Friday, 4 November 2011


Hello everyone! Happy Friday to you all!

I'm a bit dazed and confused that it *is* Friday already, but despite the attack of the Nanovirus (and the pouring rain) I'm pretty cheerful. I'm slightly ahead of my NaNoWriMo target, I'm starting to feel a little better, and most importantly Super Agent LOVES Big Secret Project Book One. Yippee!

So it's time to bust out the RetroFriday goodness, and drag a post from the archives which you may not have seen before or may find interesting to re-read. Given last week's ranting about the problems of Mary Sue in our sexist society, it felt about time to pull out some of my earlier thoughts on the topic. And so I give you:


Today, as part of my random, FF-is-eating-my-brain programme of entertainment, I present a post on what I think 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.

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.

Until the age of around eight or nine, boys and girls have precisely the same hormones running through their veins. If you took a group of boys and girls under ten and dressed them in the same grey sack and cut all their hair to the same length, you would be unable to tell boy from girl, even if they spoke or hugged you or danced around the room.

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 and anything that girls might be interested in with disdain 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'. There is simply no reason for young children to be treated or act differently based on their sex, other than the fact that we, as a society, want them to be different.

What a terrible thing to do to a child, right? How awful to bombard them with films, TV shows, music videos, books and toys and toy catalogues (not to mention unconscious assumptions on the way that children should develop and behave) and try to force them to conform to unnatural, artificial ideals of gender, without any good reason.

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 Johnsonand 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 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?


Debs Riccio said...

Hear hear, well said!

Cluisanna said...

My parents were very careful to not expose me to that whole "girly" universe. I had clothes in all colours, and although I wanted to have a Barbie and played with them at a friend's house, this had more to do with the fact that I wanted to be as cool as her.
I had dolls, too, but I found just playing "family" extremely boring. I always created some sort of story where I was a queen who had to flee with her children from an evil tyrant, only to return and fight him ^^
Still, throughout my teenage years (that are not really up yet) this gender-neutral image I have of myself haunted me. I have often felt not female enough, intimidated by good-looking women and absolutely sure that I am an ugly, manly looking person (although a lot of people tell me that's not true).
So I am all for raising children gender neutral, but they have to be prepared that they might get the feeling from society that this is somehow not ok.

Elizabeth May said...

I heart you. I heart your journal. And I agree with ALL OF THIS! :D

Zoë Marriott said...

Debs: Thank you!

Cluisanna: For what it's worth, having been an intensely girly girl and having been brought up by quite traditional parents (my mum might have wanted to put me in jeans, but they were pink jeans with flowers on) I STILL feel that way sometimes myself. I think the standard of femininity that we see held up as the idea in our day to day lives is so unrealistic and unattainable that trying to feel good about yourself - no matter what you look like - is always going to be an uphill struggle.

Elizabeth: He he! Thanks :)

Rebecca Lindsay said...

1) Well done on your agent loving Big Secret Project One! We all knew she would though because you worked so hard on it and of what we've seen so far, it sounds really good! *hugs*
2)I completely agree with what you are saying. Until somebody says it though, I don't think many people think about it, including me. But I think people should think about it, because it are attitudes like these that give the sexist attitude power, whether it is against males or females.
So what if a guy likes to read female heroine books or cry at a good "girly" movie. So what if a girl loves blood and guts books and films.
Children's manufacturing companies should spend more time on showing how girls and boys can get along equally and can both do the same things, even if they choose not to do so.
Take me, for example. In primary school, I was a complete tomboy and loved football, but I still liked to be girly at the same time. You can do and be both.

Isabel said...

Such an honest and true post. And I'm so happy that your agent loved Big Secret Project!! Congratulations! :)

Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

This post is awesome! You're so completely and utterly right, this is something that gets me so frustrated time and time again.

Zoë Marriott said...

Rebecca: Honestly, I think we're making such a rod for our own backs with this. We teach boys that the worst insult in the whole world is to be called a girl, and then wonder why they're so disrespectful to their mothers, sisters and female teachers. We teach boys that they mustn't like anything that girls like, and then wonder why they don't want to read. No one in the whole wide world is *benefitted* by this insane divide, but everyone fights for it tooth and nail. Eugh.

Isabel: Thank you :) I'm hopeful I'll finally be able to spill the beans about BSP soon, so keep your fingers crossed.

Jenni: Thanks. Once you start really seeing what's THERE instead of what you think you SHOULD, it's amazing how little sense so many of our ideas about The Way Things Are make.

Megha said...

I'm glad Big Secret Project is going well!

I've always loved this post, since the first time I read it.

And I can't WAIT till you spill the beans about BSP - if it's getting official and all!

Robin said...

Nice post, and thanks for the link to Maureen Johnson's post. I agree that the culturally encouraged gender divide and fear of liking anything 'girly' is part of the reason for the split in reading habits, but I think it does have to be acknowledged that there are some differences in how boys and girls are wired. I think culture creates some of this, but not all of it. If you looked at cross-gender preference for video games, I think more boys than girls will buy strictly action/ first-person shooters, while character and plot-driven games might be more evenly split. But the debate over nature and nurture might never be resolved. It's always interesting to read different debates over this, though.

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