Written by Lucy
The last few years have seen a long-overdue outcry against the gendering of babies and children.
Campaigns such as Let Toys be Toys and Let Clothes be Clothes and the recent BBC series Can our Kids go Gender Free have highlighted the many dangers of the drip-drip effect gender stereotyping has on children.
Generally, the debate has centred on the negative effects experienced by girls: pressure to be pretty, thin and submissive along with the idea that they are weaker, less able and less adept at STEM subjects has been shown to be widespread by age 7.
As someone who identifies with these experiences, I welcome their calling out. However, as the feminist parent of a son, I’m interested in (read: screamingly frustrated by) why there isn’t more discussion of how boys are negatively affected by gender stereotypes.
The trans-phobic vitriol churned out across the press in response to growing numbers of extremely brave young people openly questioning the whole notion of a gender binary, has also had me thinking a lot about the world my son is likely to grow up in — and how we can stay informed and aware enough to help him navigate it.
pink leggings on a boy
There’s no doubt that girls face a metric tonne of pressure to conform to ‘girly’ standards but in my experience this has prompted enough backlash that – for example – the parents of a girl in primary colours playing with Brio are often praised.
There are a growing number of resources for parents of girls who don’t subscribe to the Dictatorship of the Princess: see the website A Mighty Girl which offers empowering books, toys and clothing for girls, or Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls which has had phenomenal success.
Conversely, it’s been my experience that offsetting a yellow cardi with some pink leggings on a boy, or responding to his interest in babies by getting him a baby doll, causes everyone to go absolutely frickin’ loopy.
Seriously, they don’t know what to do with themselves. Well, often they put on a baby voice and say “ooh mummy, don’t put me in pink!/give me a truck mummy!” and I am obliged to resist Amazon Priming a job lot of Judith Butler to their homes and settle instead for attempting a scathingly arched brow (which inevitably fails, meaning I just look like I’m trying to come onto them like a SCARY LESBIAN GAY so they naff off anyway).
But seriously, I’ve had a lot of reactions centred on the idea that we are forcing our right-on views onto our baby, ‘embarrassing’ him and setting him up for a lifetime of exclusion, rather than simply buying clothes we think look cool and toys he seems to like – and that means Brio as well as the doll (This Just In: Kids Like Many Toys).
This is the same argument that was thrown around about ‘allowing’ girls to be tomboys two generations ago, the one we give a lot of airtime to discrediting now. Again, this is great and the battle is far from won, but it seems clear to me that by ignoring the same issue for boys, by cutting them off from anything ‘feminine’, we are sowing the seeds of the toxic masculinity that is just beginning to be discussed whilst simultaneously casting the things we deem as girly – caring roles, for example (who needs loving male caregivers eh?) – as undesirable.
I’m aware that everything I’ve said above might seem to assume that there are two distinct genders into which stuff and behaviours are categorised, when my whole point really is that this is bollocks and often ends up being really damaging.
So. To illustrate: this is my son.
I’ve blanked out his face with a blue oval because a) online privacy and b) irony.
It’s interesting/terrifying observing how people react to my son when they read him as female versus when they read him as male. In the former case, they tend to talk about how he is pretty, has beautiful eyes, is helpful and kind. In the latter, they say, ‘oh, he’s such a boy’ – usually referencing him jumping in a puddle, exclaiming ‘brum brum!’ at a passing car, or climbing something.
The point is, in my experience most kids do all of these things but those they internalise as the ‘right’ ones are those which garner them approval.
And research seems to suggest that we are ourselves conditioned to reinforce acceptable ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ behaviours without even knowing it – see the nursery workers in the documentary I mentioned at the start who were asked to play with two children, one dressed in pink and one in blue.
Spoiler alert: they weren’t in the outfits associated with their assigned genders, guys! The workers reported back that the children had naturally gravitated towards the toys they would expect of a ‘boy’ and a ‘girl’, but when the tape was played back they realised it was really they who had been encouraging them towards a given toy.
All of this put together teaches kids, subtly and continuously, how to perform the approved gender. Well, either that or it teaches them there’s something seriously wrong with them which they should probably STFU about. Which is an attitude that always ends well, right?
What my husband and I (who have both experienced pressure to consistently perform our genders as a pain in the arse, but have been lucky enough to exist in spaces where any non-conformity has led to us being at worst considered ‘a bit odd’ rather than ‘fair game for violence’) want to give him is not the burden of our own principles but options: if he wants to lop his hair off and live in khakis that’s cool – but we want it to be his choice, not something he feels bound to, or which he’s never had the chance to examine.
It’s amazing to see young people now beginning to challenge and play with gender in a way I sincerely wish I’d felt able to at their age. I also recognise that they are facing very real dangers by doing so.
I thank these young people for their courage, not least because I hope that it means by the time my son is old enough to really start exploring his identity, their fight will have made it less dangerous for him to question conforming to a narrow and often damaging set of choices, and made his self-discovery an exciting kind of playfulness: one that brings with it the kind of joy we allow gender-conforming teens making their first forays into fashion all the time.
I hope he will always know that we support him in this, and that we will always go out of our way to provide a full palate of colours, a full gamut of wardrobe and hair choices, and a supportive tribe.
Slowly-slowly, feminism is waking up to the idea that we can’t achieve equality without men being given the same revolutionary opportunities as women to interrogate notions of masculinity; of traditional male roles; of the trauma imposed on them by the gender binary.
This doesn’t change the fact that in the final analysis men get more out of patriarchy than women – of course they do – but they’re absolutely being fucked over by it as well and – just as it does for women – it starts in babyhood.
We all benefit from challenging the pink-blue taboo, and our sons stand to gain far more than some refreshingly diverse style choices: let’s let them hear that they are beautiful and kind and helpful as much as we make an effort to keep letting girls hear that they’re strong and brave and good leaders.
And let’s love the fact that by doing so, we’re setting all our kids up to continue the work of the previous generations fighting for the right to live and love and dress however the fuck we damn well please.
Have strangers reacted different to your little boy pink, or any-other-colour-girl? Have you experienced such systemic sexism and misogynistic culture that you’d do anything to change it, and if that means questioning conforming to gendered stereotypes then you’ll refuse cars and babies 4life — or buy both? It’s a battle out there, but we’re with ya, mama. This shit’s gotta change. We would ❤ to hear from you. Contact us, comment below, or tag #WokeMamas on social media.
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