What's Next, Porn Legos?

When I started my career, back in the mid-1980s, I was hired to be an editorial assistant at a certain top tier magazine in New York City. As part of the job interview I took a typing test. I was also informed  that the guy I'd be working for had a reputation for groping his  assistants. "Can you handle that?" I was asked. Not "If it happens report him." Not "He is being brought up on charges." Not even "We're trying to deal with it and we're sorry." Just "Can you handle that?" WWAMD? I thought (That's "What Would Ann Marie Do?")

Of course, I said yes. I worked for the guy for over a year and "handled it" by keeping six feet away from him at all times--believe me, I earned my $13,500 salary. (Note: I also worked for two amazing, generous, encouraging editors and mentors to whom I owe my career: Adam Moss and David Hirshey).

I thought we'd evolved since then (this was pre-Anita Hill's testimony in the Clarence Thomas hearings) but my heart sunk while reading Amanda Hess'  amazing post on yesterday's XXFactor  about Lego's latest foray into reinforcing sexism among children:

When journalist Josh Stearns introduced his son to the world of Lego this year, he was disappointed to find that in addition to its trademark building blocks, the company now produces a Lego-branded sticker set that articulates the innermost thoughts of its little plastic construction workers. Alongside phrases like “MEN AT WORK” and “GETTING DIRTY,” the set includes an image of a Lego worker at rest, leaning back in a hard hat and a pair of cool-dude sunglasses, shouting “HEY BABE!” at an unseen target. It’s marketed to kids aged “1 to 101.”

Here is the photo that Stearns put on his tumblr:

Seriously. WTF?????

Meanwhile, my daughter is getting make-your-own messenger bags for her birthday with iron on transfers that say "spoiled" and "brat." (Not by Lego, I should say--this was a "craft" present a couple of years back).

As I've said before,  Gary Cross, an historian of childhood and author of the excellent Kid Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood once told me that toys communicate to children our expectations of their adult roles.  Criminey!

I wrote an editorial in the New York Times when Lego introduced its friends line discussing why promoting gender segregation in toys was a bad (though lucrative) idea. The wonderful women and girls at  Spark.org also launched a petition that garnered so many thousands of signatures that Lego  met with them to discuss how, at the very least, they could push the Friends line past hair salons. The company seemed to respond, at least a tiny bit, at least for the girls.

Not for boys. Apparently Lego has no problem reinforcing the idea among our sons that girls are "other," that they are subtly inferior and, ultimately, objects for their eventual enjoyment (and current scorn). I don't want the boys I know growing up with that message. I don't want the boys my daughter some day learns with, dates, works with, marries, raises children with (yes, I am already dreaming about being a grandma, so sue me) believing sexual harassment is "funny" or in any way ok. That's why I love  the Sanford Harmony Program's attempt to develop curriculum that, from preschool onward, encourages friendship and mutual understanding between boys and girls.

Stearns, who is doing his best to raise a decent, caring human (bless his heart) writes about his own experience going up against Lego. Their first response was classic defense: lighten up, it was a joke:

Charlotte Simonsen, Senior Director at LEGO’s corporate communications office told me that “To communicate the LEGO experience to children we typically use humor and we are sorry that you were unhappy with the way a minifigure was portrayed here.” 

Ace journalist that he is, he  kept pushing and subsequently received another note, this time, from  Andrea Ryder, the head of the LEGO Group’s Outbound Licensing Department. She wrote: “I am truly sorry that you had a negative experience with one of our products […] the product is no longer available and we would not approve such a product again.”

That's progress. Stearns writes that he appreciates Lego's responsiveness. I do, too. I'm also glad the stickers are off the market. But still. How did something like that get through their vetting process? And, if you spend any time on this blog, you know that these incidents (across toyland) are not rare.

Yeah, it's one toy. One little toy. But one among so many. As Stearns writes:

If we don’t call out these things when we see them, then even the little pieces of culture, like a pack of stickers, can serve to normalize sexist behavior and harassment. If you care about these issues here are some great resources and organizations to follow and support:

Couldn't have said it better. Thanks, Josh.

Photo  from a previous post on Lego:

And So it Begins....

Here are some of the questions a 9 1/2-year-old asks: "Mom, when did you go through puberty?" "Mom, when did you get your period?" "You mean you can get PREGNANT when you go through puberty????" "Mom, what's a tampon?" "Mom, what's anna...anna...anna...Anorexia?"

Here we go.

As a journalist, I have had mixed feelings about the American Girl line, mixed feelings I never had to confront as a mother because Daisy thought the dolls were creepy. However, they publish some fabulous books and one that is absolutely worth getting for your pre-pubescent daughter is The Care and Keeping of YouIt covers all the above questions, plus  basics like why you really, really do need to wash your face every morning.

I do wish they hadn't made the Asian girl on the cover quite so bowl-haired and slanty-eyed, though.

For those other birds and bees-type questions I've found the best books are It's Not the Stork (for boys and girls age 4+)

and It's So Amazing for children 7+

 

The Asians are better in these books, too.

I suggest having all of these on hand. You'll need them before you realize....

GAP: ABC's of Back to School Stereotypes?

Reader  Jocelyn Conway Malone was strolling by the GAP the other day and noticed the difference between their  back-to-school clothes marketing to girls and  for boys. Feel free to tell  the company how you feel about skinny jewel-box girls versus "active stretch""made-to-move"  boys at the following address: custserv@gap.com (subject line: marketing & advertising) Girls:

 

Boys:

How We've Decamped from Science

A recent Christian Science Monitorarticle confirmed that there are still gaps between girls and boys in STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) subjects despite larger gains in education for women over the past 40 years.  Among the high school graduating class of 2011, for instance, 80% of computer-science course Advanced Placement test-takers, 77% of those taking the physics exam for electricity and magnetism and 74 percent of mechanics exams. Also, 59 percent of those taking Calculus BC, the more advanced of two AP courses offered in the subject, were male. The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows  continued achievement gaps between boys and girls in STEM fields as well, especially science. Boys outperform girls at the 4th, 8th and 12th grade level with the biggest gap being in 12th grade.

No bueno, right?

I was thinking about this the other day, when I attended the orientation for my daughter's drama camp, a wonderful program that centers on Elizabethan history, stage combat and Shakespearien drama. Be still my English major's heart, right?

As it happens, she's attending it with a male friend. He  will be one of maybe three boys in the entire camp. I was truly saddened thinking about how the  arts have become a  "girl thing" (not to mention the irony given that all the female parts in Shakespeare's plays were originally played by boys). It's impoverishing to boys' souls when they are tacitly discouraged from drama, fine art, writing, reading, music.

What ARE boys doing? Well, sports, of course. Science camps. Robotics. Things my girl did up until this summer. Somehow, without my noticing,  we slipped into stereotypical girl land. I think that is exactly what happens: according to the article, girls begin to fall behind in STEM in elementary school and the gap just gets wider. In part, no doubt, because of  something going on in the classroom. But the culture outside of school is also to blame:  from the get-go girls are rewarded in their play and by adults  for how they look rather than what they do. Even the putative "science kits" for girls, which I've written about before  are more about cultivating obsessions with beauty and consumerism than actual science. To that list I'd add the HELLACIOUS video "Science: It's A Girl Thing" by the clearly-on-crack European Commission that's been making the rounds lately. I guess they didn't read the recent study of middle school girls  from the University of Michigan  that found that attempts to "glamorize" women in  STEM seem to be less motivating to girls than more "everyday" female STEM role models. So try this video instead:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_176279&src_vid=g032MPrSjFA&v=vpgc_cvCsP4&feature=iv

There are also the extra-curricular activities we think about for our girls. This is not an easy one for me as a parent. I'm not a STEM person myself. Nor is my husband, who is a documentarian. Still....our daughter loves math. She adores science. She is a regular at the science museum that's down the street from our home. We listen obsessively to the fabulous They Might Be Giants "Here Comes Science" album. Here are a couple of vids from that one:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0zION8xjbM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gf33ueRXMzQ

And even with all that, we ended up this summer with nary a STEM activity in sight. Nor will she see many boys in her activities over the next few months, reinforcing the idea that they are more "other" than is necessary (though we do discuss a great deal why there are no boys at horse camp or drama camp).

The truth is, I probably will never enroll my daughter in as many extra-curriculuars as I should that would keep her brain STEM alive. I am a passionate under-scheduler and I prioritize the arts, then something physical and, eventually all will fall by the wayside for Bat Mitzvah training.  I depend on her school, her teachers, to stoke her interest--and all their students' interest--in those critical subjects. I hope they do. I hope they notice when the little differences begin emerging so that they don't become the kind of big gaps that will, later, limit them in their choice of professions and earning power.

 

***

Yeah, I know I haven't written about Brave. I was on a deadline. Now it seems too late. So, briefly, I thought the movie was okay. It wasn't my favorite Pixar movie by a longshot. If considered as a "princess" movie it was certainly superior to most (though Mulan I and II are still my favorites). I could talk about how we deserve broader representations of females on film, ones that aren't royal (it seems that a number of people can't even remember that princesses were not, until recently, the only image for girls allowed on screen).

I could also talk about how I didn't understand what made Merida "brave" per se. Her mother was certainly brave. But what was brave about her? How did she change? She changed her relationship to her mother because her mother changed. In the revelatory scene when she's talking to the men her mother is feeding her lines, she's not coming to anything. It seemed to me that what made her "brave" was that they slapped a bow and a quiver on her. But that's a symbol, not a character trait.

I would've found the movie more interesting, too, if the men hadn't been such dolts. What if her suitors were actually appealing? Was the issue that Merida didn't want to marry someone she didn't choose or she didn't want to marry an idiot?

And, then, while the mother was fine, it would have been nice if there were some other female roles in the movie--a friend, say, or lady-in-waiting. It was as if Pixar was so afraid males wouldn't go that they didn't want to have any extraneous females muddying up the place. Imagine, for a second, a movie in which the two main characters were male and every other character in the film was female, without comment  (ok, yeah, the cook in Brave was female, but still). The movie did nothing to change the statistics that the Geena Davis Institute published on the percentage of speaking characters  in family movies held by females: it remains a paltry %29..

But really, I think the issue is this: the discussion of the movie is symptomatic of the problem. There are so few female protagonists in family films (or any other film) that when there finally is one, we can't just look at it as a movie. We can't just say, yeah, it was okay. It has to have all this weight on it, all this pressure. It has to be a referendum. If there were just more, more, more then Brave could've just been another Pixar film, no more, no less, instead of a major event because they FINALLY, after twelve films, realized they hadn't made one starring a woman.

So what do I think of Brave? What I think of Brave is that I wish I didn't have to think so much about Brave. You know what would have been REALLY radical? In our screening (and I assume at theaters) there was a short before the movie called "La Luna." It featured two old men and a little boy in a row boat whose job involved changing the phases of the moon. What if the old men and been women? What if the boy had been a girl? What if there had been no comment about that? Seeing the short before the much-ballyhooed "first Pixar princess" (note that "princess" was at some point substituted for "female" as if the two are interchangeable) reminded me that when a character is male it is assumed to be universal, and so goes without comment. Only when she is female does she become specific. I want to see so many females on screen that we, too, are universal.

Also, I wish I could get my hair to look like that.

If Brave didn't do it for you, or even if it did, I hope you'll also take a look at the movies on my fight fun with fun page. And be sure to check out Studio Ghibli's latest: Arietty based on The Borrowers. Disney buried it, which was a shame.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vp2nb9Vq0yY

 

Foot Binding 2012: Of Princess Shoes, Parents, & Outdoor Play

I can't get this new study on preschoolers and outdoor play out of my mind. Initially brought to my attention by KJ Dell'Antonia at Motherlode, it found that roughly half of parents of preschoolers did not take their children outside to play regularly--suggesting that those children are not getting the level of physical activity they need (see KJ's post for important caveats). But here's the kicker: parents were 16% more likely to take preschool boys outside than preschool girls. Why? Researchers theorized it was ingrained (and probably unconscious) stereotypes about how much exercise girls need. This sets the stage for sedentariness in adolescence and beyond. Which, I'm guessing,  plays into distorted body image and unhealthy dieting. Great for the 60.9 billion dollar diet industry (with its 95% failure rate); not so great for girls. So you know I'm going to loop this back to the Princess Industrial Complex, right? Girls don't  seem to "need"--or even want-- to play outside when they're flouncing around in their princess dresses. What's more, you can't run, jump and get dirty  when you're wearing your  miniature high heels (or even your sparkly flats) or worried about chipping your nail polish.

Think that’s a stretch?  Melissa Wardy over at Pigtail Pals recently wrote about an exchange that she overheard between her daughter Amelia, and a friend:

“Your shoes are ugly,” said Amelia's kindergarten classmate.

“No they are not,” replied the 6yo Original Pigtail Pal, Amelia.

“They are. Look how pretty mine are,” the classmate taps her toes for emphasis.

“They are the same pair of shoes. Like the exact same,” explains Amelia.

“They aren’t the same. Mine still have all of the pretty sparkles. I didn’t get them messed up,” boasted the girl.

“Listen, who cares about pretty? All I care about is playing,” retorts Amelia.

"...Amelia, you should care a little bit about being pretty or you won’t get a boyfriend,” says the classmate.

On her girls' studies blog Rebecca Hains broadened the lens of that exchange  with pictures from her local Stride Rite store. You remember Stride Rite, don’t you? They used to sell cute, sturdy footwear for little ones? Like these saddle shoes (which I had and loved ever so much) from an ad in the 1970s?

No more. Rebecca reports that girls are now instructed to “Sparkle with Every Step”..... like Cinderella, whose glass-slipper shod likeness graces the display.

 

 

As for boys? They get …Spiderman!

Rebecca went to Stride Rite's web site and found more of the same: "Girls are meant to be looked at, so their play shoes are a route to prettiness, while boys are meant to be active, so their play shoes are made for play." Her excerpts from Stride Rite's gallery below:

Cinderella sneakers “transport your little princess to a world of fantasy”

Hello Kitty Keds are “the cutest sneakers on the block”

Glitzy Pets sneakers help girls “to really shine and steal the show”

Spiderman sneakers offer “light-up powers,” “no matter what kind of web he spins”

Star Wars sneakers with “lighted technology” are good for “your little adventurer’s feet”

Lightning McQueen sneakers, also with “lighted technology,” let boys “be as fast as the legendary Cars Lightning McQueen on-and-off the track”

Rebecca connects this to Colette Dowling’s Frailty Myth which holds:

Boys learn “to use their bodies in skilled ways, and this gives them a good sense of their physical capacities and limits.... Girls hold themselves back from full, complete movement, Although it’s usually something girls are unaware of, they actually learn to hamper their movements, developing a ‘body timidity that increases with age.’”

So. we may not be stunting our girls' piggies' by wrapping them in cloth bandages, but we seem to be binding their feet--or binding them through their feet--all the same.

My personal blow against the Princess footwear industry (which, mark my words is priming girls for a lifetime of painful, sky-high—in both price and scale-- heels that will leave them be-bunioned and miserable) was to allow Daisy to pick out a pair of classic Van’s slip-ons. Her choice of flame skater shoes became her “trademark” from preschool through first grade, one that her classmates, male and female, admired and even copied. Remember my fight-fun-with-fun philosophy? There it is in practice. D got to wear fabulous shoes that were comfortable, cool, and broadened her notion of femininity. She also got a tacit lesson in the benefits of individuality over following the crowd. Beat that Cinderella.

As a culture (based on box office receipts) we are currently obsessed with one of the most radical and self-determining female  characters ever to appear on screen: The Hunger Games' Katinss Everdeen.  Check out her shoes.

“Exceptional” girls and women  like Katniss  crop up periodically in the culture, female warriors who transcend stereotypes and gender norms.  Ripley of the Alien franchise is one. The girls in  Mirror, Mirror, as well as the upcoming  Snow White and the Huntsman  and Pixar's Brave appear to be as well.  And, of course, there was Buffy, who took a glorious stand against the "chosen" girl in the series' last episode with this speech:

From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

I recalled  those lines as I read the end of Pigtail Pal's sparkle-shoes post:

Amelia tells her friend: “You should care less about being pretty and more about playing with us. My mom says there’s lots of different ways to be a girl,”

“I don’t want to mess up my shoes,” says the classmate, which is met by an audible sigh from Amelia, who sprints off to play in her busted up not-so-sparkly-anymore shoes.
I'd like to see a world in which girls like Amelia--girls who play hard and often, who live fully--are not  the exception.

 

Is it Contradictory to Embrace the "Princess Boy?"

In today's Motherlode Emily Rosenbaum struggles with what seems to her to be a contradiction in the how she parents her daughter vs. her sons. The revelation was triggered when her  3-year-old girl returned from the Home Depot (with Emily's husband) brandishing a Disney Princess light switch plate (in case you're keeping track: that would be DP item #25,978 of the 26,000+  I mention in CAMD). It probably looked something like this:

Emily was furious, but her husband said:

You know, you’re reacting just the way I react when Zach wants to buy pink clothes. You should allow her to express herself as much as you let the boys do it.

That pulled Emily up short. Turns out their son, Zach, "is the only boy in his second-grade class to regularly rock a pink hoodie and pink socks. Benjamin spent his toddler years dressed as Tinkerbell, and we potty trained him by giving him plastic Disney princesses as reward." What bothers her is the idea that her daughter is into pink and princess. "It's a parenting Catch-22," she writes:

We have excellent books like Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter [Aw, gee, thanks, say I!] that deconstruct why princesses are so injurious to girls. Yet Cheryl Kilodavis’s My Princess Boy has us jumping up and down to support a boy’s right to like pretty things. We gag at nail polish marketed to children, yet we are delighted by a J. Crew ad featuring a boy in toenail polish.

Which is it? Are princesses bad for kids or part of their right to express themselves? Should we shield our children from the nefarious influence of cosmetics or embrace them?

I don't necessarily see these positions as mutually exclusive. Because really, it's not about "princesses." It's about recognizing the limitations our culture places on both girls and boys through its selling of very narrow ideas of femininity and masculinity.

So let's unpack this a bit.  Emily's husband says girls are "expressing themselves" by buying into a $4 billion marketing blitz that is geared towards convincing girls this is  the only way for them to act out femininity. Remember that developmentally, most 3-year-old girls do want to express their girlness (and boys their boyness). The princess industrial complex exploits and distorts that impulse.  Take a look, for instance, at the winner of the contest I held  when the CAMD paperback first came out.  It's one of the best illustrations I've seen of how today's  princess play flattens girls individuality and imaginations. They're not  "expressing" femininity so much as latching onto one  heavily marketed aspect that has been sold to an unhealthy extreme. I mean look at  how many DP items there are at Home Depot alone! That's not including non-Disney items (search princess instead of Disney Princess). What other choices are little girls offered?

That brings me to the  second issue--the pendulum-swing we often engage in when we discuss this topic. The choices seem to be that  a girl is either "expressing her femininity" by ensconcing herself in pink and princess or shunning  "girlie stuff" and sleeping with a football. To me the real task is to find a "third way" that exposes  girls to and allows them expression of a broader, healthier range of ideas about femininity: ones  that aren't perpetually linked to appearance and consumerism and  that aren't putting them on a path to define themselves through that connection for the rest of their lives. That's why I added the "fight fun with fun" section to this site--to offer  at least some options for cultivating a different, celebratory, joyous vision of girls' femininity that is unhooked from the current script.

Okay, now, onto the princess boy. Honestly, who doesn't like a few sparkles? I put them on the cover of my book! Everyone should be able to indulge in a little dress-up occasionally. That said, celebrating the  "princess boy" is really about  not wanting ANY of our children limited by stereotypes or denied the full range of human desires, emotions, enjoyments and potential. In  our culture right now boys are actively discouraged from engaging in anything seen as "feminine," which means they're denied color, sparkles, art, aesthetics, music and many things that, once upon a time, were the province and right of both sexes. When we hyper-segment kids by gender everyone is hurt, everyone is limited. But there's an additional issue when we teach boys they can't play with "girl" things: they learn not only to disdain  that which is associated with girls but to disdain girls themselves. Enforcing masculinity in childhood play is how we replicate misogyny and homophobia. Bad, bad juju.

Another way to think about it might be to flip it.  You might be more comfortable buying your daughter a toy gun because violence is not marketed to her as the cornerstone of feminine identity. It might feel subversive, expansive, whereas you might fret that buying one for your son  would reinforce the message that he's supposed to be tough, hard, emotionless, cruel.

So it's not about saying pink and sparkles are okay for boys and not girls, it's about trying to navigate through a world of products and images that are hyper-segmented and unhealthy, promote stereotypes, alienation between the sexes, and limit kids' access to the full spectrum of life. Emily, that's a really, really good impulse on your part that the marketplace, in its simplicity, is trying to convince you is hypocrisy.

You've got so many opportunities to create change as the parent of both a girl and boys. Listen, a  little self-decoration (henna tattoos, washable markers, face paint, glitter) is fun for all. Meanwhile,  try to expose your children of both sexes to a wide range of ideas, toys, images, clothing. Rather than simply allowing Zack to wear pink, why not also read him  the kind of stories about strong women and competent, clever girls that I'm sure you read to your daughter? If he likes to dress up as a Disney Princess, why not suggest a Greek goddess? Or Lucy from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Or Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service? How subversive would that be? Would that make you less comfortable than celebrating "the princess boy?" And if so, why? Perhaps that's the real question.

Of Legos and Lincoln Logs, Or: Whatever Happened to 1972?

In the wake of  my recent NY Times editorial on nature, nurture, gender and the new Lego Friends line, a reader sent me this photo of the gifts she and her husband gave their 5-year-old son this Christmas: her husband's old Lincoln Log and Tinker Toy sets. He was born in 1972. He (the husband/father) was born in 1972.

The Tinkertoys package explicitly states, "For boys and girls." And note the girl happily building a ranch on the cover of the  Lincoln Logs!

Their son's response: "I didn't know these were for girls, too!" Point made (my point, that is).

FYI, you can still get gender-neutral Lincoln Logs (with pictures of cabins on the box, no kids shown). But there is also this set:

 

Again, necessary? Why? How does it affect the potential for boys and girls to interact? Play together? Is it relegating girls to pink and pretty or just meeting them half-way?

You can also get  a girls' version of "classic"  Tinker Toys.

 

It allows them to construct, "a flower garden, a butterfly a microphone and more!"

Among other things I wonder: what's the microphone got to do with it?

A Break in My Break

Quick break to post a photo of this week's most egregious Princess product. Trying to imagine the parents who would drop $2k on this one....  

Yes, it's a Princess Bathtub. An ugly one. From the folks at American Standard. Boys can get a fire truck!

Well, the economy should make THIS go away, no?

Thanks to the inimitable Marjorie Ingall who alerted me to this via a post on the blog daddytypes.

Marjorie also pointed me to this great essay in the UK Guardian about how Hermione Granger's bookish, brainy persona was made less threatening and girlie-d up over the course of the Harry Potter movies. It starts out questioning the glaring "I can't" our girl uttered when faced with destroying a horcrux. I do recall sitting in the theater and thinking, "Whaaaaaat??????"As the essayist writes:

Did Hermione Granger really say "I can't" during the climactic battle in the final chapter of the Harry Potter film saga? Presented with her chance to destroy one of the horcruxes she had put her life on the line to hunt, she backs away and needs her almost-boyfriend Ron to insist that of course she can. Sorry, filmmakers, that quavering girly-girl is not Hermione.

She continues:

There's almost a direct correlation with actress Emma Watson's growing prettiness through the course of the films and Hermione's decreased bookishness and pragmatism. Screenwriter Steve Kloves may have liked Hermione best when he was first given the job of adapting the books but as she became an adolescent, something shifted. It's one thing for a girl to be the brains of an operation when everyone is prepubescent. But an adult woman who is brainy and takes charge is "domineering". A very scary witch indeed. Presumably Kloves didn't want any young male filmgoers sneering (or crossing their legs nervously) when Hermione was on screen.

And:

It's also discouraging. Hermione is a great role model who doesn't care if her bookishness or activism (absent in the films) are laughed at. She knows the power of books.

Hermione steadily became blonder and sexier in Deathly Hallows, wearing jeans so tight you'd think her legs would break if she tried to run. When it comes to film, something about a smart, fearless woman who doesn't care about her looks makes Hollywood leery; even if, in this instance, she commands a loyal and loving built-in audience before the film begins.

Why is it so difficult for proudly brainy, bookish, outspoken girls of any age to see themselves on screen, especially in major studio films? Where are the girls who don't make an effort to fit the "feminine" stereotype and are still admired and even loved anyway?

And where will girls learn and be validated in their belief that they don't have to compromise fundamental aspects of their personalities to prosper? That there is never any reason to say "I can't"? Books, for a start.

 

Thoughts?

 

Little Boys Fly; Little Girls Curtsey

Blogger Lainey Feingold pointed out a little tidbit on the front page article in the New York Times in an article titled, "Stores Emphasize Mannequins with Personalities?" The piece is  about how retailers are using unique  mannequins in unusual poses or bodies  to entice customers to part with money in hard times.

Nike has made its mannequins taller, and added about 35 athletic poses. Armani Exchange has ordered models that will lie down to help shoppers imagine wearing lingerie. A new accessories-only store by Guess features glossy black mannequins in model-like poses on an actual runway, while Ralph Lauren’s new women's store in Manhattan commissioned mannequins with the face of the model Yasmin Le Bon.

Whatever. But get this one:

The Disney Stores chain has added little-boy figurines that fly from the ceiling and little-girl ones that curtsey.

Seriously? Little boys that soar and little girls that CURTSEY?  Is that one going to play with parents?

 

Princess Daze in Elementary School

Love this post by Emily Rosenbaum about how "School Spirit Week" is celebrated in her children's elementary school. Each day has a theme including (wait for it)....Princess Day on which girls  are supposed to dress in glitter and tiaras. As are the boys, if they want to, are too--but not because it's okay for a boy to dress like a princess, exactly the opposite: it's clear the boys are supposed to be doing it as a goof, with a wink and a homophobic nudge.

"It’s making the point (rather strongly) that there are things for girls and things for boys and the only times we break through those barriers is to laugh about it.  In other words, rather than making a safe space in which the boys can express themselves, it’s laying down the gender norms even more clearly.  Sure, kid, dress as a princess; it’ll be a hoot.

It’s not a hoot.  Not for the boys who are uncomfortable with their sexuality or gender.  Not for the boys who lack self-confidence and can’t pull off a joke like that.  Not for the boys who, a few years from now, will find themselves in tears when their peers taunt them with “faggot.”  Not for the boys who don’t participate that day because they don’t feel comfortable with the joke or for the boys who participate only to fit in.  Not for the girls who are shoved into the role of flighty consumers."

And not for this boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, a 6th grader who hung himself in 2009 after being repeatedly taunted at his new school for being "gay." What would he have done on Princess Day?

As Emily pointed out, her children's school could have had  Royal Day, or a fantasy day, or a dress-like-a-character-from-a-book day. There are so many possibilities for fun, for creativity, for costume in an elementary school. But Princess day? Really?

What do you think? And any advice for Emily?

 

It's A Mixed Up, Muddled Up, Shook Up World....

Great piece in Friday's NY Times on elementary school kids who want to wear clothing considered to be for the other sex and how parents handle it. As it happened, the Spanish Dance performance for the 2nd & 3rd years at Daisy's school was that morning. Here are the costumes the kids wore:

Seems pretty obvious that the one on the left is the boys' while the one on the right is the girls'. But it wasn't presented that way. The kids were told there were two costume choices and they could wear whichever they liked. A few of the girls picked the khakis. One of the boys chose the skirt and top. Of course, no one said much about the girls choosing khakis. But here is what the one of the teachers wrote me about a boy choosing to wear "girls" clothing:

We work hard to bust up stereotypes - these things don't just go away on their own.  We talked to the Spanish teacher and let her know that we would be presenting the costumes as two options.  I had a conversation with the class about [the boy's] choice and that it was right for him and that our job was to be supportive and to have his back.  I also let the other 2-3 teachers know so that they could do the same.  Our class totally rose to the occasion and when someone was laughing and pointing, a classmate put his arm around [the boy in the skirt] and pulled him close and said, "Don't listen to them."  a gem of a moment for sure!   We also talked with the boy himself and said that when you make a decision that people are not used to, it can draw attention.  We let him know if anything came up that he felt uncomfortable with or couldn't handle, that we were there to help.  Big, important and sometimes tricky stuff!

One could argue that by having one standard unisex costume the whole issue might have been avoided, but this turned out to be a great lesson for our school community--students, teachers and parents alike.

It also occurred to me that dancing by default with opposite sex partners for Square dancing or other folk dancing might be something to reconsider. It reinforces that contact with the other sex should be in this realm of "opposite" which encourages the stigma around "liking" one another and decreases the possibility of real friendship at that age. It assumes heterosexuality. It denies the spectrum of choices these kids will some day express gender identity (or are expressing now). Another way to go would be to have children either choose partners of either sex or simply assign them randomly.

Or, you can kick up a huge, ahistorical fuss when a little boy wants to paint his toenails pink......

Why Won't Boys Won't Watch Movies About Girls?

Getting over-excited about all the fab comments on my last post re: why bringing up  Jessie in Toy Story is not an adequate comeback for "why hasn't  Pixar made any movies about women?" Thank you guys for such a wonderful conversation. One commenter (in fact the one who inspired the post--so double thank you!) asked about the idea that boys won't watch movies about girls. And added it's not like 5 year old boys are taking themselves to the movies (though they do have OPINIONS, believe me). But yes, conventional Hollywood wisdom is that boys won't watch girl protagonists. And every time a movie about a woman or girl fails or under-performs at the box office that is reinforcement. While if a movie about a woman succeeds it tends to be regarded as a fluke. Going  to movies with female leads becomes a sort of political statement--hence the hubbub around the first Sex & the City movie as well as about the current film, Bridesmaids.

 

In CAMD I talk about how that boys-won't-watch girls was disproved on TV by Nickelodeon, first with "Clarissa Explains it All" and later with "The Amanda Show" and iCarly. I'm not endorsing those shows, I'm just saying. They have had a fairly equal number of male and female viewers. So when left to their own devices at home on TV, boys apparently WILL watch girls.

And yet. Hollywood retains this belief, this core tenet. And for good reason, I guess.Take Bridesmaids which its first weekend in release made $26.2 million in 2,918 theaters--an average of $8,995 per screen.

 

Meanwhile, Hangover 2 made $85.9 million its first weekend on 3,615 screens--an average of $23,775 per screen.

Sigh. (Though congratulations to fellow Oberlin alum Ed Helms!)

Not that it's entirely Hollywood's fault. We condition boys from the earliest ages AGAINST seeing female experience as equally universal or relevant to them as males'. Even when we're well-intentioned. Years ago, I was asked to write a  jacket quote for a book for parents that listed children's books with strong, adventurous complex female protagonists for girls. It was a fine compendium, but I hesitated to endorse it. Why should  great books about female characters be only for GIRLS? Shouldn't we be encouraging boys from an early age to read books with female protagonists too? Didn't this just add to the idea that male experience is universal but female experience is specific?

We teach our boys from the earliest ages that anything associated with the feminine is not for them and even "bad." Hello homophobia, misogyny etc etc. I mean, remember the insanity around that J. Crew catalog with the photo of the boy in pink nail polish? Puh-leeze!

In CAMD I cite the work of Isabelle Cherney who found that nearly half of boys ages 5-13 when ushered into a room and told they could play with anything chose "girl" toys as often as "boys" toys--provided they believed no one would find out. Particularly their fathers. The youngest boys said said their daddies would think it was "bad" if they played with "girls'" toys, even something as innocuous as miniature dishes. Boys were also more likelty to sort playthings based on how they perceived gender roles (such as "Dad uses tools, so hammers are for boys"), whereas girls figured that if they themselves enjoyed a toy--any toy--it was, ipso facto, for girls.

I take heart in thinking about a birthday party Daisy attended a few months back. The host was a boy, as were all the other guests aside from her. For an hour or so, they ran around the birthday boy's yard, shooting one another with nerf guns. Then they all jumped in the family van and headed off to see....Tangled. Maybe there is hope after all.

 

 

Sometimes I Wish These Things Didn't Bug Me So Much

I have a niece and a nephew graduating college this year and another niece and a God son graduating high school. That not only puts me on the hook for a fairly sizable chunk of change (thank you to our sibs for having a collective 10 children, by the way....Love them all madly!!!!) but four graduation cards. So off I went to Papyrus, which is based right here in the Bay Area, to see what I could find. There were a number of neutral cards (though the overuse of the word "awesome"--as in "I think therefore I am....AWESOME!" put me off so there was no way I'd by them). A certain number of pink cards because I this generation of graduates would be at the front end of the pink-is-the-only-color-girls-could-possibly-ever-want wave. Obviously, I wan't going to buy those. But here's what really got me: all the cards with pictures of actual PEOPLE on them showed males. Now, I see on their web site that there was ONE retro-looking card with a male and a female in cap and gown, but it wasn't in either of the TWO stores in Berkeley I went to. So if I wanted to buy my nieces cards with people on them, they would have to feature  guys. They probably wouldn't notice, because they're probably, as females, used to the universal male. This was ESPECIALLY true for funny, slightly insulting cards like this one:

 

In a way, it's the inverse of  what a marketer once called "the pink factor" in marketing to little kids--or, more specifically, their parents. If parents have a boy first they'll buy the blue crib sheets/blankets/ball/bat/clothing/computer etc. Then if they have a girl, they get so excited that they'll buy everything all over again in pink. On the other hand, if they have a girl first, they'll by all that pink and then if they have a boy second they'll HAVE to buy a whole new round of stuff for the boy who can't possibly use pink. Either way, sales are doubled.

In this case, conventional wisdom holds that  people won't buy something with a female image on it for a male. But they will buy something with a male image on it for a girl or woman. So if you put a female image on a graduation card you instantly HALF your sales. Better just to use the universal male. Same thing is true in many movies, TV shows, etc.

I couldn't resist. I wrote to Papyrus to complain. If you want to do it too, here's the link

Born This Way?

I know. Your daughter was just born loving pink. Your son made "vrooming" noises as he exited the womb. In CAMD I have a chapter on nature versus nurture, but I also highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend these three books. They are essential for anyone who has essentialist (i.e., everything is down to gender, boys will be boys, girls will be girls) tendencies. All three are super-readable and scrupulously researched and disentangle nature (which is real) from nurture (which is huge) revealing how our assumptions about kids and gender may be undermining our sons' and daughters' potential. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It by Lise Eliot

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society and Neurosexism Create Difference by Cordelia Fine

 

The Truth About Girls And Boys:Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett

This one isn't out yet, but I just read the galley and was impressed. I love Rosalind Barnett's and Caryl Rivers' work.

Pop, Storm and the Gender-Free Child

Okay, so everyone is asking me what I think about Storm, the latest child whose parents have announced they are raising (oh God I need a pronoun--him? Her? It?--this is so hard without a pronoun) gender free. I have so many thoughts on the subject, I'm just going to put them all down in a jumble. I get that Storm's parents are disgusted by the current hyper-gender segmentation of childhood. They're right about that. A hundred years ago babies were not so maniacally and relentlessly gender-coded. In an earlier  blog post I point out that all babies and toddlers used to be dressed in white, frilly gowns with long flowing hair, ideally in curls. Check out the picture of a cutie pie FDR in his dress and patent leather shoes. And that sweet little dress on Ronald Reagan. Apparently, boys in dresses grow up to be President (though not girls in dresses--boo!).

Back in the day, according to my guru Jo Paoletti at pink is for boys, women's magazines used to also have contests: people would send in pictures of their babies and readers would guess whether they were boys or girls. That was considered great fun and no one expected anyone would REALLY be able to tell the difference. Babies were considered sort of gender neutral until they were 2 or 3 when boys were "breeched": their hair cut and the dresses exchanged for short pants.

I've also written before--in CAMD and on this blog--that signifiers of gender are subjective and about fashion. That pink and blue (for instance) were originally introduced around 1900 as "nursery colors." When they were gender coded, pink was for boys, blue for girls. If you look back at classic Disney movies you'll find that Sleeping Beauty, Alice (in Wonderland), Mary Poppins, Wendy (Peter Pan) and, yes, Cinderella are dressed in shades of azure. Meanwhile, Wendy's little brother Michael is wearing pink pjs. That's because pink was viewed as a pastel shade of red, which connoted strength and masculinity, while blue was associated with constancy, faith and the Virgin Mary. Check these photos out:

Wendy:

Michael:

 

Sleeping Beauty (Aurora) in blue, Prince in Pink (Disney changed Aurora's gown color in the Disney Princess line allegedly to distinguish her from Cinderella)

 

Among its many problems the current fixation on polarization of gender discourages cross-sex friendships, which are critical to kids psychological, cognitive and emotional well-being as well as to their future professional and romantic relationships.

So I totally understand having a strong--even reactionary--response to the ways the media and marketers have amplified gender differences and invented them where they don't need to exist.  For instance, do we really need pink tinker toys?

 

Maybe that meets girls where they're at, letting them know that building is for them. But when they're instructed to build "a butterfly, a flower and a microphone" (what's with the microphone???? Another blog post at some point....) it just seems like more fuel on the princess-to-diva fire. And discourages cross-sex play. And woe to the boy who likes pink.

At the same time, kids do really need to assert their gender from the ages of about 3-6. STRONGLY. Because they don't understand it the same way we do. They don't get the whole penis-vagina thing (I will not put hyperlinks on those words--you know what they are). They base judgement on externals--hair length, dress length (this is why you can't stuff your three-year-old girl into pants: she doesn't want to turn into a boy) etc. They think you can switch sexes if you change clothes. You can grow up to be a boy OR a girl, a mommy OR a daddy. It's called gender impermanence. And so they gravitate towards whatever tools our culture gives them that most strongly assert BOY or GIRL.

For that reason, I think it's fine to have a unisex baby or a unisex 1-year-old. Most of the time older kids, too, should just be "kids" and their sex should be de-emphasized in school and at home. AND they also need to have tools through which to assert it. When I was a child, girls played mommy and had baby dolls and buggies and doll houses and such. Now they have lipstick and sparkles and Bratz dolls and pink. So rather than try to neutralize gender, my advice would be to try to help your child--male or female--cultivate a healthy, resilient, self-determining sense of what being a girl or a boy means. Which is why I developed (and yes, yes, need to update) the fight fun with fun list. To give parents a place to start in finding images, playthings, books, movies, projects, resources and other ideas about how to raise a girl with a strong, powerful, connected feminine identity that wasn't perpetually linked to appearance, play-sexiness and defining yourself by how you believe you and your body are perceived by others.

Protesting the hyper-segmentation of gender is great and it's important. Protesting the ways girlhood has been insidiously sexualized is crucial. Opposing the marketing/media culture's attempts to raise our children to be little consumer-bots  is imperative. But the other piece, rather than ignoring gender, is finding ways to help our children embrace and delight in their identities as girls and boys--while recognizing that those identities vary as much or more within as between the sexes, that they are part of an individual and not his or her sum.  So I respect the motivation of Storm's parents (and those of the Swedish Pop, whom I wrote about in CAMD) and I have no doubt that, for instance, if they alter the pronoun they use with the baby they will get different results from people, but over the longterm, it's not really a workable strategy for change.