23 March 2009

girl stuff

This morning Evan was, as usual, leafing through the Lego catalog, since he's apparently hoping to become some kind of human Lego encyclopedia. Usually his remarks are predictable: "Cool!" and "Look at this!" and "I want this one for my birthday!" Today, though, I overheard him exclaim, "Yuck! Girl stuff!"

I flipped through the catalog when he was finished, and I found that in the 65-page Lego catalog (which might be longer, actually, but ours battered copy is missing a few pages), two pages are drenched in pink with the proclamation "Just for Girls!" at the top of the page. This pink girly stuff? Horses, puppies, and a house with a family.

By singling out two pages that are "Just for Girls!", the implications are that 1) the "girl" toys are not for boys to play with and 2) the rest of the catalog is not for girls to play with. You may think that's too narrow an interpretation of the subtext, but take a lesson from my three-year-old son. This little boy, who's heard over and over in his young life that there are no "girl toys" and "boy toys", that anyone can play with anything no matter what gender they are, firmly told me that those two pages in the Lego catalog are "girl stuff" and "me and James will definitely never play with girl stuff!" And when I asked him if girls could play with the Star Wars Legos and Bionicles and Indiana Jones, he did not hesitate for a moment to tell me no. So even if that's not the message toy companies are intending to send, that's the message that's being absorbed by young minds.

A similar thing happened a couple of months ago when I took Evan shopping with me for a birthday present for my nephew. We wandered the toy aisles, looking for something good, trying to remember what 1-year-olds play with, when we turned a corner and were visually accosted with a sea of pink and glitter. "No way!" Evan cried. "These are the girl toys!" Girl toys, such as kitchens and horses and dress up clothes.

And, to digress for a moment, what is it with horses being designated as girly? First of all, horses are most often associated with cowboys, who are usually not only men, but like the total masculine ideal, all macho and rugged. And then there's the reality that riding horses and caring for horses is really dirty work, which is typically the exact opposite of what society encourages little girls to do! I've always found that really odd.

Anyway, this is not a new phenomenon by any means -- toys have always been gendered, in some ways -- but it's new to me, trying to teach my sons how to interpret and navigate all of this division. My instinct is to say that there shouldn't even be any division in the first place -- I mean, the Supreme Court decided decades ago that "separate but equal" is never equal. But focusing on the ideal doesn't address the problem that exists in reality.

So I keep on trying. I tell my sons again and again that they can play with anything they want to play with, they can like anything they want to like, that their choices are not limited by manufacturers' colors, and neither should girls' choices be limited that way. I do think they understand that, and believe it -- after all, they play with their toy kitchen all the time, they like to have their nails painted, they play nearly every day with Neighbor Girl, with whom they play everything from Star Wars to hopscotch to soccer to, yes, horses. I do think they both get it.

But there is still something disheartening about hearing your preschool cry, with as much disdain as a three-year-old's voice can carry, "Yuck! Girl stuff!" It's just another reminder that no matter how attentive a parent you are, no matter how progressive or idealistic you are, there is still a whole culture out there that is insidiously trying to undermine every effort you make that falls outside the mainstream.


kim said...

What is so harmful about what Evan is absorbing is the misogyny inherent in the attitude toward girls and their toys. It's not just "no thanks, I'm a boy and I'm not interested in playing with pink crap" but it's "yuck, there's something wrong with playing with that stuff and I would rather die than be associated with girly things." (Please note that I don't think Evan is a misogynist; I'm just elaborating on the undercurrent that he's channelling without really understanding it.) If the focus on different gender roles were simply an issue of "separate but equal," I wouldn't be very offended, but the fact that work, toys, interests, etc. of girls and women is seen as not just uninteresting to an individual but yucky, less important, and BAD to a whole culture is really troubling. I don't know how I'll navigate it when Will wades in these waters in a few years either.

And Heidi, duh - horses are for girls because you can brush their manes and braid their tails. :)

Heidi said...

Right, exactly, Kim. It's not that Evan's not interested in horses or playing house, it's that he's somehow picked up the idea that liking something designated "girl" is wrong, and that you're not supposed to cross those arbitrary gender lines.

I should note, though, that I must be doing something right, because when Evan said to James last night, out of nowhere, "James, we don't like girl stuff, do we?" James disagreed with him and helped me explain all over again that toys are not gender-specific. I'm curious, in your case, whether Will having an older sister will make things easier or more difficult. Or maybe neither, but just different.

andreajacy said...

I never thought about the horses for girls, that's pretty funny. REALLY taking care of horses is way more manure than manes.

Samay said...

I think it's because horses are old-fashioned and a luxury.
Boys like modern/futuristic things like cars and robots because they're "important" and "useful"

Because boys are supposed to be the doers, and girls simply attend to frivolous things. Yay.