Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why Girls Wearing Blue Isn't Enough

My husband and I had an interesting discussion last spring about raincoats. Kids raincoats and the gender implications of what is socially acceptable for girls to wear versus boys.

In this discussion, we talked about how my daughter has a dinosaur rain coat. It was a hand-me-down from a family friend whose two boys had outgrown a bag full of clothes, which they gave us for the Pookie. But the clothing, including the really cute dinosaur raincoat, were in sizes 3T and 4T. The perfect size for the Pumpkin, who loved that raincoat the minute she saw it.

The Pumpkin has always liked dinosaurs, which we've encouraged as much as we've encouraged dolls. So there was no issue in either of our minds that we'd let her wear the raincoat and that it would be socially acceptable. In this day and age, it is most people don't think it's a big deal if girls wear blue and dinosaurs and play with cars and trucks and be into most of the same things that boys are.

But what about the Pookie wearing his sister's green raincoat with pink strawberries and a pink lining? That does not yet seem socially acceptable, but why not? And will we, as parents of a young boy, let him wear a girl's raincoat? Will we let him wear pink as he gets older? Will we care if he still likes to play with dolls in front of his friends in a few years?

This is a big feminist issue for me, and has been for a long time. I feel like women have fought hard to come as far as we have with it being acceptable for us to wear blue, play with "boy" toys and run around in the same games and sports as males. But men, especially boys? They don't make pink clothes for boys (although my husband has some really nice pink shirts and ties). It's not socially acceptable for boys to play with dolls as they get older, unless they are "action figures." Older boys aren't generally invited to go to tea parties or have their hair and nails done at a party.

First of all, this is a shame for boys and men, this limiting of them from a young age on. Why is there an issue if boys mimic their moms and their dads in many cases by taking care of a baby doll or cooking in a play kitchen or playing with little dolls in a dollhouse? What if a boy really likes playing dress up and painting his nails and has a fondness for unicorns and pink and purple? Really, what is so wrong with that?

And what is it about the color pink that is so appalling to some men? Why do we call it pink instead of light red, which is all it is. (White added to red is called pink, yet white added to blue is called light blue.) I just don't get it. Nor do I get what makes a color a girl color versus a boy color. I don't believe it's based in anything evolutionary or innate. I think it's more likely due to marketing strategies by clothing companies.

Let's talk a little more about the raincoats, as a true example of how limiting society and marketing is to boys. During our discussion about the raincoats, we went to a website that had the dinosaur raincoat that my daughter wears, and we evaluated the raincoats on the site. This may be the same site that Londo and I looked at, but it was half a year ago and doesn't have exactly the same raincoats. However, it is very similar and has many of the same raincoats, including the same dinosaur one. I'd love for you all to follow along with the little exercise Londo and I did, so click the link and the site will open in a new window.

There are 15 raincoats on that site (when we looked, it had 16). Of those 15, how many do you think would be socially acceptable for a girl to wear? How many do you think would be socially acceptable for a boy to wear? If you walked into a physical store, which do you think (and count how many) do you think would be located in the "boys" side of the store and which (and how many) on the "girls" side?

Even if you subtract those three patterned but obviously girl-shaped ones at the bottom, there are still more than half that most people wouldn't put a boy in. But for girls? I honestly would think that a girl could get away with wearing ALL of them. Some people might not be comfortable putting a girl in the pirate or fireman or maybe even the space hero, but I wouldn't think twice about a girl in those.

But what about the boys? You know that most people would pick only five of those, and only five of those would be found in the boys side of a store. And honestly? I wouldn't have a problem putting my son in all but the bottom three, and then because those have that belted style is feminine, not because the pattern or colors. But if my son loves to dance, why not put him in a raincoat with ballet shoes? Why should he stifle his love for cats or fairies?

Not everyone would put their sons in all the ones I would, but don't you think we could start to stretch the boundaries a little for our boys? The ladybug one surely should be okay, as should that butterfly one. Those are bugs, after all, and boys are supposed to love bugs, right? Or do people pick only the parts of the stereotypes that they want to follow, with certain ones trumping others?

Just as I believe my daughter can do anything she wants and I encourage her interests in all (age-appropriate) areas, I think the same should be for my son. But I know that it's socially not (yet) as acceptable for a boy to do and like all the same things as girls. At a certain age, he and his peers will start being cognizant of what is considered okay and what is not. But how do (general)we change that for our kids?

But limiting our boys is not the only issue.

Let's now think about what all this says about typically "girl" things. Girl things are not good enough for boys. Girl things are simply too girly, therefore lesser and unacceptable. The "girly" things, from colors to toys to sports, are discriminated against.

What does this do to our girls as they grow up? What message are we sending to both sexes?

Women are expected to do it all. We are now expected not just to take care of the majority of the house work and childcare, but often we are expected to work full time too! To break through glass ceilings, we are required to talk and walk like the men around us who are in control of the business world, but we are also expected to still remain lady-like, keep our femininity, be sexy and nice and all that other crap that is lumped onto us.

Funny thing about my rant is, I like to be all those things! I love to wear skirts and makeup and jewelry to work, and still cuss like a sailor when we can't fix the defects in the computer system I work on. I like to talk trash in my fantasy football league, then sign off at the end with "Hugs and kisses!" I love having both worlds open to me.

But I've also felt the sting of sexism in the office. I've also been very aware when the men around me get certain opportunities that I don't get. I've also seen how maternity leave affects my assessment cycles, which are tied to my raises. And I've regularly been expected by some people to be the main person in charge of the grocery shopping and cooking in my house, even though I work as much as my husband. (For the record, he does almost all of the grocery shopping and cooking meals, while I have other household responsibilities like doing the majority of the dishes and bathroom cleaning. And no, that does not make him some wonderful, special man. It makes him my equal partner in our household. And I'm just as appreciative of him and all that he does as he is of me.)

I look at the women in politics or Fortune 500 companies, and I see the expectations for women who rise to the levels that were historically for men and the double standards regularly applied. Yes, women are "allowed" into the man's world. But we are still expected to retain the feminine.

The feminine that is considered lesser. The feminine that a man wouldn't dare wear/play/do. The feminine that is STILL considered lesser by men, because if it wasn't lesser then of course they would want to be able to wear/play/do it, too. And even though some might want it, even though our boys may have a ton of fun having tea parties, playing with princesses, taking a dance class or wearing a kitty cat raincoat, society will eventually either stamp it out of them or cause us parents to limit them so they won't be teased or bullied.

And that, my friends, sucks for everyone. Because it affects everyone. Not just us who are women, but also women's and men's mothers, wives, partners, friends, sisters and daughter.

We do have the opportunity to change this. Those of us with kids, we are raising the next generation. Let's raise them by showing them that girls things are fun and good and NOT lesser. They are just as good for boys as they are for girls. And those without children still are part the society who can either shame parents into following the limiting behaviors with our children or proudly support the changing of this paradigm.

We can change this dis-equilibrium, this discrimination. I hope we will. One raincoat at a time.

11 comments:

hush said...

"even though our boys may have a ton of fun having tea parties, playing with princesses, taking a dance class or wearing a kitty cat raincoat, society will eventually either stamp it out of them or cause us parents to limit them so they won't be teased or bullied."

So true, and so sad. Your last line in particular about causing parents to want to limit things that are socially constructed as "feminine" is something DH and I have talked a lot about lately. We don't have any answers really other than let the kids make their own choices, that is to say make sure they do have a real choice between the proverbial doll and the truck, interpersonal play as well as spatial reasoning play.

DS is almost 4 and his favorite color has been pink for as long as I can remember. In fact, we got him the pink balance bike he'd be asking for for ages. And he loves the princesses. I think this has to do with the fact that our babysitter's 5-year-old daughter and his own 1.5 year-old sister have been DS's main playmates for the past year. It will be interesting to see how long it takes DS to learn the social codes for these things once he finally starts drop off preschool tomorrow.

Lisa said...

My 6 year old is totally clued in to the what's "ok" for boys, and has said sort of sneeringly "that's for *girls*" to which I responded, anybody can do anything and it doesn't matter if you're a boy or a girl. He's a perfectionist and very sensitive & self conscious, and has never wanted to play with dolls. For all his sensitivity, he's been pretty strong on the trucks, dinosaurs, astronauts, and drawn to aggressive play.

I think I remember reading somewhere that pink used to be the color for baby boys, b/c red was a strong masculine color, and pink was light red, as you mention. And blue & light blue were female colors esp. associated w/the Virgin Mary.

we have friends who's son LOVES to dress up, wear beads, and when it was time to pick out a 2 wheeler bike, chose the purple-est one, with the streamers. His mom said she wasn't sure what she'd do about the first kid who gave him grief about it!

thanks for the post, I'll be interested to see the discussion!

Cloud said...

Since I have two girls, the boy side of this hasn't played out in our house. But when I was pregnant with Petunia, I read Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot. I didn't know if I was having another girl or a boy, so I paid attention to what she said about both genders.

If you haven't read it yet, I really recommend it. It provides a plausible explanation for how the behaviors and skills of boys and girls diverge- as well as debunking the idea that they are actually that different in adults. (For most skills, the bell curves for men and women overlap almost completely.)

Basically, society trains our kids to have the gender stereotypical skills and behaviors, by emphasizing the small differences that may exist biologically or from early environment effects. So we train our girls to take fewer physical risks, and we fail to train our boys to have fine motor skills (have you ever noticed how art supplies are now marketed as girl things? Particularly stickers, which are apparently great for developing fine motor skills).

And then we say that these gender stereotypical traits must be there from birth, since even our little kids are exhibiting them- not noticing how much training has gone on since birth.

With all that said, I think kids generally go through a phase at about 3 years old when they strongly gender identify, and they seek out the things that society codes for their gender- we're just coming out of a whopper of a princess phase with Pumpkin, for instance. Navigating that has been one of the harder things for me as a feminist mother. I don't know if I got it right, but I guess if I got it wrong, I'll have a lot of company, thanks to the Disney marketing machine.

paola said...

I have never discouraged my son's interest in all things stereotypically femminine. These interests have always been counter-balanced by a love of trucks, ball and block, so why care?

Until, my son (6.5) specifically requested a hot pink Winxs umbrella to take to his new school. Here I drew the line. I mean why would I want my son ostrasized on his first rainy day at a new school in a new country?
In the end he himslef noted that it might not be suitable ( he said, 'no, troppo da femina'- 'too girly', without me putting the words in his mouth), and chose a Cars brollly instead.

I too think he will be eventually socialised out of his interest in princesses, fairies and Winx. It is obviously already starting, but if he wants to wear fuchsia, by all means, go ahead. I don't know about in North America, but bright colours have always been popular, even amongst boys, in Italy. So when I bought my son a fuchsia t-shirt (in a rather masculine design) it received the thumbs up from everyone including hubby and many of the boys at kinder.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

I'll admit I was quite torn this summer when my son wanted a pair of pink sunglasses. I eventually talked him out of it because I don't want him to be teased, and that trumped my agreement in principle with equal choices for both genders.

Because I agree, it sucks, it totally does, that men haven't won the choices we have, and we all lose.

But I'll have to say that in France people seem to be much less concerned about these issues. I might have held my ground on the sunglasses if I hadn't had both my husband and my mother-in-law opposed and uncomprehending (not vehemently, but still).

Although -- for what it's worth -- the Paris rugby team plays in pink uniforms. My husband's a Toulouse fan, so that wouldn't be an argument for him for the merits of pink, but anyway!

Charisse said...

It's almost like masculinity has to be further circumscribed and defended now that women have greater territory. We went through princess hell for a while, but we're past it and I'm pleased to say that these days Mouse will do stuff like play with a giant magnet amid filthy iron filings while wearing a hot pink flapper dress. Yay. Either that or embroidering in an army uniform is available to her as a girl if she wants; imagine a boy in either of those situations (glittery outfit, grungy science experiment; macho outfit, domestic arts) and it definitely feels less allowed. It's a real shame.

caramama said...

I hope no one took any offense! It's a tough line to try and push. And we do have to live and raise our children in the world as it is now. We do have to be concerned about ostracizing our boys. But I'm glad to see many of you are either allowing your boys the freedom to enjoy "girly" things or supportive of those of us who do! Yeah!

@hush - Good for you guys talking about it and supporting your DS's favorite color as pink! I would be interested in hearng about how he adjusts to preschool and if/how it changes his likes and dislikes.

@Lisa - I'm so glad that you didn't let his "that's for girls" pass without discussion! And yes, pink used to be the color for baby boys. The article I linked to in my post talks about that. And people never remember that all young children used to wear dresses/skirts, and it didn't affect their preferences when they were older.

@Cloud - I still haven't read Pink Brain, Blue Brain, but it's on my list. I'm very interested in it, but just haven't gotten to it yet. I've always believed that there is way more training and social cues than we realize even from infancy. I know there is a phase where kids go through the gender identification, I'm just not sure how to handle that!

@paola - I love that the Italians liked the fusia shirt! That umbrella would be a tough call, especially starting in a new school in a new country.

@Parisienne Mais Presque - Another tough call, especially with your husband and MIL opposed. And very interesting that the French seem to be less concerned with those issues.

@Charisse - "It's almost like masculinity has to be further circumscribed and defended now that women have greater territory." That sounds plausible to me. And you described my issue perfectly when you describe what a girl can do and then try to imagine a boy in those situations. It is a shame.

jaqbuncad said...

This conversation is - interesting.

Libra is my eldest, at nearly three. He wears things he likes, which sometimes include girl clothes, including dresses and skirts. He goes forth and socializes with other kids, and although I have had to have discussions with other grown-ups, he has not yet encountered any teasing.

For me, it's important to allow him as much freedom as possible to choose his gender and how he expresses it. I want him to know that he has support among his family to be whoever he wants to be. I don't entirely buy the line about avoiding teasing/ostracization; I know the fear, having suffered it myself as both child and adult, but I believe the answer is not to ask my child to code-switch, or self-censor - these are all skills he will inevitably acquire as he grows anyway - but to teach others sensitivity to, and respect for, the diversity of human experience.

mom2boy said...

Tate likes a mix of "both" but wow when he picks something "girly" do people's feathers get ruffled. I am the most liberal of everyone I know other than my father (who by the way is a card carrying heterosexual but has a gay pride flag on the back of his pick up truck because, well, he supports gay rights. Love that man.) So when Tate wants to paint his nails I let him. But then I send him out into the world and it isn't so well received even by family. It really does make me sad. I just want him to be comfortable with himself. Actually, I want him to stay comfortable with himself.

SarcastiCarrie said...

I have boys. We have a play kitchen (which they love and even the most repressed in-laws think a kitchen is OK for a boy...it's not pink) and dolls (about which they are neutral but the dolls are boys...one is anatomically correct). We have lots of stickers and art supplies (they love!). I have painted tiny boy toenails a most stylish gold glitter color (I offered blue, green, clear with sparkly glitter, and gold glitter...my favorite colors anyway). I have put short hair into ponytails and barrettes.

I have purchased pink watering cans and a second hand purple bike. They've worn hand-me-down clothes from girls (less girly-type clothes...jeans without fringe, track suits). I have one kid in tumbling right now (uniform according to sign up sheet is leotard...he wore shorts..mostly because I wouldn't spend the money on special clothes even if I had a girl).

But they love trucks and trailers more than anything except turning my couch into an Adventure Center.

I drew a line in the sand the other day though. 6-yo said that his almost 3-yo brother was "crying like a little girl" and I flipped a bit out. I said that I was a girl and I didn't like him saying being a girl was a bad thing. I think I would have said the same if he's said "throw like a girl" or something. I just waasn't having any of that.

I also think some of this has to do with the kids emulating the parents. I'm not super-girly. I'm a female engineer who wears pants almost exclusively and works in a factory. I could not tell you the last time I changed my earrings (I'm like Suze Orman), but I do wear earrings and I have fingernails. If given a choice of playing dolls or building with Legos, I would choose the Legos or possibly build a house or bed for the doll. My kids emulate my interests because if I get to direct the play, we're washing the car or doing an adding or building game. It would be interesting to see whether any daughter I would raise would be more tomboyish. Maybe we'll get to find out.

sheSaidC2 said...

As usual Cara, you are right on.
This has been a very active conversation in our household. Matthew is 4 now and starting to be aware of other children's opinion. But he loves him some pink, in fact he insisted on having a pink car seat. Now he is moving away from pink as his favorite color to purple (though he still likes dark or bright pink) along with many other colors. We try to embrace and support him in his love of sparkly things, bugs, butterflies, dragonflies, pink, purple... things which could and sometimes are seen as girly. At home anything goes, he gets to choose. But I found this year when buying school clothes I had a slight hesitation... The brown shirt with flowers, a bird, sparkles and slightly 'poofy' sleeves I thought was ok 'it's brown' but some of the light pink shirts with flowers I shied away from.

I love that he feels safe enough to like what he likes. He feels very passionate about colors and other 'girly' things and we embrace it... but I just worry about teasing in school. He has already heard from some kids those are 'girly' things, or "I don't like rainbows and ponies I only like Starwars."

Concerns about narrowing down choices for children should go both ways. It is not just about pushing back and saying girls are not just about fashion and looking pretty (or OMG SEXY at 4 eek!) but also supporting boys in their nurturing sweet, glittery, glamor selves. As a feminist I want equality not by being everything a woman is, plus everything a guy is, or by being guy like, but by individual choices being respected and held valuable. In our house everyone's role is important. We do the tasks we are good at, or we do the task that needs doing, and we do it EQUALLY. We share the burden of head of house, making food, packing lunches, doctor app., the kids health, what they need for school the next day, laundry, dishes, yard work mostly evenly.

We both nurture, we both discipline, I do more baking and crafting (i like it) Marc does more cooking (he likes it) and garbage, mowing lawn (he hates it less :) and we both wear pink and blue and we both say the other one looks pretty and handsome.

So hopefully we are doing just like you said, changing the next generation one rain coat at a time (Matthew has a red lady bug coat)... and maybe rain boots too (2 green frogs, 1 red lady bug, and 1 pink hello kitty - yes all for Matthew... :)