Picture a 9-year-old, toting a backpack, on the way to school. It's decorated in bright colors, rainbows and smiley-faced, wide-eyed cartoon ponies. More specifically, it's a My Little Pony backpack.
Stop for a second. What are you picturing? A girl, right?
What if I told you this child was a little boy?
That's the focus of debate behind this viral news story: The mom of a 9-year-old boy is speaking out against her son's school, claiming that officials banned his My Little Pony backpack, calling it a "trigger" for bullying.
The boy — his name is Grayson Bruce — loves My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. "Most of the characters in the show are girls ... most of the toys are girly ... surprisingly I found stuff like this," Grayson told local station WLOS-TV. But sadly, he was relentlessly picked on by other students at his school for wearing the fuzzy blue backpack featuring the character Rainbow Dash. "They're taking it a little too far, with punching me, pushing me down, calling me horrible names, stuff that really shouldn't happen," Grayson said.
Grayson's mom, Noreen, sees nothing wrong with her son loving the show. "It's promoting friendship," she said. "There's no bad words, there's no violence. It's hard to find that, even in cartoons now."
What's even worse is instead of defending the bullied little boy, the elementary school's counselor and principal told him to leave the backpack at home. With little other choice, the family is now homeschooling Grayson and looking to enroll him in a school elsewhere. Mom Noreen stands by her little boy.
"Saying a lunchbox is a trigger for bullying, is like saying a short skirt is a trigger for rape," Noreen argued. "It's flawed logic, it doesn't make any sense."
Grayson is actually part of a much bigger Brony movement, which has been suddenly surfacing from the more secret pockets of the web as a strong fandom and raising eyebrows everywhere. There was even a documentary released titled Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans Of My Little Pony (you can watch it now on Netflix), following men ranging in their early teens into their thirties, who are all fans of the show. Some of them were sadly met with disdain from their families and friends, but some were happily embraced.
If you ask any of these young men what made them diehard fan-boys of this assumedly feminine cartoon show, the answer is simple and always same: the binding themes of friendship and love.
So what's the problem with love? Apparently, love is a girly thing.
Frankly, we see it taught this way everywhere in our culture: Rom-coms, romance novels, and Valentine's Day are all meant to be swooned over by girls and scoffed at by boys. So this isn't just a bullying issue. This is a gender stereotyping issue. And the big-picture problem is that this story is just one in a seemingly endless slew of publicly humiliated children: There was the boy who loved nail polish. The boy who loved tutus. The boy who loved princess dresses. Each and every one of them has been met with their harsh critics. If any little girl strived to reach outside of the societally-enforced limits of her gender, she would be praised and applauded. So why is there still so much backlash with these little boys?
When we put our kids into gender-strict molds, we are teaching them the opposite of acceptance. We are teaching them that we cannot accept others for being "different" and we certainly cannot ourselves for being "different" either. Instead of standing up against ignorance, the school took the easy way out: They told little Grayson to hide the backpack at home. The unofficial lesson here is that we can't love ourselves for who we are. Of course, as adults, we know that this simply isn't true. But these kind of societal politics are far too complicated for any 9-year-old to wrap his or her head around.
This victimizes and further alienates a 9-year-old who already felt voiceless.
That's what makes Grayson's story so sad: He is unable to safely explore his own identity — and that's what childhood is all about. My heart really goes out to this little boy as someone who was bullied herself. When I was a little girl, I loved ponies and Disney princesses as much as I loved comic books and Space Jam, and I was being bullied because I loved the "wrong" things. I felt powerless.
I don't want that happening to Grayson.
The only thing little Grayson has learned is that he can't bring his My Little Pony backpack to school because no one will accept him. Maybe in ten years, he'll be able to look back on this time with some perspective that only comes with age and time, and see that it was okay for him to have a My Little Pony backpack. Maybe in ten years, he'll even read this article and know that someone else understands: He is just a kid tentatively exploring his own identity. I certainly hope so.
As for the school officials? They might want to start watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Seems like they could use a lesson in the power of love.
Want to show your support for Grayson? Visit this Facebook page run by his friends and family to share the love!
Photo credit: Flickr
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