If you’ve been reading here for a while, you may know that both of my kids are in multiple dance classes. Currently, my son is taking private ballet lessons, as there was no class for his age group. Yesterday, we arrived a few minutes before the end of class so we could watch him do a little combo with his teacher. Afterward, he gave her a card he’d made and she gave him a small gift–homemade Chex mix and a little bag containing mini bottles of coconut-lime shower gel and hand lotion.*
He was thrilled. I commented that his teacher sure knows him well, and he agreed. It was a very sweet moment. Now, what had me thinking about it is the number of adults in my circles who would find that strange or even bad. Why would a ten-year-old boy want such a feminine gift? Thus begins the speculating on my son’s life and future.
And that, right there, highlighted the real problem for me.
It isn’t merely that we think it’s not okay for boys to like dolls or fancy hand lotion or pink cook stoves that don’t feature boys on the box. It’s the erasure of anything that seems too feminine.
The Big Questions that always come up are: Why can’t they market toy stoves and tea sets in neutral colors? Why can’t doll clothes come in blue as well as pink? Why can’t I find a boy doll? Why can’t Barbies utter oddly specific action phrases when you push a button on their backs? Why must all Legos be placed in the boys’ section?
Meanwhile, I’m asking an entirely different set of questions.
Why can’t boys own a full set of My Little Pony figurines? Why doesn’t Batman say, “Give me a hug!” when you press a button? Why isn’t it okay for a boy to be featured on the toy stove box, even if it is pink?
We’ve gotten very comfortable asking why the girls’ aisle is hosed in pink and frills while the boys get action and adventure. We intentionally choose to shop for our daughters among the Legos and Monster Trucks and superheroes. We’re okay with urging our daughters to try out sports and climb trees and wear any damn thing they want to.
We’re getting better at it with boys, but often it’s coupled with speculations about their future sexuality. Hardly anyone talks about how much they will still love their football-playing daughter if she turns out to be a lesbian; it’s assumed that even if she is still sporty as an adult, she will at least marry a sporty Prince Charming and ride off into the WifeMommy sunset.** But should a boy show an interest in ballet, pink, and Cher’s greatest hits, suddenly parents take to their blogs to assure the world that they will still love their obviously gay sons.***
When it’s not tied to our sons’ orientation, then it’s tied to the color-coding. We demand the same “girl” toys for them, only we want them in blue and orange instead of pink and purple. God forbid little Johnny play with a pink toy microwave or drink from a pink teacup. We also rarely encourage boys to play with toys that we associate with relational skills. It’s okay to own not-pink cookware, but the world might end if we purchase the latest Fisher-Price dollhouse for our boys. I mean, they don’t actually need to learn the skills associated with caring for home and family.
It seems to me that the reason for this is that we like the erasure of cultural femininity more than we like the erasure of cultural masculinity.
Cultural femininity is seen as weak and bad. How many of us have gone from feeling stifled by the lack of options to feeling guilty that we still want some (or most) of those feminine things? How many men feel like they are less, somehow, because they have traits usually associated with women?
It took me a long time to accept that I like the color pink and that I like stories with a little romance. I sort of felt like I couldn’t even enjoy a Disney princess movie without having to examine its problematic elements first. This erasure of anything culturally feminine means that in order to survive, I must become more like a man. But if I become more like a man, not only do I destroy that which is considered feminine in myself, I also end up being told that I actually want to be a man! Or I’m a bitch or a ball-buster or some other negative term for a woman who isn’t “woman” enough. Yet if I give up and go home, then my femininity makes me invisible again. We often don’t have the option of being both culturally feminine and strong.
This erasure is part of what drives parents to ponder their sons’ sexuality. It’s a grudging acceptance that if our sons want to play at being girly, we will then convince ourselves that it’s okay if they don’t live up to our expectations of what real men are like–that is, virile heterosexuals. That is both misogynistic and homophobic, and it certainly doesn’t do any favors for straight men who are naturally more culturally feminine. (Don’t even get me started on the erasure of bisexual men and gay men who are perceived as stereotypically masculine; they often get shit from all sides.)
I would like to see this all just go the eff away. I see a lot–and I do mean a lot–of anti-pink snark. But what is so wrong with pink? Or girls liking pink and playing with pink things? I understand the concern that we don’t want our daughters (or, hopefully, our sons) to be limited by the color-coding in the toy aisles. I certainly understand that we don’t want to limit our children to one idea or another about what makes a “good” girl or boy. But what if we rearranged our thoughts a little?
What if instead of changing the color-coding, we simply expanded our options? Maybe it would be okay to associate pink with home and family if we stopped assigning the math as
Pink = Girls
Home and family = Girls
Therefore, Home and family + Pink = Not for Boys
I don’t think manufacturers, advertisers, or stores are going to change the way they deliver to consumers. If we want change, it has to come from us. We need to be the ones willing to say, “Eh, screw it. I’m buying the pink stove for my son” or “My daughter would love that Hulk action figure” or “Hmm…I think my kid would like to wear this Snow White costume while building this robotic car” or “Superhero cape and an Easy Bake Oven? I think yes!” We can’t expect the world to change for us–we have to change the world ourselves.
*My son gets very chapped hands in the winter, and his teacher has been sharing her lotion with him. He loves the scent, so she got him his own.
**Lesbian erasure is also a real thing and very bad. So are assumptions that women will all be happier if they are married with kids. No woman was ever happy being single, and all women–being such natural nurturers–want children, right?
***I could write a whole blog post on why I think speculating about our kids’ sexual orientation is a really, really terrible move on the part of parents. Perhaps I will.