Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Maybe We Can Blame Dick and Jane

I've hesitated several weeks publishing this post because I was worried about offending someone.  But then I realized I'm perfectly entitled to my opinion, as are you, and maybe we can get a healthy debate going!  I love those.

Oh, and by the way, while my observations influence my opinions, and I've probably observed your children (if you have any and I know you personally), I am in no way being critical of you.  I'm merely discussing a phenomenon.  Let it be known.

As an anthropologist (if that doesn't ever sound pretentious...), I have learned about the aspects of cultures that go into creating gender roles in a society.  It's made me rather hyper-aware of what people expose children to (people as in not just the parents, because it takes a village) that causes them to develop into or fill certain expectations when it comes to gender in our society.

Side note: it irks me when pregnant people get asked what "gender" their baby is.  Maybe people are afraid to use the word "sex" in public, but "gender" is not a genetic trait, it's anthropologically defined as cultural roles that are created (presumably by a community) to define a person (male, female, transgender, fafafini, khusre, whatever).  So I make it a habit to specifically ask, when I need to know (perhaps annoyingly so, who knows), "What sex is the baby?"  End rant.

Back on topic.  So.  This topic is always on my mind.  And apparently, it was a trending topic over on Apartment Therapy last year, and they conveniently gathered loads of samples for me so I don't have to find them for you.  Check them out here.

If you're too lazy to read through them, here's the basic premise: our culture (pan-American) has determined that young boys must be into blue, trucks, dogs, dinosaurs, tools, sports, etc.  Young girls must be into pink, flowers, glitter, princesses, babies (animal and human), fashion, and HIGH SQUEAKY VOICES IN CARTOONS.  Ahem.  Obviously, these "definitions" bother me a bit.  And apparently they bother a lot of people.  But sometimes it goes so far on the opposite direction as to be rather hypocritical, at the very least attempting to redefine something that you're attempting to ignore (which isn't helpful).  For example, someone's son asks for a doll or a pink toy, YOU'VE GOT IT BUDDY!  If a girl asks for a fairy Barbie or whatever, NO WAY.
Really, some people.
I feel like people are afraid of something if they see their kids leaning over the line that they believe clearly delineates the difference between boys and girls.  Someone tickles a little boy and he squeals and shreaks.  The response?  "Ugh, you sound like a little girl!"  "Don't be such a girl!" Or whatever.  Also, until he hits puberty, your little boy is going to sound like a little girl, and vice versa.  "You don't want to wear those fairy wings, those are for GIRLS."  So what?  There are boy fairies.  Ever heard of Puck?  He's exhibits plenty of masculine traits.  Okay.

When I look back on my childhood, the only pink articles of clothing I remember specifically are my Nala shirt, a pink pair of shorts, and a pair of jelly sandals that a friend gave me for my birthday (and I never wore those things together, thank goodness).

Lion King is always relevant.
And we never had Barbies or princess stuff (although my mom said the other day that we sometimes asked for those things, she just couldn't afford them).  And I turned out just as feminine as my peers who did have Barbies and who did wear nail polish before the age of 12.  Heck, I attracted plenty of boys.  I had my first boyfriend at age 10 (yes, it counts, you know who you are).  And this a girl who enjoyed exploring and bugs and dinosaurs and animal bones (yes, even then) and didn't mind getting scratched up or playing in the mud.

I suppose my irritation is three-fold.  First of all, the rabid children's toy and clothing market needs to take a chill pill.  It's only fueling peoples' paranoia.  Second of all, as parents and other influential people in a child's life are perfectly entitled to give gender-specific items, they need to exercise self-control in  both the quantity and the importance they (not the child) stress on it.  And third, while I fully support parents raising their children to be miniature but improved versions of themselves (heck, that's what I'm going to do, narcissistic as it may be), I think it's important to let children make some decisions on their own about what they are interested in.    If all they ever know is what is narrowly assigned to their prescribed gender role, they can't grow three-dimensionally.  That's why I love neutral toys like Legos, stuffed animals, books, and science toys.  Also I am a dweeb.

So my kids will be dweebs.  But very well-dressed dweebs.  Because all of them (even if they're boys) are going to be interested in what they wear (if I can afford it).

Post-script: I am not taking into account any influence that friends, grandparents, and gift-givers of all sorts will have on my children.  I'm very aware it will exist, and influence is influence.  My child is an individual of their own and will make decisions based on what they decide they enjoy.  If my daughter wants her lawn mower painted pink, so be it.  And you won't find me dressing my son in dresses à la Ernest Hemingway's mother.

PPS: The woman across the divider from me here at the public library is a mouth-breather of the worst sort.  It reminds me why I don't spend that much time in public.  Bleh.


Anonymous said...

I think you know my thoughts on this topic pretty well. I'm still going to yammer on a little, though. :)

As far as my current philosophy goes, the grandparents want to give, the kids love to receive, and as long as I'm giving my kids a pretty well-rounded education outside of their peers and Disney movies and whathaveyou, they'll be fine. They're a little spoiled, yes, and Rylie is definitely in the pink throws of princessy ecstasy right now, but it's also definitely a phase. It won't be long before her love of Barbies and princesses will be tempered by maturity and she'll love them in a different way or have moved on to something else. Since I'm using Rylie as my example I'll stick with her, but she doesn't have me worried. She has many, varied interests and is curious about all the world in general.

About some of the other things, yes, the phrases, "something like a girl" do bug me. But I don't find it my place to correct people outside of my immediate family and as for Jared, I've made a couple of comments here and there. If I thought he really meant something negative by it or if Nathan was exhibiting negative effects from it then I would make a more concerted effort, but I decided near the beginning of our relationship to try and keep my nagging/criticisms to a minimum, since I'm pretty sure I do it a lot unconsciously re: grammar and pronunciation.

Anyway. I try to educate my kids about commercialism and to show them both sides of the coin, so to speak. Then I let them decide on their own. Going back to Rylie, she often surprises me with her decisions and opinions. I've always known Nathan was interested in everything and has a voracious appetite for knowledge and discovery, but Rylie has shown herself to be a very funny, sensitive, and observant girl. I can't usually guess what she's thinking and I love that. Ask her sometime why she likes something and you'll see what I mean. I guess I'm just saying that probably most little girls are like that, no matter what their interests are. Fortunately there are very few adult women who still behave as they did at age 3. I guess the unfortunate thing is that the few that do get a lot of media attention.


LP said...

Regarding your side note, I just read this yesterday in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, where he's talking about genders in the language of Kivunjo: "In case you are wondering, these 'genders' do not pertain to things like cross-dressers, transsexuals, hermaphrodites, androgynous people, and so on, as one reader of this chapter surmised. To a linguist, the term gender retains its original meaning of 'kind,' as in the related words generic, genus, and genre. The Bantu 'genders' refer to kinds like humans, animals, extended objects, clusters of objects, and body parts. It just happens that in many European languages the genders correspond to the sexes, at least in pronouns. For this reason the linguistic term gender has been pressed into service by nonlinguists as a convenient label for sexual dimorphism; the more accurate term sex seems now to be reserved as the polite way to refer to copulation."

Regarding differences between girls and boys, I'm reminded of a professor who urged us to write a paper on how our society defines gender roles, because we don't let boys play with dolls or girls play with cars. She blathered on about how the environment parents set up for their children determines what the children will want to play with or the activities they'll participate in. So I asked her, if most suburban children -- girls and boys -- see their mother do most of the driving, why, generally speaking, do the boys want to play with cars but the girls still want to play with dolls? She said, "Huh! Interesting!" but provided no insight. I have my own ideas, of course, and one of them is that the professor was too black and white in her pronouncements.

And finally, it's not exactly that we couldn't afford Barbies. We could have bought one or two, if not a whole bucketful. And it's true I didn't think we could afford all the accessories (clothes, cars, houses, swimming pools, beauty salons, etc) that are part of the Barbie Empire. It's more that Barbies bugged me with their impossibly stylized version of what beauty is. That wouldn't have bothered me so much 20 or so years earlier, when there were other sort-of role models to balance out the Barbie mystique. It's also partly that I would rather have spent money on other things for you, like "gender"-neutral toys, or books.