Friday, January 21, 2011


***Disclaimer--I've read a lot of blog posts recently about the topic of gender (like here and here and here and here and more that my sleep deprived brain can't remember specifically enough to credit) and it's something that's been on my mind for awhile.  This is just my stream of consciousness about the topic as it rattles around in my head.

My college days opened my eyes/ears/heart/mind to many things.  I really credit my school with doing good job at challenging me in many ways.  One of the things it got me thinking about was the way language and social expectations mold culture.  For example, in Spanish the words for things in the kitchen are feminine while words for things in the garage are masculine.  Did these gender assignments grow out of who was already using the items or did who used the items grow out of their gender assignment?  Are social roles influenced by these words with gender assignments?  Some might argue no since English doesn't have the same gender assignments, but it's one of the few languages that doesn't assign gender to all nouns.

Similarly, how do the words we use influence gender?  Have you ever looked at baby clothes...I mean really looked at them?  Aside from the pink and blue, what do you notice?  Little girls' clothes have flowers and rainbows and food (think cupcakes and candy) and maybe a puppy or two.  Little girls' clothes typically have emotion words on them like "sweet," "precious," and "adorable" along with passive words like "princess" and "angel."  I also tend to notice the word "little" on girls clothing.  Little boys' clothing tends to be adorned with dogs, monkeys, bears, sports, and cars.  The words you tend to find on little boys' clothing are onomatopoeia ("vroom," "roar," "bark") and words associated with physicality like "strong," "tough," and "big."  So from day one, we are teaching our daughters to use emotions to express themselves and our sons to not worry about words and focus on physical expression.  Toys tend to follow the same lines.  Girls' toys are about caring for others (dolls, kitchens, stuffed animals) while boys' toys are about physical expression (cars, sports, action figures).

This immediate imposition of gender norms, roles, and expectations has bothered me since I first became aware of it.  I tried to buy as much gender neutral clothing as possible, but let's face it...after 0-3 months there isn't a whole lot that is gender neutral.  You must or blue.  (Yes, I know I'm over simplifying here, but the premise remains.)  So what did I do?  I found myself drawn to the lovely little blue outfits.  Blue happens to be hubby's and my favorite color.  We painted the nursery blue (nursery=clothing storage, but that's another story).  We bought blue everything we could get our hands on.  Sure some thing had more gender neutral options, which we tried to chose when available (i.e., stroller, swing, PnP, car seat).  And the early toys are all pretty gender neutral.  Still, we chose the green talking dog with a boy's name over the purple talking dog with a girl's name.  I wish I could find the study that was done with a 10 month old.  I can't remember the gender of the baby but the researchers put the baby in very girly or very boyish clothes and asked participants to play with the baby.  The room contained girl, boy, and gender neutral toys.  The participants chose the toys they offered the baby based on the clothes the baby was wearing.  They also used significantly more words when playing with the girl dressed baby than boy dressed baby.  Even further, the words used with the girl dressed baby were passive, emotion words and action words with the boy dressed baby.

Then Squirmy's cousin left a toy car over here.  It became very clear that Squirmy LOVED this car.  He would crawl around the house pushing it everywhere.  For Christmas we told people to get him cars.  Hubby bought him a Kidkraft rocking dinosaur.  I bought him a Police Cozy Coupe.  I think either of those could be arguably gender neutral, but would we have picked the same items if we had a girl?  I sought out a doll baby for him, but couldn't find one I liked.  (Seriously, what happened to Cabbage Patch?!?)

I sit here, starring at the blue Chuck truck that is arguably his favorite Christmas present, feeling like I've failed him....feeling like a hypocrite.  I look at the blue bibs that he's spent the morning strewing about the floor and wonder if I'm doing enough to protect his ability to be who he wants to be, to not be pigeon holed and typecast into a role that society has predetermined for him based on his anatomy.

But then I think about other conversations I've had.  Like the time I told my mom some women at church commented on how cute "she" (Squirmy) was and how I smiled politely and answered their questions about his development (yes I nurse, no doesn't sleep through the night, crawled at 6 months, thank you for saying "her" eyes are beautiful like "her" moms) and how I laughed to myself as they walked away wondering amongst themselves why I would put a beautiful little girl in a blue shirt with a cow on it.  My mom's response was frustration and anger flashing back to her days of defending my gender: "isn't it so frustrating?"  I was taken aback.  No, I wasn't frustrated and I hadn't made any overt attempts to correct their assumption of his gender.  It didn't matter.  They were admiring my child.  And let's face it...babies are pretty damn androgynous.  Yesterday I was told I shouldn't have a necklace on my boy even after I explained that it's amber and supposed to help with teething pain and I'd try voodoo rain dances if it had the promise of helping at this point: "It's confusing.  Necklaces are for girls."  (said by a woman rocking a mullet, 80s leather jacket, and high lie).  I didn't really care that she called him a girl.  He was in gender neutral clothes, wearing a necklace.  But again, it didn't really matter.  She was commenting on his walking abilities...nothing to do with gender.  I've had people apologize to me for saying my boy is beautiful.  I don't mind.  I rather enjoy hearing my child is beautiful, if you really want to know.  I really don't understand why beautiful is "supposed" to be only for girls, anyway.

So maybe I am a hypocrite, maybe I'm not.  At the end of the day, I just want him to be happy and well rounded and free to be whoever it is he is. And maybe I can find a decent doll for his birthday...


Maria said...

I bought my son a waterbabies doll (didn't put water in it). It's small and soft and is dressed in green. he also got a blue stroller for Christmas. It's hard to find non-pink doll stuff.

I'm kind of right there with you. I tried not to reinforce stereotypes, but my son likes to push things that plug in around in his doll stroller. My daughter loves dolls. At least I know they are that way because they chose to be!

Mama Mandolin said...

I've always felt really strongly about this....even before they were born I was determined not to have blue for boys, pink for girls, etc. Now that they're getting bigger it's getting more difficult because of availability. I don't have a whole lot of choices.

As far as their toys go, we're doing pretty good at this point. Almost everything we have is gender neutral. Even a lot of stuffed animals (that we made for them before they were born). Yesterday we found a sock monkey doll that I showed the boys in the store and they LOVED it.

We will also have issues similar to this with regards to toy colors. Our boys are mixed. I don't want all of our toys to have white faces. So that will be a challenge as we move forward as well.