Last week, we talked all about many of the ways that baby and toddler clothing is heavily and aggressively gendered, and how that gendering causes even progressive parents to normalize traditional gender roles. I shared a little bit about what my family does to try to combat that (we give our child both boy AND girl clothes now, that way when he’s old enough to form preferences, he has actual options). Today, I want to dive into a couple of the other ways that I’ve noticed gendering around having an older baby.
But first, I want to mention a few comments that I got on that first post (mostly from good friends, and on social media rather than here on the blog itself), and maybe clarify a couple of points. Here are the two things that I hear whenever I talk about this stuff:
1.) Why don’t you just shop at the thrift store?
I do! The vast majority of my son’s clothing that I (or my wife) have actually picked out has come from our local thrift store. But most thrift stores have the same issues — clothing separating into “girl clothes” and “boy clothes” — so shopping at the thrift store doesn’t, in my experience, help me avoid aggressive gender binaries at all.
And honestly? There are items that can be much harder to find at thrift stores, and sometimes they are things that we need. This has happened to me. And when it happened when we had two quarters to rub together, yes, I picked him up some baby leggings while I was out grabbing diapers.
But even without that, I think that it’s important to talk about what goes on in conventional retail environments, because what we are talking about is how culture affects us all. My mother, for instance, when she wants to buy a present for my kid, does not go to the thrift store. She goes to a big box store, and what she meets there is an overwhelming pressure to buy him something suitably masculine.
2.) I select clothes based on durability and I don’t care what color it is!
I get some version of this every time I talk about how children are gendered in our culture. It’s an attractive notion, kids are hard on clothes, so we should just be looking for clothes that are sturdy and high quality, and everything else is secondary.
Except it never really works that way because we live in this culture, and we are not immune to the constant reinforcement of the gender binary. What we are looking for as parents is going to vary some because we are humans and have preferences (for example, many parents feel like overalls are good sturdy baby wear, but I find them to be obnoxious to get on and off and not all that flexible, so my kid is more likely to be rocking stretchy pants of some kind). And again, the stores have a boy section and a girl section, they do not have a sturdy section. So where do you start? Do you assume the boy clothing is sturdier? Do you start in the “appropriate” section and only move to the “inappropriate” section later? This stuff matters, and it’s stuff that I think about.
In my case, I’m trying to push back against aggressive gendering, not just not perpetuate it. The reason for that is that most of the rest of the world is participating in gendering my child very actively. If I’m neutral, he still doesn’t have real options. If me and my wife don’t go out of our way to make sure he has some pink, he’s probably not going to have any (that’s not actually strictly true but for the most part it is).
Also, to be quite honest, I am an artist who is obsessed with colors. I live for colors. I cannot imagine not caring what color my kid is wearing. Of course I care. Colors are awesome.
Ok then, let’s go.
Gender For Nine Month Olds
1. Language: Every Single Compliment is Gendered
We have talked to a few people who are close to us about gendered language and compliments, so I’m not including those people in this. This is more about the general public and those outside of our immediate sphere.
It happened a little bit when he was a tiny baby, but there was more variation. For every person who called him “such a handsome little boy!” there would be another person calling him a “beautiful baby!” But he doesn’t get called a beautiful baby much anymore. In fact, the older he gets, the bigger he gets, the more active and independent he gets, the more gendered the language has become. What do I mean by more gendered?
Two things really. One is applying traditionally masculine adjectives (my son is called strong, big, brave by strangers who know him to be male, but rarely nice or sweet). The other is simply constantly including the gender as part of the compliment. So whereas someone might say:
“Oh you’re very big, aren’t you?”
“You’re a really big baby, aren’t you?”
we’re more likely to hear
“Wow you sure are a big guy, aren’t you?
All of these comments affectionately compliment my child’s size (he is large everyone!) but the last one is more gendered. “Guy” is not gender neutral, it’s a cultural statement about both maleness and masculinity. The next step, almost inevitably is “hey there big guy!”
It’s almost like people are constantly telling my kid that he’s a boy. It isn’t almost like that though, it’s exactly like that. He’s not simply good he’s a good boy. Even as a tiny child, I knew that being called a good girl was a specific thing, not only about goodness, but about girlhood. My child, who cannot walk yet, breastfeeds a jillion times a day, and loves stuffed animals just as much as he loves blocks, is being congratulated for his ability to perform traditional masculinity.
Pardon me but, what the actual fuck?
So what do we do? Well, we check ourselves constantly. We can’t control the world, and people on the bus are going to say what they’re going to say, but we can challenge ourselves to not fall into the same habits at home! And this shit is pretty ingrained, it is work to remind ourselves that confirmation bias exists, that he’s just as worthy of praise for being loving or kind as he is for being bold and daring, and that he gets to be a person first, and a gendered person second. But once you do the work (and keep doing it, and keep doing it) I find that it does get easier, and we get more creative with compliments, and we notice more amazing things about him that we might miss if we were allowing ourselves to mostly focus on boy things.
2. Language: A Tiny, Adult, Man
I just wrote a piece about this particular phenomena for ravishly.com, so I don’t want to delve too deep here. But there is an intense extreme to the gendered compliment, and as my child gets older, he gets it more and more, and honestly from people I wouldn’t have expected to hear it from.
He’s getting called “little man” all the damn time.
I doubt very much that this is a conscious decision in most cases, but it is a phrase particularly loaded with gender. If you don’t believe me, when was the last time you heard a presumed female baby referred to as a “little woman.” No, girls get to be children, but masculinity requires that my child skip boyhood altogether and perform miniature adult manhood right now.
3. Language: All Toys Are Male, Unless They Aren’t
A really great thing about having a baby this age is that he really plays now. He knows what toys are, and he thinks they’re awesome. We keep most of his toys in a basket in the living room, and he happily crawls over to it and pulls toys out. Sometimes if other adults are over (friends or family) they play with him.
And they inevitably using “he” pronouns for 90% of the toys with faces.
Why is this? It feels like cartoon logic. Micky Mouse is the regular mouse, so he’s a boy. But Minnie Mouse is a girl, and you can tell because she’s wearing a bow. It’s actually indicative of how our society views gender as a whole (maleness and masculinity are normal, standard, whereas femaleness and femininity are exceptional) but it’s really blatantly obvious when it comes to the world of anthropomorphized animals.
The only toys that get called “she” are pink and have other gender signifiers, like a bow or some ruffles.
So what do we do? My wife and I use gender neutral pronouns for all of our kid’s toys. That may sound extreme and funny to some, but we want him to be able to actually pick the genders of various stuffed animals and things as he grows. We also don’t want him to grow up assuming that maleness is normal and femaleness is other, even if that assumption will likely afford him some privilege. It was difficult at first — this stuff is incredibly automatic! — but it has gotten easier. It’s even easier for us, I think, because we know so many people who use gender neutral pronouns themselves. So in our household, all toys get the singular “they” until our kid tells us otherwise.
4. People Can Just Tell
Confirmation bias is so funny. When we are out in public, if our kid’s outfit is at all gender ambiguous, people obviously have to choose which gender to assign to him. If they choose “boy” they often ask for me to confirm it, and when I nod, they look so smug. “I thought so!” they’ll say or “You can just tell…”
And I want to scream, what, what can you just tell? Is there something about the shape of his nose that is particularly masculine? Because that is my nose too!
Whereas, if they assume “girl”and ask, and I “correct” them. Well then, how could they have known? After all, he’s just a baby! They can’t be expected to assign the proper gender to him unless I dress him properly!