometimes changes his mind about what he wants for breakfast three times during the ten minutes we spend making it never wavered from this choice.
With gusto, I threw myself into finding the perfect pattern to use as a starting point, buying the perfect fabric, and planning my inevitable tweaks. Meanwhile, in my moments of weakness when I let him watch the occasional Superfriends episode on YouTube, Xavier learned about teamwork and using your powers for good. That is, until we discovered the three part 1977 episode titled “The Mind Maidens.”
The plot is fairly simple. The evil Medula (“the most brilliant, the most dangerous woman on Earth”) seeks to rule the world with the help of her female minions. In one of the first scenes, we see a young woman on a date with her boyfriend and a mother serving her family a home cooked meal (“Another piece of chicken, dear?”). The young woman and the mother and her daughter are all zapped with Medula’s “will booster”; overtaken by its power, they “dematerialize” the men in their presence, shooting rays out of their now glowing eyes “using their strange powers,” and pledge their allegiance to Medula. (“We are with you, Medula,” they chant.) The men are stored on “computer tape” (it seems the threat of technology is almost as menacing as the threat of the growing women’s movement).
Men in power, like presidents and kings, are among Medula’s most coveted targets. (“Soon the entire Navy will be commanded by my women,” she pronounces. Later, she commands her followers, “Women of the world, go forth and take over all armies, governments, and ruling bodies.”) The women are drunk with power and one older woman pronounces, “You men are powerless against us.” “Jupiters!” observes Gleek, “they’re taking over the government.”
You can see where this is going, right?
Enter the Superfriends to the rescue, including Xavier’s coveted Batman, who foil Medula’s plans, but not before Wonder Woman and Jayna fall under her spell. Superman is, of course, the mastermind who brings down Medula’s short reign. The most disappointing (and most obvious) scene of the episode (which, by the way, I never let Xavier see) is the very last one, where Wonder Woman and Superman explain why those Second Wave feminists simply need to cool their heels and slow the heck down. Their leaders are no doubt in it for personal gain because, well, why else would a woman seek a position of power? “Medula’s method of controlling women and putting them in power was wrong,” Wonder Woman explains, “Only gradually, a step at a time, can social customs be changed, no matter what they may be.”
With this episode haunting me, I tried to put it out of my mind and dove into my work of constructing Xavier’s costume, almost literally jumping for joy when I found a pair of plain gray pajamas to use as the base, taking care to make sure the emblem looked exactly like Batman’s, shortening the cape and re-engineering the hood when it didn’t fit Xavier’s head, constructing my own version of Batman’s infamous utility belt, along with working pockets. Following the rule of good enough, I decided Xavier wouldn’t notice the missing blue briefs and gloves and the fact that Batman’s cape actually has a zig-zag edge. I abandoned plans to make blue boots and decided that the gold ones I made for last year’s costume looked great despite the fact that they weren’t “authentic.” After thinking about this costume for weeks, I ultimately didn’t want to spend more than a few nights putting it together.
Choosing (quite quickly, I might add) not to beat myself up about the missed details of Xavier’s costume (which he absolutely loves, by the way), I directed my worry instead to allowing Xavier to immerse himself in all things Superfriends. Realizing yet again that I’m not always going to get this parenting thing right, I felt reassured after reading Janice D’Arcy’s Washington Post blog post recounting her second thoughts about her daughters’ Wonder Woman costumes (and her regretted decision to encourage them to watch episodes of the old TV series). I am not alone in this struggle, it seems.
And then a funny thing happened.
I watched this morning as my costumed son ran over and grabbed his little brother’s hand after he had wandered out into the street and walked him back to the safety of the driveway and I listened as he told me that he was doing this because he was Batman, and Batman helps people. It was a welcome reminder of what Batman means to Xavier: helpfulness, teamwork, and magical thinking. I felt a little better admiring his costume just then (it is a pretty darn cute costume, isn’t it?) and thinking that I just may have managed to instill in him some important values after all.
Or perhaps I have Batman to thank for that.