Wednesday, 13 April 2011


Happy Wednesday, dear blog readers!

Today, as part of my random, FF-is-eating-my-brain programme of entertainment, I present a short post on what is wrong with the way our society perceives and enforces gender roles. To read the article that inspired this blog post you can click on this link.

In summary: This very clever lady used Zoë-Trope favourite Wordle to create these. 
  Wordle: Words Used to Advertise Boys' Toys
Wordle: Words Used in Advertising for Girls' Toys

The first one is a Wordle made up of the terms used in advertising boy's toys. The second is made up of terms used in advertising girl's toys.

I find the disparity here very worrying. These toys were marketed at boys and girls between the ages of six and eight - very young. But not too young to already be assessing and questioning their place in the world and who they should be. In fact, this is exactly the period when children are assigning themselves the gender roles that they may carry for the rest of their lives. By this age I was already rejecting my mother's desire to dress me in sensible jeans and dungarees and begging for pink, flowery dresses. By this age the boys I knew were already wearing mostly blue and bright red and camoflage colours, and saying things like 'Ew, giiiirls!'

These behaviours all seem perfectly natural - until you realise they're not. There is no pink gene on the X-chromosone that automatically makes little girls crave flowery dresses and ribbons and baby dolls. There's no blue gene on the y-chromosone that automatically makes boys crave fast cars, swords and buzz cuts. There's definitely no 'Euw, giiirls!' gene that requires boys to treat girls with distain and contempt. 

And yet these are all behaviours which are so common, so normal, so 'natural' to us that we not only don't QUESTION them? We get all het up and bothered if kids *don't* conform to them. Like, for instance, when this American blogger helped her little boy's wish come true by allowing him to dress as Daphne from Scooby Do at Halloween, and dozens of people descended on her to say that she was a bad mother.

It's not that either of these Wordles presents any bad words. There's nothing wrong with a child of either sex liking dresses and babies or dragons and heroes. The problem is that the companies creating these toys, and the people marketing them, are making an assumption that girls - and only girls - are vitally interested in fashion, perfect nails, babies, love and hair. And that boys - and only boys - are interested in battle, power, heroes, stealth and beating people. Which is only true if we make it so, by pushing a narrow, reductive take on what male and female mean onto children and telling them 'this is what you are'. What a terrible thing to do to a child, right? And yet...that's exactly what nearly every film, TV show, music video, book and toy catalogue is doing, right now, along with all of our unconscious assumptions on the way that children should develop and behave.

What are kids, especially kids who don't enjoy the roles arbitrarily assigned to them based on their reproductive organs, absorbing from this?

Looking at these Wordles makes me think of all kinds of other things that worry me. Like the commonly held idea that boys don't read because not enough 'boy books' are on the shelves, and that the dominance of women editors and writers in Young Adult and Children's publishing is somehow hurting boys and preventing them from becoming readers. The arguments about this are summed up beautifully in this article by YA author Maureen Johnson - and the comment trail is particularly interesting. 

Why is it so impossible for us to expect a boy to read a book that has a girl main character? Why is the idea of reading about a girl so disgusting to boys that, apparently, they won't even go into the bookstore because they have to pass by books with girls in them? What are we teaching boys - and girls - about the value of their role in society by encouraging this, and by placing the blame on female authors and editors intead of a society that raises boys to look at girls (and anything that may be considered to be 'girly') with distain and contempt? Especially since we're also raising the girls to believe that they must conform to 'girly' behaviour and interests in order to be 'normal' and 'natural'?

It's not normal and natural. Babies, love, perfect nails and romance are awesome. So are battles, dragons, flames and heroes. What I want to know is, why can't both sexes be interested in both without being shunned by our society? Why, 500,000 years after modern man first emerged as a species on earth, are we still trying to play by the strict rules of a hunter-gatherer society that died out with flint axes and stone circles? 

And will people like me still be asking this question in another hundred year's time - or a thousand?


Megha Z said...

A v. v. v. nice post, Zoe. And a very true one. And I totally agree with you.

Over the past few years, when I've actually, properly grown up and learnt about the world around me, I've come to despise girly girls or boyish boys. I hate them. A lot. Because I always thought the separation has been stupid. A fix personality has been set upon them, despite their REAL choice - what they truthfully think.

I'm also v. annoyed that people think that books are specifically for girls or boys. Girls have been reading books by men all the time. There are *no such things* as 'boy books'. ARGH.

Thank you for this post. We need a reminder sometimes.

Cass (Words on Paper) said...

Ooh, very insightful. I've actually had to partake in an online group discussion for my uni course on this very topic. These assumptions are so heavily embedded in our society that it has just become accepted.

Sorry it's way too late for me to be thinking about this stuff right now. I'll try again tomorrow haha. (it's past midnight here in Australia)

Zoë Marriott said...

Thank you, Megha. I used to be quite judgemental about those extreme personality types too - but try to remember that we're ALL (more than any of us probably realise) being bombarded with these messages and images all the time, and also that there's nothing inherently wrong with 'feminine' or 'masculine' traits or interests.

The problem is that 99.99% of people think 'feminine' means female and and 'masculine' means male. But that's not the case. Both men and woman naturally have both masculine and feminine traits and interests in various combinations and strengths. It's when outside forces such as the media define what masculine and feminine are FOR us, and enforce the idea that the two are inextricably linked to physical gender, that people are often damaged.

In many ways I'm quite 'girly' - I have long hair, I like to wear nail polish and pretty dresses and jewellery, and I collect teddy bears! But I also try to be aware of the difference between my own essential feminine traits, and the ones that society tries to force on me. I'm happy that I live in a country where I'm free to put on trousers if I want - and I do feel sorry for boys and men in our current society, who are made to feel that the slightest hint of interest in or sympathy with 'feminine' things, makes them horribly flawed. How awful to grow up feeling that!

Zoë Marriott said...

I'm glad you liked it, Cass - now go to bed!

Megha Z said...

Zoe: Oh, sorry for the confusion... Reading back, I guess I didn't mean that *exactly*... I agree with what you said about feminine/female and masculine/male. I have long hair, like to look a *bit* girly ;) and collect teddies. There's nothing wrong with THAT.

I should've thought over my comment... but it was MOSTLY correct.

Raimy-rawr said...

Awesome post Zoe. I did my dissertation on the language use in The Illustrated mum by Jacqueline wilson and gender stereotyping. its something that I think about a lot.

I really hate it when people are judged for how they want to act. I used to work in River Island while I was at uni and one night a man came in to ask for some women's clothes, they were for him and he didnt hide that but I was the ONLY person in the shop who was perfectly normal with him, everyone else looked at him as if he was crap and when I took him to the menswear floor to the changing rooms the lad on the cash desk practically shouted "but he's a bloke, he cant try them on!" I felt so sorry for all of my workmates because they couldn't actually bring themselves to help him out. It probably took a lot for him to even come in and ask for the clothes, he shouldn't have been made to feel out of place, and he was an absolutely lovely guy.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Raimy. That story is so sad, but well done you for being able to treat a person as a PERSON instead of a gender stereotype. I'm sure that guy appreciated it. Chances are he expected to meet nothing but rudeness and bad reactions in that shop - at least he met one friendly person instead (I kind of want to go back in time, find him, and hug him for having the courage to go in at all).

Zoë Marriott said...

Megha: Yes, I thought that was the case - I just didn't want to leave that remark, which could have upset someone if they misread it, unchallenged.

Katie-Lynn said...

Great job on the post. It's so sad that people aren't seen as people, that we're restricted to our genders. The double standard that all of us encounter is ridiculous. Girls can wear pants or a skirt, but heaven forbid if a boy wanted to wear a skirt. If boys are promiscuous they get a high five, if girls are, then they're given a big dirty badge of shame.

Zoë Marriott said...

Thanks, Katie-Lynn. The double-standard is pretty messed up all right - and it hurts boys in many ways just as much as it hurts girls.

Elise said...

As a little kid, I always loved playing with dolls and stuffed animals, but I was also always glad that I had a younger brother who needed my "help" with all his lego sets (I pretty much took over), and to this day we have frequent lightsaber duels. (which I win) I was always dismayed that they didn't make lego sets with less violent themes, so that I could have my own. I did get a Nerf gun one year, though!

Zoë Marriott said...

Oh, me too Elise! Not dolls, so much - for some reason I never really cared about dolls. I had a whole menagerie of stuffed animals, though. And I loved to steal MY younger brother's Mechano (that's a construction kit) and his spaceship toys and his He-Man action figures. No one ever stopped me from doing this, but no one ever bought me my OWN Mechano or spaceships, either. And when my brother wanted to play with my Barbies, my father threw a fit and took them away from him.

bfree15 said...

I love this post!
It really frustrates me that everything we do has to be labelled in society.
I have always been labelled a “tomboy” because from a very young age I liked things that were not “girly” so to speak.
From the age of 5 I refused to wear dresses, skirts, or anything I thought was too “girly”. Also at the age of 5 I wanted my ears pierced and people thought this was then strange because they considered pieced ears “girly” and I wasn’t “girly”. It was like there was no middle ground I couldn’t like both “boyish” and “girly” things at the same time.
People would blame how I was because on the amount of brothers I have as though they needed a reason for me liking “boys” things.
I also remember at Secondary school my best friends mum didn’t really like me being friends with her daughter because she thought I was a bad influence; making her daughter more “tomboyish”.
Anyway I never let it stop me from being who I am and doing the things that make me happy. Nobody should feel like they have to conform to society’s image of “normal”

I could rant all day about this but I’m going to shut up now.
Thanks for posting.

Megha Z said...

I've had people say me to 'I thought you're too girly for those kind of books' when I was reading books such as Skulduggery Pleasant. I mean, does it SAY 'FOR BOYS ONLY'? And why can I not read what I want?

bfree15: I totally get you. I was also labelled a tomboy, and when they found out I was a bit more boyish than they 'assumed all girls to be', it came across as a surprise to them. I mean, I thought it was pretty obvious that I was not *completely* girly... wasn't it?

I dislike dolls xP

Zoë Marriott said...

I suffered through this contradiction too, bfree. I was taller and faster than all the boys in my class up to the age of about eleven - I was smarter than most of them too, and I spoke my mind. Which would probably have been all right if I was willing to be 'one of them', and honorary boy like a couple of other girls in the class. But I didn't want that. I wanted to wear the frilly dresses and the ribbons in my hair! And somehow that just WAS NOT cool. Either I was a girly girl and I ought to accept my place at the back, being cute and quiet, or I was to accept that girly things were disgusting and then it was okay to be fast and strong and brave.

The idea of someone in a dress standing up to them made the boys act really viciously - and I can't count how many times teachers would say 'Well, don't play with the boys then! You're bound to get hurt!' as if a girl trying to keep up with boys was, by definition, going to get beaten up. When in actual fact, it usually took about four of them to catch me and hold me down, because I was better at fighting than any of them! Argghgg.

Isabel said...

What a fabulous post. I think that a lot of people feel like they can't be who they want to be because of society's expectations. Boys feel like they can't be friends with girls because people will make fun of them. That's just not right. And I think most of us realize that, and want things to be different, but we don't think there's anything we can do about it. We're scared of sticking out. And how depressing is that, when we think about it? In my class I'm friends with both boys and girls, and let me tell you, sometimes it can be hard. I know that some girls say things behind my back, as well as in front of me. They don't get it. And it makes me sad sometimes. But for the most part I stand up for what I believe in, and I don't stop being friends with the people I like to hang out with and talk to and be friends with, because that wouldn't be right, and it wouldn't be fair to myself. Thanks so much for the post, Zoe. I appreciated it. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Well done for being who you want to be and sticking up for yourself, Isabel!

Isabel said...

Thanks. Although what you went through in school was by far many times worse. You are such a hero. :)

Zoë Marriott said...

Stop that - you're going to make me blush :)

Isabel said...

;) Awwh. No, really -- you should be proud of yourself. Be proud of sticking up for who you are and what you believe in! I honestly could never have gone through all that without giving up. Never. Few people could. :)

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