As long as they are equally valued

Christina Hoff Sommers is appalled at the way people are trying to make boys be more like girls and girls be more like boys.

Say what?

The Reklamombudsmannen (RO) has reprimanded Top-Toy, a licensee of Toys”R”Us and one of the largest toy companies in Northern Europe, for its “outdated” advertisements and has pressured it to mend its “narrow-minded” ways. After receiving “training and guidance” from RO equity experts, Top-Toy introduced gender neutrality in its 2012 Christmas catalogue. The catalog shows little boys playing with a Barbie Dream House and girls with guns and gory action figures. As its marketing director explains, “For several years, we have found that the gender debate has grown so strong in the Swedish market that we have had to adjust.”

Oh no oh no oh no! That’s terrible! It’s fabulous that all the other toy companies and retail outlets are doing the exact opposite with all their might, and it’s horrendous that anyone anywhere is trying to undo a little of the damage. Hell no toys can’t be just toys! Hell no children can’t just decide for themselves what they like. Certainly not. All the toys must be clearly marked as for one sex or the other sex, so that no child will be confused for one second about whether it’s an innie or an outie.

As one Swedish mother, Tanja Bergkvist, told the Associated Press, “Different gender roles aren’t problematic as long as they are equally valued.” Gender neutrality is not a necessary condition for equality. Men and women can be different—but equal. And for most human beings, the differences are a vital source for meaning and happiness. Since when is uniformity a democratic ideal?

Different gender roles aren’t problematic as long as they are equally valued. But they’re not. Has Sommers just not noticed?


  1. Jay says

    I think she is saying that

    A) The science indicates it will not work without extensive behavior modification of the boys

    B) This behavior modification goes against the child’s natural behavior, will result in short term gains, supports the (possibly sexist) predispositions of what a teacher would prefer play to be (quiet vs. rough and tumble), and is the anti-thesis of what most people consider to be in a child’s best interest or a child’s right to grow up without government approved behavior modification programs.

    She seems to agree with you, let the child decide what toys the child wants to play with.

    Here’s a very interesting Norwegian documentary on the subject:

    Sacha Baron-Cohen’s brother Simon can be seen in one of the videos.

    Just as we are skeptical of fixed gender roles, we should also be skeptical of curing gender roles via behavior modification, just as we are skeptical of curing the gay via behavior modification.

  2. fnerb says

    “And for most human beings, [gender] differences are a vital source for meaning and happiness.”

    I’d love to see a source on that. And “meaning and happiness” as defined by what? For a lot of people (like myself and many people I’ve conversed with) that can just mean general social acceptance, particularly in childhood and adolescence.

  3. says

    In seriousness though. Gender roles aren’t the problem – it is the strictness of them.

    I’m also not into valuing “gender roles” but valuing humans and the choices they make.

    I know – craziness.

  4. theobromine says

    M.A. Melby: I disagree. If you want to value humans and empower them to make free choices, gender roles *are* a problem, whether enforced or not, any time they create an expectation of how people are supposed to behave on the basis of whether they are male or female.

  5. mildlymagnificent says

    How old are these people? My daughters are either side of 30, born in the early 80s.

    Their Fisher Price, Lego and most other toys were more or less sexless – anyone else remember those squat little Lego people – you had to look twice to see which was which. And everything in traditional toddler style bright primary colours. Tonka Trucks and other mechanical-style toys seemed to be mainly red or yellow. The only obtrusively *pink* toy series that I recall was Barbie. Cabbage Patch Kids and other prized objects of desire were just babyish rather than primary or pink/purple colours.

    Unless these people are less than, say, 25, they’re just making this stuff up.

  6. says

    At some point you have to define “gender role”.

    The way I am using it is that someone who identifies as a particular gender allows that gender to inform their life in some way. For many people, their gender does have meaning to them, personally and socially.

    That is only a problem if that particular gender expression or gender-typical socialization is imposed on others and assumed in children.

    If you say that gender roles (even when they are not socially imposed) are a problem, you are essentially saying that those who identify and express their gender in ways that are personally meaningful to them, and affect how they live, are some sort of problem.

    I suspect that’s not what you meant.

    My gender queer friend has a young daughter who absolutely LOVES girly stuff and she’s not that terribly happy about it since that’s not her own gender-related comfort zone, but she has made peace with the trappings of “girly-ness” in her daughter because that’s who her daughter is. What should she do – burn every pink toy and barbie she gets as gifts? REFUSE to buy any clothes with hearts on it? Would that be much different than if she imposed those things are her daughter when her daughter would much rather wear Shawn White gear?

    I have pagan friends who celebrate womanhood in ways that are meaningful to them (the maiden, the mother, the crone); and others who see their role (as women) in a certain capacity in close social groups – generally as confidants, coordinators and (for lack of a better term) spiritual leaders.

    I simply don’t see that as inherently harmful, even when it sets up expectations – because those expectations are generally (at least amongst mine) not held onto very closely when there is any indication that they aren’t true. That’s certainly not the case in all social groups, but, y’know, I tend to avoid those when I can.

  7. Maureen Brian says

    By definition, a gender role is the reflection of a social expectation. If it were simply an expression of one’s own personality plus sexual orientation then we would have 7 billion gender roles on the planet. For the most part we have two!

    At some times and in some lucky places we have been able to cope with much greater flexibility but we have seen just this week how in others gender roles are enforced with extra-judicial killings.

    M.A. Melby, I share your friend’s qualms about her daughter. The child may go on to be the greatest paediatrician or the greatest costume designer ever – we need both – but if it turns out later she wants to be a lumber-jack should she have to fight her way out of a box to do it?

    And it’s not one way. Ask any man who is now a principal dancer what he had to go through and how many people told him along the way he really didn’t want to go there.

    (Unless he’s a Cuban, of course, as they seem to be on top of that one.)

  8. says

    I highly recommend the book “Brain Storm” by Rebecca Jordan-Young. It takes an in-depth look at the kind of studies which Sommers is quoting in her article, including the CAH studies and the vervet monkey studies. One of Jordan-Young’s premises is that because the studies in brain organisation research are by necessity observational studies and not true experiments (you can’t ethically subject human beings to varying hormone treatments or control their development), it isn’t enough to just pick a few studies (as Sommers has done here). You need to do a synthesis of all the work done, and see if any conclusions can be made. So she did a synthesis of about 400 of the most-cited studies in the field (and also interviewed 20-odd of the most cited scientists). And what she found was that the types of claims Sommers makes here are not supported. The only positive association that emerges is in the case of CAH-affected girls. But even given that, it’s hard to claim that it’s androgenisation that’s causing it. CAH-affected girls live highly different lives – they typically have two or more surgeries at a very young age, and continual visits to doctors their whole lives. And everything revolves around their gender behaviour and their genitals – i.e. gender is continually made salient their whole lives, and everyone from the doctors to their own parents expects them to be masculine. So an alternative explanation is readily available from the priming effects of this socialisation and interference. Yet another problem is small control groups – the control is typically a CAH-unaffected female relative. When the best practice in similar studies of this nature in the field of epidemiology (which has the same kind of studies – observational studies i.e. case-control studies and cohort studies) is to oversample the control group.

    If you’re interested in science do give the book a read – it’s a sober, well-researched text.
    Amazon link:

    Here’s a short paper by her which covers some of the same ground:

  9. says

    My gender queer friend has a young daughter who absolutely LOVES girly stuff and she’s not that terribly happy about it since that’s not her own gender-related comfort zone, but she has made peace with the trappings of “girly-ness” in her daughter because that’s who her daughter is. What should she do – burn every pink toy and barbie she gets as gifts? REFUSE to buy any clothes with hearts on it? Would that be much different than if she imposed those things are her daughter when her daughter would much rather wear Shawn White gear?

    The problem is, you (and the rest of society) have defined and equated “girly” with pink, barbie, hearts. This is what we’re trying to change. There’s nothing innately girly about any of those things. If there were no gender policing, why wouldn’t boys be just as likely to like pink, barbies, and hearts? Your friend’s daughter could happily still like those things too, without being stuck in a box where she can’t also like black, toy cars, and sports logos. If the toy store is gender neutral and advertising is gender neutral and socialisation from adults is gender neutral, that opens up true freedom for kids to actually choose their own preferences.

  10. Wave says

    I don’t think we have any choice but to go with the *dirfferent but equal line*

    I’m an uncle to 23 nieces and nephews, and I had a role in raising just about all of them.

    It’s a bit like being the father of 23 children (good grief!)

    There are marked behavioral differences between boys and girls almost from the get-go.

    From what I’ve witnessed gender is NOT a social construct. It can be tweaked and adjusted, but I’m of the opinion that certain aspects of it are fixed, biological.

  11. says

    There are socially constructed means of gender expression – however, I don’t think it is a bad thing for objects and expressions to have a tag on them.

    Barring “pens for women” of course. HA.

    For example, many trans-women grow out their hair – as an expression of their womanhood. There is a really horrid case where a family cut the hair of their transgender “son” while she slept and she killed herself.

    There is nothing at all intrinsically “female” about long hair – but for whatever reason it is associated with femininity.

    Lot of men also have long hair and some women have short hair – with little or no social price for that choice in most areas of the U.S.

    So, the “role” (in a limited sense) exists but it is not enforced.

    Also some children are not gender-typical but most are to some extent. My boys fight ALL THE TIME. That whole “rough and tumble” play thing is a constant. It’s crazy. I had to protect my younger son from my older son when he was a baby because of the way he wanted to play with him.

    But, my oldest LOVES clothes and dressing dolls. My youngest likes dramatic play with dolls and wants a tea-set – which he is getting for his birthday.

    Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely am in favor of gender neutral toys. I really like that catalogs are including boys playing with baby dolls and girls with trucks. Heck, I signed the petition for a color-neutral EZ-Bake oven.

    I chose to pursue a career in a male-dominated field.

    I think the more serious problem is not that society has designated certain actions, likes, objects, etc as being feminine and masculine.

    The problem is not that enjoying shopping (for example) is considered female-typical; but that enjoying shopping, since it is associated with “female”, is perceived as some sort of childish character flaw.

    A woman is rewarded for being “masculine” and a man is denigrated for being “feminine” – that’s sort of the whole problem right there.

    If I hear that “a woman can be just as strong as a man” one more time – I think I’m going start a band called “Kill-Joy Bitches” so I can emote.

    I get where you are coming from – because, yeah, the whole gender THING can be extremely problematic. However, attempting to erase the social constructions surrounding gender seems too much like a burnt-earth tactic that has the potential to simply further socially punish female-typical expression since we’re socialized by a sexist culture to see male-typical expression as superior and the default.

  12. says

    I’m not saying that gender doesn’t exist, nor even that more people of one gender might prefer certain things. But the thing is, when lace and frills and floral patterns were worn by men (say in the pre-puritan era in Europe), it wasn’t exclusively feminine to like lace and frills and floral patterns. Just like it’s not currently considered especially masculine for women or girls to wear trousers. I like having the freedom to choose to wear pants one day and a dress the next, to wear dresses all the time, or to wear pants all the time. If all clothes, toys, colours, makeup, jewellery, whatever, were gender neutral (referring to gender-policed marketing schemes), and could be used or worn by anyone without stigma, I don’t see that as a downside for girls and women (or for boys and men). If boys are shown in ads playing with dolls and tea sets and more boys end up playing with them, it means that there’s one less thing for girls to be denigrated for doing. Of course, we should also stop looking down on everything considered “girly” in the mean time. I see at as a dual-pronged approach.

  13. Perchloric Acid says

    The Lego in my local store is in the section clearly marked “Boy’s Toys”. All the sets and characters are marketed towards boys- the Star Wars sets are mostly male, the Harry Potter sets rarely have a Hermione in them, the Ninjago sets have one girl (who is explicitly not a ninja, although she is eventually allowed to fight alongside he brother) among five male ninjas, two male teachers, and a large number of non-gender-specific-but-voiced-by-males-in-the-cartoon skeletons and serpentmen, the “Monster Fighter” series has only one female and four or five males, etc. There is, of course, the “Friends” Lego, where the minifigs are explicitly female, but they’re shaped so as to be incompatible with all the other minifigs. Score another one for the “pink ghetto”.

  14. maddog1129 says

    @ maureen brian #9

    You have piqued my curiosity re principal dancers .. Can you say more about the Cubans?

  15. theobromine says

    @Wave, #12:
    For some insights on just how pervasive societal influence can be on gender-specific behaviour, check out Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender (which I picked up on Ophelia’s recommendation early this year).

    @M.A. Melby:
    Perhaps it’s just semantics, but to me, the problem with the idea of gender *roles* is that it takes the typical behavioural differences between males and females and reifies it into prescribed ways of behaving. It has been pointed out on this thread (and in others) that there is nothing inherently “girly” about pink – it was a man’s colour around the turn of the last century, not to mention men’s frills and elaborate hairstyles before that. So, if a boy likes pink and playing with Barbies , it doesn’t make him “girly”, it just means he’s a boy who likes pink. And if 90% of nurses are female, that doesn’t call into question the gender identity of the 10% of nurses who happen to be male. I think the aim of a just society ought to be to do away with designated roles based on a person’s gender, ethnic origin or other (non-task related) physical characteristics, and ensure that people are enabled to participate in the employment (and recreational) activities that *they* wish to pursue.

    *Though if he keeps it up for a while (as my son did, ~20 years ago), it probably is indicative of his strength of character and willingness to stand up against the majority, which in my view is a positive trait.

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