(Thanks to Gwenn and BeardOfPants for some of the links!)
There’s been a lovely and adorable video circulating on the tubes-osphere the last few days that I’m sure has helped bolster a comforting sense of optimism about the next generation’s understanding of gender. A little girl named Riley gets irate about the toy store’s division into a pink section and an “every other colour” section, and the way that marketers “trick” girls and boys into liking particular kinds of products:
While Riley has a precociously intuitive grasp of the fact that not every girl is going to like pink, glitter and princesses, she is initially incredulous at the suggestion that some boys may, and requires coaxing from her father to grasp the concept.
The last few weeks have seen an abundance of discussion regarding the “girl toys” vs. “boy toys” debate. British toy store Hamley’s has desegregated their sections, Lego is planning a new line marketed towards girls called Lego Friends, and there was the victory of Edmund Scientifics choosing to no longer divide their science kits into a “for girls” category of pink, perfumed, pretty ones and a “for boys” category of everything else.
Although for the most part I’m immensely happy to see this conversation happening, there are a few questions and issues I’ve felt have gotten a little bit lost in the shuffle.
For one, there has occasionally been a bit of venom directed towards pink and pretty and “feminine” things themselves rather than on the way these things are forced upon girls or how girls are expected to prefer them, which can reflect both internalized misogyny (Lauren from Teen Skepchick wrote an excellent post on this) and the issue of “femmephobia”.
Femmephobia, beautifully articulated in this article, is a particular subset of sexism that suggests that femininity and things regarded as feminine are inherently inferior, bad, weak, stupid, non-preferable, valueless, disempowering, etc. It comes in a lot of different forms… such as the way that boys, men and AMAB (“assigned-male-at-birth”) individuals are scorned (and often assaulted or killed) for expressing themselves in a feminine manner, possessing feminine characteristics, or enjoying feminine things, occurs to a far more severe extent than the scorn directed towards girls, women or AFAB individuals who express or enjoy conventionally masculine things. Given the assumed preferability of masculinity, the latter is seen as natural and understandable while the former is seen is as abhorrent, crazy and pathological. For a stark example, the psychological diagnosis “transvestic fetishism” is only applied to men and this requirement is written directly into the DSM. The explanations for this (“women have broader clothing choices”, for example) only emphasize the point.
Given that femininity is only an associative, relational term, referring to things that are culturally associated with women (there is no actual inherent quality of “feminine” that anything can possess), denigration of that which is feminine is to denigrate that which is female-ish. The misogynist implications are fairly clear cut.
Femmephobia can also often show up within certain branches of feminism. A common suggestion is that femininity is strictly a creation of patriarchy and a means of subjugating and controlling women. Often times it will be forgotten that for many individuals, across many genders, femininity can indeed be a natural, comfortable, empowering and even radical or subversive identity or form of self-expression.
Along these same lines it seems that as we discuss the issue of “pink is for girls” we have seemed to forget about the corollary “blue is for boys” problem. Like Riley, we find it easy to see that not every girl or woman is necessarily going to want to stay within the strict confines of her assigned gender role, but find it a tad trickier to remember that boys and men face similar issues. As if to ask “Who could actually want to play with ponies and princesses?”
Within the framework of the gender binary and oppositional sexism, every sexist concept of what women and girls are or are supposed to be has an analogue for men and boys. As we suggest that women are best suited for domesticity and motherhood, we prop up the stereotype that men are useless and inept in domestic chores, parenting and matters of the home. This isn’t really to suggest the MRA concept of “equally but differently oppressed” or lend legitimacy to the notion of “female privilege”…where those notions fall short is failure to consider how gender binaries and oppositional sexism are not the entirety of sexism (there’s misogyny too). More on that some other time. But… this parallel set of expectations and stereotypes does mean we probably shouldn’t be focusing strictly on giving girls the option of doing boy stuff. Doing so paints the girl stuff as inferior and neglects every boy who wants more than what he’s been told to want.
For every pink science kit for girls, there is a body wash or moisturizer for men. For every pink razr phone or “Miss Army Knife” there are “macho mattresses” with “muscle recovery technology” and a bunch of cookbooks geared around opening cans and adding bacon. For every set of tools with smaller, pink handles, there is a special girliness-free brand of ultra, super-duper manly conditioner. For men. I guess with the special ingredients that keep you from growing boobs.
And Yorkie bars…. don’t even get me started on the bloody Yorkie bars.
And what I find especially perplexing is the set of neologisms that are constantly popping up to assert that something is totally a guy thing, okay, seriously, it’s for dudes. As the Holiday skeptic-net has been awash in discussion of our dear Tim Minchin, I keep stumbling upon references to “guyliner”. Why not just eyeliner? What’s the difference? It lines your eyes. It looks hot. And the “murse”? I get that it’s likely there will be design differences between a purse meant to compliment a woman’s wardrobe and a purse meant to compliment that of a man, but is a different word necessary? And heaven forbid we refer to intimate friendship amongst men. It’s a bromance, bro!
I also believe there’s a subtle but meaningful difference in the way that products are marketed “for girls” and the way that products are marketed “for men”. The “for girls” marketing seems to have as its goal making women find the product more appealing. The “for men” marketing, and the silly neologisms (neo-bro-gisms?), seem designed to somehow protect or insulate men from the girliness of whatever you’re selling. As though it’s addressing an actual fear of “girl stuff”. That touching it or using it will contaminate them with… I don’t know… cooties or something. Maybe turn them gay. Or trans. Gasp!
If only it were that easy.
There’s this excruciating commercial for Wiser’s Canadian Whisky airing these days. I don’t know whether our non-Canuckistanian readers get these, so if you think you can handle the ridiculousness, here it is. If not, I’ll summarize: we’ve got a guy walking around in the mall with a woman, presumably his wife or girlfriend. She suddenly sees something she wants in a store, and bolts in, asking him to hold her purse (won’t she need her wallet if she wants to actually buy something?). Anyway, the guy stands there embarrassed, sees another guy walk past, then drops the purse like a ton of bricks. He then pulls a plastic bag from his pocket, and does the inside-out pick-something-up-without-touching-it trick, like when picking up dog poop, to pick the purse back up and hold it without having to… you know… touch that awful, girly, cootie-ridden thing. Then a set of magical Manly Men appear from nowhere to applaud him on his “uncompromising”, masculine, testosterone-oozing dudeocity.
We’re to literally applaud this? Treating “women’s things” as being just as disgusting, contemptible and untouchable as feces? Grown men acting like children, terrified of the possibility that they might be seen holding a woman’s accessory for even a split second, by a stranger? It reminds me a bit of my roommates who refuse to say hi to me on the street for fear of being seen to know a trans woman by the various random strangers around who MAY clock me and make that connection.
What kind of message are we ultimately sending with this- when we rightly challenge and critique absurdly gendered marketing towards women and girls, and teach our girls to be themselves and explore the many possible iterations of gender, but neglect to offer similar challenges to male-gendered marketing? Are we at risk of confusing girls even more with them now confronted with contradictory messages of “you should like pink” and “you shouldn’t like pink”? If we focus our attentions on devaluing pink and femininity itself, are we at risk of simply swapping out one set of stringent, external gender expectations for another?
And what of our boys? Don’t they also deserve to feel free to fully explore the possibilities of gender and self-expression? What message are we sending them when it seems that the girls are free to express themselves however they wish, and choose from the entire toy store, but they’re still at risk of being seen as “sissies” and “fags” and maybe getting beaten up should they dare step an inch into the pink aisle?
The critique of gendered marketing is an extremely important conversation to have, as is the critique of gender roles and expectations. And applying critical examination to our constructs of femininity is an absolute necessity of feminism and gender theory. But it’s my hope that, like Riley, we will be able to make progress as we work through these issues towards understanding that they are multifaceted, do not only effect one gender, and that boys deserve liberation too.