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Zer Netmouse
April 11th, 2010
08:55 am


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Boys and Their Toys
Being pregnant is making me hyper-sensitive about questions of gender, and especially gender-based statements like the above. Especially when they come out of the mouths of friends and family.

I was raised a tomboy feminist. If I have a boy, I want to raise a feminist boy; likewise if I have a girl. And I find I'm facing head-on the inherently different treatments of boyhood and girlhood in our society and especially language.

I'm not talking about expectations on the clothes they wear (though if you ask me if I know the gender of the baby and link it to the question of what color or style of things to buy, I will point out that any child I have will spend time in both legless sleepers and t-shirts and overalls, and my favorite colors for baby clothes and accessories are blue, red, purple, orange, green, and rainbow, regardless of gender).

I'm talking about societal permissiveness.

Permission to have fun, to want and play with toys, to get dirty, to break things, to mess up and recover from it. "Boys will be boys" -- they have that permission reinforced until an eventual age when they will be expected to "grow up" -- except that a "boyish grin" will still be looked on fondly.

What about a "girlish grin"? Does that even mean anything?

If I have a girl I want her to grow up grinning easily, to know it and be unashamed about it if she wants and enjoys high-tech toys or running around outside -- and if I have a boy I want the same for him except I also want him to openly anticipate that female friends might like the same things (and that male friends might not, and that's ok too), and I don't want him to believe that the permission to express those aspects of his character is inherently due to his gender and genitalia.

Nor would I want a son of mine to believe that "girls can't" play sports or goof around with action figures, go fishing or mess about in a mudhole, or that "guys can't" dance, play dress-up, play with babies or cook or do anything that they want to do, for that matter, and enjoy those things and still be ok, as guys.

We were visiting friends recently whose 3-year-old son has been fond of pink partly because his best friend, a girl, really likes pink, but who's realizing it's not considered a thing for boys. He watched me folding my laundry to re-pack and noted that I didn't have any pink clothes. I replied that I like pink but I don't wear it as often as I did when I was younger. "I guess girls often like pink," he said. "A lot of people like pink," I answered, my heart breaking a little for this little boy facing what may be the first in a long line of episodes of making his desires and affinities conform to gender expectations.

So if you say something around me like "Boys will be boys" and see me wince, this is why. Kids will be kids, I would rather say. Both boys and girls need time when they are expected to be responsible, and time when they are expected to play. Those expectations have a serious impact on what we become as adults, too - what we permit ourselves to want (or realize we want) and do.

And regarding "boys and their toys," as I recently reminded Brian, I'm the one who has the iPhone in this relationship. I'm sure I sounded like I was just teasing when I said that. While inside, I was thinking, "Please don't say such sexist things around my baby."

Because I think things like that mess with kids' heads, I really do. And with all of us, in ways we don't even realize. I can't stop my kids from hearing such things, I know, but I will tell different stories, and provide different messages, like a counterspell, and I would appreciate it if those around me would think about doing the same. For all the kids in your life, including each other.

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[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
I went through this when my daughter was a baby...to be honest, I wasn't much of a feminist--I was a tomboy and I would fistfight for my right to be one, but as far as I was concerned women who stayed home and had no education and just raised babies for a living must want to, right?--but having a baby girl changed all that.

As she's gotten older, I've gotten progressively angrier at what our society expects from her, from me, and from all the boys we both know. It's far worse than I'd thought...she's seven and already adults are trying to treat her as though she'd better dress modestly enough or she could be held responsible if she attracts sexual attention. SEVEN. She doesn't even understand enough for me to have a *conversation* about consent, and these crazy old biddies (some of which are my age, I guess) are trying to warn us off short-shorts because they'll make her a "slut".

It's scary. Having a girl seems way harder and worse than being a girl was. At least back then, I often had the advantage of not knowing what was going on. Now it's my job to sign her up for the separate-but-equal soccer team, to say no to hypersexualized clothes (because that's the flipside; those clothes ARE actually out there, being sold in her size), and to try to explain why women "have to" (as a relative told her) wear makeup but men don't.

When I was young I just had to give people the finger a lot. Damn, I wish that worked now!

Best to you; feminist moms need all the allies they can get IMO.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 02:38 pm (UTC)
Since identifying as a feminist, I as a rule don't wear makeup. If I do, it's because it's a special occasion (for example, I 'put on a face' for my birthday). When I do, I wear very natural colors; I don't try to mask my face.

I remember quite distinctly a conversation my dad and I had a couple of years ago. He suggested that I start wearing makeup when in professional environments; his implication was that I'd be seen more favorably if I did so. I pushed back against that suggestion firmly. It is not my job to conform to gender expectations and I refuse to be pressured into such.

If I ever heard someone say that women "must" wear makeup, I would stand my ground toward the contrary, quite vocally.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 01:25 pm (UTC)
The "boys and their toys" thing came up with me when I was a physics student. I was in the junior student office with a couple of classmates, both male, whose girlfriends came in to meet them for dinner. My classmates realized that they'd left something running down in the nuke lab and went to reset it before dinner, and one of the girls smiled at me. "Boys and their toys!" she said. I said, "Those are my toys too."

And the thing is, I know she meant to be nice. I know she was trying to have a female bonding moment with me. And I was not in a position in that department where someone who didn't take any courses there could make me feel like I didn't belong. But she made me a lot more aware that a lot of other people would assume I didn't. And it sucked.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 01:43 pm (UTC)
Hear hear! I'll be the same way around my kids.

So many times I've heard parents say "we treat them just the same, and they turned out completely different" in reference to sons & daughters, but then you watch them treat the daughter like a dress up doll and the son like a wild animal. It's so pervasive, and so unconscious. Plus I think I'll have to ban television until they're old enough to drive.

But at the same time I feel like I should also teach my kids all of the expected gender rolls (both genders, and probably not in the right order), and why they exist, and why people are uncomfortable when they break them. Because I want them to be liked, and have lots of friends, and not get in trouble socially either. So they should be fully capable of playing the game when they have to, and understanding why others are reacting how they are. They should be fully comfortable being who they are, and also fully comfortable and capable of attracting the gender of their choice, even in those fleeting circumstances where appearances are all one has to go on. Because self-confidence in groups requires a certain level of understanding that leads to a certain level of ability in dealing with others.

You know, teach them all the things I wish I'd known before approximately yesterday.

And while I'm doing this, sometimes for a break I'll walk a tightrope between tall buildings. :-P
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 03:55 pm (UTC)

Yeah, this "just explain how society works and at the same time give them the freedom to be themselves" thing sounds awesome and *might* not be as easy as it sounds.

But it's good to hear about others who are willing to try!
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 01:52 pm (UTC)
Very well said. The comment I hear frequently and one that makes me mad and makes me wince is when we see a woman in a so-called "non-traditional" role and someone says "I can't believe a woman is doing that". I just grit my teeth on that one and often make a few pointed remarks.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 02:41 pm (UTC)
And it's so strange, really, because women have been doing all kinds of things for many generations. They just get left out of the history books or treated as exceptions, so the dominant narrative says that most women don't do those sorts of things.

I came across this in Britain, when I was describing my history textbook concept (a textbooks that *names* people in different eras in correct proportion to the gender or ethnic proportions in society of the time), and The response from the very smart woman I was talking to was puzzlement. She knew women had taken leadership roles in Europe, but in the United States, she asked, due to the puritan ethic about women staying in the home, weren't women less involved?

No, I responded. A woman was one of the printers who printed and distributed the signed declaration of independence. A woman wrote the first novel published in the country, another established the first factory in the country, and many women have been instrumental in establishing many aspects of our society, such as kindergarten and nursing in schools, universities and university work-study programs and the juvenile justice system, that we take for granted these days. And women also took very visible roles, like stunt pilot, while also enabling things like the revolutionary, civil, and world wars by running the households, farms, and factories while the men were away being soldiers, in part so that those soldiers had something to eat and something to wear. And, you know, a home and family to come back to.

Not to even get started on the number of women whose work was not initially referenced for inventions and discoveries like the cotton gin and the theory of relativity or the structure of DNA.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 02:42 pm (UTC)
From a perspective of 5 years of doing this, I think this is the attitude we are taking with both our kids (5 year old girl, 3 year old boy).

Both were exposed at very young ages to all of the standard infant and toddler type toys (blocks, dominoes, stacking rings, Lego, crayons, stuffed animals, etc.) We've found that as they age and relate to their peer groups their attitudes in some ways differentiate by gender role, especially as their peers start telling them things (and vice versa).

Stacia has been telling us for a while that "Boys can't say pretty.. Girls can't say cool!" She very much enjoys small dolls and animals, stories with her toys and playing princess; tea parties and all.

She also enjoys playing with trains, wires, non-gender Lego building, coloring, stickers (those are girl stickers, mine!) and romping about outside in sandboxes and at the lake playground climbing and swinging.

She has decided to be a sensitive sort at times, declaring that she can't watch or do or read something because it is "too scary!! Turn it off!!"

Bobby has been playing with the same sort of toys, even to the princess games and pretending to be animals with sister. There is some territoriality over stickers, dolls and toy animals.

Bob is still pretty much fearless as to what he will watch on the TV or read in books. He has also been getting into the "Pew! Pew! Shoot! Laser! Laser!" style of play with his playmates at day school. He is also usually the initiator of rough play with his older sister. A current mania is "Toy Story characters, Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Mr Potato head, etc." He is also our resident jigsaw puzzle whiz (100 piece, no sweat).

Both enjoy games on the computer and will whine and beg for this.. Bob is the more accomplished mouse user at this point, not even looking at the mouse hand when operating computers. We try to read to them at any chance we get (especially bed-time) and Seuss is a universal hit now, as well as the Sandra Boynton books (Belly Button Book, Birthday Monsters, Opposites, But not the Hippopatomus and the like).

According to the eldest "Those are Boy colors! These are Girl colors!"

We've not tried to influence them in any gender direction and dissuaded the idea (where possible) of gender specific language, toys and activities with limited impact.

Enjoy your children, because they won't be children forever.. They will however imprint on your attitudes, values and habits for a lifetime.

[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 03:54 pm (UTC)
So what do you say to them when they say certain colors are for girls or for boys?
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)

Have you seen this?

Two Nova Scotia students are being praised across North America for the way they turned the tide against the bullies who picked on a fellow student for wearing pink.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 03:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Have you seen this?

NO, I hadn't seen that! That's awesome!
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
I'm kind of disappointed in my age-cohort (and the rest of society), in that things don't seem to have continued to improve that much since I was in college. In some ways they've regressed; things that were widely recognized as problems are now a bit obscure even to educated people.

All of which is to say, yeah, you've got your work cut out for you. Do your best! And good luck, of course.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 04:29 pm (UTC)
Beautiful. Thank you.

I want to point out that the "boys will be boys" thing is cultural - I don't know of such a saying in other languages I know, even though gendered paradigms exist there as well. When I was young, my father got me a play dagger, a play sword, and a play horse, because that is what I wanted. I never played with dolls, and nobody thought it was such a big deal.

I planned all kinds of things for my little boy, but as you know he is on the autistic spectrum, so most of the things I planned have to be shelved. Still, he has long hair and plays with dolls, and it is incredible how many times I get "why is he playing with dolls, he should be playing with boy toys" and "why aren't you getting him a haircut? he looks like a girl" in various permutations. At this time, I am very zen about all that and even more insensitive and annoying questions about Mati's autism. Regarding dolls I usually say, "pretend play with dolls is crucial for developing emotional sensitivity, and I encourage my child to do that because it is so important for both boys and girls." Shuts them up.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of Peggy Orenstein's classic article "What’s Wrong With Cinderella?". My sister had a similar experience as a tomboy, nonplussed to find that her daughter strongly self-identifying as a girl and wanting to do girl stuff. My sister decided it was okay; she trusts her daughter. But you want kids to choose what is right for them, not what is marketed to them by the Princess/Military Industrial Complex. I would like to say the answer is to be less materialistic -- the gender marketing of stuff is less troubling if you can buy less of it. But we're also fans who delight in all kinds of mass produced stuff from books and movies to costumes and miniatures, much of it festooned with all sorts of stereotypes. So I fall back on hope and trust, that the next generation will find its own way to repurpose our culture to better ends.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 05:04 pm (UTC)
I loved this post, it was awesome, thank you.

Thanks for the e-mails, too – I will read them and devote time to them properly after my exams, I think!
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC)
Good post with good points. We're lucky that our day care encourages play without worrying about gender. All the kids are encouraged to do all the activities, some of which have traditionally be associated with particular genders. Dress up, cooking, and working with tools are some of the activities I've seen. If you put your kid in day care, this is something you should ask about when you make your selection.

Also, I was planning to offer you some hand-me-down baby clothes "if you had a boy" but maybe you don't care. :) Some people get annoyed regarding correcting other people about their baby's gender, and wearing clothes is a signal for that if you care about such things. Or you can just let people leap to conclusions and laugh to yourself.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 05:34 pm (UTC)
As soon as my niece was old enough for it I gave her a construction toy that included screws, bolts, nuts, and appropriate tools. Not only did she love it (and still does!), but when I taught her the mnemonic "lefty loose-y, righty tighty" she took it to heart...including muttering it to herself as she screwed and unscrewed various bits.

It's not much weighed against the general society's influence, but it's something.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 06:08 pm (UTC)
I feel odd commenting as a non-parent, though I've wanted to have children since I was very young. Even though getting married was never firmly in my life-plan, having children always was. The thing is, I still get angry when I see pink and blue play/pretend laptops in the store for kids. I think my comment to Andy at the time was "why don't they have silver, or black? I wouldn't want a pink OR a blue laptop now or when I was a kid." I would have wanted purple. My sister would have wanted green.

Maddy and I loved dress-up and dolls but I don't think that ever got in the way of us being independent. I only had two Ken dolls, so one was the love interest and one was the Evil Jerry doll. That meant that the rescue team often involved a lot of the women, and a lot of the social Barbie drama involved women being evil as well (Evil Karen would plot with Evil Jerry but there wasn't a sexual component to their relationship). I also had a fair number of racially diverse dolls for a white girl in suburban America.

I think the main thing that really helped me was She-Ra. We watched every episode we could get (we didn't have cable) and usually hundreds of times. I own the DVDs now. She-Ra loved her brother but never really had a boyfriend. Men were interested in her, but that didn't mean that she was interested in THEM. Most of her companions were female. Hordak, the main evil guy, had a female second in command, and many female officers. The women were sometimes smarter than the men. But She-Ra was still pretty, had sexy outfits and could be attractive and kick ass at the same time. We could still enjoy dressing up (which I still love) and being badass at the same time.

The Secret of NIMH (the movie) is another good example of a female heroine that is practical and pretty - and doesn't end up with The Man at the end.

Regardless, I've always considered myself to not fit in well with other women and I definitely don't think or process things in the same way that most of my female friends do. When I wear make-up, it's super obvious. If I'm wearing subtle make-up, then I'm wearing just mascara and nothing else (no foundation). I love wearing stockings, skirts and corsets but I own it and it's always been about me, not impressing someone else. Plus I was the only girl in my college dorm that had her own toolbox, which my mom made sure I had even though I didn't care until I realised that no one else had any tools and how incredibly stupid that was.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 07:10 pm (UTC)
Good luck with this. It's a challenge!

My kids didn't wear gender-specific clothing until they were a couple of years old (this is confirmed by my recent task of sorting and cataloging photos). They wore "onesies" in one form or another for the first year. Then they wore stretch pants and tshirts until they graduated into "school clothes" - which to this day are pants and tshirts. (G will only wear soft cotton/poly pants now; K will only wear jeans.)

They got to play with the full range of toys; K is a LegoManiac while G is all about video games. K loves to cook (he's been cooking his own eggs since he was six and I wasn't feeling well and talked him through it).

My dad was frustrated by not having sons and took it out on us. :-) We had to learn to do all the things that the missing boy would have had to learn, like fixing our bikes and changing oil in the car and mowing the lawn. This was also true of my dad's brother (4 girls), plus their sister had a dairy farm where everyone did chores regardless of gender, so we were well along before we found out it wasn't the usual thing for girls to know about wrenches and hammers and how to fix the toilet.

Re girls and clothing: I reply to people who comment that way that a sexual attack is ALWAYS the perpetrator's fault. Sorry, they have to resist the perceived provocation, just as they'd have to resist the urge to punch someone if they were taunted. We wish we could control other people's behavior by how we dress, but we can't.

I don't like skirts; there's too much fabric and they never fit right - but I know lots of guys who like kilts. My kids don't like them, but I probably should have dressed them as little Scotsmen when they were younger, just to be ornery. :-)

I say, Kids Are Kids. Teach them whatever they need to know, whether they're boys or girls. Oddly enough, kids listen to their parents more than they listen to Society.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
I've always been a feminist, but becoming the mother of a boy has been educational to me. My husband suffered from being criticized for being interested in cooking and having a toy stove as a small child. People in his conservative southern family suggested that it wasn't appropriate, and I think his grandfather went to his grave thinking my husband was gay because of that. Really a pity. I was resolved to parent my child without imposing any of our outmoded social norms and expectations on him/her.

From birth I provided him many kinds of toys, neutral, "boy," and "girl." (It has always annoyed me and still does, by the way that McDonalds' employees ask if you are ordering for a boy or girl so they can give you a sex-appropriate toy.) What I found was that even before he was old enough to properly understand gender, he gravitated toward "boy" toys and was less interested in girl toys. At some point, once he had internalized the concept, he outright rejected girl toys, including the $40 anatomically correct peeing baby boy doll that I SCOURED the internet for (sniff). I know this seems bad and wrong from a liberated feminist point of view, but it was HIS choice, and the thing is that children do need to have some kind of gender identity, and one way they develop this is by observing parents and other adult role models, as well as taking in cultural messages about gender roles. Our specific cultural messages are sometimes wrong and damaging (boys don't cook), however, it is not wrong for a child to imitate the gender that they identify with. Moreover, I've been forced to accept that there are some innate differences in behavior and development between boys and girls. Our species has a low degree of sexual dimorphism, so these differences are kind of subtle and not exclusionary, but they exist. In general, boys are a bit more "ADHD" than girls, and girls tend to be more eager to please and more "obedient" and "calm" as young girls. There is a lot of overlap. My baby sister, who was born when I was fifteen, was possibly the most hyperactive child I've ever seen (though she never had any kind of ADHD). My son is much "calmer" than she ever was. However, I have seen how a classroom with an uneven gender balance can have a very different energy than one that is balanced or tipped the other way. I've also watched enough babies grow up and talked enough to other moms to believe that much of the difference in behavior between boys and girls is not something they were taught or had forced on them. (I live in Ann Arbor, remember. Most of my friends are also feminists.) In fact, although in our society the prevailing belief is that you must teach a child how to behave in a gender appropriate way, I think it's only effective if the child is already inclined toward that behavior, as many parents of tomboys or GLBT individuals will attest.

One thing you should know about three year olds is that at that age they don't have a clear idea of what the difference between boys and girls is. They may have had the anatomy explained to them in a rough way, but they can't examine their friends for penises or vaginas in order to tell whether they are boys or girls. The question about pink was probably a pretty astute observation from your young friend, and it really is a valid clue (although I, too, would have noted that boys can like pink, too). I know my son couldn't reliably tell boy from girl until he was in kindergarten. One thing I've noticed from reading stories about transgendered people as young children is that they are often extremely precocious about adopting a gender identity, often expressing a strong preference as young as one year of age, when the reality is that most kids are tend to be rather happily gender confused until they hit school age. (I don't know why this is, and couldn't begin to speculate. I am just noting what I have read and heard.)

[ack, too long. Must continue in another comment.]
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)

My ultimate point here is that while I've found that I still believe it's wrong to pressure children into gender appropriate behavior, I've also found that adopting a stereotyped gender identity can be a natural and healthy developmental process in a child and something which parents should not be distressed about--nor should we be overly judgmental when someone else's children are more "boyish" or "girlish" than we think they ought to be. (Or if they've got it backward from our point of view.)

By the way, just as a note of trivia, the idea that mothers are responsible (or to blame) for a child's behavior, actions, and attitudes in life is a feminist issue all of its own. We have a serious "blame the mother" complex in our culture.
[User Picture]
Date:April 11th, 2010 09:18 pm (UTC)
I'm reading this book right now. I think you'd find it interesting.

[User Picture]
Date:April 12th, 2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
Thanks! That does look interesting, as does her general book on brain development in the first 5 years.
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