Friday, March 13, 2009

Gender norms start in the womb.

I work with small children. Despite this fact, I regularly get pangs of baby-lust. I am well aware that said baby is many years in the future, but I still get excited. So I sometimes peruse blogs about motherhood, so that I can learn weird obscure facts about breastfeeding, baby slings, and look at pictures of cute little booties with funny sayings on them. So sue me.

But many white, upper middle class motherhood bloggers are obsessed with strict, traditional, pink/blue, princess/pirate, mars/venus, mommy/daddy gender roles. They really, really like them. And they'll never let them go. Ever. And it's kinda terrifying.

And so, I give you a potpourri of genderstrict ridiculousness. After which I will enter the phrase "radical feminist motherhood" into google and pray that something comes up.

These are all direct quotes, which link to the blogs from which they came:

We have crescent rolls on hand because J. bought them. That's what happens when men do the grocery shopping.

Well we just hosted Bear’s Third Birthday Party and it was all out PRINCESS. (actually it was Princess & Pirates – so her little boyfriends didn’t feel weird coming to a costume party).

Since I knew I was having a girl the first time around, everything I received was pink. Pink blankets, pink washcloths, pink burp cloths, pink bibs. So, if this baby is a boy, I need some blue stuff, or this little guy will be the best dressed “pink princess.” And I need new boy crib bedding too (of course!!).

And, just for good measure, some mom as cook/servant banter:

My son is a very picky eater (more about that later). I’m open to any innovative methods that might get my son to eat new food. My husband is just as picky as my son. I wonder if this will work on him, too.


Lindsay Lebresco (Graco) said...

As a teacher turned marketer & now a mom of 2 (one of each), I had a VERY similar viewpoint to yours. I was determined to stay away from gender roles with my kids as much as possible. I hated pink and princess for girls (I was quite outspoken about not getting princess stuff from people at my daughter's baby shower) and I was so proud to watch my son push his little stroller and baby doll around (while wearing my high heels) in anticipation of being a big brother to a little sister...

HOWEVER... turns out boys are boys and girls are girls. As much as I tried to stay away from gender colors, roles, stereotypes, etc - they gravitate to that stuff. I avoided pink like it was the plague (brown happens to be my favorite color for my little girl) and guess what my daughter's favorite color is? PINK! Everything HAS to be pink. Pink. Pink. Pink.

And my son- he LOVES the kitchen we got for him for Christmas (yup- still encouraging whatever makes him tick and he loves to cook) but guess what he likes to do with his kitchen? Pretend to wash his super heroes in the sink and "fix" stuff with his Bob the Builder tools that someone else bought for him because I wasn't willing to go so gender rolish with the toys I bought for my son.

My eyes, mind and opinions have totally changed since becoming a mom. At the end of the day, you can have the BEST intentions to keep your little one's mind open to everything but you can't actually CONTROL your kids. If they end up falling into so called "gender roles" then I will support that too.

Amy@UWM said...

Couldn't agree more with Lindsay's POV. And just to prove it, I just asked my two daughters, who are engrossed in a game of "mommies" with their baby dolls, why not play with some cars and trucks instead? They both looked at me like I was insane and said, "NO!!!!" When I asked way not they said, "Because we don't like cars and trucks. Cousin Drew does!"

One of the most profound lessons of motherhood is the true nature of gender identity. To quote my 9 yo, "Moms can't force kids to like things. That's just wrong!"

T said...


You might consider questioning why it is that your girl has a thing for pink. If, as you say, girls are girls and they simply "gravitate toward" certain preferences and behaviors (by nature?)... shouldn't we expect to see little girls all more or less gravitating towards pink, exhibiting certain behaviors, etc. across all cultures and history? Well, we don't. This suggests that these preferences are contingent, not inevitable or natural. Would you expect a child raised on a desert island to have a similar predilection for pink as your daughter who has come of age in a TV-saturated, image-oriented culture in which the correspondence between pink and little girls is commonplace in films, music, ads, TV, books, etc.?

We aren't gendered by our parents alone, they are merely a small part of a larger process that is woven through our entire society, culture and our language. Identity formation is a process involving certain cultural and social expectations ("dress this way", "behave this way", "don't behave in the way the opposite sex is expected to behave/dress, etc."). We are handed these expectations from history, culture and the society we live in (our parents are no exception).

Children don't need to literally be told by someone "act this way", even though they often are. (See for example, what happens to children when they transgress gender norms in some cases... they are often punished). Children learn most things not by having someone tell them "do X", but by the innumerable examples they see around them. We don't make up our identities out of whole cloth; we respond and react to social expectations for how we should act and think of ourselves. There are various mechanisms for enforcing these expectations: imagine how many homosexual or trans people feel in many situations where they are made to feel deviant, disgusting, or worse, fearful that someone might violently assault them. In less severe cases they are looked down upon, treated disapprovingly or discriminated against. If that isn't a means of enforcing the social injunction (boys must be boys and girls must be girls) I don't know what is.

-T (one of the bloggers at Pink Scare, although not the author of the post on Gender norms).

T said...

The excellent Belgian film "Ma Vie En Rose" (1997) makes this point far better than I do.

ln said...

I'm LN, and I wrote the original post. Lindsay and Amy, I really appreciate you both stopping by and making a comment. I also saw Lindsay's blog post.

My original post is definitely more than a little snarky and dismissive, so I completely understand Lindsay's objections. My post is also very brief -- it was a "quick hit" post that I wrote on the fly -- so it doesn't present much of a coherent argument or provide much context. Given this, I can definitely understand why someone linked-to in my post would be pissed off.

So let me try to clarify what I meant. As I was browsing the Graco blog and other motherhood blogs, I was struck not only by the "pink princess" language that mothers used to describe their girls, but also the traditional gender roles that seemed present in the lives of the mothers themselves.

My personal response to this was: Wow. Gender norms are so incredibly powerful. I think this is amazing, interesting, and troubling. Interestingly, one of these writers is pregnant and expecting a girl -- so she has obviously not yet met her child -- but she plans to buy a lot of pink for her child.

(I absolutely do not place the blame for restrictive gender norms on mothers. Goodness knows mothers get blamed for enough shit already. I have a profound level of respect for parents and I plan to be one myself.)

Rather, I feel that the way these mothers write about their lives, marriages, and children is just a symptom, an example, of the powerful way traditional gender roles still function in our families.

My post should have been framed as a personal response, because that's really all it was. I saw other women writing about gender roles that I have absolutely no interest in fulfilling, and it freaked me out. That certainly isn't tantamount to a judgment on these mothers for their choices and their language. What I should have said was, "Wow. This really isn't how I think about things. This isn't how I view gender, and this isn't how I want gender to function in my family or in my life."

As for this "boys and boys and girls are girls" thing, I completely agree with my fellow blogger T above. If my future daughter turns out to love pink and love nurturing her baby dolls, that certainly won't be exclusively my doing. It will be the work of an entire culture: every other person she meets, every TV show she watches, every book she reads, every adult interaction she observes. Every day, I think critically about the forces that shaped my own gender identification as a woman. My parents certainly raised me in an egalitarian way, giving me freedom to become an individual, and probably sought to protect me from what they saw as destructive norms for girls. But, as T points out, your parents aren't the only force in your life, and parents alone cannot stop their children from "being gendered."

I believe strongly that gender is socially constructed and that it's important for us to think critically about it, as men and women. This belief comes from years of lived experience and study. I think this is what bothered me most about some of the posts I read: I just didn't see any critical thinking about gender's role in these children's lives. Then again, that's probably because I was reading a corporate-sponsored, mainstream blog that may not encourage that kind of writing.

I appreciate hearing from you on this.

- LN

Lindsay L (Philly Moms) said...

Thank you LN & T. I hear your POVs and they are absolutely valid. I think most especially valid are the statements you make about our children being raised by the societal norms that surround our families, not just by parents.

I think, like you LN, that this just hits a nerve with me. As you have no intention of your future family being constrained by society's gender roles, I didn't either. I'm rather flabbergasted by my daughter's tastes- totally taken aback as I had no intention of being the mom to a "girly girl," if you will.

As I mentioned in my comment, I have tried hard to keep gender lines clear of stereotypes in my house and have honestly become frustrated as I've seen them introduced to my child by outsiders (before she was even born by being given "princess" gear that I forbade at my baby shower).

However, I also know that I am role-modeling to a degree. I wear makeup. I wear high heels (the higher the better), my wardrobe certainly includes pink and I take near 45 minutes to get ready in the morning which I double check in the mirror on my way out the door.

On the other side of the coin, I happen to be a working mother with a stay-at-home husband who cooks and carpools and colors and cleans- that certainly introduces some role-modeling for my son that's entertaining if nothing else (when you ask my 4 yo son what daddy does for work, my son says he works at home!).

Anyway- I could ramble on but I think we all have great viewpoints and guess what- those viewpoints change perspective, willingly or not, when you become a mom. It's awesome.

Good luck to you & I hope motherhood meets, exceeds and challenges every single one of your expectations.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

You are for sure born with certain preferences. I have 2 boys(and a 3rd child,little girl. My middle child, a boy now 5, has been attracted to typically feminine toys and items since age 2 (before his sister's birth,well before, I have already heard theories that maybe he just is jealous,etc no this began before she was born). (I have a son who is 7,never did any of this!).When he didn't have the girl things in our house,he would make them. Towels became long hair or dresses, he would raid my jewlery box.Surely his dad or big brother didn't show him any of this. He has asked for flower or girl character bday cakes since he was old enough to talk! Our house is full of trucks,etc he rejected quite young. All of my 5 year olds choices are what you would typically expect a girl the same age to ask for, barbie,little mermaid,cinderella,etc. Wants to wear pink,etc. We let him chose what he likes b/c I don't feel it matters,as long as he's happy.What is sad and hard for us is that society does set it up that for my son it is hard to have his taste but be a boy. From age 4 I saw that girls would have girl only bday partys,he came home crying a few times b/c those were the ones he wanted to go to and cried even harder when the superhero invites showed up for the partys he was asked to go to (refused to attend). The road for us and him would be easier if he were able to convince himself to like blue,and trucks,star wars ,legos and forget about painting impressionist paintings,or making jewelry,etc. We tried so many times to push those beliefs onto him only b/c we thought it would make things easier for him only to see he is the one who knows who HE is and he will patiently wait for us to catch on!