“American Dad!” Star Rachael MacFarlane’s New Children’s Book Plays With Gender Norms

The plucky protagonist in “Eleanor Wyatt, Princess and Pirate” can be anything she wants to be.

Rachael MacFarlane, a voice actor best known for her work on American Dad!, now in its 15th season, is an awesome American mom.

Seth MacFarlane’s younger sister has written a children’s book about an imaginative and fearless young girl, Eleanor Wyatt, Princess and Pirate, challenging gender stereotypes and celebrating the freedom of gender-neutrality during playtime. Illustrated by her husband, Spencer Laudiero, the empowering book is dedicated to their two daughters, Bella and Perrin.

Spending her recess with NewNowNext, MacFarlane shares Eleanor’s adorable inspiration and teases her upcoming book about a sensitive little boy who loves ballet.

Courtesy PMK•BNC

What inspired you to write Eleanor Wyatt?

It’s pretty close to home. I have two daughters, and my oldest, 9-year-old Bella, is a unique girl who has always marched to beat of her own drum. She was never into princess culture. For Halloween she’s dressed as Darth Vader, a stormtrooper, a policeman. She went to a really progressive pre-school in L.A., and she and a little boy in her class loved to play dress up, but he’d dress up as a princess and she’d dress up as the prince or king.

How did that go over?

It was great. But one day she came home from school and said some of the other kids were like, “We don’t get it. Why are you the prince? Why is he the princess?” I told Bella there was no right or way to play. If you’re a girl, you can love trucks and be a fireman. If you’re a boy, you can play with Barbies and paint your nails pink. There should be no limitations on your imagination or play. So I hunted for a children’s book about what I’d been saying, but I couldn’t find one that tackled this very specific issue.

So you wrote one.

Well, I always thought I had a book in me, and it turns out I did. And I’m lucky to be married to a brilliant illustrator.

The illustrations are beautiful. I particularly like Eleanor’s sparkly red shoes.

Oh, I was obsessed with the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz as a child, so I was like, “The high heels have to be red!” Spencer brought so much diversity to the book—varying skin tones, little boys in dresses, a boy in a wheelchair. We hope there’s something for everybody.

Eleanor reminded me of a 6-year-old girl who dressed as Thor this past Halloween and made headlines after an online troll attacked her father, writing, “This is how you create a lesbian.”

What? That’s insane. Well, a friend of mine recently encountered someone who literally said, “I won’t let my son wear pink because it’ll turn him gay.” This is in 2018!

When it comes to gender-expansive play, aren’t little girls typically dismissed as tomboys?

Yeah, as a culture, we do seem to have more of a problem with little boys who like things traditionally for girls. We actually have a companion book coming out in May called Harrison Dwight, Ballerina and Knight. It tackles similar issues with play, but it deals more with that double standard of letting our little girls feel emotions but trying to suppress them in our little boys. If we can start young and shift that narrative, let boys cry when they’re sad and feel their feelings with pride, maybe they’ll become less violent adults.

Conservative watch groups like One Million Moms will probably hate these books.

Bring it on! That means we’re doing something right. We’re challenging the idea of what’s considered normal, and that needs to be challenged. While we haven’t really experienced pushback yet about Eleanor Wyatt, I’m curious to see the reception for Harrison Dwight, because it promotes the idea of accepting softness in boys and letting them be sensitive.

Will Harrison Dwight touch more on gender-expansive play as it may relate to sexuality or gender identity?

These books are more about imagination, creativity, and encouraging our kids to be limitless. But I think if you’re a kid struggling with your sexuality or gender identity, you can take from the books whatever you need to take. On the page where Eleanor says, “I’m awaiting my prince while trapped in a tower,” one of the knights is a girl. There’s room for interpretation.

Children’s books like Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three more explicitly introduce kids to the reality of LGBTQ people and families. Have you had that conversation with your girls?

We’ve always said to Bella, “If you ever have a husband or a wife…” That’s just how we talk to our kids. We’ve always made it clear that you love who you love. My kids go to very progressive schools in our liberal bubble of Los Angeles, so Bella’s always had kids with same-sex parents in her class and doesn’t know anything different. That’s why we hope our books are eye-opening to kids who live in areas where this isn’t the norm.

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Eleanor Wyatt also seems like a guide for parents, teaching them to let their kids express themselves. Was that a goal?

Absolutely. It flat out says, “My mom says you don’t have to play just one way. My dad says they’re no right or wrong way to play.” So it sort of provides a script for parents. It also has a message for kids to stop judging friends who may be playing differently, to let them be themselves. If we can raise a generation of kids who are truly accepting of differences, boy, that could translate into some really good stuff in adulthood.

Have you prepared Bella for those who may hate her gender-neutral expression?

We got lucky because she does her own thing and doesn’t care what people think. I feel like she’s just been experiencing a lack of understanding, which is why we’re excited to share our book with these kids and open their minds. But as she gets older, yeah, we’ll help her navigate those people who are against anything different or out of the norm.

Did your parents encourage you and Seth to express yourselves freely?

Yeah, they let us be ourselves. My parents were very liberal, and my father is a sensitive, emotional man. We’re talking about the ’70s, early ’80s, but we had a lot of gay friends and family members, and my parents always treated that as no big deal. We got the message early on that whatever makes you happy, you love who you love. If Seth had dressed up as a princess as a little boy, I think my parents would’ve been okay with it.

American Dad/TBS

American Dad! has always been LGBTQ-inclusive with episodes like “Surro-Gate” and “Lincoln Lover.” You voice Hayley Smith, a super-liberal feminist and women’s studies major. Will we see her somehow involved in the #MeToo movement?

That’s a good question. Because it takes so long to animate an episode, it’s hard to be timely with our political humor. But the #MeToo movement obviously isn’t going anywhere, and nor should it, so hopefully that’s something they can incorporate for Hayley. It’s a really great idea. I might actually pitch this to the writers.

Hayley’s also a free-spirited hippie who challenges gender roles. How do you see her sexuality?

Hayley’s a pretty open-minded chick, so I don’t think she would be closed off to anything. Maybe I’ll pitch a girlfriend for Hayley, too!

Eleanor Wyatt, Princess and Pirate is out now. American Dad! returns January 28 on TBS.

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