Society’s expectations of children

// 6 November 2010

I’ve just become an auntie for the first time. When my sister was pregnant, she and her husband didn’t want to know if they were expecting a boy or a girl, and they decorated the nursery and bought clothes in “neutral colours”. (Meanwhile, I was sitting in a corner muttering, “Boys can wear pink…why is this babygrow labelled ‘for boys’? Just because it’s got a picture of a cowboy on it? GIRLS CAN BE COWBOYS IF THEY WANT.”)

My sister had a little boy last weekend and I’ve become increasingly aware of how very traditional advertising is when portraying children. I know all of this in theory, of course, but I’m sure I’m looking out for it more. That paint advert has been infuriating me – you know, the one where the nursery is decorated in blue and packed full of football memorabilia, and the father’s voiceover reveals that he and his partner actually had a girl so they’ll have to redecorate, in pink, obviously, with lots of dolls instead.

Oh, and then there’s the ad for the washing powder that talks about how dirty kids get, with the boys running about getting mud all over themselves, and the little girl cooking in the kitchen and getting chocolate on her outfit.

I was reminded of this when I read this heartbreaking blog entry earlier this week, and once again we’re shown very clearly that kids have no inbuilt sense of these gender roles we expect them to fulfil, but we push our understanding of what’s gender-appropriate on to them right from the word go, and much of the time we might not even mean to.

I don’t have any answers, of course, apart from all of us being aware of how stupid it is to enforce these expectations on little human beings, all of whom are special and individual in their own ways and will make sense of the world and how they want to be in their own time. And in the meantime, I’m going to introduce my nephew to cricket and rugby and football, and intersperse it with the occasional showtune as well.

Comments From You

holly-rae // Posted 6 November 2010 at 3:11 pm

My mum and I had a wander around Toys ‘R’ Us the other day just for the memory jog. We were both shocked not only by the very clear separation of boys and girls toys but also by the lack of racial diversity in toys made for little girls. The only black baby dolls had been chucked into a “bargain bin” :( So mum and I dressed them all nicely, brushed out their hair and redistributed them among the pristine, boxed, white dolls. We also found a baby-doll wedding set so that your boy dolls and girl dolls can get married. The whole thing was sickening.

Carrie // Posted 6 November 2010 at 3:17 pm

I’ve just remembered that Hamley’s on Regent Street annoys me because of its “girls’ floor” and “boys’ floor”. The girls’ floor is basically a see of pink sparkles. The boys’ floor has all the good stuff.

Troon // Posted 6 November 2010 at 4:16 pm

The blog has been doing the rounds and is in some ways horrific.

I was very worried when my son (3) went to nursery in his chosen pretty witch costume. Not, I think, because the crossgendering bothered me but because he really needs certainties in his life and two of those are that he is a boy and that it’s cool to be a witch. I was really worried about what a comment like ‘boys can’t be witches’ would do to him, especially on a day I wanted so much to be special for him in all the right ways. I wasn’t sure he was ready for the sophistication of ‘boys can wear dresses too and still be boys’ yet, or for negotiating conflict between parents and others he wishes to please. As it turned out, he was ace, and was welcomed by all the pre-schoolers. Indeed, several other boys dressed up as princesses form the dressing up box, as they always do. Still saw the same looks on some Mums’ faces though…

Apart from being a happier ending, I guess what i’m trying to say is that this is also about intersectionality. It is usually adults (as on the blog) who hurt children-seemingly because they expect to be able to and forget they are dealing with people. If a man turned up for the office in a skirt he might face problems, but he wouldn’t be made to feel shit by parents in the way my son risked and the bloggers son was. Oppression of children hasn’t featured in any poster’s list on intersectionality (although oppression of non-humans has). Maybe it should.

Nicola // Posted 6 November 2010 at 9:06 pm

I couldn’t agree more. My auntie gave birth to my baby (female) cousin a few months back, and was immediately hit with a wave of pink. Luckily my auntie is pretty sensible and doesn’t mind what colour she dresses her baby in – which is good, really, because I refuse to buy her anything in sugar-pink, especially if it has the words “princess” involved. Ugh.

Sarah // Posted 7 November 2010 at 11:27 am

It continues into adulthood too. While out walking last night I got a barrage of comments “is that a man or a woman” mostly, it has to be said, from younger women.

Why the need to sterotype? Why the need to put people into boxes, one or the other? It all starts at childhood, as you so rightly point out.

Lindsey // Posted 8 November 2010 at 9:11 am

Oooh I’ve just been reading about this in Cordelia Fine’s The Gender Delusion, and how without realising parents (and those around them) are priming their children’s gender even before birth. It’s a great book actually, worth adding to your shop if it’s not there already :)

Helen S // Posted 8 November 2010 at 9:19 am

This is a subject very close to my heart as I’m currently expecting my first (due in January). The amount of pressure I’ve had from people about choosing colours is ridiculous and feels a lot like the same peer pressure you get as a teenager when it comes to clothes.

The baby room will be green – not because it’s gender neutral but because I like the colour. I have an array of baby clothes of both colours which WILL be used regardless of sex. Unfortunately I can’t expect those around me to avoid the same gender stereotyping.

As an aside, I have a close friend who is also pregnant – she got herself worked into such a state because the carpet & window blind in her baby room is blue. Her sole reason for wanting to find out the sex of her unborn child was so she could decorate the room the ‘right’ colour. Incredibly sad and very depressing.

Savinah // Posted 8 November 2010 at 2:54 pm

I had to try and conceal my horror when a friend’s little daughter was given a toy kitchen for her third birthday. I didn’t think they made stuff like that any more. Or is it meant to be ironic?!

And why dress your baby girl in a bright pink top with ‘Gorgeous’ across the front in sparkly letters? Why think it’s just a laugh for you and your 11-year old daughter to watch ‘Girls of the Playboy Mansion? Again, it all makes me CRINGE. But if you say anything you get accused of making a big deal over nothing. And I’m afraid the children will get the message, ‘this is what a humourless feminazi looks like!’

Sheila // Posted 8 November 2010 at 6:21 pm

Hey, what’s wrong with toy kitchens? My 9 year old son cried real tears when I got rid of his. No irony. He loved it. My daughter never showed the least interest in it. Kitchens aren’t sexist. Assuming only little girls will play in them and therefore that they shouldn’t exist anymore is sexist.

Anon // Posted 8 November 2010 at 8:14 pm

Try being mum to a tomboy (anyone got a better word?). Even “girls'” jeans have glitter/ pink stitching/ embroidery all over them. I don’t mind waves of pink providing they are balanced by a large non pink section that isn’t labeled “boys'”.

Savinah // Posted 9 November 2010 at 10:08 am

Sheila, I am aware that kitchens/toy kitchens are not intrinsically sexist. My point was that most of the time they are in fact given to little girls, who are expected to play in them and thereby get in some practice for what many people think ought to comprise a major part of their future role in life.

nell // Posted 9 November 2010 at 11:17 am

What is so horrifying about giving your kid a toy kitchen? Savinah i do not think there is anything wrong with giving your kids “girly things” just as long as you give them choice and tell them that it is ok to play with anything. I have watched Girls of the Playboy Mansion with my mum and my 11 yr old sister and nothing bad has happened to her. I have also watched that katie price show on itv (out of curiosity) with my sister and she was the first to say that katie is a bad influence on young girls. I am really girly so I would probably be one of those mothers you feel sorry for painting their kid’s bedrooms pink with pink cuddly toys everywhere.

Savinah // Posted 9 November 2010 at 11:54 am

nell, I think I already think I dealt with the point you made in my previous post. I can’t comment on Katie Price, because I’ve never watched any show with her in it.

As I said in my post replying to Sheila, I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with toy kitchens. It’s just that they’re usually given to girls, not boys. Which is sexist stereotyping. Not about choice. And I didn’t suggest that anything bad would happen to any girl who watched ‘Girls of the Playboy Mansion’. I simply hope that they won’t watch too much of that kind of stuff and get the impression that that is what women are for, and that they can’t aspire to anything better in life than being pimped.

I didn’t think I’d have to explain these things on a feminist website, but there you go.

That’s all.

Kristin // Posted 9 November 2010 at 12:09 pm

“if you say anything, you get accused of making a big deal over nothing”.

Exactly, Savinah. Which is what’s happening to you here!

Sexist stereotyping is the problem, not the toy bloody kitchen in itself. How can anyone not get that?

Toni // Posted 9 November 2010 at 12:27 pm

Excellent post, Carrie. I used to love the colour pink, but now it has nothing but depressing sexist connotations for me. I’m an auntie too, and although my nieces and nephews parents don’t push gender stereotypes on them, it’s amazing the number of people who would if they could. I’m not saying little girls shouldn’t love dolls (I did), they shouldn’t just be given dolls to play with. I loved playing with trains and cars as well. And, best of all, Lego!

Gender expectations of children is a huge problem, I think. Like religion, it shouldn’t be pushed on them. Troon, you make a great point about how oppression of children has featured in any post on intersectionality. It certainly should. Maybe you could write one..?

Toni // Posted 9 November 2010 at 12:33 pm

correction: Sorry, of course I meant has NOT featured!

nell // Posted 9 November 2010 at 12:54 pm

Kristin, don’t worry I do ‘get it’. I just meant that giving your kids a range of different toys including the kitchen toy is ok. My youngest siblings are five years old (boy and girl) and they both enjoy playing with girly toys. Savinah, there is no need for the patronising comment. If I gave my little sister the kitchen toy set you mentioned you would think that that was sexist stereotyping, but a different story if I gave my brother the same toys. And as for the ‘Girls of the Playboy Mansion’ I do not see them as prostitutes being ‘pimped’.

Savinah // Posted 9 November 2010 at 1:40 pm

Nell, it seems we both agree that sexist stereotyping is the problem. That’s the point I was making, or trying to make. It’s the point you’re making.

I don’t know to which ‘patronising comment’ you refer. I apologize, I didn’t mean to sound patronising.

I think the girls of the playboy mansion (when I’ve seen them) are lovely, fun human beings. I’m not judging them in any negative way. I am judging Hugh Hefner. He is not a lovely human being. All his life he has made his money by exploiting women’s bodies. That’s not fun or lovely, that’s what a pimp is. That’s what he is.

That’s the last of my comments here.

Jade // Posted 9 November 2010 at 2:01 pm

Savinah, totally! Hugh Hefner once made some comment about how he wouldn’t care if a baby sucked on a playboy dummy. I think that just about sums him up. He sees women as playthings, not human beings.

Troon // Posted 9 November 2010 at 2:03 pm

Toni, thank you for the comments. I don’t think it very appropriate for me to write such a post-but perhaps any readers of this who are in some way children (say under-16?) could be given the chance? They might start by noting that children are the only group for whom it is still legal (in the sense of the positive law, not the law as practised) to beat patricarchy into-providing you don’t do it too visibly.

Sorry things have got so heated and semi-personal, but in some ways that illustrates the intersectionality itself, in that forcing them to have certain stuff because of their gender is wrong, but the underlying assumption remains that adults should be choosing the stuff. Maybe one way round the OP@s post about letting kids be kids would be to accept that control and restriction of choice is just as much a problem if you’re forcing a kitchen on a boy or Princess Smartypants on a girl as if you’re accepting the traditional assumptions of the gender binary.

The practical problem is how to let a 2-year-old choose their own clothes or toys, how to fight back the urge to stop what you feel inexpensive inappropriate or whimsical. I have to say that my experience-whether with my son’s halloween dress, with clothes from his bag (mainly non-blue but boy-ey selection) or with allowing him to wander a market choosing his toys is that he’s never picked a dud, that everytime I’ve let him make a judgement he’s been happier for it and I was right to hide my worries.

Melissa // Posted 9 November 2010 at 2:59 pm

Carrie, a great post. Thank you. It is indeed stupid and cruel to enforce gender expectations on all the special little human individuals. Yes, absolutely let them make sense of this world (as far as anyone can do that!) in their own good time. Like other people who have commented here, I too was lucky enough to get to play with both ‘girly’ and ‘boy-ey’ toys. I remember taking Barbie’s clothes off and being amazed to see her plastic breasts and her feet moulded to fit only high heels. I pushed the plastic breasts in with my thumbs and tried to run her over with my toy train, derailing it in the process. (Was that sick?!).

Oh, and I had guns and swords and one of those chain things with the sticks at either end. But I didn’t become a psycho…

Emily // Posted 9 November 2010 at 3:13 pm

Carrie, I’m so glad you’ve written about this. By coincidence, I’ve just read a (feminist) review of “Toy Story” over on I Blame the Patriarchy, apparently the movie invokes all the usual depressing stereotypes of hero boys/dumb sidekick girls. I suppose I will let my daughter see it, then start the explanations afterwards!

Kit // Posted 11 November 2010 at 5:47 pm

@Anon – what about the jeans they brand to boys? They might be more like you’d expect just a regular pair of jeans to be :)

@Emily – cool male characters, crap female characters seems to be Pixar’s MO to be honest (well, Wall-E maybe not so much) :/ this put me off watching UP for a long while.

Coco // Posted 12 November 2010 at 8:53 pm

@Kit: I think “crap” female characters is a little unfair – Pixar does excellent characterisation generally, and they haven’t produced a female character I haven’t liked. Their problem is that there aren’t enough female characters, and they have not had a female protagonist. Hopefully this will change with their upcoming film, “Brave”, which will have a female protagonist. For some really brilliant female characters in animation, you should check out Studio Ghibli. :)

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