By now millions have watched and shared the Youtube video of Riley, the spirited 4-year-old who's sick of pink and wants toy companies everywhere to know that girls can like superheroes too:
Why has this clip spread like wildfire? Well, our viral videos almost always have something to tell us about who we are as a society:
We're a people that enjoys a good dancing baby or animal. We–or at least those Americans among us–think anything said by a child with a British accent is adorable. We recognize that there are norms that govern the expression of emotion, and we're intrigued by those who fly right by them, even when the double rainbow does, indeed, surprisingly go all the way.
And Riley? Well, we like Riley for an even simpler reason: because she's right. And because she has (proverbially, at least) the cojones to point out to the rest of us how things really are.
Riley's rant isn't just about colors or toys. It's also about books, fairy tales, and TV shows. Halloween costumes. Birthday party themes. Baby shower gifts. The different adjectives that parents use to describe their newborns just minutes after birth.
If you have a daughter and you're paying attention, you have your own stories to add. In my case, a 5-year-old telling me that she wanted to be either Peter Pan or a knight for Halloween because the female protagonists from the movies she watches "don't do anything interesting." One viewing of the original Star Wars DVD, a Princess Leia wig, and some plastic-light-saber-inflicted damage to my desk lamp later, and I can testify that the purported relationship between testosterone and swordplay is tenuous at best.
And that's just the thing: our gendered consumer culture is but the tip of the iceberg. For every website with separate links for Boys' Toys and Girls' Toys, there's a corresponding assumption made regarding sex and aptitude. For every fast-food drive-thru attendant that needs to know the sex of my kids in order to pick the "right" Happy Meal toy, there's an underlying belief in some sort of immutable gender difference.
Don't minimize Riley's point by writing her off as "spunky" or "cute." Don't dismiss her trenchant social analysis as making a mountain out of a molehill simply because it was recorded at a toystore. It is a mountain she's railing against.
Because behavioral science has now shown us that many of the gender differences we habitually chalk up to biology or evolution aren't as set-in-stone as we assume. That men being from Mars and women from Venus makes for good book copy, but doesn't do justice to just how context-dependent gender differences are when it comes to aptitude, preference, and social behavior.
Men are inherently more aggressive than women? Sure, when male and female research participants play a violent video game, the men play more aggressively. But convince them that no one is recording their performance–that is, let them play anonymously–and the women become just as aggressive.
Women are hard-wired to be pickier when screening potential mates? Yep, in speed dating studies where a circle of men rotates around a circle of women, the women find fewer prospective dating partners to whom they're attracted. But switch things up so that the women rotate instead? That is, turn the traditional dating paradigm on its head and make women the approachers and men the approachees? Suddenly, men are just as picky.
Males have more natural aptitude for math? Indeed, give even high-achieving men and women a standardized math test and the women tend to underperform. But that gender difference goes away in a single-sex testing room. Or with assurances that the test has been found to be free from gender bias.
This is why Riley's pissed off. And why you should be too. As my new book (and its title) spell out: situations matter and context transforms us. So it goes with matters of sex and gender. Even if it sometimes takes the tiniest of pundits to remind us.