Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Followup thoughts on gender

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

As soon as I finished my last post, the resulting discussion with my husband (who is much more thorough and detail-oriented than I am, and who therefore read all the comments on that Edmonton Journal article I linked) led me to find the link to this article in the sidebar. It features another Canadian couple who, beginning in the early 1990s, made a decision to that of Storm's parents to keep the sexes of their two children (both daughters, both now in their late teens) a private matter.

I rather sadly wish that I had found it before I published that last post, and I've spent the last few minutes debating whether to go back and revise.

Despite the fact that I am sitting in the emergency room at the moment, waiting for my accident-prone-Army-wife friend to get herself X-rayed (yes, the ER on post has wireless internet; I can't decide whether to be quietly grateful for this fact or alarmed that I've been here enough to know it), this article made me want to hop out of my chair and do a happy-dance.


"The couple also made other decisions to keep gender stereotypes out of their household while the kids were growing up. Gender-specific toys, such as Barbie dolls, were not found in the girls' toy box.

"That came more naturally, since our priority was to provide them with toys that encouraged creativity and thought (and) stereotypical toys tend not to," he said. 'In dressing them . . . the goal was not to be somehow generic, but to put them into sensible and attractive clothing in the colours we (and later they) wanted, which meant picking such clothes off whatever rack we happened to find them on.'"


Toward the end of the article, an American psychologist named Judith Rich Harris saying "Their philosophy seems to be based on the idea that male and female are artificial categories imposed by society."

Well... exactly, in a certain sense. Denying biological gender difference, including some evolutionarily programmed behavioral tendencies, would be ludicrous, but the cultural roles we define as "male" and "female" are largely (albeit not entirely) artificial creations, and I see little point in imposing them as if they were biologically unavoidable.

Some thoughts on gender.

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

I am not as prolific a reader of blogs as many of my fellow-bloggers seem to be, which seems a little hypocritical, but I am picky about what I read and somewhat inconsistent about keeping up with things even when I mean to; my blog reading, much like my comic reading, tends to happen in fits and spurts of long neglect and catch-up marathons. Now that I think of it, that also characterizes my writing habits, so maybe it is not so hypocritical after all. Despite that, though, Powered by Osteons is a regular favorite of mine, and I was delighted today (while looking for something to do with the last hour or so of my afternoon at work now that all the work to do is done and my Dean Koontz novel is finished, much to my dismay) to find this post.

I remember the Berenstain Bears fondly from my own childhood; they were favorites whose characters were almost like friends, and remained so well after my reading level progressed past picture books. Looking back as an adult, particularly as an adult with an anthropology degree and decidedly liberal humanist ideas about gender roles and identity, I can definitely see and agree with Dr. Killgrove's point. Examined critically enough, the fact the characters are named by their roles in adult and child version of a gender dichotomy- Mama/Papa, Brother/Sister- instead of with actual names seems a little creepy.

That might be a little too critical, though. I was an avid reader of the Berenstain Bears as a child, and if there was a gender-polarized message in the books or their characters, I think anyone who knows me today would attest that I apparently missed it even on a subconscious level. I grew up with Sister Bear and her frilly pink overalls and Mama Bear and her constant long dresses- but I also grew up with me in my shorts and t-shirts and Mom in similar attire, and looking back, I think that I interpreted the Bears as what they were- fiction. Real people didn't dress that way on a regular basis any more than real anthropomorphic bears wore clothes at all or went to school (everyone knows that anthropomorphic bears are naked and illiterate). It didn't impact my worldview on any level.

If I were a parent, I would definitely be concerned about the lessons learned from, and the behaviors and norms modeled by, the Berenstain Bears and other heavily gendered children's media. I respect and admire- and would like to think that I would, if ever forced into such a situation, emulate- Dr. Killgrove's approach to dealing with those concerns. Censorship of ideas is more dangerous and more reprehensible than the ideas themselves in any case, and merely hiding children's eyes from things only leaves them naive and sheltered, rather than teaching and equipping them to evaluate ideas with their own reasoning minds. Her decision to share the books with her daughter but engage the child in critical discussion of its contents is, in my mind, brilliant and responsible.

Children's books may contain less gender-stereotyping than their toys, however. A while back, I read this article by Crystal Smith on the gendered use of vocabulary in toy advertisements. Some concerns were raised by several commenters about the author's methodology in collecting and structuring her data, and I have some concerns about her classification system, but personally, I found the study's subjective observations far more compelling than its quantitative aspects anyway.

The author notes that toys clearly marketed at boys- toys with primarily or solely boys in their commercials, for instance- tend to be related to non-domestic work roles (dump trucks, construction and tool playsets), driving, or fighting (action figures, toy guns), while toys clearly marketed toward girls- toys with primarily or solely girls in their commercials, for instance- tend to be related to domestic work roles (toy vacuums, kitchen playsets), fashion and cosmetics, or nurturing (baby dolls). Smith, author of The Achilles Effect (which, as a disclaimer, I have not read), writes from the perspective of concern that this sort of marketing is harmful because it promotes aggression to young boys, so she touches only lightly on its effect on girls.

The issue for me is that most of what she classifies as "fighting" toys are either linked to TV shows or movies with actual storylines and at least somewhat developed characters, meant to be used in active play (chasing each other around with Nerf guns, for instance), or both. The girls' toys, in contrast, are mostly sedentary (vacuuming notwithstanding) and seldom linked to a familiar plot or developed characters. Boys, therefore, gain some things from their conventionally encouraged forms of play that girls are being steered away from.

Smith's reply to a comment on her article accurately observes that "The characteristics of these toys, which are masculinised by names and pronouns, also hew to stereotypes—they are about fighting and working (although the Big Rigs do sing and dance, which are not actions one would expect from a big bulky truck.) Compare the “purpose” of these toys with that of the girls’ toys who are predominantly female and designed to be accessorized or cuddled, but not much else. Most do not have jobs and they don’t fight."

The stereotype at work here seems to extend into adult life. In the workplace, women have achieved approximate parity with men in general, with exceptions in specific fields which are changing as we speaking- yet in nearly every television sitcom I have seen recently (more than I care to admit- see below) I have noticed that the female leads are more likely to be stay-at-home moms with working husbands, usually in couples who don't appear to actually share any hobbies or common interests outside of the children (in whom the husband is usually mostly disinterested). In fact, in most of these fictional families, the man is the only one who has apparent outside interests or is able to pursue them.

Women are generally stereotyped as being uninterested in sports, video games, comics, cars, etc.- essentially, in anything not about hair, makeup, housework, babies, or feelings. In my own life, I am frequently met with surprise when a new acquaintance learns that I am a female gamer / sci-fi fan / comic reader / firearms enthusiast (although several recent studies indicate that I am not that unusual in regard to gaming, and Felicia Day is giving us all a kickass example). It still seems that the societal expectation, perpetuated by our toys, is that while both boys and girls can work, in our off time, the boys get to have hobbies and the girls are supposed to be interested only in looking pretty and being nurturing. That's a terrifying thought, as it seems to encourage girls to be less than full-developed, well-rounded people. One of the comments on Smith's article says, "Adventure and imaginative play are where it’s at. I think that’s really what any child wants, regardless of gender." Amen.

All in all, I think the general message here is that society may be pushing gender roles, especially in terms of interests and likes or dislikes, on children much too early. We tend to leave the TV in the funeral home office on during the day for background noise. As a result, I've seen full runs of three or four TV sitcoms in the last year which I otherwise would have ignored totally if left to my own devices (see above). Thus, I have twice viewed an episode of Yes, Dear in which the main character's mother upbraids her daughter-in-law because the main character's infant daughter is dressed "like a boy." She insists on taking the child out to buy some girlier clothes so that total strangers can look at her and tell that she is female. Although the mother-in-law character is meant to be obnoxious and overbearing, like her stereotypical counterparts, I still find the episode to be the philosophical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard.

For one thing, the kid is still in a stroller. I realize that gender identification is a big part of how we humans navigate social interaction, but when dealing with a child who is still stumbling across the threshold from infant to toddler, is it really that important to know if the child is a boy or a girl? Will it really affect how an adult interacts with the child? More importantly, should it? I find the idea either absurd or troubling, depending on the answers to those questions.

Besides, I personally viewed the child's clothing as gender-neutral, which perhaps raises a whole other set of issues. I can walk around town in most of my husband's clothes, and though I might look a little frumpy since they're mostly all a little baggy on me, I'm not going to look exceptionally odd, and probably no one is going to declare me a cross-dresser; if he were to walk around in a random selection of my clothes, though, he's got about a fifty percent chance of standing out in most people's perception as crossing a clear gender boundary, regardless of whether those people approve or disapprove of that action. "Masculine" styles are more frequently seen as potentially unisex or neutral, but overtly "feminine" styles are more clearly gender-polarized.

It was after viewing that episode of Yes, Dear that I heard about the Stocker-Witterick household in Canada who recently made the apparently controversial decision to keep their newborn child's sex a secret from everyone outside its immediate family, to shield the kid from the sorts of pressures and biases I have just been going on about. Dr. Killgrove's blog post includes a link to a statement on the matter by Mrs. Witterick herself; interestingly, her five-year-old son raised the initial question that led to the family's decision. I'm not sure I would do it myself, but I honestly think it's a pretty cool idea and I'm curious to see where it leads.