In this Farm Bureau Insurance ad, a father and son paint a room pink and commiserate about how their lives will be ruined by the arrival of a baby girl.
1. Essentialize gender. A girl is coming? That means playing with dolls and having tea parties. Girls are girls. Us, we’re boys, so automatically we…
2. …belittle femininity. The stuff girls do is boring and trivial. Only girls would want to do those things. Girls are such a drag!
In short, all girls are girly and girly stuff is dumb.
I didn’t find it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they made the opposite commercial, too. One in which a mom and her daughter cringe over the idea of having to put up with booger-flinging and farting at the table.
But that would be equally bad. We don’t know a child’s personality just by anticipating the stuff between their legs. And it’s not true that male and female humans are so different as to enjoy entirely non-overlapping sets of things.
In daily life, we recognize each other for the complex and varied people that we are. Think about it. Practically the only place we see stereotypes this retrograde are on TV and in the movies. We’re not “opposite sexes,” but we’re surrounded by the idea that we are.
Some nice news has come out lately that the occasional toy store is taking the words boy and girl off of their aisle signs — mostly in Sweden, I say half-jokingly — but Google ngrams suggests that we’re nowhere near backing off of separating children’s toys by sex.
Sociologist Philip Cohen graphed the frequency of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” relative to “toys for children.” This is just language, and it’s just American English, but it’s one indication that the consciousness raising efforts of organizations like Let Toys Be Toys is still on the margins of mainstream society.
As you can see from the graph, the extent to which children are actively talked about as gendered subjects varies over time.
One explanation for why companies resist androgynous toys and clothes for children — an arguably adults, too — has to do with money. If parents with a boy and a girl could get away with one set of toys, they wouldn’t need to buy a second. And if they could hand down clothes from girls to boys and vice versa, they would buy less clothes. The same could be said for borrowing and trading between family members and friends.
It would really cut into the profits of these companies if we believed that all items for children were interchangeable. They work hard to sustain the lie that they are not.
Sally R. sent in this two-page Tropicana ad she found in her morning newspaper. The ad features, as Sally puts it, a “hard (bad) surly girl in pants and [an] easy (nice) girl in a dress with a flowery gift and passive smile…” The first is labeled “hard to handle” and the second “easy to handle.” The new orange juice container is supposed to be more like the “easy” girl.
On the face of it, this ad is about parenting. But there is so much more going on that makes the ad work.
Notice how easyness is communicated with symbols of femininity. The message is that girls are, ideally, accommodating and passive. Girls should be like objects, easy to “handle.” Would the ad work quite the same way if the child was a boy? Do we hope/expect that our boys will be completely passive and convenient to handle?
Sally also notes the “double meaning of easy” which, combined with the girl’s coy pose and smile, sends a sexual message. The sexual promise that the ad makes (it/she is “easy to handle”) works despite (or because of?) her age. Consider how similar the image is to these examples in which women and girls are simultaneously sexualized and infantilized with the use of passiveposes and symbols of youth.
This conflation of object status, femininity, being female, and being well-behaved is obnoxious. It’s insulting to both boys and girls and affirms the false gender binary. It’s dangerous, too. It contributes to the idea that girls are objects to take advantage of who are misbehaving if they assert themselves. It’s disturbing to see it reproduced for something as trivial as an orange juice carton.
Last week we saw a range of responses break out in reaction to this video: “F-Bombs for Feminism: Potty-Mouted Princesses Use Bad Word for Good Cause.”
Some commenters fell immediately into the “cursing = bad” camp and are offended by the language, but for those not turned off, the other initial reaction seems to be glee. There’s an “I can’t believe they’re saying that!” kind of catharsis that accompanies watching little girls drop f-bombs all over the place and show some righteous rage over the injustices they are bound to face due to gender inequity. What seems less present in the general reaction, and concerns me the most, is how these girls — and these causes — are fundamentally being leveraged by a T-shirt company.
For years I’ve written about what I call “fauxpowerment” — the “rah-rah, you go girl,” feel-good phrases and gestures that are meant to pump girls up with confidence or a newly varnished sense of self-esteem (often enough through a makeover) but, in fact, undermine any real confidence building as these messages reinforce that girls’ looks are paramount or that a quick, pink band-aid slapped over a deep wound makes everything better. For those in the Girls’ Studies community or who work at well-developed programs designed just for girls, these attempts are not only insultingly facile, they are understood to be downright harmful and counterproductive. Worst of all is seeing corporations leverage girls for commercial purposes, a tradition, maddeningly, that seems ongoing. That’s the category in which I would put the “Potty-Mouthed Princesses” advertisement — what it fundamentally is.
FCKH8, the company behind the ad, initially responded positively to my queries about their intentions, what charities they are donating proceeds of each sale to, and if the girls in the video were tightly scripted or had any input into the video, but I have not heard back again. I hope to update this post if I do. On their home page they cite their mission as being a “for-profit T-shirt company with an activist heart and a passionate social change mission: arming thousands of people with pro-LGBT equality, anti-racism and anti-sexism T-shirts that act as ‘mini-billboards’ for change.”
Their T-shirt slogans are meant to be provocative, and in some cases, it seems, also plagiarized, as the Feminist Majority Foundation has had an ongoing “This is What A Feminist Looks Like” campaign since 2003, with President Obama in the shirt on their 2009 cover. More recently, FCKH8 came under fire for allegedly exploiting the events in Ferguson to sell their antiracism gear.
A quick look on the FCKH8 website reveals they barely sell T-shirts in children’s sizes. So, why use child-models in what is essentially an ad? The answer seems painfully obvious. Anxiety about girls is pervasive in American society, if manifested through various channels. The value of seeing girls, in princess costumes no less, letting loose about the gendered inequities they face, never mind parade across the screen asking which one of them will inevitably be raped in her lifetime, is designed to shock. FCKH8 is tapping into a cultural zeitgeist by putting girls in princess costumes and then breaking with stereotype by having them swear up a storm and shout out their fury, complete with very adult-like, fed-up gestures and the waved middle finger.
The reaction FCKH8 has carefully cultivated is the drama that results from presenting such high contrasts — furious princesses calling out the system in which they are entrapped, flipping off the patriarchy, and angrily speaking out. The power of seeing this dramatized speaks to how coded and closed these systems are — “little girls” under most circumstances would hardly be allowed to swear with such abandon, if they even wanted to.
Is there something cathartic about hearing these injustices called out and denounced with anger? There is. For those furious about gender inequality it can be gratifying hearing these issues called out — when the adult women in the ad step forward. This isn’t how most girls under 10 would speak and the girls used, albeit likely paid models or actresses taking on a role, are props. While many commenters reported that their (usually teenage) daughters expressed delight at seeing girls let loose with things they cannot say — again a moment that reveals how girls are stifled — there is hardly any empowerment when the girls didn’t write these scripts themselves and are, fundamentally, co-opted into a purportedly radical company’s for-profit campaign through their “walking billboards” which work to questionable effect.
I‘ve always loved Peggy Orenstein’s coined phrase “empowertainment” — a moment when companies use a generic sense of “sisterhood” or a cheery pro-girl message to essentially sell products. The criticism of this practice is (necessarily) ongoing and FCKH8, a company that I’m certain will defend its practices as radical and empowering, is doing exactly this. In Andi Zeisler’s excellent round-up of the history of “femapowerment” or, as she coins it, “empowertising,” she calls out the companies that, beyond girls, are co-opting feminism — or their brand of it — to essentially sell products.
Criticism of the company has been swift, and wide, but the click-bait appeal of this video will probably outnumber its detractors. A few years back the video “Riley on Marketing” went viral as the outraged Riley decried the limitations imposed upon her by gendered marketing. There was nary an f-bomb in the mix. This was a real girl, speaking out unscripted about the injustices she knows. The authenticity in her voice and in her message garnered almost 5 million YouTube views and carries far more power than FCKH8′s gimmicky, egregious act.
In the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China lives a small ethnic group called the Mosuo. Among the Mosuo, romantic and family life are separated into different spheres by design. Children are usually raised in the home of their maternal grandmother with the help of their mother. She may maintain a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship with the father but, unlike in the West, this is considered separate from her role as a mother.
The role of the biological father is discretionary. There is no word in their language, in fact, for husband or father. A father is allowed, but not required to provide financial support and he is usually permitted to visit the mother and their child(ren) only at night. They call it “Axia” or “Walking Marriage.” The children’s primary male role models are usually their uncles, who remain under the authority of the children’s grandmother as they live under her roof.
From the Mosuo point of view, separating marriage from the raising of children ensures that the vagaries of romance do not disrupt the happiness and health of the child and its mother. Nor can the father wield power over the mother by threatening to withdraw from the marriage. Meanwhile, because the family of origin is never eclipsed by a procreative family, the Mosuo system reduces the likelihood that elders will be abandoned by their families when they need support in old age.
Divorce is a non-issue…there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother’s family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care.
This way of organizing families is an excellent refutation of the hegemonic view that children need the biological father to live under their roof (and by implication, to be their patriarch). You can learn more about the Mosuo in the documentaries The Women’s Kingdom and The Mosuo Sisters.
Dr. Jonathan Harrison earned a PhD in Sociology from the University of Leicester, UK. His research interests include the Holocaust, comparative religion, racism, and the history of African Americans in Florida. He teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University and Hodges University.
Every spring, my daughter receives an invitation to participate in a local Girls on the Run (GOTR) program. Every spring, I hesitate saying, “yes.”
Girls on the Run (GOTR) is a non-profit organization with about 200 councils across the U.S. and Canada. Over 10 to 12 weeks, councils help organize teams of girls in 3rd through 8th grades to train for and complete a 5K run.
Volunteer coaches lead their team through the program’s pre-packaged curriculum, consisting of lessons that “encourage positive emotional, social, mental and physical development.” Among other things they discuss self-esteem, confidence, team work, healthy relationships, and “challenges girls face.” Boys are not allowed to participate in the program. The 5K is described by GOTR as the ending “moment in time that beautifully reflects the very essence of the program goals.”
The starting line has the atmosphere of a party. Music is played over loud speakers, pumping teen pop (with lyrics laden with sexual innuendo and “crushes” on boys) and oldies that carry an affirmative “you can do it” message like Gaynor’s, “I Will Survive.”
Vendors (local businesses and organizations) bring tables to engage the girls and their parents in products/services they have available. This is not the only form of capitalistic opportunism affiliated with GOTR. The international organization’s official sponsors include Lego Friends – a line of Legos that emphasize single-sexed socialization (not building!) and Secret’s campaign “Mean Stinks” (featuring another pop glam star, Demi Lovato) that emphasizes painting fingernails blue, among other frivolous things, to address girl-on-girl bullying.
The run is an odd scene. Though boys have been banned from participation, older male relatives, friends, and teachers are encouraged to run with girls as their sponsors. It has become a unique trademark of GOTR that these men, and many of the women and girls, dress “hyper-feminine” (e.g., in skirts, tutus, big bows, bold patterned knee-high socks, tiaras, etc.), apply make-up or face paint, and spray color their hair. The idea is to “girl it up.”
Over the years, I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with this event for a couple of reasons.
First, encouraging girls to “girl it up”—or I prefer, “glam it up,” so that we don’t appropriate these behaviors just for girls—can be fun, an opportunity to step out and beyond what is practiced in everyday life. But there’s no corresponding encouragement to “butch it up” if they desire, or do some combination of both. In the end, then, this simply serves to reproduce gender stereotypes and the old-fashioned and false notion that gender is binary.
Second, by bombarding girls with “positive” messages about themselves meant to counteract negative ones, the program implicitly gives credence to the idea that girls aren’t considered equal to boys. What messages are girls really getting when special programs are aimed at trying to make them feel good about themselves as girls?
Although I have always given in to my daughter’s requests, at some point I am going to say “no.” Instead of reinforcing the box she’s put into, and decorating it with a pretty bow, we’ll have to start unpacking mainstream girl culture together.
Scott Richardson is an assistant professor of educational foundations and affiliate of women’s studies at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. You can follow him on Twitter.
Earlier this year, Barbie posed for Sports Illustrated, triggering a round of eye-rolling and exasperation among those who care about the self-esteem and overall mental health of girls and women.
Barbie replied with the hashtag #unapologetic, arguing in an — I’m gonna guess, ghostwritten — essay that posing in the notoriously sexist swimsuit issue was her way of proving that girls could do anything they wanted to do. It was a bizarre appropriation of feminist logic alongside a skewering of a feminist strawwoman that went something along the lines of “don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful.”
Barbie is so often condemned as the problem and Mattel, perhaps tired of playing her endless defender, finally just went with: “How dare you judge her.” It was a bold and bizarre marketing move. The company had her embrace her villain persona, while simultaneously shaming the feminists who judged her. It gave us all a little bit of whiplash and I thought it quite obnoxious.
But then I came across Tiffany Gholar’s new illustrated book, The Doll Project. Gholar’s work suggests that perhaps we’ve been too quick to portray Barbie as simply a source of young women’s self-esteem issues and disordered eating. We imagine, after all, that she gleefully flaunts her physical perfection in the face of us lesser women. In this way, Mattel may be onto something; it isn’t just her appearance, but her seemingly endless confidence and, yes, failure to apologize, that sets us off.
But, maybe we’re wrong about Barbie?
What if Barbie is just as insecure as the rest of us? This is the possibility explored in The Doll Project. Using a mini diet book and scale actually sold by Mattel in the 1960s, Gholar re-imagines fashion dolls as victims of the media imperative to be thin. What if Barbie is a victim, too?
Excerpted with permission:
Forgive me for joining Mattel and Gholar in personifying this doll, but I enjoyed thinking through this reimagining of Barbie. It reminded me that even those among us who are privileged to be able to conform to conventions of attractiveness are often suffering. Sometimes even the most “perfect” of us look in the mirror and see nothing but imperfection. We’re all in this together.