Reach for the sky, then pour out the tea

Another piece about gender-policing. A little girl goes to school with an Avengers backpack with four Avenger guys on it, avenging. A little boy asks her if it’s her brother’s backpack.

Back-to-school shopping is one of those moments in which the power of consumer-culture to shape our ideas about gender springs into focus. As parents, with or without our kids’ input, we make choices that shape their entry into new social contexts. We tell them what is “normal.” We set them up to fit in or stand out. And the choices, for parents and children alike, can be overwhelming.

This year, my daughter got an Avengers’ backpack featuring four male superheroes. There was no option with Black Widow, the lone female Avenger in the recent movie, which is pretty typical of the way comic-book companies fail to display gender diversity in their merchandising. Still, it’s a pretty awesome backpack, and she loves it. While we didn’t pick it for Ellie, we did try to subtly influence her away from the stereotypical girlie choices. Here’s why.

Michael isn’t a bad kid. He’s just unconsciously projecting our society’s gender norms onto his classmate, my daughter. Given enough time and unchallenged exposure to this kind of sentiment, it’s possible that Ellie would do the same thing. The cultural pressures to promote a rigid separation of genders start at birth, when a newborn gets a pink or blue hat. They continue for life. The toys, clothes and decorations designed for boys promote action, sports and often violent heroism. Boys are doers, they imply. Baby girls are to be looked at.

I had a lot of “boy” toys as a kid, because I asked for them. I also had (because I asked for them) dolls, a little tea set, a toy stove. I don’t remember ever mashing them up though. That would have been quite good – having a dolls’ tea party with guns and cowboy hats. I wasn’t imaginative enough…




  1. Silentbob says

    Heh. Sorry to go all ‘what about the menz’. I’ve already told one anecdote about my own experiences of gender policing, here’s another:

    When my (female, life) partner and I were establishing our business, she worked for a couple of years while I focussed on building up a sufficient client base to make the business profitable. Boy, did my wife and I ever get an education in gender policing from my in-laws! “You’re working and he isn’t?! Why are you supporting that deadbeat? What sort of man allows a woman to support him?”, etc., etc.

    Somehow I think if I had been employed while she worked on our business, the same questions may not have arisen.

  2. Silentbob says

    Anyway, Christina Hoff Sommers says:

    Most little girls don’t want to play with dump trucks, as almost any parent can attest. Including me: When my granddaughter Eliza was given a toy train, she placed it in a baby carriage and covered it with a blanket so it could get some sleep.

    So, you see? You’re completely wrong you radical gender feminist! Why are you trying to force boys to wear frilly dresses?

  3. latsot says

    I have various sisters and played with as many ‘girl’ as ‘boy’ toys. What I’m certain of is this: the toys we fought the most over were the ones with agency: lego, playmobile, mechano (yeah, I’m that old). We all wanted to make stuff and there was a severe risk that the stuff we half-made would be cannibalised to make other stuff a sibling wanted to make. There were also plenty of gendered toys. My sisters had dolls and I had…more muscular dolls. One sister had a giant head to put makeup on. I had… well, I mostly played with sticks and puddles and stones, but that’s just me.

    But the point is this: my limited experience tells me that kids like to make stuff. They enjoy it regardless of how good or bad they are at it. And the joy of making a terrifying plasticine model of a sibling and saying “that’s you” doesn’t diminish with age.

    I drew makeup on that giant head, sometimes. My sister told me off because it wasn’t proper makeup. Even then, at age four or five it seemed like there was a rabbit away. But I could accuse my sister of looking like the giant head, which was the main thing.

  4. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    We provided all types of toys to both my son and my daughter. Yes, it’s true, my son gravitated towards superheroes and Pokemon, and my daughter toward dolls and stuffed animals, but my son’s favorite superheroes tend to be women (Raven, Storm, Batgirl) and my daughter likes to join my son’s superhero battles with her ponies and Barbies (who suddenly develop lazer eyes and the ability to fly). So where do they fit in the gendered toys stereotype?

  5. karmacat says

    So, I have a couple of anecdotes:
    My mom is a feminist and was vocal about it when I was growing up. Somehow I got the idea that Barbie was not a good feminist toy. When I asked for a Barbie, my parents did get me one and didn’t say anything about it. At the time, I am not sure if I really wanted the house or the Barbie. I did read a book about Annie Oakley 10 times and then made a gun out of a stick. I think I admired Annie Oakley because she was strong and resourceful enough to take care of her family when the father died.
    When my niece was very young, my brother realized he needed to get her dolls. She has 2 older brothers, so there were plenty of soldier “dolls.” But when she played with the soldiers, she put them all in a car and pretended they were a family.
    My son really likes castles, and he certainly has enough now. But when I was looking for castles, I couldn’t buy the pink princess castles (his father has taught him that pink is a girl’s color and must be avoided). It’s annoying in another way, because castles are made out of stone and not are supposed to be bubble gum pink

  6. Minnow says

    I think the evidence that other primates have gendered toy preferences should weaken our commitment to the idea that this is socially conditioned. here is one study for example:

    It has been my experience (and a lot of people seem to have this experience) that there is very little that parents can do to shape the preferences of their children in almost any way for any length of time – except, to intimidate them into hiding them (sexual preferences especially). If they want to play with dolls, or guns, they just will unless you make them pay a very high emotional price. They will modify their behaviour in front of other children, but adults have very little influence. I think it is a little sad, reading the article quoted, that the parents felt the need to pressurise their daughter to have the thing she wouldn’t have chosen for herself because of their political commitments and, I have little doubt, because they made the girl feel ashamed of her own prefernces. I think that is rather selfish. And it bites because my daughter who is 10 recently revealed to me that she had a ‘secret’ Barbie doll which she used to play with when we weren’t looking. She ‘knew’ that we disapproved of ‘the people who play with Barbies’. Kids don’t get it. She has grown out of Barbie now, of course, like they always do.

  7. yahweh says

    “… we did try to subtly influence her away from the stereotypical girlie choices” “Today, our strategy is to promote whatever option runs counter to the dominant norms” “…So we always put the alternative forward, gently working against the grain.”

    How condescending of them. They should tell her straight.

  8. chrislawson says

    Minnow @6: that’s pretty weak sauce for claiming biologically determined toy preferences. The paper showed that among 34 rhesus monkeys of varying age and social rank, males and females were pretty much exactly the same except that males played with plush toys for less time. That’s it.

    (It’s also not a very robust paper IMO, but I’ll leave the critique to one side.)

    I have no doubt that there are real biological sex differences between men and women in behaviour as well as genitalia, but most of these differences are trivial given (i) the enormous variety of normal human behaviour and (ii) the extreme flexibility of humans. A difference in how much time a small subgroup of rhesus monkeys plays with certain types of toys in an incredibly artificial setting really doesn’t tell us much about ourselves.

  9. says

    I think the evidence that other primates have gendered toy preferences should weaken our commitment to the idea that this is socially conditioned.

    It doesn’t have to be either/or. This isn’t a competition between absolute biological determinism versus absolute social determinism. Sensible people realize that there’s a bit of both going on.

  10. says

    Marvel merchandise (along with Star Wars, both from Disney nowadays) is the *worst* for needlessly sending out “no girls allowed” messages. In those parts of the Disney Store Black Widow and Ms Marvel, Princess Leia and Padmé are just gone.

  11. Seekerz says

    My anecdata time: as a toddler of the 1960s, I grew up in a time when both girls and boys I knew wore unisex clothes (mostly jeans and t-shirts) and a lot of our toys were of the Lego/Lincoln Log/Tinker Toy variety. I had a Barbie and the boys next door had a G.I. Joe, and we’d get together and play with our toys. One summer the entire neighborhood went crazy for kickball, and there always seemed to be a co-ed game in progress.

    When I had my own kids, the toy aisles were such a disappointment because the toys were so gendered–anything for boys was hyper-violent, and anything for girls was sparkly, pink, or both. The clothes were equally dreadful–toddler girls got shorty-short skirts and crop tops, and boys got oversized clothes in grim colors.

  12. mildlymagnificent says

    I had the great privilege of having my two girls in the early 80s. Barbie stuff was pinker than pink, but only the younger one was interested in them and she was dead lucky my husband finally relented on that issue. But Lego, Fisher Price, Meccano, Tonka Toys were all robust and served up in various combinations of bright, primary colours – no pink or purple, grey or black to be seen. There were also the not-so-pretty Cabbage Patch kids and similar doll types not conforming to the baby/barbie stereotypes. As far as clothes went, we still had lots of more or less unisex white baby clothes and denim/corduroy toddler clothes. For play, a sandpit is the universal equaliser. The dolls and the teddies and the dumptrucks get incorporated into whatever storyline the kids want to invent in whatever surprising or predictable combinations they dream up. Toy manufacturers and advertisers may not realise it, but Barbie in a cloud of frothy pink tulle is quite capable of driving a great big yellow cement mixer to build a fort for the teddies.

    I suspect we’re going to have to invest in a sewing machine for clothes for the planned but not yet real grandchildren. For toys I think we’ll have to bite the bank balance and get the tough, primary colour stuff from kindergarten and school suppliers. I’m near to rageweeping sometimes when we shop for my sister’s grandkids in department stores – Seekerz disappointment is shared by far more people than the manufacturers realise.

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