Tag Archives: gender: children/youth

When Cowboys Wore Pink

What would you think of Woody from Toy Story if he wore pink?

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Would you think the color choice was incongruous — that it didn’t seem masculine enough for a 1950s-era cowboy toy?

Well, you’d be wrong. Check out these images from the 1955 Sears Christmas Book catalog that Elizabeth Sweet, a newly minted Ph.D. from the University of California at Davis, sent me. Here’s Roy Rogers Apparel, featuring Roy Rogers and his son, Dusty – who is wearing a cowboy outfit with red, yellow, and pink accents:

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To modern eyes, this is surprising. “Pink is a girls’ color,” we think. This association has become so firmly entrenched in our cultural imagination that people are flabbergasted to learn that until the 1950s, pink was often considered a strong color and, therefore, was associated with boys.

But it wasn’t only for boys. Although gender segregation is de rigeur today, it wasn’t back then. Look at these outfits for boys and girls, also from the 1955 Sears catalog: There are brown and red outfits for boys and girls. Pink and blue outfits for boys and girls. Blue and green outfits for boys and girls.

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These spreads make it clear that in the 1950s, when Woody’s Roundup is supposed to have originated, Woody would have been pretty darned stylish in pink.

A decade later, things had started changing; pink was more closely associated with girls. (As Elizabeth notes of the Sears catalogs in her collection, “I didn’t find anything similar in 1965.”)

In today’s marketplace, I believe parents would love to see options like these. In fact, just yesterday, one of my friends posted this to facebook about his failed shopping trip:

Alright, parents, I went to buy my daughter cool costume stuff like pirate stuff and cowgirl stuff and all I found was princess outfits. She doesn’t know the word “princess.” She knows the words ‘cowgirl” and “pirate.” What’s the deal? Why does every company want her to be a princess? Why can’t she be an awesome cowgirl pirate?

Sadly, the reason is that in the retail world, this kind of diversity just doesn’t fly anymore. The status quo is segregation; as Elizabeth Sweet has argued, “finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.” And the more entrenched this practice becomes, the harder it becomes to change, as change is perceived by marketers and retailers as a risk.

Therefore, for the foreseeable future, pink will serve as a clear delineation in the marketplace: If something is pink, it is most definitely not for boys, who regard it as a contagion — something to be avoided at all costs.

So it is that if Woody wore pink today, he would be unintelligible in the marketplace. And so it is that my friend can’t find a good cowgirl outfit for his little girl: he’d have to travel back to 1955 to do so.

The push for “girly” to be synonymous with “pink” saddens me. It has caused girls’ worlds to shrink, and it only reinforces for boys the idea that they should actively avoid anything girlish. Monochromatic girlhood drives a wedge between boys and girls — separating their spheres during a time when cross-sex play is healthy and desirable, and when their imaginations should run free.

Instead, we’re limiting our kids.

Rebecca Hains, PhD is a media studies professor at Salem State University.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.  Read the original post here. Cross-posted at Business Insider and The Christian Science Monitor.

Girls Braced for Beauty

Sociologists like to say that gender identities are socially constructed. That just means that what it is, and what it means, to be male or female is at least partly the outcome of social interaction between people – visible through the rules, attitudes, media, or ideals in the social world.

And that process sometimes involves constructing people’s bodies physically as well. And in today’s high-intensity parenting, in which gender plays a big part, this includes constructing – or at least tinkering with – the bodies of children.

Today’s example: braces. In my Google image search for “child with braces,” the first 100 images yielded about 75 girls.

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Why so many girls braced for beauty? More girls than boys want braces, and more parents of girls want their kids to have them, even though girls’ teeth are no more crooked or misplaced than boys’. This is just one manifestation of the greater tendency to value appearance for girls and women more than for boys and men. But because braces are expensive, this is also tied up with social class, so that richer people are more likely to get their kids’ teeth straightened, and as a result richer girls are more likely to meet (and set) beauty standards.

Hard numbers on how many kids get braces are surprisingly hard to come by. However, the government’s medical expenditure survey shows that 17 percent of children ages 11-17 saw an orthodontist in the last year, which means the number getting braces at some point in their lives is higher than that. The numbers are rising, and girls are wearing most of hardware.

study of Michigan public school students showed that although boys and girls had equal treatment needs (orthodontists have developed sophisticated tools for measuring this need, which everyone agrees is usually aesthetic), girls’ attitudes about their own teeth were quite different:

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Clearly, braces are popular among American kids, with about half in this study saying they want them, but that sentiment is more common among girls, who are twice as likely as boys to say they don’t like their teeth.

This lines up with other studies that have shown girls want braces more at a given level of need, and they are more likely than boys to get orthodontic treatment after being referred to a specialist. Among those getting braces, there are more girls whose need is low or borderline. A study of 12-19 year-oldsgetting braces at a university clinic found 56 percent of the girls, compared with 47 percent of the boys, had “little need” for them on the aesthetic scale.

The same pattern is found in Germany, where 38 percent of girls versus 30 percent of boys ages 11-14 have braces, and in Britain – both countries where braces are covered by state health insurance if they are needed, but parents can pay for them if they aren’t.

Among American adults, women are also more likely to get braces, leading the way in the adult orthodontic trend. (Google “mother daughter braces” and you get mothers and daughters getting braces together; “father son braces” brings you to orthodontic practices run by father-son teams.)

Teeth and consequences

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Caption: The teeth of TV anchors Anderson Cooper, Soledad O’Brien, Robin Roberts, Suzanne Malveaux, Don Lemon, George Stephanopolous, David Gregory, Ashley Banfield, and Diane Sawyer.

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Today’s rich and famous people – at least the one whose faces we see a lot – usually have straight white teeth, and most people don’t get that way without some intervention. And lots of people get that.

Girls are held to a higher beauty standard and feel the pressure – from media, peers or parents – to get their teeth straightened. They want braces, and for good reason. Unfortunately, this subjects them to needless medical procedures and reinforces the over-valuing of appearance. However, it also shows one way that parents invest more in their girls, perhaps thinking they need to prepare them for successful careers and relationships by spending more on their looks.

When they’re grown up, of course, women get a lot more cosmetic surgery than men do – 87 percent of all surgical procedures, and 94% of Botox-type procedures – and that gap is growing over time.

As is the case with lots of cosmetic procedures, people from wealthier families generally are less likely to need braces but more likely to get them. But add this to the gender pattern, and what emerges is a system in which richer girls (voluntarily or not) and their parents set the standard for beauty – and then reap the rewards (as well as harms) of reaching it.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality, Adios Barbie, and Jezebel.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Over Half of Today’s Teenagers Are Virgins

In my lecture about the sex lives of college students, I remind students that they didn’t invent casual sex.  This always prompts some snickers.  The fact that today’s students have about the same number of sexual partners as their parents did at their age evokes an even stronger response.   About 1/5th of college students will be virgins when they graduate college.

In fact, college students aren’t as sexually active as the moralizing makes it seem.  And neither, it turns out, are teenagers.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, 57% of girls and 58% of boys age 15 to 19 have never had penile-vaginal intercourse.  Moreover, the percent of teenagers that have had intercourse has been dropping consistently over the last 20 years.

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So, despite the fact that young people are more likely than earlier generations to engage in oral sex before initiating penile-vaginal intercourse (especially fellatio), they continue to take intercourse very seriously.  This may be, in part, because men are becoming more like women in this regard.  Men’s numbers have dropped much more sharply. In addition, for the first time the CDC study found that boys’ #2 reason for not having engaged in intercourse was that they were waiting for the right person.  Men cited this reason 29% of the time, compared to 19% for girls.  For both boys and girls, the #1 reason is that it’s against their religion (41% of girls and 31% of boys).  Concerns about pregnancy come in third.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Halloween Costumes: Then and Now

It’s become a tradition, every year about this time, to have a national conversation about the rise of sexy Halloween costumes, especially for little girls.  But are they really sexier than before?

Sure enough.  Jessica Samakow at the Huffington Post put together a gallery of then and now photos, sent along by Katrin.  See for yourself:

More about sexy costumes for women and girls: boy and girl cookie monster costumeswhen sexy overtakes all reasonsexy femininity and gender inequalitysexy scholarHarem girl, the sexy body bag costume, and a Halloween gender binary.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Tiny the Pterodactyl and the Gender Ideology of Halloween

Here’s an interesting example of the triumph of ideology over simple fact.  Fia K. sent in a link to a costume sold at Amazon titled “Tiny Boy’s Costume.”  The costume is a green pterodactyl.  There is no equivalent Tiny Girl’s Costume.  When I search for that phrase, the search engine deletes the word “girl” and sends me back to here.

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This is more than just an instance of associating boys with dinosaurs and excluding girls, although that would be problematic enough.  No, the costume is called “Tiny” because it’s associated with a cartoon character with that name from the show Dinosaur Train.

Funny thing is, Tiny is female (note the eyelashes, you can always tell by the eyelashes).

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This is evidence of how powerful gender ideology can be.  Tiny’s actual fictional femaleness is less powerful than the ideological association of boys and dinosaurs.  Hence, a Tiny Boy’s Costume.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How Sexy Stole Naughty

Lindy West for the win at Jezebel, asks what’s so sexualizing about calling a child’s costume “naughty.”  The costume below was widely criticized for sexualizing little girls, but West nicely observes that there is a non-sexual, child-related meaning to the word naughty.  You know, being bad.  The non-sexual version of bad.  Doing something you’re not supposed to do.  A non-sexual thing.  You know what I mean!  West writes:

Sure, naughty has had sexual connotations as far back as the mid-19th century, but it’s been used to describe disobedient kids since the goddamn 1600s. So why did we let hornay college chicks hijack the word in all its forms? Why can’t children be naughty anymore?

It’s a great question.

The instinct that “naughty” means “bad and sexy” probably stems in part from our Puritanical roots.  Today it gets tied up with the infantilization of women and the notion that women should be cute like girls.  Add the rampant sexualization at Halloween, including costumes in which women dress up like little girls dressed up like sexy adult women.  It’s hard to see how one could avoid interpreting this “naughty leopard” as an example of the sexualization of little girls.

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Nevertheless, West is right.  The biggest problem with this costume’s title is that it includes the word “leopard.”  Because that’s just false advertising.  It doesn’t say sexy leopard and the dress — I’ll stop calling it a costume now — is not particularly sexualizing.

West calls for change:

Why don’t we send “naughty” back from whence it came—into the realm of wedgies and spitballs and pies cooling on the windowsill with bites taken out of them!? It’s time, people. You know it is. Take Back the Naughty. For the children.

And for the grown ups, too, who are tired of the idea that being a sexual person makes us bad, bad girls and boys.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The “Sworn Virgins” of Albania: Social Rules and Accommodations

New interest in the virgjinesha inspires us to re-post our coverage from 2012.

Rigid gender roles often inspire creative solutions.  Families in Afghanistan, for example, when they have all girls, often pick a daughter to pretend to be a boy until puberty.  The child can then run errands, get a job, and chaperone “his” sisters in public (all things girls aren’t allowed to do).  The transition is sudden and doesn’t involve relocation, so the entire community knows that the child is a girl.  They just pretend nothing at all strange is going on.  In fact, it’s not strange.  It happens quite routinely.

A similar phenomenon emerged in Albania in the 1400s.  Inter-group warfare had left a dearth of men in many communities.  Since rights and responsibilities were strongly sex-typed, some families needed a “man” to accomplish certain things like buy land and pass down wealth.

In response, some girls became “virgjinesha,” or sworn virgins. A sworn virgin was a socially-recognized man for the rest of “his” life (so long as the oath was kept).  Many girls would take the oath after their father died.

There are only about forty sworn virgins left; as women were granted more and more rights, fewer and fewer girls felt the need to adopt a male identity for themselves or their families.

Some of the remaining virgjinesha were featured in a New York Times slideshow.  Two of the images, by photographer Johan Spanner, are reproduced here.

After becoming a man, Qamile Stema [below] said she could leave the house and chop wood with other men. She also carried a gun. At wedding parties, she sat with men. When she talked to women, she recalled, they recoiled in shyness.

Qamile Stema said she would die a virgin. Had she married, she joked, it would have been to a traditional Albanian woman. “I guess you could say I was partly a woman and partly a man, but of course I never did everything a man does,” she said. “I liked my life as a man. I have no regrets.”

Photographer Jill Peters has captured images of sworn virgins, including this images of Lumia from 2011:

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Power, Mickey Mouse, and the Infantilization of Women

Here and there the media becomes interested in the sexualization of little girls and, when they do, I often get a call from a reporter or two.  I’ve yet to see any of them pick up on what I think is the really interesting story.  They want to talk about child models, little girls in beauty pageants, and the transitional tween years for Disney star prodigies, but I always want to add into the mix the infantilization of adult women.

The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of adult women are two sides of the same coin.  They both tell us that we should find youth, inexperience, and naivete sexy in women, but not in men.  This reinforces a power and status difference between men and women, where vulnerability, weakness, and dependency and their opposites are gendered traits: desirable in one sex but not the other.

Now, thanks to @BonneZ, I know that this has something interesting to do with Mickey Mouse.

The original Mouse, Stephen Jay Gould has observed, was a kind of nasty character.  But, as he has evolved into the “cute and inoffensive host to a magic kingdom,” he has appeared increasingly childlike. This six figures below indicate Mickey’s evolution over time:

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Childlike features, Gould argues, inspire a need to nurture: “When we see a living creature with babyish features,” he writes, “we feel an automatic surge of disarming tenderness.”   Allison Guy observes that we see a similar trend in recent toy makeovers – larger eyes, bigger heads, fatter stumpier limbs — but we see this primarily in toys aimed at infants and girls, not boys:

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Guy interprets this trend as the “result of a cultural imperative for women to embody both the cute and the sexual.”  So, women don “cute” clothes with colorful patterns associated with children and wear “flippy skirts” and “baby doll” t-shirts. They wear eyeliner to give the illusion of the large eyes of childhood, foundation to hide the marks of aging on the face, and pink on their cheeks to mimic the blush of youth.  They are taught these imperatives from an early age.

What does it mean that feminine beauty is conflated with youthfulness, but masculine beauty is not – that we want women to be both cute and sexual?  It means that we feel comfortable with women who seem helpless and require taking care of, perhaps we even encourage or demand these traits from women.  Perhaps these childlike characteristics are most comforting in women who are, in fact, the least needy; I submit that we are more accepting of powerful women when they perform girlish beauty.  When they don’t, they are often perceived as threatening or unlikable.

So, yes, the sexualization of girls is interesting — and no doubt it’s no good for girls and likely contributes to older men’s sexual interest in young women — but it’s not just about sexualizing kids early.  It’s about infantilizing adult women, too, as a way to remind women of their prescribed social position relative to men.

Cross-posted at Jezebel and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.