As any first year sociology student will tell you, gender is a social construct. And that is the context in which I’ve always thought about it. Until now that is. I am at that age where lots of women around me are either pregnant or starting to think about having children. Also, on a more personal and very exciting note, my brother and sister-in-law are pregnant! There hasn’t been a baby in my family since my younger cousin (who is now 22) so you can see that it’s been a while.
I’ve had quite a few conversations with my sister-in-law as well as with others that always end in “yes, we agree that gender stereotypes exist but no, we don’t agree that this is necessarily ‘bad’” Sometimes that’s enough for me (as a feminist I’ve learned to pick my battles) but usually it’s not. Now especially, since I’m going to be an auntie, it’s not enough.
Gender socialization begins the moment a child is born, and I’m not only referring to the color outfit s/he is placed in at the hospital. The way children are talked to, touched, and played with all establish norms and expectations, thus socializing children from day one. Parents will engage in more “rough play” with their boys while using more language with their girls. This is limiting for both. Boys learn to “be tough” while girls learn to emote and use their words. Both sexes need both sets of skills, which is why gender socialization is so limiting for everyone involved. Everyone including the parents who need to develop both sets of ways in which to relate and bond with their children.
In Jewish tradition (or rather superstition) you should not purchase gifts or items for an unborn child so to not draw the attention of dark spirits. However, my sis in law gave me the go ahead to buy (just not give) her baby gifts. So try to buy I did… as I wandered through Target’s baby section, I noticed some adorable bibs. There were two sets. One 4-piece bib set was blue and green and had the following saying written on the front: "Fireman" "Policman" "Astronaut" "Dinosaur." The other 4-piece bib set was in pink and purple and said "Lipstick" "pretty but messy" "I clean up cute" and something else as equally gross... In this case, as in many, it wasn’t the colors that bugged me (because I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with a baby girl in pink or a baby boy in blue) but rather the message that the toy or clothing sends. The boys' bibs encouraged creativity and opportunities for the future (granted stereotypical jobs are pretty restrictive also) but the girls' bibs were very clearly appearance motivated. They are basically saying she had no chance of becoming an astronaut but she can certainly be just as successful as her male counterpart by taking care of her appearance and buying in to female gender norms.
It's not always as apparent as my bib example but obvious or not, the message remains the same. Engendering children limits their creativity and opportunities. The messages baby items (toys, clothes, games) convey are restrictive when they should instead develop a child’s imagination. One that sticks out most vividly in my mind was a commercial that aired not to long ago for Playskool’s Rose Petal Cottage The commercial used all sorts of clichéd messages about girlhood. There were two commercials – one directed at children (well girls rather) and one geared at parents. I posted them below because this is a “you gotta see it to believe it” type of thing. The kids’ jingle sings lines like “taking care of my home is a dream, dream, dream.” The commercial for parents says “now there’s a place where her dreams have room to grow... where she can decorate and entertain her imagination.” During that line of the commercial, the little girl is doing her laundry and actually says “do the laundry!” in her happy, petty, training to be a housewife, sort of way. Really Playskool? Encouraging girls to entertain their imaginations by doing laundry and taking care of the home? We have got to do better than that.
When I YouTubed this commercial, I found a fun reaction that someone made. This time the line “a place where she can entertain her imagination” is spoken behind a young girl in a chemistry lab. That is more like it.
This isn’t unique to Playskool either, Fisher-Price did it too (quite recently in fact). Some of you may have seen commercials for My Pretty Learning Purse “Keys, lipstick, money, music …this adorable purse has everything baby needs for learning and role play fun!” Please don’t argue with me about our society not being inundated with highly gendered toys until stuff like this is off the shelves. Girls have very few options in terms of toys and imagination: housekeeping, princesses, or dolls... all of which require them to develop their nurturing sides and wait patiently for a prince to rescue them from their castle (or Rose Petal Cottage). And don’t even get me started on Bratz dolls... at least the Powerpuff dolls had purpose and kicked some ass...
Boys don’t have it all that easy either. Gender norms are just as restrictive for boys. Don't we want our children to be creative and explore as much as possible? Boys playing dress up with heels and makeup are often reprimanded. But why? Shouldn't we let them be just as creative as we allow our girls to be? Why are we limiting our children's imaginations at all? Most toys geared at boys consist of trucks or cars, action figures, or violence. The famous Tonka Truck commercial for a toy that’s been on the market since the 80s exclaims, “boys... what can you say? They’re just built different.” We need to teach our boys communication, cooperation, and the use of words. By encouraging violence, confrontation, and competition we set our boys up for a future in which they are limited in their ability to resolve conflict. Excusing fighting and rough housing with the “boys will be boys” mentality only causes us to pass up important opportunities to have potentially life changing conversations with our children.
All that said, I am finding it extremely difficult to find gender neutral toys, clothes, and other items for my future nephew so if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears. I suppose I’ll forever be the auntie that buys progressive or education toys, or even worse... dun dun dun... BOOKS, haha. In the past I’ve tried to buy music toys which are pretty gender neutral or art supplies. But I’d love to hear what you all, readers, have given as a gift (or received) that was your favorite gender neutral toy.