“It’s not a phase, mum!” – dinosaurs aren’t just for little kids

“It’s not a phase, mum!” She screamed in agony, throwing her plush ceratosaurus to the ground with a Tyrannosaurus-level groan of anguish. She folded her arms across her Jurassic Park t-shirt and stomped on the ground in her Velociraptor-foot fluffy slippers. Her mother gazed about the bedroom – “Do not feed the dinosaurs” poster on the wall, stegosaurs on the duvet, at least twelve guides to palaeontology on the bookshelf.

“It’s the real me!”

I’ll be frank with you – that’s a tad exaggerated. But believe me, if I had access to Velociraptor slippers, a plush ceratosaurus and a decent collection of dinosaur-emblazoned clothing and my mother was less cool with my obsession with dinosaurs, it would have been quite accurate.

But funny as it is, I’m not here to tell a funny narrative about a girl who acts like she’s in a goth phases except it’s a dinosaur phrase; I’m here to talk about that phrase; “dinosaur phase”.

How often is it that when you see a young boy – about 2 to 6 years of age – carrying a toy dinosaur or wearing a dinosaur shirt? Quite often. How often do said boy’s parents say he’s “into the dinosaur phase”? How often are dinosaurs marketed towards girls? How often are dinosaurs seen as a decent area of interest for someone above the age of 10?

All this marketing towards kids pushes the message that dinosaurs – whilst being a perfectly reasonable pursuit in the field of palaeoscience – are something you grow out of.

And there is a significant gap between kiddie dinosaurs and highly specialised university-level textbooks on dinosaurology as an aspect of palaeoscience.

This has reached a point where now there’s a fine line between being the kid who tells the “Do-you-think-he-saurus” joke and the kid who, at age 14, completes a university-level course in dinosaur palaeobiology. If you want to continue with the “phase”, you have to be dead serious about it. But not everyone who likes dinosaurs past the age of 10 has to be ridiculously set on becoming a palaeontologist.

Often I have pondered if it would have been different for me were there not such a huge gap. Would I have become so hell-bent on palaeontology? Did I force myself into studying it just to prove a point? Am I a walking cliché? At which point, I become overwhelmed and resort to sitting under my stegosaur duvet to watch Australia: The Time Traveller’s Guide for the hundredth time on my laptop.

I also hate the vibes I keep getting that in order to love dinosaurs (as a girl), you need to be a tomboy who dresses like Indiana Jones at a hoedown. Often, people tell me they don’t expect a vintage-wearing writer undertaking film-related extracurricular activities to be obsessed with dinosaurs. Sometimes, they’ll say that it’s weird – I’m weird. And I’ll tell them that they’re so funny. Hilarious.

There are moments when I doubt myself – but then I take a step back, see the dinosaur dress, dinosaur boxer shorts, ten dinosaur shirts, dinosaur brooch, dinosaur bag I made for myself, dinosaur duvet, dinosaur books and decide that yes, I am in fact quite obsessed.

I might as well discuss own experiences as someone who stayed far too long in the “dinosaur phase” for many a “normal” person’s liking. But first, I might as well explain how exactly I got into that phase and not something else like, say, makeup or (shudders in pain) ponies. My parents visited Egypt before I was born, and they brought back a decent collection of scarab models, papyrus images, and various other interesting objects. Naturally (as an unusual kid), I was fascinated with these and before I knew it, was writing in hieroglyphs, reading books on Ancient Egypt and nagging my parents to take me to museums whenever we went somewhere. I remember on one of the first days of school, we went around the group and the teacher asked each girl what she wanted to be when she grew up.

 

“Vet.”

“Vet.”

“Vet.”

“Vet.”

“Vet.”

“Archaeologist.”

 

I once had a school performance where the other kindergartens and I dressed up as Egyptian ladies and I was telling everyone off for tying their belts in a manner that was historically inaccurate. I was six.

When I was about 9, I moved from archaeology to palaeontology. Partially because, duh, dinosaurs are awesome, but also because I simply lost interest in archaeology. Why? I ran out of things to research.

And so, I moved on to palaeontology, and with palaeontology I have stayed for the past ten years. Am I going to run out of things to study? Hell no. Archaeology covers a few thousand years – palaeo covers billions.

The next few years are a bit vague – I watched documentaries, read books – expanded my knowledge wherever I could and tried so hard to ignore the constant sense that I was “weird”. Today, I know to own my weirdness – but when you’re a kid, you’re always so desperate to fit in and be accepted. I still remember the anxiety I experienced going into a shop and seeing the people in it looking at me funny for walking around the boys’ section – after all, I saw no dinosaur pencil cases on the girls’ side.

I was picked on in high school; people never seeming to realise that I was dead serious about studying dinosaurs – I’m in my first year of a Bachelor of Advanced Science and still hell-bent on palaeo so not much has changed there…

I travelled to Melbourne, Victoria and Winton, Queensland (a decent journey for a Southern Highlander) just to complete work experience with palaeontologists in two museums – one in the city, the other in the outback.

When I was twelve years old, I watched Jurassic Park for the first time and absolutely loved it. I was so happy to have a female character to look up to who wasn’t overly sexualised (looking at you, Lara Croft) and a male character with whom I could identify. I really looked up to Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant and aspired to be like them someday – but not be nearly eaten repeatedly by oversized velociraptors without feathers who made turtle mating noises.

I grew so sick of people telling me dinosaurs were “for boys”. The only difference between people like those and mosquitoes are that one group consists of blood-sucking parasites and the other, of insects. Even if those words weren’t said explicitly, I saw them hovering behind every advertisement, every t-shirt, everything I saw.

I got so sick of seeing crowds of little boys clogging up the walkways in museums gawking at the reconstructed remains of an albertosaur and saying “look, T-rex!”. When I went to the Walking With Dinosaurs Arena Spectacular I was fuming because I couldn’t hear anything over the wailing of small children whose parents dragged them along to a too-bright, too-loud show just because the fact that they had a Y-chromosome and were under ten meant they had to be forced into liking a highly clichéd depiction of an utterly fascinating and ridiculously diverse group of animals that many people spend their entire lives studying.

Prehistoric creatures cannot be gendered. It’s like only selling lions to boys and ponies to girls… oh wait…

I can hardly believe that there are still people who think only little boys like dinosaurs – big boys like instruments of war that murder countless people; little girls like ponies – big girls like makeup and conforming to unfair societal standards that undermine their social value and self-confidence.

 

But, tempting as it is to return to a black-and-white view of the world; if I agreed with someone like that, we’d both be wrong.

 

So what do I propose? A radical change in the marketing of dinosaur toys to become “revolutionary” and try to sell more plastic crap to more kids and be praised for including someone with not one but two X-chromosomes in their advertisements? (How forward-thinking of them!)

Nope.

I like “revolutionary” advertisements like that the same way I like my coffee…

I hate coffee.

We need to fill in the gap – that horrible stretch of no-dinosaur’s-land that spans from children aged 10 to 18. We need dinosaur books for teens. We need to keep them in the “phase” and stop seeing it as a “phase” but instead see it as a fascinating and remarkable topic they could happily spend the rest of their lives madly researching.

We need to stop discouraging them from keeping that interest.

We need to spread the word – we need to get people – young and old – to hold their plastic Microraptors above their heads with pride and say, “It’s not a phase!”.

Because if you feel a scale of one to ten would be too small to measure your passion for dinosaurs, you are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you.

I have a five-year-old cousin who is absolutely in love with dinosaurs. And all I can do (other than cringe when he watches Dinosaur Train) is sit and silently hope he never “grows out of it”. But still, I have a heavy heart because I know that no matter what I do, he’ll get the message that dinosaurs are just for little kids. All I can hope is that he’s stubborn enough to ignore it.

And it doesn’t have to be just dinosaurs – you have billions of years to choose from. Maybe investigate megafauna or human evolution, the giant bugs of the Carboniferous; the first mammals – but whatever you end up loving, stick to it. Don’t let some peasant tell you that you ought to grow out of your “phase” and never forget to inform them that they can grow out of their stupid phase now.

 

By Kate A. J. Swan