Friday, July 18, 2008

Here come the gender police.

This post over at Feministe on how gender policing hurts kids--and the subsequent comments--is/are well worth reading, especially if you are interested in unpacking your own biases about acceptable boy behavior vs girl behavior. From the post:
Girls run a constant risk of being taught to associating [sic] femininity with frivolousness, and we might be teaching boys a form of subtle misogyny as well. As Sociological Images notes, “unlike men, who are supposed to reject all things feminine, women are encouraged to balance masculine and feminine characteristics.” NPR’s article “Two Families Grapple with Sons’ Gender Preferences” seems to give credibility to this assertion. While the boys who name their animals girl’s names, identify with female characters in movies, and want to wear skirts might get taken to a psychiatrist; girls are expected to identify with male characters in movies (there might not be any female ones), can wear only slacks (I refused skirts and dresses for years), and are free to name their stuffed bears whatever they’d like (mine was Tom). The implication that girls can aspire to be male, but that boys shouldn’t condescend to act like girls is disturbing.
There's really no "might" about it: we're teaching misogyny to boys AND girls, in myriad ways, practically as soon as they are born.

I've mulled over this stuff in the past with regard to shopping for kids' clothes and how horrifyingly gendered the clothes are *even for tiny brand new babies* (see, for example, the vomitrocious Heelarious high-heeled crib slippers for newborn girls), and I've been wanting to post about it again because of a recent conversation about the things my nephew Henry is interested in. Practically before he was verbal he became interested in music, and his parents have always encouraged all of his interests, basically following him wherever his intellect ranges, from Mary Poppins to Houdini to Jerry Lee Lewis to dance class to swimming lessons. He spent most of a year wearing a tuxedo as much as possible. And already I hear people saying things like "well, when I was a kid the only boys I knew who liked musicals turned out to be gay."


First of all, who cares? But second of all and much more importantly, it is so damaging to kids of both (all) genders to be shown a reductive vision of what's okay for them to be interested in. When we dismiss certain interests as girly or gay, we reinforce the idea that a narrow version of masculinity is the only thing that boys can aspire to--and maybe worse, that "girly" or "gay" interests (whatever those are) are not important or worth nurturing. Not only that, but we project our own crap onto a kid who simply likes what he or she likes. A kid is a human being first. If he or she wants to draw pictures or shoot baskets all day long, for corn's sake get that kid some crayons and a b-ball and let him or her explore.

Look, I'm not saying that boys and girls are exactly the same--hormones are the real deal, and they have as-yet-unplumbed impacts upon thought processes and behaviors. But I watch myself carefully with all kids to make sure that I'm interacting with them as individuals, as people with distinct personalities rather than as "boys" or "girls." This means that in a few years, if Willa turns out to want to wear a princess outfit every day, I will get over myself and help a sister out with a sweet getup, and make sure she and her brothers are reading The Paper Bag Princess.

And if someday I have a son who wants to do the same thing, I hope I can likewise get over myself and buy him the princess outfit his heart desires. I will never, ever, ever say "boys don't do that" or "girls can't do that," and I will do my damnedest to deflect the influence of (even well-meaning) haters who say that kind of stuff. Believe that.


  1. This is a righteous post. I would say more but I am lacking in anything approaching eloquence lately.

  2. Oh you are so so right-on. Rant coming, be warned: As a Mom of a baby girl, I'm already struggling with this and how to balance/correct it - or let her be so-called girly if that's what she wants. If I put her in pink I feel a little bit guilty, feeling like I'm succumbing to the stereotypes - but hey, I love pink and sparkles and shiny things so I just try to mix it up a little. What's interesting - and appalling - to me is how much LESS unisex boys and girls toys and clothes are these days. I try to thrift some of her clothes/buy indie designers so all of they aren't plastered with "adorable" and "sweet" labels that CArters insists on sticking all over their girl clothes. And Fisher Price - my long time favourite toy company has gone to the devil with their latest line of "girl" toys - instead of a generic primary colour farm animal Speak ' Say - it's a lavender and pink Princess themed Speak N' Say. WTF? They've done that to the school bus toy- um, what was wrong with keeping the school bus yellow like it is in REAL LIFE - and the stacking ring toy that used to be all the colours of the rainbow but now you can buy one in just shades of pink and purple for purple. I kinda want to throw over some shelves when I see that. I thrift/buy the old skool FP toys off of e-bay because they were awesome and for every kid. How have we gone backwards after the so-called era of "women libbing"?
    Rant over but still very much on my mind.

  3. "just shades of pink and purple for purple. is meant to read "for girls", of course. Fingers flying with indignation=mistakes.

  4. They have a pink princess See & Say? Wow. That's depressing.

    My nieces were born two months apart and it's been interesting to watch how they're being raised. One is given pink/girl everything and is obsessively protected. Her big gift at Xmas was a kitchen set. The other is a little rapscallion, fearless and adventurous. Her big gift was a tractor. I'm eager to see how it all turns out.

    I'm enjoying your Google Reader every day.

  5. ZOMG I've been pondering a post about gender issues for the longest time, but seeing as though I'm too lazy of late to blog, I'll just comment and blow this up to a full entry later. My mom is so ridiculous when it comes to gender roles that it has long passed maddening on it's way to hilarious on my EmotionMeter 5000.

    Clearly, with my love of girlish things, I was a challenge to her sensibilities from Day 1. Just one example- I had a female friend over the house once, and in offering her some "iced cream" (Montgomery Booo-urns) I foolishly offered her a soup spoon (tablespoon) for the eating, as opposed to a teaspoon. My mom ruffled her feathers, and let it be known that women should not be expected to eat with such masculine utensils.

    Commence laughing here.

    Of course, this was nothing compared to my lust for lipstick and long, flowing hair that I could whip around like a video vixen. There's an argument to be made for seeing children as their parents' karmic retribution. That's why I ain't having them.

  6. Are you fucking kidding me with those high-heeled baby shoes?

    I think that, secretly, this issue is why I keep my daughter's hair cut like a little Amish boy's.

  7. I am the mother of the girliest girly girl ever. I had to let go of some of my righteous gender neutral, power to the people-ness. Even though she is sparkly and pink, she still knows that being kind is more important than being pretty, and if she wants to wear batman sneakers from the boys section, I pity the fool who tries to stop her.
    She has helped me heal my relationship with pink and girly, because when I was a kid I thought all things feminine were totally un-fun.
    Here is my new stance: It's ok to be girly. It's not ok to be ignorant, mean, or prematurely sexual. Sparkle is as sparkle does.

  8. You know I hear you, girl.

    I will add, that as a parent it is very difficult for us to see our children ridiculed at any level. I can't fathom stifling a child's individuality, but we all know ridicule and ignorance is cruel and hurtful, and as a parent the instinct is to protect them from that. You do not want to see your children suffer, though inevitably this will happen if they are original and unique souls. I'm not saying this is at the forefront of every parent that discourages their son from wearing dresses, but it would be on the forefront of mine. I would let him express himself for sure, but I don't think it's as easy as Do Whatever You Want, Kid!

    I once worked with a woman who had a son. For his fourth birthday party he wanted a Beauty and the Beast theme and he insisted on wearing the Belle costume. His mother was scared shitless – she walked that parent's razor's edge of letting him be himself and wanted to protect him from the judgmental world . She did let him wear it and those of us who were cool were like, Right On, Andrew, but the majority stared and commented as the mother winced and let him do his thing anyway. Andrew was four and could give a shit (because he had on his Belle dress!), but staring and commenting can beat you down. But there really is no other option than to let him wear that Belle dress and to tell him he looks great in it.

  9. Madness, of course you're right about the ridicule and ignorance. And the other thing is that even if you have free-flowing gender roles and attitudes at home, the minute a kid goes out into the world, other kids will start indoctrinating him. On the most recent This American Life, Dan Savage talks about that very thing with regard to his own kid, who is happy having two dads but was adamant that boys could not and should not marry boys. He learned it from his friends at school.

  10. Also: but really, let's not throw out the babyheels with the bath water.