So there is a little boy on this belt-chain of Strawberry Shortcake charms that somebody bought my daughter. He’s a little blue boy, wearing a round blue baseball cap turned backwards; I'm told he represents huckleberries in the Strawberry Shortcake pantheon. And he’s posed on a skateboard, in the classic “riding a skateboard” crouch, hands out to catch the wind. This kid has places to go, he’s a huckleberry boy of action.
There’s five girl figurines on the charm belt, too. An orange girl, a ginger girl, a baby strawberry girl, some blonde girl that I can’t quite figure out, and Strawberry herself. And are these girls riding skateboards?
HELL NO, they’re not riding skateboards. They’re not riding bikes, or hitting baseballs, or playing with computers. They’re holding cakes and cookies, that’s what they’re doing. And they are all standing. Not a single action pose among them. Because girls don’t have to DO things. They just have to stand there and look cute.
And I can vividly imagine a moment in time about sixteen years from now, when some young male jokingly tells my daughter “shut up and be sexy”. Because we ain’t free of this bullshit yet. I just hope she has the presence of mind to give the bastard a scissors kick to the crotch when and if this happens.
But that’s just Strawberry Shortcake, DM. Don’t you know the whole idea of Strawberry Shortcake is just to reinforce antiquated gender stereotypes? It’s outdated. The rest of the world isn’t like that.
Yeah, right. That’s why Barbie went out of business, along with her modern sisters the Bratz, the My Scene girls, the Diva Starz and next year’s hot Christmas present, the Slutz (super-low-rider pants with matching glitter thong not included with basic playset). Seriously, have you looked in a toy store lately? Strawberry Bitchcake and her sisters are pretty much all you can get for girls. All of the billion-odd toys and games for girls are meant to teach girls how to accessorize. Because that, apparently, is the core skill set that all girls need.
Let’s watch Nickelodeon for a while, shall we? Seriously, I recommend it. It’s educational, in more ways than one. Get yourself a beer and some munchies and a pen and paper, and start watching. But - this is the tricky part - don’t watch the shows. The shows are actually not all that bad. But what we’re watching here is the commercials.
Got your pen and paper ready? Good. Now, every time a commercial comes on, write down its target audience - Girls, Boys, or All. Write down the type of product. And, most importantly, write down what it teaches the consumer. Do this for a couple of hours, and look at your results. I guarantee it will blow your mind.
First of all, the All column is empty. Aside from the food product adverts, there are no commercials that target boys and girls alike. Although they may feature mixed casts, every single one of those commercials is aimed at either girls or boys, on the theory that different things will appeal to their different mentalities. Can you spell “self-fulfilling prophecy?”
Secondly, in the Boys group you’ve got all kinds of cool stuff. Ignoring the food items, you’ve got construction sets, outdoor games equipment, video games, action figures, puzzles, gadgets, collectable doohickeys like Beyblade and Yu-Gi-Oh cards, everything you could want. And they teach all sorts of things. There is a theory that all play is training for adult life. When you look at these adverts with that in mind, it’s clear that these boys are set to dominate. Boys’ toys are teaching them how to compete, how to cooperate, how to destroy and how to build. The guys are learning problem solving, pattern recognition, abstracted versions of a hundred different thought processes that they will actually need to cope with the adult world.
And the girls? Oh, man, it doesn’t look so good over here. The girls have a lot of dolls, some glow-in-the-dark hair thingies, some drawing tools, and some MP3 players cum fashion accessories. The skills these toys teach are drawing and accessorizing. TV is training these girls to become a well-groomed underclass.
If you have any children at all, I recommend paying close attention to what they’re watching and how much. If you have female children, I recommend taking an axe to the TV or, at the very least, buying them some shows on video instead of letting them watch this crap. The shows are not too bad - the worst you could say about most of them is that they are insipid. The commercials, on the other hand, are pure brain poison.
We have this book called “This is my Family” - another donation from a well-meaning friend. It’s a Little Golden Book, by Gina and Mercer Mayer no less. This is not some print-on-demand chapbook for fundamentalists, where you might expect to find some outdated and offensive stereotypes. It probably had a print run of about four million units. Printed in 1992, decades after I thought Women’s Lib had taken its full effect.
And what is this family like, as described by Mercer Mayer’s Little (male) Critter? Let’s see, we’ve got Dad working in an office and playing baseball when he comes home - “but sometimes he’s too tired.” Yes, of course, the breadwinner gets tired of taking care of his family sometimes, and we have to let him rest. No such luck for the aproned and frilly-dressed Mom, “who takes care of all of us.” We see Mom cooking, cleaning, bandaging boo-boos, and reading to her little ones when they’re sick, “even if she’s really tired.” Then we have the little sister, who likes to dress the cat up in doll clothes, even though he clearly hates it. Why can’t she be sensible and play Catch with the dog, like her brother? Oh, wait, I forgot - she’s a girl. Can’t blame a female for being stupid, I guess.
All right, so there’s one book out there extolling the old gender roles. Right? No, sorry, there are thousands of them. Look at any young children’s book featuring humans or humanoids. You’ll find a male humanoid going to work, reading the paper, and doing other Great Hunter activities, while the female humanoid does all the cooking, cleaning, sewing and other classic maternal chores. The exceptions are the animal books, which don’t usually have any kind of gender identification. But the more human the creatures are, the closer they get to 1950s America.
The really weird thing is this - when you get into books for older kids, there is a whole different trend going on. From about second grade on, there are plenty of books about “alternative lifestyles”, including families where the mother works and the father stays at home, families with two daddies, families with nothing but a daddy - the whole range. Clearly, someone told the children’s publishers that there is a demand for these things.
But what good is that going to do, if the whole time up to second grade my girl is bombarded with messages advocating traditional gender roles? These are the most formative years of all, and the pristine landscape of my daughter’s mind is getting polluted with this old-fashioned patriarchist garbage in books and all other media.
But not in my house. Not in the house this daddy cleans, the kitchen he cooks in, or the bathroom where he puts Band-Aids on tiny boo-boos. I’ve had it up to here with corporate America’s idea of what my girl should be learning. "This is my Family" is about to follow the cable box into the garbage, along with every other anachronistic board book in the house. From now on, it’s only animal books and big kids’ books with a balanced range of gender roles. Sandra Boynton can stay for now, as long as she restrains herself to writing about dinosaurs and hippopotamuses.
My daughter wears a lot of boy clothes. Not that I don’t like her wearing girl clothes, but I’m just a little bit tired of pink, purple and lime green, which some hideous freak of a fashion exec decided were the colours for little girls to wear last year. And most of all, I’m tired of glitter. Everything you see in the girls’ section of every children’s boutique is glitter. Glitter, butterflies, flowers, and glittery butterflies on glittery flowers. A little bit of glitter goes a long way, folks. We don’t need it on every single inch of every single garment.
Not only that, but most of the clothes available for girls are exact copies of teen fashion items, scaled down for tots. We’ve got spaghetti-strap tank-tops, baby-sized All-Stars, and hipster jeans with flares. Um, guys, do you have any idea how ridiculous a girl looks wearing hipster jeans over her pull-ups? And what’s with all the flimsy stretch fabrics? What’s wrong with loose, tough, stain-resistant jeans? My girl wants to climb up on things, slide down slides on her stomach, play in the sand and get herself covered with grass stains and scratches. You are trying to sell her clothes to go clubbing in. I don’t get it.
So fuck you, Baby Gap. Fuck you, Children’s Place. You may have put most of the independent children’s stores out of business, forcing us to pay you instead of local merchants, but we don’t have to just lie down and let you run us over. Not only have I been giving you fictitious phone numbers for the last two years, but I have also been skewing your demographics by buying nothing but boys’ clothes and gender-neutral items. Because, you see, we’ve got more than enough girly stuff from friends, family and other traditional-minded donors. Yes, my girl does wear dresses on occasion. But we didn’t pay you one cent for them.
(Note - boy clothes tend to be sturdy, but drab. Yet another facet of the gender stereotyping at work in mainstream America. Since little girls and boys alike prefer colourful clothes, I suggest embroidering them or putting on some colourful patches, a cornucopia of which can be found in every arts and crafts shop. Up yours with rockets, Gymboree and Old Navy Kids!)
EXHIBITS E, F, G
Enter the insane old man who used to be my neighbour, hissing at me from his doorway. “Hss! Hey, what you got, a girl, right?” Um, yeah, insane old dude, she’s a girl. “I thought so. Hang on, I got somethin for’er.” He’s giving Christmas presents to all the kids. I know the guy is weird, but harmless, so I wait to see what he’ll come up with. And what do you think it is? A doll. A Disney doll, at that.
“She’s so cute.” That’s what they all say. Everyone. Friends, family, neighbours, random strangers who see us together at bus stops - “she’s so cute.” People, she has a vocabulary that’s off the charts, she knows the whole alphabet and the numbers up to ten, she can dance like a maniac and read letters off street signs, she can swing on the big kids’ swings and help me wash dishes, make cookies and weed the garden, and the only thing you ever think of telling her is that she’s so cute?
How have we come so far and learned so little?
"This is my sister. She’s not so bad."
No, I am not overreacting or trying to be radical. I haven’t forced my daughter to play exclusively with boys’ toys or wear only blue jeans. She has dresses, and glittery clothes, and a Hello Kitty and closets full of stuffed animals. Like everyone else in her daycare, she has a fair range of jewelry, and thanks to her mother she has a whole range of inventive and feminine hairstyles. A few people have called her a tomboy. I like to call her Wild Child. I don’t think she’s a tomboy at all. She likes her dolls and animals as much as the next girl, and she likes to dress up from time to time. She also likes playing with screwdrivers and plastic hammers. She likes bouncing and running around, torturing cats, messing around in the garden and helping me fix things. That doesn’t, in my opinion, make her a tomboy - it makes her a well-rounded kid.
The thing is - come closer, I need to whisper, this is some subversive shit we’re getting into here - there isn’t any difference between girls and boys at this age, and we should all stop trying to push them into the roles that we assume they will have to adopt at later ages. They’re children, no more and no less.
Definitely no less.