Ramblings on Gender Differences

I was looking at back to school backpacks for kids last night online and you had to click boy or girl before the website would display your backpack choices. At McDonald's you have to tell them boy or girl when you order a Happy Meal so they can give you the correct toy. When grocery shopping with 3 month old Fox wearing a plain white onesie, baby admirers needed to know boy or girl before they proceeded to gush over the baby cuteness. I've always been fascinated by gender differences and cultural roles, took the obligatory Women's Studies course in college, read Gloria Steinham, subscribed to Ms. magazine, and have personally varied between fighting, struggling with, accepting, and embracing gender stereotypes at different times in my life, but I'm even more aware of it and sensitive to it all now that I will personally be charged with raising a boy and a girl.

It irks me that any major retailer, especially toy stores, there are the pink aisles and the blue/camo/black/silver/red/green/grey aisles and nary a toy in between. It even irks me that the boy aisles seem to have a range of colors available, basically every color except pink and purple, and the girl aisles are solely pink and purple.

Things that could be gender neutral, like play food (don't we all eat food?) are shelved in the pink zone sending the clear message to old enough/savvy enough kids, like Turtle, that those must be girl things. It's one thing to set up a preschool classroom with a play kitchen corner, a book corner, a blocks corner, and some art supplies and find that the girls tend to convene in the play kitchen more often and the boys tend to be stuck in the block area most of the day- that's self-segregation and you still will see some cross over. I know Turtle likes to play kitchen and restaurant and house and doctor with the girls and the other boys, just not as much as he likes to build blocks and race cars and play dinosaur attack. But it's another thing to physically separate different kinds of toys and color label them as being the purview of only boys or girls. That kind of extreme genderization of playthings is offensive to me.

Legos? In the boy aisles. Doesn't my daughter need spatial skills and a sense of mastery, too? Let's walk my daughter into the Lego aisle and let her choose a set. Hmmm....do you want a Star Wars attack, sea monster attack, pirates attack, or soldiers attack set? I exaggerate a bit, but the fact is that the building toys are all designed for boys' interests.

When my then 2-year old nephew was going to become a big brother, I went searching for a baby doll that he could have so that when my sister nursed and attended to the new baby, he could have a baby to take care of also. I was hard pressed to find a baby that was not dressed in pink from head to toe with all pink accessories. I guess girls who play with dolls aren't even allowed to have pretend sons, only pretend daughters, let alone pretend gender neutral babies. And boys shouldn't be interested in baby dolls, even though we expect them to somehow grow up to be good, loving, nurturing fathers. I suppose they will practice those skills somehow with their attack Legos?

Backtire walks around the house holding and singing to a baby, changing her diaper, soothing her. He's a man and this is part of his real man's life. But Turtle is already less and less interested in playing with his baby doll because he's heard it through the grapevine that dolls are for girls. The funny thing? Turtle spends a lot of time racing and crashing Hot Wheels and having superheroes rescue good guys from bad guys and not much time taking care of baby doll or stuffed animals. But in real life, his dad is feeding and changing and cleaning and playing with children a lot more often than he is slaying bad guys. So, it seems like girl toys like play kitchens and dolls actually prepare both boys and girls better for a lot of what real life is all about than some of the boy toys do! I'm sure Backtire in his fantasies would rather be racing real cars and probably slaying real bad guys, too, but come to think about it Mommy might rather be doing other more stimulating things than feeding and cleaning up after children, also! Where are the girl toys that help girls with skills other than domestic ones? Pretty much in the boy aisles! Aaargh!

And then there's Storm. You know, the kid whose parents are trying to raise it to be gender neutral and hiding it's sex from all but close family members. I'm all for the sentiments behind the statement they are making in many ways and I sympathize, but come on. Let's get real. Is everyone really walking around calling it "it" because they can't use gender pronouns? Hey, come over and meet my little...sibling. Doesn't... it have such cute chubby thighs? And which bathroom shall it use? Good luck shopping for gender neutral clothing! and bathing suits! and underwear! or anything, for that matter! And have they started a counseling fund so the kid can deal with having been it's parents personal experiment? And why is it okay for it's older siblings and it's parents to have gender and ever other person it meets or characters in every storybook read to it, but not it? How realistic is the experiment when they know the sex, so it's impossible to not subtly bias how they act around it or what purchases they make? And what about the whole peeing standing up or sitting down thing?* I mean isn't the real sex going to come out pretty fast and all of this come crashing down? And what will the point have been? Plus, it seems they are operating on the assumption that our gender-based behaviors are all learned and that's simply not true.

There are very real hard-wired differences between the sexes, physiologically, hormonally, neurologically, that evolved to be there because they made our species successful. There are a lot of learned things on top of that, yes, and the interplay between those two is fascinating and impossible to fully understand and we'll never be able to tease out some of the nuances in terms of what we are born with versus what comes from even very early exposures in our lives. And what's wrong with that? Why aren't we recognizing and acknowledging and celebrating our gender differences instead of trying to squash them? Also, I want to know- when they take Storm to get a Happy Meal, how does that work?

Okay, so clearly I am conflicted myself about all of this. No, I'm not conflicted. I take that back. There are real gender differences and they are okay and even wonderful. But there are also extreme exaggerated gender expectations and stereotypes out there that don't need to be that way and aren't very healthy for us and our kids. Trying to make our kids into Storms is not a good idea, but neither is the pink vs. camo mentality. I'm trying to find a middle ground for my kids. (Pink camo?) They both need to build and cook and role play good guys vs. bad and race and fight and nurture and all of that stuff and to find who they are and to learn about their own gender and the opposite and to understand there's lots of overlap. So, I'll be working on that.

Meanwhile, I have to admit, that the other day I went into a children's clothing store that I've frequented on occasion over the years to buy Turtle clothes. But this time I was there to get something for Fox. I had a totally wild exhilarated kind of wide-eyed feeling as I realized that for the first time in 5 years I was going to cross the aisle into the girls' side of the store. I had never even set foot over there before. It was joyful and kind of overwhelming, both emotionally and literally (as there are way way way more choices of girls' clothes than boys'!) I have loved filling Turtle's drawers with the little bulldozers and aliens and monster trucks clothing and even though I have spent a lifetime eschewing pink flowery girly princess stuff for myself, I now plan to fully embrace and love the flowers and butterflies and ladybugs while I can! Vive la difference!

*Credit to my mom for pointing that one out!

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