Me to my 2-year-old daughter:
- Are you a boy or a girl?
- I aren’t.
Our little girl is closing in on two-and-a-half, and she is making sense of the world at a ferocious rate. Everything she sees and hears is evidence, tracing complex patterns into a neural system of phenomenal density. It happens faster than conscious thought, which it seems to me isn’t learning but a kind of absorption or imprinting, like camera film reacting to light when the shutter opens.
Most days she chooses for herself what she wears, and she likes stripes and pictures of animals. When we go shopping, she runs her hand along the maroons and blacks of the boy section as easily as the pinks and pastels of the girls. Her toys switch pronoun from male to female frequently and without concern. She insists that a picture of Minnie Mouse is actually Mickey Mouse wearing Minnie’s shoes. She calls me Daddy The Man, a lot of the time. Her mum is Mummy the Lady.
She is absorbing gender, but she hasn’t compiled enough evidence yet for me to detect what she’s making of it. Soon that won’t be a problem. Gender coding is so overwhelmingly strong across our society that the patterns are impossible to miss. Soon she will have taken all of that information in, and she’ll be showing me with every word and decision what she has learned.
“She sat down and explained seriously to me that she was disappointed that there was only one girl character in Star Wars, that this seemed unfair to her, and that she didn’t care how cool Leia is, she thought it should be half each girl and boy characters.”
Rodger describes his daughter Ada’s reaction to Star Wars. I recommend you read the whole post, because while this is the eye-catching bit, it isn’t the important bit. The important bit comes right after, and is basically this: her reaction wasn’t accidental. Rodger and Maire put in a lot of effort to find media that presents men and women with something approaching equality; Maire shared her updated list of films back in October. This is the kind of thing you say, it seems, when your experience of culture has been weighed for balance.
And Ada’s right, though, isn’t she? Isn’t it obvious, put like that?
I don’t fret about it, actually. I don’t tut at my computer screen and wonder what kind of world my daughter will find. I don’t get a catch in my throat about the unpleasantries she is in for, and the injustice of it all.
I have faith in her. And by that I also mean, I have faith in the matrix of people of which she is part, the family and friends that have our back and wish us well, strong and smart women and men cracking the best jokes and living excellent lives. That network gives her power, and plenty of it. Of course she won’t be immune to the things that concern me here, but I’m not losing sleep over them either.
I keep returning to this subject, time and time again. It’s like I can see it more clearly now I have a child of my own. Something has become misshapen in our society. I want to see it brought into the light. We can’t repair it in the dark. Isn’t that obvious?
She gathers evidence.
Every Saturday morning she picks a DVD or two from the kid’s selection at the library. Thomas the Tank Engine, Spot, Pocoyo, Elmo, Postman Pat, Bob the Builder, Handy Manny, Meg & Mog, Fireman Sam, Fifi & the Flower Tots, Kipper the dog. Shows with a female lead character: two. Shows with a male lead character: nine. (Not counted: Yo Gabba Gabba which doesn’t really have a lead, but is still male dominated.)
She ventures into the toy aisles whenever she can, knowing these objects are for her, that this is a slice of the world devoted to her cohort and her interests and her delight. She runs her hands over everything, feeling the furry mane of a lion and pressing the button that makes the telephone ring, trying the digger and putting Spider-Man in the driver’s seat of the nearest helicopter.
And as she explores she’s silhouetted against walls of colour: bright primaries for trucks and superheroes, soft pinks for tea-sets and dolls with brushable hair. The packaging shows boys in navy tees in fierce competition, or girls in softly coloured dresses kneeling together and sharing admiring glances.
She doesn’t see how the division works, not yet, not consciously. But on some level she notices. The pattern sinks in. This is how it’s meant to look. This is how it always looks.
A campaign has recently launched in the UK: Let Toys Be Toys. “We’re asking retailers and manufacturers to sort toys by theme or function, rather than by gender, and let the children decide which toys they enjoy best.” Have a click through their briefing to get a sense of what they’re up to: Let Toys Be Toys briefing and survey results
Among other things, they’ve found some brutal evidence of the rise of pink:
They’re getting some wins, with major retailers agreeing to look at their signage. Everyone’s favourite scientist is in behind them, which has to help:
— ben goldacre (@bengoldacre) May 4, 2013
Here in NZ we seem to have escaped the signs marking “girls” and “boys”. (The Warehouse, which I’d guess is New Zealand’s biggest toy retailer, doesn’t have gendered signs, but it doesn’t have much signage at all, so…). Still, you don’t need the words “girls” and “boys” for the message to come through loud and clear. Most toy packaging is aligned firmly with gender, to the extent that even many toys popularly seen as gender-neutral come in boy flavour (bold colours and graphics) and girl flavour (pink).
Outside the physical environment you don’t need to look too far to find the kind of thing Let Toys Be Toys is arguing against. We get the same television advertisements as anywhere else, where even the audio is coded pink or blue. And popular retail chain Toyworld ships out a new catalogue nationwide every month or so, and it happily marks pages as “boys world” (blue background) and “girls world” (pink background). I have the April copy in my hands: boys get superheroes, remote control helicopters, nerf weapons, lightsabers and (incredibly) scooters. Girls get dolls, fashion toys, a dance game, and Barbie/Lego Friends building sets. The blue/pink background codes other pages as well: dolls and jewellery are pink, while blue is used for building toys (except for the Barbie or Lego Friends ones), Thomas the Tank Engine, toy cars and trucks, magic tricks, and – you guessed it – science experiments.
Dividing fun into pink and blue. If anyone’s looking for something to do in the next few months, getting on Toyworld’s case about this could be a good project, right?
Every time I’ve got caught up in this conversation about toys and gender, someone will say, but! Boys and girls are not the same. They play differently.
Culture plays a role, we all know that. What many don’t know is that it hits kids young. No, younger than that. This researcher suggests it starts in the womb, where a pregnant woman might speak more strongly to their growing child if they are expecting a boy. Culture hits early and it hits hard, and it’s possible, then, that if we shift societal expectations enough, culture won’t push boys and girls in such different directions.
But even accepting the status quo, accepting that boys and girls play differently and that is just the way it is? There’s still a problem. Our culture constructs boydom and girldom as very distinct categories: sugar and spice HERE, snails and slugs THERE. But when you look at what kids actually do, the categories are much messier. There are play activities that boys prefer, and play activities girls prefer, but there is a lot of overlap. And that overlap is what’s missing in how we treat our kids and create gender through our cultural expression. Instead of doing this:
…we’re doing this:
And even that’s wrong, because when you look at the types of play coded blue, and the types of play coded pink, you see that it’s actually more like this:
Hey, here’s a specific example: Lego!
It doesn’t have to be this way. It never used to be. Lego was for everyone. This advertisement has become famous in retrospect, as a sign of how much things have changed:
As Anita Sarkeesian argues in this excellent Feminist Frequency video, Lego abandoned the cross-gender market for the apparently richer blue fields of boydom. Then, in an attempt to redress the imbalance it created, it has generated specific pink Lego for girldom. Lego Friends has been a success, and it really could be a lot worse, but it still feels like a pink ghetto in a city that used to be for everyone.
The circles get even more imbalanced in Feminist Frequency’s specialist subject, video games, which has disappeared so far down the rabbit hole of boydom that women and girls who game find themselves in a culture that actively suppresses and abuses them whenever they pop into view. Heck, even a lot of men feel unwelcome for being insufficiently dedicated to boydom-culture. The new FemFreq series on video game tropes and women is difficult, but perhaps necessary, viewing.
Yes, they play differently, boys and girls. But not nearly as much as the script demands. The script doesn’t just divide our children – it reduces them.
Girls tend to embrace girldom. This is not something that should surprise anyone. Girldom-culture ruthlessly polices status and conformity, much more so than boydom-culture. Girls can dabble in boydom-culture but they run significant risks for violating the script. Sometimes, thankfully, the world fights back, like when the world rallied behind a girl who was being bullied for liking Star Wars.
(The social costs for girls who dabble in boydom are probably less than the reverse. That’s a simple result of social power – the low power group (girls) can adopt signifiers of the high-power group (boys) more freely than the opposite. Indeed, there is an established social role of tomboy for girls who seize boydom culture, whereas boys who delve into girldom are straight-up deviants. But still, as Rodger cuttingly pointed out describing his reaction when Ada was called a tomboy, being a tomboy in turn closes you off to aspects of girldom – you’re not a Real Girl, are you? – and, basically, to hell with that.)
So girls exist within girldom, and are punished for violating it. There are obvious problems here around freedom of identity. But the stakes are higher than that, because girldom itself is toxic.
“Many studies have suggested that the culture delivers abundant messages about the objectification and sexualization of adult women and that this is the cultural milieu in which girls develop… the sexualization of girls is associated with many negative consequences.” Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualisation of Girls (2007), page 19.
The report details many negative consequences of sexualization and self-objectification: disruption of cognitive and physical performance; body dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety; eating disorders; low self-esteem; depression; dangerous addictive health behaviours; inability to develop a healthy sexuality; and a limited conception of the role of women.
The report lists the sources of sexualising influence, and it is staggering. TV, film, music videos and lyrics, advertising, magazines, dolls, the internet, and more, and more. One near-throwaway comment mentions research noting that Disney’s female characters project a sexier image now than in earlier times; timely, considering the recent uproar over Merida. She was the lead character in the Pixar movie Brave, and Disney decided to induct her into their bevy of Princesses, to be marketed to little girls with ruthless efficiency. Accompanying this announcement was a new look for Merida – a sexier look. Merida’s creator was furious, as were thousands upon thousands of people who signed petitions and raged online.
Disney backed down, reluctantly, and incompletely. They lied that they had always intended to honour Merida’s distinctive qualities; the existence of a doll like this is pretty damning evidence to the contrary. And for all that the victory over Disney was incomplete, it was still real. They had to change their plans. Merida didn’t fit the script, and she broke free of the first attempt to force her into it. She won. We won.
This post isn’t a lament. To hell with that.
This is a hit list.
The world is giving my child, and yours, a script. Here are your lines; here is your costume; here is where to stand. Our children learn this as easily as a nursery rhyme..
And in return for this narrowing of possibilities, this exclusion of alternatives, this veneration of one cultural pattern, what do we get? What is the grand reward? It is simply this: to make purchasing decisions require less effort.
That is not a balanced trade. In fact, that is not a trade at all. To reduce the thinking needed when we shop? That is not a reward, that is a trap.
I want to think more. I want to think harder. I want to be vexed by the children in my life because they are human beings, with all the glorious messy frustrating complexity that implies. I want them to defy simple patterns, because doing so means embracing potential and possibility. I want them to make their own scripts out of patches and shreds. I want them comfortable in a world where “boy” and “girl” aren’t narrow paths; in fact, a world where other paths, transgender or asexual or whatever, are also simply part of the landscape.  I want them to surprise me. I want them to surprise themselves.
We can change it.
Wisdom can cut through. Another world is always possible, now more than any time in the recent past, because this system lost its shape through communication imbalance. Big companies driven by a profit marketed their ideas on a massive scale. Now, that old structure is breaking down. Big content is splintering into thousands of unfiltered voices. Digital distribution, social media, 3D printing, smartphones, and the half dozen tech advances hiding around the corner have opened space for new voices. The breakdown of girldom and boydom circulates through countless shifting online venues: teenage girls seize control of their own media, hacker parents recode video games and flip the genders of the hero characters, little girls genderswitch male superheroes and become viral celebrities, visions of media full of powerful women capture the imagination of millions and highlight the painful limitations of the present reality.
New scripts are being circulated like whispers in an exam room. Change is already happening, and you’ll hear it if you just listen hard enough. The challenge is for the message to spread faster than it can be tamped down.
Everything I write and think always comes back to this point: we are porous. Our identity is not secured in a protective casing, and influenced only by those designated sources that learn the secret password. Who we are and what we think and what we do is influenced, profoundly, by everything around us.
Saying we are products of our environment doesn’t go far enough. I’d say it this way: we are our environments. There is no clear line between me and not-me; outside elements drift and stray inside and set up shop there, indistinguishable from the rest.
So, then, it isn’t that we have a responsibility to our children to save them from conformity. It isn’t about responsibility at all. It’s about humility. I want us to allow a world of many paths, both welcoming to and hungry for a massive diversity of spirit. A world in which we allow dignity for all; a healthier world in which to be human.
I tend not to use my daughter’s name when writing about her online. She can build her own online identity, instead of being stuck with the one I create for her.
Her name is Willamina Therese Davie. Willa, you’re stuck with this one. When future-google puts this on your screen, use it as a measure of me, and the world you were born into. Look around yourself and see what has changed; see what still must be changed.
Hold us to account.
Daddy The Man
Additional note added 7 June:
 It has been pointed out to me (thanks, iona!) that this line is a bit of a mess: “I want them comfortable in a world where “boy” and “girl” aren’t narrow paths; in fact, a world where other paths, transgender or asexual or whatever, are also simply part of the landscape.” Yep, it is a mess. Mea culpa. I don’t mean to imply that transgender is a gender identity like “boy” or “girl”, nor that asexual is a gender identity. What I’m going for is that I want a world where the whole range of human diversity in sexual expression and gender identity and sexual orientation and more is accepted and acceptable; the current construction of “boy” and “girl” tends to carry with it a narrow set of options on all those things. Anyway, this phrasing is (at best) a pretty confused way of putting that across. I regret the error.