Since day one in the gay marriage debate, the “traditional marriage” advocates have leveraged cries of indignation, and hyperbolic circular arguments to make their points. Most of these arguments listed the many things that same sex couples “could not do”, which, clearly they not only COULD do but were already doing. The underlying point all the irrational statements have in common is one foundational core that its advocates desperately want to “protect”. That point is that men and women hold mutually exclusive roles in the family and neither of those roles can or should be filled by a member of the opposite gender.
The anti-gay advocates rail against parents like me because they fear that by being myself, I am incapable of fulfilling a role not defined for me. They say that I will deprive the children under my care. It seems self-evident to them that I, no matter how good a parent I am, will never be…”a mom”, a role never specifically defined, but seems to be understood by thousands nodding in agreement.
There have been studies done about whether this is truly a concern for the well being of children. Those studies and mounds of testimony were presented with legal arguments before the US Supreme Court several months ago. The educated ruling determined that the fear was baseless, and as a result of that ruling, the domino effect of marriage equality has started throughout the United States.
The legal equality that has just started taking hold will not mean true freedom however, until the gender role fallacy is seen for the falsehood it is. As it related to marriage and my right to be a parent, I wanted the fallacy exposed for my benefit. Now, in the way it is having an effect, I want it exposed on behalf of my kids.
I have to confess, I was oblivious to how this plays out for kids until I heard about the work of a grass roots organization in the UK called “Let Toys be Toys”. They had persuaded their country’s Toys R Us to stop defining and marketing toys specifically to boys or to girls. In the UK stores moving forward, the toys would be presented as they are, and allowed to attract whatever child found them interesting and compelling. What a concept!
My first reaction was passive agreement. It made sense to me, but was the in-store marketing really such a problem? I decided to look at it further, with a fresh set of eyes.
I went online. I found the Toys R Us website curiously disturbing. They definitely segmented boys and girls toys—and each had its unique pre-determined categories. Boys had action oriented categories, and girls had homemaking and beauty. What was more intriguing was the categories under each that were the same like “Art” and “Electronics”. Each had the same items in those categories but the girl categories had a few extra items. Those extra items were all pink. Boys had multi-colored items, like normal adult-oriented items. Girls had them… in pink. It became obvious to me that even in areas for boys and girls that were essentially the same, the gender message was clear: separate but theoretically equal. Sort of like the same job, but different colored pay scales and career paths.
When I went into our local physical store, the differences were not subtle. As I looked, Cher’s recent hit song’s lyrics played through my mind. “Have a truth, it’s a woman’s world.” My thought was, “Cher has not been in a toy store recently…”
Mega conglomerates like Toys R Us are making sure that it won’t be a “woman’s world” for a long long time. This SHOULD be a woman’s world. Women make up almost 51% of the United States population but in store marketing clearly tell little girls where their world is. It is a pink land that exists in between the easy-bake-oven kitchen and the frivolous glitzy fashion world, and no where else. It is far from a woman’s, or future woman’s world, if we define that world as one of choice and pursuit of individual skills, aptitudes and talents.
In this world of the toy store I saw, decisions have been made and guidance put in place for kids of both genders, but with heavy emphasis on girl segregation. A walk down the aisle programs the eager, impressionable wide-eyed young consumers and gives them answers to things they have yet to question for themselves. This would be true not only for transgender youngsters but also for the young who found their instincts consistent with their appearance. For the former, it creates an intense pressure to identify themselves in ways innately counter to how they feel instinctively. For the latter, it removes all choice beyond a set of role modeled interests and vision.
There were six aisles defined as “girl toys”. There was only one with a sign that said “boys”, but its color coding extended to several aisles with blue signage. The topics in the blue: sports, action figures, construction. The girl aisles were pink. Pink signs, pink toys, pink packages. Pink, pink, pink. All the other aisles in the store blended with the “boy” aisles and provided a full spectrum of colors and variety.
The “girl” section was literally a pink bubble. The themes: fashion, cooking and cleaning. The promotional words on the packages were fun and frivolous. The toys that were meant for boys on the other aisles, by contrast, communicated literally and figuratively concepts such as “leadership”, “command”, “speed”, “agility”, “skill”, “winner”, “champion” and “might”.
I got the message, then and there. If you were a girl, your aspirations were to play in elegance, nurture a dolly, and practice cooking and cleaning. If you were a boy, you were to aspire to a persona of power. You were to build physically, train and excel.
I really could not believe what I was seeing in front of me in this store I had visited hundreds of times before. How could I have missed it? I felt guilty in participating in this cultural child programming. I have, for the last decade, walked through this mecca of child consumerism oblivious and complacent. When I was there with my sons, to be honest, I was in defense mode. I was an agent against the constant barrage of the “gimmes”, and it took all my willpower and focus, to the point that I was blind to the guidance happening all around me.
Even though I was not conscious of it, I already knew it was having an effect. A few nights earlier we had been at a restaurant that had “kid gifts” with their meals.
“Darn! They gave me a girl-toy,” my youngest son Jesse declared as he held up a little Care Bear figure.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “It’s a Care Bear. You used to have Care Bears. You used to LOVE Care Bears.”
“It’s a girl toy, Dad.” I was curtly informed.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“We checked with our friends. None of the boys play with them or watch them. They are for girls. They have pink on them.” I was given a reprimanding glare.
It seems our family had not gotten the memo, and this conversation was LONG overdue in his mind. I let the conversation go for the time being but I felt a sense of failure. My sons were never raised with the idea that any toy was off limits to them due to their gender. They were never taught that toys should be regulated to their friends based on gender lines either. Obviously, peer pressure had intervened outside my watch. But was that all it was? Where and when did their peers get “the memo”? Now I know.
After my trip to my local store, I decided to look at the strong executive teams in the industry, behind the toys, the business and the message. I did my own gender profiling of the senior executives of Toys R Us and Mattel. Of the twenty-some top decision makers, seventeen are middle-aged men. Three, across both companies were women (and one of those was in Human Resources, not involved in market strategies). It reminded me of the War on Women and panels made up of only middle aged men going before Congress to testify about women’s reproductive rights.
Women make up almost 51% of the population in the United States. Women only make up about 4% of the Fortune 500 and Fortune 1000 CEOs. Women make up only 20% of the U.S. Senate and 18% of the U.S. Congress. I have heard woeful excuses for these disproportionate statistics since the mid-1970s. Seriously, in forty years don’t you think there are some real ingrained biases in place to maintain so little progress to real gender balance?
There are those who probably think I am being overly harsh against the pink bubble. Pink is a nice color. I like pink. This placement of it as a prison around little girls is completely arbitrary however. It is a recent development in the 20th century. At the turn of that century, children, all children wore white dresses, had long hair and looked like …little girls. As women’s power and autonomy rose with the right to vote, the ability to own property and to rise in profession and employment, our culture seemed to react oppressively and the color coding started coming into play. (That coding was so arbitrary that in the June 1918 issue of the Infant’s Department, a trade magazine for baby clothes manufacturers, said: “There has been a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy; while blue, which is more delicate and dainty is prettier for the girl.”)
We have all seen the ramifications for fighting the pink bubble. Women who fight to get free of its definitions are targeted with misogyny which can be deadly and ugly. Boys are not immune, particularly boys from the LGBT community who want to choose things in the pink bubble’s warm, beautiful or artistic offerings for themselves. Those boys are slapped down and abused with homophobia, misogyny’s equally evil twin.
This abusive oppression is the tool for those who fear people showing aptitude outside of the gender identified roles they want to impose. They fear men who can “mom” well and they fear a woman who might be the first U.S. President.
For me, and my sons, I want them to be able to be welcomed into “the pink”. I want them to be able to be nurturing, great cooks and appreciate beautiful elegance. God knows, I would love for them to clean more. I want for their girl peers to be encouraged to explore all of their talents as well. Why on earth would we box the next most brilliant scientist, military hero, sports goddess or architect into a pre-fab role without choices?
After my trip to the toy store I am ever hopeful and engaged to see that organizations like “Let Toys be Toys” succeed in their mission. The song that is now playing through my head is no longer the defiant Cher, it is the soft optimism of John Lennon, with my own minor modifications. “Imagine no kid gender classification, I wonder if you can, no need for pink or blue aisles, a sisterhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.”
The challenges of this world are escalating and we need the talents of every individual in it. Why on earth would we intentionally limit the potential for any given accomplishment to only half of the available gene pool?
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Dedication to Rachel Hockett, a woman of empowerment. In memorium to Heaven’s newest angels, Shirley Hockett and Betty Moody.