Sunday, February 8, 2009

Gender Part 2: Sugar & Spice

Gender Part 2: Chapter 2: The Girls

In my WTF Do I Do post, I briefly mentioned the imposition of gender onto infants and children through gender-typed clothing and toys. In continuing my discussion of women and girls, I would like to elaborate a bit more on that topic. 

Imagine a typical little girl's room. Chances are, the image that comes to mind looks something like this:

In addition to the god-awful amount of pink, what else do you see? Toy baby doll with stroller and swing. Lots of Disney princesses. 

How about this one:

The first thing I want you to notice about this image is the CRIB. Yes, this room is for a baby girl. And yet.....we have another baby doll set up with accessories, some fancy dress up clothes, and again - LOTS of pink. 

Sure, it's all very cute. I love pink on little girls as much as the next person. But what does this all MEAN?

Let's start with the baby dolls. What is the purpose of a baby doll? Little girls basically learn to be moms to their plastic babies. It is teaching them caretaking skills. Some might argue that it's making them learn caretaking skills. 

Think about it. Picture 2 shows a baby's room. That child has already been given a baby doll to play with, long before she even learns what it is or whether it's something she might want to play with. Most of us probably had some sort of house-playing toys when we were little as well. I know I had the big plastic kitchen complete with dishes and fake food. 

But you know what else is out there for little girls' toys?

This image used to be much bigger, but it seems the pink toy washer/dryer has been removed from the market since I first wrote this post, and none of the links are valid anymore. Hmm...

Yup. A toy washer and dryer set and a toy vacuum. 

I'll grant you that I am guilty of having desperately wanted a Dyson for Christmas. (And got it.) But a little girl wanting a toy vacuum cleaner? Or washer and dryer? Really??? What the hell is fun about pushing a plastic vacuum around?

Don't get me wrong. If a little girl WANTS these things, I have no problem with that. But the ages of the children these toys are appropriate for suggest that they are most likely being given as gifts. 

Social learning theory suggests that the reason little girls play with toys like these are because they see their mother using the grownup versions. If they identify themselves with their mother (as they should identify with the same-gender parent), and their mother does the majority of the household duties, then little girls view these things as gender-appropriate toys. They are a means to "be like mom." 

I would like to see toy preferences in children where their parents' gender roles in the household are switched. If mom does all the fixing, will little Sarah ask for a pipe wrench for her birthday? 

The point here, though, is that little girls learn the skills of caring for others and taking care of a household from a very, very, almost obscenely early age. This becomes cemented in their identity as women. There are very few women in this world who were never given a toy doll to play with as a child. And chances are that if, as a little girl, you didn't own Barbies - you were ostracized to some extent by your peers. In my childhood, whoever had the most Barbies and various other Barbie shit was always the most popular girl in the neighborhood. It was never me. :(

JLK's closet never looked like this. 

I did have this though. Albeit without the remote control.


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Girls want to play with pink babies and vacuum cleaners because genetics and cavemen and bonobos and evolution and stuff. For realz!!

DuWayne Brayton said...

I just have to laugh like crazy at this. The eldest of mine, was bent on having a his sized broom and got one. Then he wanted the vacuum he had seen in the toy isle - got one - got really fucking pissed it didn't actually work.

My two year old nephew is absolutely enamored by his new toy kitchen from Christmas. Apparently at church, that's all he ever played with. Now it's all he usually plays with at home.

Anonymous said...

I hated Barbies, but I loved the Easy Bake Oven and my Snoopy Snowcone maker. I did have a Disney wallpaper thing going, but hated it - I was more into Scooby Doo. And there was never a chance in hell I wanted to be like my mother (or my father for that matter)... I realized at an early age they were both seriously fucked up (and still are).
I wear alot of pink now - just cuz it looks good with my skin tone. Wonder what message it sends? maybe I need a pink car to match.

JLK said...

Ooooh, the Snoopy SnowCone maker!! I had one of those too!

@DuWayne - I love that the boys in your family are bending gender and are accepted for it. Though I still don't get the appeal of toys based on housekeeping products. lol

I know that we've all had different experiences of gender socialization as children, but I want to try to keep the focus on common themes - the things that are directly marketed to girls vs boys for example.

For some reason though, it seems that the posts about women and girls are generating much less discussion than those about the men. Is it because we know most of this stuff already? Or is it just less interesting?

I'm going to rely a little more heavily on academic research I think for my next few posts because I think that's the area that holds some of the real surprises.

DuWayne Brayton said...

I'm sorry, I actually do have some contributions to make, but I'm both busy and struggling with some problems that are kind of fucking up my head space.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Not for lack of interest JLK - I suspect it has a lot to do with the timing of your posts in relation to the work week.

Also, I think that the girly pink toys and girls-want-to-be-like-mom may be better known to most people (which doesn't mean that there is more to be discussed here)...especially to those of us raised by mothers who lived through or shortly after the women's lib movement.

I for one, had a elderly aunt who bought me a baby doll every Christmas from birth through maybe age 13 (13!). When my sister was born, she also got an identical baby doll every Christmas just to be fair. Despite the plethora of babydolls available to me, my toys of choice were (in chronological order): a Tonka truck in the sandbox, a menagerie of stuffed animals (whose primary activities included escapes from the zoo and Godzilla-like ravages of villages built from books or blocks rather than tea parties) and later, Breyer horses - want to talk about little girls' obsessions with ponies? That's one I still can't quite figure out.

Anyway, my sister got all the dolls and Barbies because I just wasn't interested. Perhaps because the years in which I was probably identifying my gender role by mimicking my mother, she was wielding a hammer or a blow-torch more often than a vacuum cleaner or a rolling pin. My parents built their own house on our farmland while I was an infant/toddler.

Also worth noting is that my mom grew up just after the apex of the women's lib movement. When she was young, girls couldn't play sports, but Title IX was in effect during her last years of high school. She got a degree in forest engineering and spent her early 20's surveying in the wilderness with a lot of men (some of whom were pretty offended by the idea of having a woman on the crew).

I never asked her about whether she deliberately raised me without pink clothes (though there is photographic evidence of me in dresses that she made) or Barbie dolls, or if this was simply a matter of economy - they didn't have the $$$ to buy me Barbie dolls at the time. My sister (only 3 years younger, certainly had Barbies and tea parties, but I think that my parents let her choose this. She was neither encouraged nor discouraged toward these proclivities.

I wonder how many other people of our generation take this whole "pink and babydolls = girly" idea as something that is pervasive and obvious simply because our mothers may have made a point of not restricting us to such things.

DuWayne - my brother's favorite toy as a toddler was also a vacuum cleaner...though I suspect this had less to do with mimicking mom (she was a stay-at-home mom and she did do the vacuuming more often than dad by the time he was born), than it did with the fact that the toy vacuum had colored balls that bounced around to deafening popping noises inside the chamber when pushed across the floor. Drove my parents nuts.

Ambivalent Academic said...

Oh yeah, and what CPP said! Because biological determism.

Really, JLK - I read several chapters of the Sarah Blaffer Hrdy last night - I think you're going to like it.

JLK said...

I have to confess, I'm feeling a bit stuck with the posts on women and girls. If I stick to traditional gender socialization for girls, it's boring. If I transition that to what it's like now for us, I feel like it's going to seem as though I'm saying that men's issues are more important than women's. If I focus on the challenges that remain for women, it's going to be a lot of the same old stuff that we already talk about on here.

So I'm stuck - do I transition to a overall gender studies perspective that looks at differences and similarities between the two commonly accepted genders, or continue with the women's studies/men's studies separately?

There are lots of interesting studies out there, I just can't decide on the perspective from which to share them with you guys.

Ambivalent Academic said...

It's your blog - pick your favorite!

PhizzleDizzle said...

JLK, it was a timing issue. I knew your posts were going to be meaty so I saved them to read when I had a bit more time.

When I saw those pink picture rooms, I threw up a little in my mouth. I actually feel like a hater sometimes because on an intellectual level, I believe in non-judging and CHOICE. Anyone can choose to be however they want to be. I have a wonderful friend who just loves pink, and I'm sure her room looked like that growing up. Actually, it looked like that when she was in high school. And I love my friend. But there is this horrible part of me which thinks that I am so glad I'm not like that, and that I would never want any daughter of mine to be so girly.

I also once went to a women's engineering luncheon, where a girl said that her friends, almost all guys, would come to her for girl advice and she'd say, "i don't know, i don't fucking understand them either, they are crazy." and i had to admit i totally knew where she was coming from.

So I wonder, how can I be a feminist that espouses choice for everyone, if deep down I feel like my choice of selectively rejecting certain feminine traits is "better"? There's a whole lot going on here in this here brain of mine.

Also, just side note on toys. I had a few Barbies (2 maybe? 3?) as well as a remote control car as a kid. I loved the car more.

JLK, maybe you can analyze me for your next post.

DuWayne Brayton said...

PhizzleDizzle -

You actually touch on an issue that is hard for a lot of feminists.

So I wonder, how can I be a feminist that espouses choice for everyone, if deep down I feel like my choice of selectively rejecting certain feminine traits is "better"?

It very much depends on how you express it in the outside world. Feelings are something that we simply cannot control. The control is what we do with those feelings.

And this particular issue is one that is near to my heart. I have, on a number of occasions been accused of being a misogynist, because the mother of my children has more often than not, been a SAHM. Moreover, during certain periods in our relationship, when I was working particularly gruesome hours, I made virtually no contribution to household chores.

The choices that led to this were basic economics. I was capable of bringing in significantly more income and we (especially momma) didn't want to put our kids in daycare. Even when we have been separated, I would provide the bulk of financial support.

And when I was working the heavy hours, she felt that it was more important for me to spend time with our son playing and teaching, rather than doing dishes, cooking or cleaning. She also felt that when I was spending seventy hours a week, beating the crap out of my body, I deserved the chance to relax.

I can understand an underlying visceral reaction on the part of feminists. The thing is, she has also been trying to slowly build a career at home. She makes clothes and is writing a book that will provide specific instructions for projects that will help the reader learn to create their own designs.

It's not the underlying reaction that's a problem. It's when assumptions are made and accusations are made that it becomes a problem. Feeling like she made the wrong decisions, that the decisions were not really "feminist" decisions is just fine. But turning around and accusing me of trying to subjugate my children's mom, or accusing her of bowing to the whims of the patriarchy, would be entirely unreasonable and ultimately antithetical to the notion of feminism.

ScientistMother said...

I hate going to the toystore because it separated into boys and girls toys. I would LOVE to find a tonka truck in the girls section.
That said, my monkey totally loves playing with "babies" and strollers.

scicurious said...

I had that little Barbie car, also without the remote. But my favorite toys were my toy dinosaurs for YEARS. I wore a T-Rex sweatshirt my parents got me until I couldn't get my arms in it. Heck, I'd still wear that sweatshirt.

These are great posts, JLK! I'm learning a lot! I don't suppose you could maybe include really good books on each section at the end? You did that for the men and it was really helpful.

scicurious said...

Oh, nevermind. Obviously I wasn't reading book list now.

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