‘Tis the season to remind us that men and women are different and one of women’s jobs is to pander to a hypothetical heterosexual male gaze. The University of Akron’s Will LeSuer photographed the Christmas-themed costumes for sale at a local store, noting the not-so-implicit gendered expectations.
Surprise, the main theme of the women’s costumes was cute and flirty:
The men’s themes are, let’s see, comfortable and… superhero?
And, yes, it starts when they’re kids.
Here’s a fun compare-and-contrast for maximum icky feeling. The sexualization of girls and the infantilization of women, in one holiday-themed shot (“child” costume on left, “adult” on right):
What would you think of Woody from Toy Story if he wore pink?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.”