Gotham City had nothing on Bennett Park in Washington Heights on Sunday morning. A blonde-haired toddler with purple earrings toggled by in full-on Spider-Man regalia, with artificial, rippling muscles included in the costume.
She was accompanied by several other Spider-Men, many of whom, like her, were not the same sex as the beloved super hero—and that was exactly the point of the Uptown Superheroes March.
Hundreds of parents hell-bent on combatting gender stereotypes strapped their little Super(wo)men into snugglies, ushered their Spider(wo)men onto training-wheel bikes, and rubbed sunscreen on their X-(wo)men’s faces.
“It’s a super hero parade, not a super man parade,” a father told his young son, as they walked past the jungle gym to the crowd of families holding signs declaring “Boys Can Be Wonder Woman, Girls Can Be Spider-Man,” and “Love Is My Super Power.”
They had come together after one mother, Margaret Ryan, didn’t know what to do when her Spider-Man-loving 4-year-old daughter, Ellie Evangelista, said she didn’t want to be a girl because she had been told by boys at her school that girls could not be Spider-Man.
The community then banded together to mount the march.
“My real struggle was to figure out how to talk to her about it at home and tell her it was all right to like whatever she wanted and play whatever toys she wanted,” Ryan told The Daily Beast, leading her to post on a local parents group, ParentAndMe1.
Ryan said she received “an outpouring of support and advice.” That led to the decision to hold the parade, so that Ellie and other children would start realizing they could be whichever super heroes they wanted to be.
The crowd on Sunday was more diverse than the Justice League—gay and straight couples abounded, as well as mixed race families.
A mother spoke to her Superman daughter in Spanish, as they walked their dog in Wonder Woman gear. A father walked by in a purple skirt, while another in a yarmulke (a traditional Jewish skullcap) and full black suit pushed three kids in a stroller.
Even for New York City, the Washington Heights/Inwood neighborhood is pretty diverse and liberal, and the Uptown Superheroes March epitomized it.
The parents weren’t so concerned about attitudes within their community, which some described, not unfavorably, as a “bubble” of egalitarianism and liberal social views. Rather, they wanted to work together to fight the larger media influences that permeate the bubble surprisingly fast.
Ryan told me that she doesn’t believe the boys telling Ellie she couldn’t be Spider-Man came from families that are enforcing these gender divisions.
“It’s engrained in our culture,” she said. “They [children] just have to turn on the TV or see billboards that perpetuate this dichotomy.”
Reyzl Geselowitz, who brought her 5-month-old son, Yosef, to the parade, was not that surprised that kids in nursery school had already picked up on gender role stereotypes and patterns.
As a mother of an infant, she’s already noticed that with baby gear, “everything is so highly gendered.” With clothes, “dogs and dinosaurs are for boys,” while “kittens and cupcakes are for girls.” The boy-girl divide is perpetuated from the start of life.
“Kids pick it up without parents even realizing it,” said Geselowitz, who is an elementary school teacher (and a friend of this reporter). “I think people don’t realize how observant kids are. They think that if you don’t discuss gender, then a kid’s not going to notice [gender roles].
“Kids notice gender very, very young. They notice the boys are always wearing blue and girls are wearing pink. They notice which characters are boys and which characters are girls. Kids that young like to sort things into categories. That's really developmentally appropriate at that age.”
Kids may pick up on gender roles innocently. They are being commonsensical, rather than sexist, at their age, she said.
“It’s totally normal that a boy hears Spider-Man and thinks ‘When I grow up, I'll be a man.’ It makes sense [he thinks] a little girl shouldn’t be Spider-Man,” said Adriana Zavala, one of the parade organizers and a lifelong native of Washington Heights.
Echoing Ellie’s scenario, Zavala said her 6-year-old son has told her 3-year-old-daughter she can’t be Spider-Man because she’s a girl.
At the same time, Zavala believes it is important to tackle these gender conceptions while kids are young, so they will not influence them later in life.
She hoped the march will set a larger precedence for her children when they face greater gender and sexuality complexities in adolescence.
“I think something so small right now, like with toys, it does make a difference for when they’re older,” she said. “When my son is 15, will he pick on a boy who wears nail polish, who is struggling with his own gender identity.
“I don’t want my boy to the be one looking down on him. I want him to be the ‘to each his own’ type of child. Same with my daughter. It’s not that I want my children to cross-dress or be ambiguous. I just want that acceptance.”
Discussing the nuances of gender is likely to be an increasingly hot topic for parents. It may also be a subject their children will have questions about at a younger age as the trans movement gains acceptance and attention.
“This is a real zeitgeist issue,” said one father, citing the past week's top story with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair.
His 6-year-old daughter, Lola, was by his side, wearing a cape and a Superman outfit. “Whatever your gender, whatever your identity, whatever you want to be, you should be. That’s the world my daughter lives in right this moment, and I don’t want anyone else to tell her differently.”