When I picked my friend’s nine year old daughter up from school last week the first thing she said to me was, “We had to do something really weird in class today. The teacher paired all the girls with a boy and we had to be a married couple.” It turns out the teacher was having her students work on writing dialogue and since it was right before Valentine’s Day she thought it would be cute for them to write dialogue about love and marriage.
“Not all girls want to marry a boy. It was so lame,” my friend’s daughter told me. ‘Lame’ was not really the word that came to my mind; I was more thinking about heteronormativity and how it is reproduced through our social institutions.
The prosecution of 16 year old Ethan Couch has garnered considerable media attention in the past two weeks. Couch was accused of killing four pedestrians while high on valium and under the influence of alcohol. With a truck full of friends, Couch crashed into a group of pedestrians. The outcry from this case is twofold. First, Couch’s defense attorney argued that he could not be held fully responsible for his actions because he suffered from “affluenza.” Second, this defense worked and Couch was found guilty but only sentenced to 10 years under correctional probation. Couch, 16, was sentenced to 10 years under correctional probation for his actions. Couch never denied his actions, rather his defense argued that Couch’s dysfunctional upbringing was the reason for his actions and he deserves therapy over incarceration. (more…)
How do women and men divide housework? That question has become a matter of intrigue in US media in recent years. In fact, in the last week alone two major newspapers, The New York Times and The Atlantic, carried opinion pieces on the gendered division of housework in America. A plethora of research indicates that in the last 30 years men have begun to increase the amount of time that they spend on housework but the fact remains that women still do far more housework than men. What this progress on the part of men means for the future though is still up for debate. Will this progress toward gender equity continue? Will it slow? Will it speed up? Only time will tell, but pundits certainly have a lot to say on the matter. (more…)
Yesterday, I read a disturbing article in Adweek. “Powerful Ads Use Real Google Searches to Show the Scope of Sexism Worldwide Simple: Visual For Inequality” by David Griner explores a new campaign idea from UN Women, which used real suggested search terms from Google’s autocomplete feature. The ads, which were designed by art director and graphic designer Christopher Hunt, were designed to illustrate how gender inequality continues to be so problematic that even Google has come to expect it.
Being a sociologist, I was interested in the reliability of the Google experiment. So, I conducted my own Google search of the phrases used in the project. My findings were not exactly the same as the UN Women campaign but I was saddened to see so many misogynistic phrases pop up on my screen. I found “women shouldn’t…” work, be in combat, or be cops. In contrast, “women should…” know their place, not preach, not speak in church, and not be in combat. Google autocomplete told me that “women need to…” shut up, grow up, feel wanted, and feel safe. And finally, “women cannot…” be trusted, be pastors, have it all, or teach men.
In the most recent issue of Sociology Compass, Lisa Wade contributed an article, “The New Science of Sex Difference,” about the relationship between biology and social identities and inequalities. The debate about socialization usually boils down to two seemingly opposed positions: nature versus nurture. Historically, biologists, and other fans of the life sciences, contended that natural forces in the body, like hormones, genes, and brains, determine the development of an individual. On the other hand, sociologists refute the claim that human behavior and identity can be reduced to biological phenomena; instead, our social environment, and how we are nurtured within that environment, constrain and enable our actions, life outcomes, and sense of self.
Yet, Wade cautions against this false dichotomy. Many biologists and sociologists now recognize the importance of social structures and experiences on the actual fabric of the body. That is, the issue should not be nature versus nature, but instead both nature and nurture. Wade points to numerous scientific and sociological studies that begin to bridge the gap between two previously polarized sides: these scholars show how our hormones, our brains, and even our genes are structured, and at times restructured, by our social experiences and encounters. (more…)
The great American holiday, Black Friday, marks the beginning of the holiday shopping frenzy. At the top of most parents’ lists are children’s toys—be it the latest video games, coloring sets, dolls or action figures. Even as the toys and games become more elaborate (and expensive), one thing seems to remain the same: the gendered nature of children’s products. Having grown up in this gendered arena, I was the giddy recipient of many a Barbie doll, baby doll, and flowery art set (to be fair, my parents also gifted me less gendered items geared at learning, which were among my favorite presents). And the guys I know fondly remember unwrapping Tonka trucks, superheroes, and toy guns. But a recent toy catalog, distributed around Sweden, is flipping those standards on their head. The catalog totally reverses gender expectations—its pages contain little girls wielding toy machine guns and wearing blue, boys playing with dolls and wearing Hello Kitty tees. A representative explained that decision to alter the catalog reflects a changing market in Sweden, and a belief that toys don’t have to be for just girls or boys, but can appeal to all children.
While I’m not sure I’d support any child playing with a mock automatic weapon, I can definitely get behind the move to de-gender children’s entertainment. There is no doubt that our worlds are gendered from before we are even born. The announcement that, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy” carries incredible weight in our society, where gender appears as a fundamental category of identity and experience. We are so concerned with gender that babies—who generally look the same—must be dressed in clothing that immediately asserts their gender, whether it is through color choice (pink for girls and blue for boys), or cute little slogans (like “Daddy’s princess” or “Little slugger”).
Some might think that it is ok for boys and girls to like different things. Of course it is. But we have to recognize that these preferences don’t emerge out of the unique personality of each child, but rather are molded by the incessant pressures of socializing influences. Moreover, these preferences are not valued equally, and thus, our children are placed into positions of dominance and subordination before they even know those words. Boys’ toys encourage activity, courage, strength, ingenuity and a sense of adventure, all of which carry high social value. These toys prepare them for careers in the public sphere—for leadership roles and science degrees, for example. Girls’ toys, on the other hand, teach girls domesticity, passivity, and superficiality, none of which are socially valued or rewarded. Girls learn that their place is in the home, taking care of husbands, houses, and babies. These differences in (learned) preferences produce different personalities, and encourage differential treatment of boys/men and girls/women by parents, teachers, friends, employers, and mates. In this way, the ways we play have lifelong consequences. (For more on how boys “play,” see here.)
The emphasis on these gendered products comes in part from our gender ideology and part from our capitalist motivations. When corporate geniuses realized that parents having second or third children were <gasp!> reusing baby items, they saw an opening for generating more profits. Here is the logic we were sold: Baby boys cannot possibly reuse their big sis’s sheets and onesies; dressing him in pink might turn him gay! Little girls should never wear their big bro’s PJs or play with his toys; she might never grow out of that tomboy phase and then become a lesbian. Ok, the messages aren’t quite so obvious, but this fear is imprinted in parents very early on and influences the way we are raised, and the people we become.
I won’t suggest that we can buy our way out of a rigid gender scheme. If capitalism is part of how we got into this mess, it can’t be the long term exit strategy. Indeed, this marketing strategy was probably less a political statement for gender neutrality, and more a new way to generate profits. But I think, in the short term at least, children can benefit from the message this catalog sends. (I’ve discussed the problem of balancing long and short term strategies for dealing with gender inequality here.) If it encourages parents to reward boys’ caretaking instincts, or girls’ sense of adventure, the next generation might be a little better off. And I think it could encourage us all to think of new ways to imagine children’s worlds, to challenge the simplistic binary that has governed us for so many generations, perhaps, even, to make gender nonconformity fun. That’s my Christmas wish.
Goldberg, Abbie E., Deborah A. Kashy and JuliAnna Z. Smith. 2012. Gender-Typed Play Behavior in Early Childhood: Adopted Children with Lesbian, Gay, and Heterosexual Parents. Sex Roles 67(9-10): 503-515.