Since the age of two, my four-year-old daughter has been obsessed with Spiderman. On rainy days, she proudly sports her Spiderman umbrella, her last two birthday cakes have both featured Spiderman, and given an opportunity to dress up (either at home, a friend's house, or at a gymboree), she will opt for the Spiderman/superhero costume rather than more girlish choices. Her only exposure to Spiderman has been indirect through friends at daycare and kindergarten. We don't have satellite TV or cable, and she has no siblings who have ever shown any interest in Spiderman.
Tzofia first discovered Spiderman two years ago, during a trip to the States. We spent one rainy morning at a local gymboree, where there was a dress-up area with an array of costumes. Tzofia was instantly drawn to the Spiderman costume, and asked to put it on. Up until that point, she had been exclusive to Tigger and Dora. Once dressed up as Spiderman, she jumped up and down, started growling, and began chasing her older sister around the room. When we asked her why she was growling, she said that she wanted to be "scary like Spiderman." We found it both interesting and amusing that her perception of Spiderman was that of a scary and intimidating figure, and since that day, has maintained that character when dressed up as him. Perhaps her image of Spiderman as being scary and "bad" gives her an outlet for any pent-up anger or frustration she is feeling.
A couple of months ago, when we were blessed with a couple of rare but welcome rainy days here in Israel, Tzofia left the house excitedly, more because of the opportunity the rain afforded her to use her Spiderman umbrella. When we arrived at gan, a few girls standing by the door chanted (in Hebrew): "Spiderman is for boys!" I have to say that one of my proudest moments occurred right then when Tzofia marched proudly right past the girls, and hung up her umbrella next to her friends'. I prayed to myself that for the rest of her life she should be as confident in her individuality as she was right at that moment.
With the onset of Purim, our family conversations have inevitably centered around Purim costumes, and Tzofia asked us if Spiderman is only for boys. At some point our free-spirited and strong-willed four-year-old became aware of her surroundings, and somehow internalized the message that Spiderman isn't every girl's cup of tea. Our heavily weighed answer was: "Spiderman is for whoever likes him." I thought hard about Tzofia's question afterwards. My instinct was to encourage her to stay loyal to Spiderman, regardless of what the girls around her say or do, but upon further thought, I realized that perhaps her question indicated emotional maturity and awareness of her environment. However much we want to encourage her individuality, it is inevitable that at some point she will have to make the choice whether her form of self-expression comes with too heavy a price. And that is part of growing up. Also, is it fair to encourage her to be Spiderman when we all know that kids can be cruel, and she may be the butt of her friends' jokes? Fast-forward two weeks later, and Tzofia's choices ranged from Spiderman to a bear ("because bears scare people more") to Ironman - to finally Superman. She ultimately decided to stay with the superhero.
My first reaction to these changes of heart was frustration, till it dawned on me that Purim for children represents one day of the year when they can reinvent themselves before their family, their teachers, their friends; that Purim is not just about disguising themselves and putting masks on, but rather taking them off, giving those around them the ability to see them how they want to be seen. A vehicle for self-expression. On this day, when children can parade the streets in their mask, tutu, or superhero costume, they are subconsciously teaching themselves that they can be whoever they want to be. There are no limitations other than those they set for themselves.