No Gender December: Back to Basics

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Radical idea: ANYONE can play with pink or blue toys – out of control!

This week was a dismal one for the Australian Government. One of their many low points was Prime Minister Tony Abbott (apparently also the “Minister for Women“) dismissing the newly launched No Gender December Campaign, saying “Let boys be boys, let girls be girls“. Cue gigantic face-palm.

Abbott’s remarks came in stark contrast to the point made by Greens Senator Larissa Waters who introduced the campaign in Parliament, who stated the point was to “Stop with this nonsense of marketing for boys and for girls. Toys are toys and lets let kids be kids.”

The point of No Gender December? "Stereotypes Limit Thinking"

The outrageous point being made by No Gender December? “Stereotypes Limit Thinking”

The backlash in some of the conservative press, has unsurprisingly banged this story under the headline “WAR ON BARBIE“. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on children’s toys, you’ll know that I am a fan of Barbie. Or more specifically, I have difficulty accepting campaigns against stereotypically “feminine” toys, like the time everyone got really pissed off about the femmed-up Merida doll. But aside from my critique that a lot of the children’s toy debate becomes laced with femmephobia, we still need to make sure we don’t miss the fundamental point – that children’s toys are often gendered along the binary male/female, and this is not a good thing

Let’s step it through so you can rhetorically battle bigots if you need to:

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

The binary is often reinforced in ways we might not notice

1. What even is the “gender binary”?
The gender binary refers to the idea that gender can be neatly divided into a binary male/female. This binary is a pervasive norm, particularly in Western society (some other areas of the world treat gender differently). The idea that everyone can fit into this binary has real consequences for people whose bodies do not conform how “male” and “female” bodies “should” be.

A common question: "Is it a boy or a girl?"

A common question: “Is it a boy or a girl?”

For example, babies that are born with “indeterminate” genitalia may undergo surgery to make them “normal” to fit into one of the two categories. Estimates of this indeterminacy are as high as 1 in 100 births. This is often referred to as being intersex. Another example is in sport – you have to conform to the categories of either man or woman in order to compete, and determining this is a big issue. Many athletes are subject to “gender testing”. Here, “gender” is sometimes based on chromosomes (whether you are XX or XY), other times, levels of testosterone.

But we’re not just forced to physically conform to this binary, there are social expectations tied up with the binary that affect our ways of being and acting in the world too.

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De Beauvoir

2. But wait, what is the difference between “sex” and “gender”?
Many people now make a distinction between sex and gender, with sex being described as biological features, versus gender expression, as social phenomena. As Simone de Beauvoir famously said in The Second Sex, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. In other words, women are socialised into a second-class gender status. This fundamental distinction between sex and gender is integral to many analyses of gender – indeed it has been used by many feminist writers to show that biology is not destiny.

Judith Butler <3 <3 <3

Butler ❤

But this distinction is not without criticism. For example, Judith Butler argues that sex is “always already gender”, given that proclamation of sex at birth (“it’s a girl”!) assumes a gender trajectory for the child – that is, we expect that a baby without an apparent penis, who is then assigned as a girl, will grow up to be a woman. This gendering entails a set of social assumptions about what girls should enjoy, how they should dress, and how they should act. Really Butler is arguing that sex/biology are perhaps more social and constructed than we think – given that we look at a certain formation of flesh and imbue it with a whole heap of social meanings.

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Eating the right kind of food is about becoming the right kind of man


3. But aren’t men and women are just physically different and that is just a scientific FACT?
I’m not saying that hormones and other chemical and genetic factors mean nothing to shaping humans, but socially shaping the body to fit into expectations of the gender binary happens throughout the lifespan. Have you ever walked into a gym and seen the gender imbalance between the weights and the cardio rooms? Women are expected to be lithe and skinny, and men big and bulky, so women and men are taught to shape their bodies differently.

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

Women are often sold chocolate on the basis that it is pleasurable

 

 

Men are expected to eat lots of protein (hamburgers, steaks), while women are meant to be constantly dieting (salads) which also inevitably leads to bingeing (hello chocolate). This is reflected and reproduced in advertising of food and fitness products.

And don’t get me started on brain differences. There are literally oodles of books and journal articles that go into how the brain is wired through experience (i.e. the social), and how our expectations of gender affect child development (or at the very least, how we perceive differences).

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagining themselves such as "nurse" or "mother"

Girls are often expected to be nurturing, playing with soft toys and imagine themselves such as “nurse” or “mother”

4. Okay but what do toys have to do with it?
Expectations of gender are heavily reinforced in childhood – a critical time when children are starting to develop a sense of self and how they fit into the world. While Abbott is happy to argue that “above all else, let parents do what they think is in the best interests of their children”, as sociologist James Henslin notes, our parents and wider society are highly complicit in reinforcing particular norms.

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

The type of clothes we are dressed in changes how we are able to move about in the world

For example, this manifests in:

  • The types of clothes we are dressed in, noting that sometimes clothes change the way we move about in the world (it is difficult to climb a tree in a dress or kick a ball in sandals)
  • The type of play we are encouraged to engage in – not just the kinds of toys we have, but also how rough versus nurturing we are expected to be
  • The types of emotions we are encouraged to express – anger, stoicism, bravado, sadness, compassion or nurturing
Screenshot from the current Toys 'R Us Catalogue

Screenshot from the current Toys ‘R Us Catalogue

 

Here’s where the colour-coding of toys comes in. As you may have noticed, toy manufacturers often make toys marketed at boys blue (or primary colours yellow and red), and toys sold to girls pink (or purple, teal or pastels) and stores often separate toys according to this schema of girls vs boys toys. Thus you get aisles that are predominately blue, and ones dominated by pink. The problem isn’t the colours in themselves. The problem is the different kinds of toys that are marketed according to the gender binary, as signified by the colours chosen for the toys designated “boys” versus “girls”.

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A double page spread from the depths of the catalogue

Analysing the current Toys ‘R Us catalogue, it is clear they’re making an effort to pay lip service to the gender issue – they have a boy on the front playing with a kitchen set (with the caption “just like home!”). But as you wade deeper into the catalogue, you’re met with more and more of the stereotypical stuff. Some examples of “boy” toys: space stuff, robot stuff, dinosaurs, action equipment, trains and transport, excavation and trucks, scientific equipment, pirate stuff, architecture and building, dragons, science fiction and fantasy, racing cars. And “girl” toys: dolls, princesses, woodland creatures, phones, drawing stuff, makeup, jewellery kits, accessories, fashion stuff, baby stuff, horses. It’s actually pretty crazy when you start to consider how this gendered marketing of toys might lead to the cultivation of particular interests along gendered lines, starting at a very young age.

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick

Tony Abbott: A bit of a dick actually

From what I can see of the No Gender December campaign, the point isn’t to “Ban Barbie”. The point is to challenge the way in which toys are divided along the gender binary, thus reinforcing  differences between how “boys” and “girls” are socialised.

In conclusion, Abbott is a bit of a jerk. But we already knew that. Did I mention that time Tony Abbott allegedly punched a wall near a rival student politician Barbara Ramjan’s head for intimidation? Or that he constantly alludes to his “hot daughters“? Or that when in opposition he continually called for Australians to “ditch the witch“, Prime Minister Julia Gillard?

Well, he might be the Minister for Women but I guess boys will be boys.

Rethinking Pink

earplugsEvery week there seems to be a new story about how offended we should be about a new product marketed especially to women. You know the deal, it’s usually a rather ordinary object (like a pack of pens) that is selling itself as:

– PINK!
– FOR HER!
– GLITTERY!
– JUST FOR GIRLS!

And of course, this is deeply annoying. It seems to reinforce the idea of woman as the “marked” gender and man as the “normal”, natural state of things. It feels patronising and seems to reduce women’s interest to a colour, as if the marketing executives are using Elle Woods from Legally Blonde as their model woman.

elleAnd you know, I love Elle Woods. My phone case is pink. I like the idea of wearing pink on Wednesdays (though I always forget). But I don’t want my interest in the world to be reduced to pink. On the other hand, if I want a pink version of something, so be it. Sometimes I like pink.

Venturing into the land of children’s toys however, presents a more complicated problem. Girls’ sections are a pinkwash of epic proportions. Understandably, this upsets a lot of parents.

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In her book Living Dolls (2010) Natasha Walter argues that this “pinkification” of girlhood is in part responsible for contemporary raunch culture in so far as girls aspire to be like the dolls they play with – sexy, passive and plastic-looking. Others are also on the “kill pink” mission: UK site Pinkstinks states “We believe that all children – girls and boys – are affected by the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood. Our aim is to challenge and reverse this growing trend.”

Challenging traditional roles and stereotypes (and not just for girls) sounds great. But when you look at what exactly gets targeted in this, a lot of what’s being lumped under problematic “pinkification” is literally just pink stuff, as this screenshot from their front page shows:

pink

Now, I get that the fact if girls stuff is always pink that’s super boring; just as I described with the case of adult women, girls shouldn’t be reduced to a colour. I also understand that a lot of the stuff that these sites campaign against are things marketed at girls to encourage the to be homemakers or princesses or beauty-obsessed people. Obviously the problem is that there’s not a diversity of options being put on the table for girls. Like we tend not to tell girls: you could be a mother AND/OR a builder AND/OR an engineer AND/OR a makeup artist (though I have to say, Barbie has done a good job of having a lot of different occupations). 

But I think one thing that often gets missed in all this is that a lot of toys marketed to girls are just sometimes boring compared to what boys are encouraged to play with. The much heralded Goldie Blox came along last year to try and introduce engineering concepts to girls. Again, pink became a signifier of all that is problematic about how toys are gendered, as we see in this opening shot from one of their ads (kids on screen dancing around in pink, girls watching super bored):
goldieNow, I should note here that in the actual Goldie Blox product, there are a few pink pieces (like a ballerina dolphin – rad). But the point is, clearly the rhetoric of Goldie Blox is trying to tap into anti-pinkification sentiments.

And the thing is, it turns out Goldie Blox itself is really boring for a lot of kids. It doesn’t have the imaginative radical potential of other toys, like Lego, that also teach principles of engineering. The problem isn’t pink, it’s the actual toys.

Speaking of Lego, this recent article reflects on how Lego has changed its marketing to girls over the years, with the girl from the 1981 “What it is is beautiful” ad showing how boring Lego “for girls” has become.
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There is a great point here: going from blocks that can become anything, to already-built pieces that have pre-determined (and often gender stereotypical) story lines is lame-o-rama. But so much of the article focuses on pink – for example they point out several times that in the original ad the girl is “without a hint of pink”. Pink has become symbolic of all that is wrong with the gendering of toys, and as a result pink is often one of our main targets, rather than judging toys on their capacities.

lesbian-barbiesWhen I was a kid I had to beg for a Barbie doll. When I eventually got one, it had blonde hair and this AMAZING pink disco outfit with a light on her belt that would flash on and off when you turned it. She had permanently bent elbows, which annoyed me because she was kind of hard to move about. I then obtained a second Barbie and a Ken Doll from an older best friend. I cut Disco Barbie’s hair short and she shacked up with new Barbie, who liked to wear ballgowns. They lived with Ken in a suitcase apartment that I made, with a white plastic cat. They had good queer times together.

Cool truck

Cool truck

There were lame aspects of pink Disco Barbie, like her immobile limbs (perfect for cuddling other Barbie though), but the pink wasn’t the issue. I was still inventive with my Barbies and though they never taught me about structural engineering, I had fun with them. Some of the “girly” toys I wanted in childhood were really inert and useless, like Fairy Winkles, but they weren’t bad because they were pink. I’m pretty sure that at the end of the day I was just subject to marketing and a desire for “status” like all the other kids (like, when I got connector pens I thought I was so cool).

I think we should promote kids to be interested in a range of dynamic stuff. But at the end of the day it’s not pink that stinks, it’s our attitude to gender that matters.