Lauren R. sent in photos of a Mother’s Day card she saw. She says that many of the cards were separated into those from sons or daughters, though the cards didn’t explicitly state that — whether it was from a son or daughter was instead indicated by the images or content of the text.
The particular card that drew her attention was labeled “mom from son funny” and says “Mom, for Mother’s Day I got you a card that’ll remind you of me…”:
The card then opens on the opposite side you’d expect a card to and inside, on the left instead of the right side, it says, “It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to!”:
It’s a great example of the construction of boys as naughty. Boys break rules, boys don’t do what they’re told…and even though they may get in trouble for this, boys also often get the message that parents also find it somewhat cute, or at least to be expected — boys will be boys, after all. Acting up sometimes is just what they do, and it’s a sign of their boyish spirit.
It’s hard to imagine a similar card designed to be from a girl. We don’t have similar beliefs that “girls will be girls,” and that you just have to expect that they’ll misbehave sometimes. It’s not that parents don’t know that girls fail to do what they’re told. But it doesn’t fit into cultural notions that girls just can’t help it, or that we should find it somewhat endearing even when we’re frustrated by their behavior. So when girls misbehave, adults generally interpret it as an individual choice on their part, rather than due to their sex (and, thus, not entirely under their control).
Originally posted in 2010.
Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.
This week Meredith Kleykamp tweeted us a photo of a comment written on her 3rd grade son’s cursive homework. The teacher wrote: “beautifully written! for a boy!”
So what’s the message here?
Some argue that boys are slower than girls to develop the fine motor coordination that facilitates beautiful handwriting. I’ve never interrogated that research, but let’s assume, for sake of argument, that that’s true.
If it’s true, then maybe Kleykamp’s son’s handwriting really is beautiful “for a boy.” But does that make the teacher’s comment innocuous?
Kleykamp observes: “‘Beautifully written’ is sufficient to convey praise.” Then what additional message does the extra commentary send? Given a social context in which boys are encouraged to be unlike girls, Christopher Knorr thought the subtext might be: “you will be forced to choose between your penmanship and your masculinity.”
Scholars call these kinds of lessons the “hidden curriculum.” Here’s another shocking example.
It’s been a while since we treated our audience to a post featuring a collection of pointlessly gendered products. Time to correct our lapse in diligence! Here are some favorite examples we’ve added to our Pinterest board lately.
THE FOOD CATEGORY.
Pointlessly gendered endives:
Pointlessly gendered bread:
Pointlessly gendered eggs:
Pointlessly gendered sausages:
Thanks @appledaughter, Lars F., @mamatastic, @day_jess, @jongudmundand, and @blessedharlot!
Pointlessly gendered tooth fairies:
Pointlessly gendered alphabets:
Pointlessly gendered child harnesses:
Thanks Sarah M., @day_jess, and @qaoileann!
Pointlessly gendered socks:
Pointlessly gendered wrist support:
Pointlessly gendered job ads:
Bonus! Pointlessly gendered pet shampoo:
Thanks Jen T., Lisa S., @nayohmei, and @doubleemmartin!
That’s all for now! Check out the entire collection on Pinterest.
Like a lot of moms, I faced the Barbie dilemma when my daughter was younger. Ultimately I figured a little bit of Barbie would sate her appetite (and stop the nagging) without doing too much harm. Like a vaccination, or homeopathic inoculation against the Big Bad. I told myself my daughter didn’t use her dolls for fashion play anyway: her Barbie “funeral,” for instance, was a tour de force of childhood imagination. I told myself I only got her “good” Barbies: ethnic Barbies, Wonder Woman Barbie, Cleopatra Barbie. Now that she’s 10 and long ago gave the dolls away (or “mummified” them and buried them in the back yard in a “time capsule”), I can’t say whether they’ll have any latent impact on her body image or self-perception. It would seem ludicrous, at any rate, to try to pinpoint the impact of one toy.
But now, according to a study published this week, it turns out that playing with Barbie, even career Barbie, may indeed limit girls’ perception of their own future choices. Psychologistsrandomly assigned girls ages 4-7 to play with one of three dolls. Two were Barbies: a fashion Barbie (in a dress and high heels); and a “career” Barbie with a doctor’s coat and stethoscope. (NOTE: I just pulled these images from the web: I don’t know which actual Barbies they used.)
The third, “control” doll was a Mrs. Potato Head, who, although she comes with fashion accessories such as a purse and shoes, doesn’t have Barbie’s sexualized (and totally unrealistic) curves.
So, after just a few minutes of play, the girls were asked if they could do any of 10 occupations when they grew up. They were also asked if boys could do those jobs. Half of the careers, according to the authors, were male-dominated and half were female dominated. The results:
Girls who played with Barbie thought they could do fewer jobs than boys could do. But girls who played with Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly the same number of possible careers for themselves and for boys.
More to the point:
There was no difference in results between girls who played with a Barbie wearing a dress and the career-focused, doctor version of the doll.
Obviously, the study is not definitive. Obviously, one doll isn’t going to make the critical difference in a young woman’s life blah blah blah. Still, it’s interesting that it doesn’t matter whether the girls played with fashion Barbie or doctor Barbie, the doll had the same effect and in only a few minutes.
That reminded me of a study in which college women enrolled in an advanced calculus class were asked to watch a series of four, 30-second TV commercials. The first group watched four netural ads. The second group watched two neutral ads and two depicting stereotypes about women (a girl enraptured by acne medicine; a woman drooling over a brownie mix). Afterward they completed a survey and—bing!—the group who’d seen the stereo- typed ads expressed less interest in math- and science-related careers than classmates who had watched only the neutral ones. Let me repeat: the effect was demonstrable after watching two ads.
And guess who performed better on a math test, coeds who took it after being asked to try on a bathing suit or those who had been asked to try on a sweater? (Hint: the latter group; interestingly, male students showed no such disparity.)
Now think about the culture girls are exposed to over and over and over and over and over, whether in toys or movies or tv or music videos, in which regardless of what else you are—smart, athletic, kind, even feminist, even old—you must be “hot.” Perhaps, then, the issue is not “well, one doll can’t have that much of an impact,” so much as “if playing with one doll for a few minutes has that much impact what is the effect of the tsunami of sexualization that girls confront every day, year after year?”
In this excellent 6 minute video, CJ Pascoe discusses some of the findings of her widely acclaimed book, Dude, You’re a Fag. She points out that, while being called “fag” and other terms for people with same sex desires are the most common and most cutting of insults between boys in school, they rarely mean to actually suggest that the target is gay. Instead, the terms are used to suggest that boys are failing at masculinity.
This, she points out, is not “unique to childhood.” For this reason, calling it bullying it is probably a distraction from the fact that this doesn’t just happen among kids. She includes, as an example, a bomb destined for Afghanistan with the phrase “highjack this, fags” written on it by American soldiers.
Kids, then, aren’t in a particularly nasty stage. They’re “repeating, affirming, investing in all of these norms and expectations that we as adults are handing down.” If we used more adult language, Pascoe argues, we might do a better job of thinking how we’re teaching boys how to be this way.
‘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.