The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, recently slammed No Gender December – an awareness campaign backed by Greens senator Larissa Waters, to highlight the consequences of gender-marketing toys to children. The PM insists that he doesn’t support “that kind of political correctness” and asks that we all “let boys be boys and girls be girls.”
Well, fair enough, Mr Abbott. I mean, where’s the harm in promoting stereotypes? Let traditions speak for themselves, right? Quit the meddling?
Well, no. As Senator Waters put it, “This isn’t about some toys being off-limits. It’s about children being free to play with whatever interests them without fear of being judged or bullied.”
There are the key words – “judged” and “bullied.” They come with very real consequences for children, for societies.
As an authority figure, someone people (might) look to as an example, it would’ve been nice if Mr Abbott had taken a more responsible line when broadcasting his views: but then again, these are clearly his beliefs, too. Which is a shame. It’s worth noting that his approval ratings have taken a good kicking from women voters in particular, with only 37% believing him fit to be their chosen leader.
The sad truth is that his views are in no way singular. They’re just another facet of the “outdated stereotypes about boys and girls” that feed into “very serious problems such as domestic violences and the gender pay gap.”
In response to Senator Waters, the Liberal backbencher Cory Bernardi was a little more direct:
“Frankly, I think [Waters has] consumed too much Christmas eggnog to come up with an idea like this… To say you’re giving a boy a truck or a hammer is somehow leading to domestic violence and gender pay gaps is simply bizarre.”
Well, all things move towards their end, and one thread ties to another to form a smothering whole. Were I Mr Abbott, I’d be a bit cagey about having my views backed by someone whose idea of equality is suggesting that a man could have put his partner in a headlock to restrain her if she was being aggressive, or that this could be used as a restraining technique by police officers.
But then again, toys are only a few symptoms of a much wider problem involving sociocultural beliefs and attitudes about gender roles. The denial of certain types of behaviour and thinking – basic rights – for both girls and boys, create fissures between the sexes that become filled with beliefs that cause grief and pain, even when we’re not wholly aware of it happening. Doubt and frustration about what it means to be a girl or a boy. Repression of individuality.
Favouring boys and men, whether through the son-preference and gendercide seen in China – where one out of every six girls is eliminated through sex-selective abortion, abandonment, or infanticide – or with the global gender pay gap, feeds into the historical context of male privilege and patriarchal societies. When it comes to girls and women, their bodies and minds, male sexual entitlement plays host to a terrifying range of oppressive measures and actions. The kind we saw in horrifying detail with the Isla Vista murders.
Awareness is about picking apart the knots that help to perpetuate gender stereotypes and segregation, many of which begin at birth.
Take gender colour-coding. Walk into your average nursery and you’ll know from a cursory glance about the room what the baby’s sex is. From the moment we’re born, our identities are pinned to us with the associations “pretty in pink” for a girl, and boisterously blue for a boy. These perceptions have apparently become so ingrained in the public mind, that a backlash occurs when the perfectly rational argument for equality is proposed. As though by offering girls positive alternative role models – “women who do amazing things. Scientists and sportswomen and musicians and businesswomen and activists” – their progression through life is somehow inhibited by “politically correct” meddling.
In email responses to the PinkStinks campaign, set up by twin sisters Abi and Emma Moore, one little girl wrote: “I am nine years old, and I think PinkStinks is my voice. Girls like me shouldn’t be forced to like pink. Can you think of a good name for girls who don’t want to be girly girls but aren’t tomboys?”
And on the flipside, recrimination: “Do you sell campaign T-shirts in pink? And do you have any with ‘I am a leftwing communist loony trying to brainwash girls’?”
Abi called it “a wholesale pinkification of girls” that “sells children a lie – that there’s only one way to be a ‘proper girl’ – and it sets them on a journey, at a very, very early age. It’s a signpost, telling them that beauty is more valued than brains; it limits horizons, and it restricts ambitions.” Emma, referring to the vitriol directed at she and her sister for the campaign, said “We’ve tapped into something that’s clearly very deep and very powerful. Some people plainly feel attacked.”
This colour-coding is far more modern than many would like to believe. In June 1918, the American Ladies’ Home Journal told new mothers that pink was more suitable for a boy, being “a more decided and stronger colour”, while blue was seen to be “delicate and dainty”, and therefore “prettier for the girl.” Same old clichés, different colour-coordination. The switch-around didn’t occur until post-WWII; in 1948, it was noted in the Chicago Reader that “royal watchers” were apparently alerted to the fact Princess Elizabeth “was obviously expecting a boy, because a temporary nursery in Buckingham Palace was gaily decked out with blue satin bows.” Interestingly, it was also common practise until WWI for male babies and small boys to wear dresses until breeching, when they were put into trousers. The average age of this rite of passage was between two and seven. So no, boys haven’t always been prepared for rougher play in their clothing, and were once almost indistinguishable from girls, particularly with the fashions for longer hair. I have photographs of my great-grandfather as a toddler, dressed in a flowing gown and with beautiful curls, standing next to his mother.
But colours and connotations have come to define our perceptions and feelings, our reactions to one another. A study on the psychological effects of pink by Alexander Schauss in the 70’s, showed that “of 153 male prisoners put in cells painted pink, 98.7 per cent were weaker after being in the pink cells for only 15 minutes – presumably because of associations with the colour pink and femininity.” Which sort of flies in the face of the afore-mentioned evidence that, once upon a time, pink was the accepted-conventional colour for boys and men. It’s funny what a cultural placebo effect can do.
More troubling, is the light this shines on yet another facet of that belief that girls and women are vulnerable, the weaker sex; that femininity is something to be ashamed of, especially if you’re male. My landlady recently told me of an acquaintance who refused to let her son wear a “slightly effeminate” shirt in the two-minute drive from her house to his own; he’d got caught in a rain shower. Said acquaintance was convinced that he would contract feminine attributes and/or homosexuality if he wore the borrowed shirt, rather than a cold if he didn’t.
If you believe that kids don’t notice these gender stereotypes, that it’s an issue only adults care about, think again. From as early as five months old, children notice their surroundings in relation to familiarity (that safety-blanket feeling of “Me”) and build upon what they retain, in their preferences:
“Researchers have shown that male and female infants as young as 5 months of age become familiar with vastly different surroundings: while female infants were often dressed in pink, had pink pacifiers, and yellow bedding, boys were more likely to have blue bedding and curtains in their rooms (Pomerleau, Bolduc, Malcuit, & Cossette, 1990). Since parents surround girls with objects that are pink and boys with objects that are blue, infants may develop a preference for these colours based on familiarity. Another possibility is that once children identify with a certain gender, they seek out gender-related information and choose toys and colours that are commonly associated
with that gender… Kohlberg’s (1966) early work on gender development suggests that children seek out gender-related information and look for ways to conform to these gender norms.” – Pretty in pink: The early development of gender-stereotyped colour preferences
So the next time you choose an item of clothing, or plan out the style of your bedroom, or daydream about the colour of your new car, ask yourself how many of your preferences are born of personal appeal, and how much are based upon the image you feel you “should” present to the world.
Then there are the toys.
“At some point over the last three decades the toy industry decided that parents and children could not be trusted to choose to what to buy without colour coded gender labelling… As every successful marketeer knows, differentiation makes for greater profit margins and segmentation gives you a bigger market overall.
So with three-year-old girls only being able to ‘choose’ pink tricycles then the manufacturer can charge more for that special girlie shade with a premium ‘Princess’ saddle. And of course that trike can’t be handed on to a brother or nephew, ensuring further sales of blue bikes with Action Man handlebars.
But what may be driving profit margins is limiting children’s’ choice – and experiences. And ultimately limiting the UK’s social and economic potential.” – Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central: “Gendered Marketing Perpetuates Stereotypes, Constrains Minds and Limits Our Children’s Potential.”
The toys marketed to boys today can be taken apart and redesigned, made to race and to fly. They do innovative and exciting things; they go places. Becky Francis, professor of education at Roehampton University, believes that these toys send messages to boys that they should be making things and problem solving, while girls should be caring and nurturing.
“Boys toys tend to contain didactic information, with technical instructions and fitting things together with Lego and Meccano, whereas girls’ toys tend to be around imaginative and creative play, which develop different skills.”
But what if a boy would prefer to play with toys marketed to girls? Thea Hughes, who started the Play Unlimited campaign which has got under Tony Abbott’s skin, found that her son Harper was being subjected to prejudice based on his preferences for pink and wearing dresses.
“I could see him starting to become aware that he’s being judged, and that he’s unable to make the choices he’d like to make, because of the social pressure. At such a young age, it’s just so sad.”
And on the flipside, Tricia Lowther of Durham in the UK, knew of her six-year-old daughter Marianne’s love for the Pixar film Cars. But when buying juice cartons in the supermarket, Lowther found that “it was a choice between cars and princesses, and I got her the Cars ones, sure she’d like them”; Marianne hid the cartons, telling her mother that “it’s boyish” and that she didn’t want anyone to know of her preference for this.
It hasn’t always been like this. I can remember, in the mid-80’s as a child, a limited Tinkerbell range of make-up and accessories; a few Barbie dolls. For the most part, toys on the shelves were gender-neutral, thanks to the second-wave feminists who had focused on driving out the typically accepted gender roles and stereotyping. This included non-sexist parenting, built on the belief that children should be able to choose whatever and whoever they wish to play with. So toys really were just toys – no Boys aisles and Girls aisles.
Fast forward to today, and feminism has moved more women into professions once held strictly by men, while men themselves have accepted – willingly – a great share of the domestic side of things. But when it comes to the markets aimed at children – toys, clothes, film tie-in merchandise etc – “stereotypes have never been so defined, or rigidly enforced. Pink and blue have triumphed in the toy market, and there are often serious social penalties for children who breach the divide. The rise of highly gendered toys is a result of capitalism, but it also suggests a deep, subconscious unease with the advances of the past few decades.”
In many films, books and video games aimed at both genders, it’s the boy-hero who saves the day, while the helpless princess (or whoever, she generally isn’t given enough characteristics for an audience member to care) waits breathlessly in a castle/haunted mansion/on a rail line, to be rescued.
He is typically portrayed as strong, fearless, unbeatable. Unbreakable. Unable to break down.
Especially if no one is prepared to believe he is actually capable of feeling so wretched, of being unable to express himself or to shoulder the burdens of the world as well as his own.
A boy’s life is geared towards activity, towards being the winner in his own small world, before tackling the bigger one –
– without consideration for the fact that he might just want to curl up with a book, or in front of a computer. He might want to sit alone, quiet and still, to write in the same way as the poets he admires. He might want to vanish into a world of his own making, where he can feel and express emotions without being called a ‘wuss’ or a ‘gayboy.’
If a boy wants to prioritize deep thinking and emotions over actions, to wear the clothes and make-up and hair-styles that he’s seen his female peers wear, he faces bullying and assault, with negative commentary about his sexuality. Anything associated with “feminine” – whether it’s crying in public or dancing ballet, wearing pink or admitting to a shy and reticent nature – equates with “wrong” and “weak”. Boys are taught to stay separate from girls by their toys, their early interactions, and through the reactions of those around them.
“Nine-year-old Grayson Bruce had been told not to bring his My Little Pony bag to school in North Carolina because it was a trigger for the bullying he was experiencing, which has included punching, pushing and name-calling…
11-year-old Michael Morones, also of North Carolina, spoke about his recent suicide attempt, which has left him in a persistent vegetative state. The reasons for self-harm are always complicated, but Morones had experienced problems with bullying. He tried to kill himself the evening he told his mother: “‘I am so tired of people at school calling me gay because I like My Little Pony.'”
For girls who want to become engineers, mathematicians and scientists, the void starts with what is issued to them. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, believes that by limiting children with gender stereotypes, we’re setting ourselves up for “big economic problems.” At the start of her own engineering degree, 12% of her peers were women – 30 years later, that proportion is down to 8%.
“There are thousands of jobs going unfilled, and in addition a lot of our engineers are in their 50s and retiring in the next five years. At the same time we have the lowest proportion in Europe of women who are professional engineers.”
Play and child development psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer says that when it comes to careers, genuine interaction between the genders, and a wide range of skills-based play available for all, are the crucial elements.
“Nobody plays with Lego and learns how to build houses, but they might learn how to overlap bricks to create a stable structure. It’s more about confidence and familiarity than an actual skill set.”
But what about when our bodies begin to change – when hormones kick in, and it can feel like the world is going to end?
(My personal experience of puberty.)
In July this year, an Always sanitary hygiene advert sought to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl.” When the women and boys participating were asked by film-maker Lauren Greenfield to run ‘like a girl’, silliness ensued – flailing arms and legs, in a display that reminded me of what we knew in school as ‘running like a Polly Pocket’: that tiny little model of a girl, all stiff hinged joints and awkward movements, used as an example of feminine aptitude for sports. It’s funny what comes back when faced with your own past, and someone else’s future.
The same question put to prepubescent girls showed the reality of their strength and determination.. They gave it everything they had. It’s a powerful and disturbing message. I had to watch it several times for the truth to sink in: that somewhere in adolescence, girls becoming women form perceptions about their bodies that are wholly negative, and based upon what society tells them is meant by ‘feminine’.
As the ever-quotable Tony Porter said – “If it would destroy [a 12-year-old boy] to be called a girl, what are we then teaching him about girls?”
And what happens to the girl-princess who remains tied up and tied down by a sense of her own vulnerability, waiting for someone to come to her rescue?
“Internalized sexism is defined as the involuntary belief by girls and women that the lies, stereotypes and myths about girls and women that are delivered to everyone in a sexist society ARE TRUE. Girls and women, boys and men hear the sexist messages (lies and stereotypes) about women over their entire lifetimes. They hear that women are stupid, weak, passive, manipulative, with no capacity for intellectual pursuits or leadership.
There are two logical, predictable consequences of a lifetime of such messages. First, boys / men will grow to believe many of the messages, and treat women accordingly. They will be thoroughly indoctrinated into their role in sexism, protecting their male privilege by colluding with the perpetuation of sexism.
But there is a second logical consequence – the same messages also stick to girls and women, resulting in internalized sexism / internalized misogyny. Women and girls are taught to act out the lies and stereotypes, doubting themselves and other females (sometimes called “horizontal hostility.”) This is the way women collude with the perpetuation of sexism.
For the sexist system to be maintained and passed on to the next generation, we all must believe the messages (lies and stereotypes) to some degree, and collude with sexism by performing our assigned roles.” – Cultural Bridges to Justice, “Internalized Sexism / Internalized Misogyny.“
Campaigns like #YesAllWomen focus on giving girls and women across the world a voice. In the aftermath of the Isla Vista murders, this tapped a narrative both complex and wholly depressing.
“The reason women mobilized so quickly after the shooting is because we recognized immediately the language and ideaology in Rodger’s videos and manifesto; the over-the-top sexual entitlement; the rage against women who ‘dared’ to reject him; the antiquated, but nonetheless terrifying, belief that women should not be in control of their own sexual choices.”
Inequality of pay, gender-discrimination in the workplace and the legal systems, inappropriate touching, abusive relatives, manipulative and domineering partners coercing victims into signing over bank details, gaslighting (where an abusive partner breaks down the victim’s emotional and mental reserves so they’re unable to trust their own perceptions and are thus more likely to stay in the relationship.) Rape culture and sexual entitlement – yes, even in the “nice guys”, the ones who “aren’t like the others”, and so feel that if they offer support to a girl, their natural payback is the right to Get Some.
“We live in an entitlement culture where guys think they need to be having sex with girls in order to be happy and fulfilled. That in a culture that constantly celebrates the narrative of guys trying hard, overcoming challenges, concocting clever ruses and automatically getting a woman thrown at them as a prize as a result, there will always be some guy who crosses the line into committing a violent crime to get what he “deserves,” or get vengeance for being denied it…
We are not the lovable nerdy protagonist who’s lovable because he’s the protagonist. We’re not guaranteed to get laid by the hot chick of our dreams as long as we work hard enough at it. There isn’t a team of writers or a studio audience pulling for us to triumph by “getting the girl” in the end. And when our clever ruses and schemes to “get girls” fail, it’s not because the girls are too stupid or too bitchy or too shallow to play by those unwritten rules we’ve absorbed.
It’s because other people’s bodies and other people’s love are not something that can be taken nor even something that can be earned—they can be given freely, by choice, or not.
We need to get that. Really, really grok that, if our half of the species is ever going to be worth a damn. Not getting that means that there will always be some percent of us who will be rapists, and abusers, and killers. And it means that the rest of us will always, on some fundamental level, be stupid and wrong when it comes to trying to understand the women we claim to love.” – Arthur Chu, “Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds.“
So yes, Mr Abbott – people who believe in “politically correct” gender equality, will continue to push for this in as many ways as possible. Those innocuous little threads can become big knots. From economics to mental health, the risks are there for future generations – we have to supply children with the skills and free will to achieve whatever they can, and the emotional support to think and feel whatever comes to them, without fear of peer pressure or recriminations.
Above all, we need to teach girls and boys to look out for each other.
If you’ve made it this far down – kudos.
For further reading:
Ten Practical Tips for raising an emotionally healthy boy
That’s for girls and that’s for boys
Negative stereotypes about boys hinder their academic achievement
How male sexual entitlement hurts everyone