Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Cultural Question of Girls and Princesses, Boys and Battles

Modern gender culture frustrates me.

I say this as a mother trying to steer a straight course between the Charybdis of Strawberry Shortcake and My Little Pony - the pink and purple whirlpool where wondering what gift to get for a friend is sufficient central conflict for an entire story - and the Scylla whose many heads are made of battle weapons, battling monsters, battling robots, battling aliens... battling everything. I walk into clothing stores and head for the clearance racks because at least there the clothes are all in one place and not divided into "boy's side" and "girl's side." Why do people insist on painting our children in pink and blue?

I'm not trying to say that we haven't come a long way. Certainly we're in an age of coed universities, coed dorms. We can tell girls that they can be anything they like - inventors, astronauts, scientists, mothers, writers... It's important to be aware, though, that the old way remains. It's embedded in our institutions, but most importantly, it's embedded in our subconscious. Because I'm an anthropologist and very culturally self-conscious I thought through what I wanted to do about gender with my kids well before they arrived, but because I'm a realist I knew, even then, that there would be gendered things in the way I treated my children.

I'm okay with this, actually. To eradicate distinctions of gender would be to create a world of unisex robots that all looked the same. In fact, I think just the opposite should be our goal: to recognize the nuances of gender, and diversify our understanding just as we diversify our understanding of races and world cultures. The most important part of it for me is cultivating self-awareness and openness to other people's understanding of themselves.

Feminism has played a terribly important role in all of the freedoms I have today, and I am grateful for it, but I hate to read articles describing women being criticized for embracing roles that are considered "traditional," or for dressing in a feminine way. Part of the liberation of women is freeing women to take on roles traditionally assigned to men - that is certain, for keeping women confined to those roles is misogynistic. However, it is also misogynistic to say that the traditional roles and concerns of women have no value. Indeed, any individual, however they may define their own gender, should be free to embrace these roles without censure; only then can we see true balance.

Can we teach our daughters to be critical thinkers and reject pandering advertising that tries to define them restrictively? Yes. But when we express our extreme distaste for artificial princess garb or dolls with unrealistic body shapes, we must at least explain ourselves. There's a huge risk here of making our daughters feel shame for liking what they may simply like for their own idiosyncratic reasons. Whenever we shame our girls for being who they are, we're doing the male chauvinists' job for them. In the same way, we should teach our sons to reject the advertising that tries to define them by encouraging "boys will be boys" excesses and suppressing the flexibility of their thinking, while at the same time recognizing value in the skills they learn and turning it to best effect in other aspects of their lives.

There's another trend in modern thought about gender that bothers me, and I believe it is related to the shaming of girls (and boys) for liking feminine things. This is the idea that oppressed women have been, and still are, entirely powerless; that females of the modern age should reject the women of the past because of their helpless submission to partriarchy. Ironically, I see this trend in all sorts of stories (and associated products) that are supposedly linked to "girl power." These are unrealistic stories in which a female placed in a past historical setting will feel ill-used, rail against the restrictions that confine her, and set out to break down those restrictions and "follow her dream." You might ask at this point, "How can it be bad to follow your dream?" - and I understand the point. However, too often these characters have dreams that could not possibly have grown out of to the actual social context of their lives - the kind of dreams that could only be conceived by a girl in a post-feminism world. Thus the characters will rail against a life that, because every aspect of it is normal and has been since their birth, should not be foremost in their attention at all. Instead, they would more realistically set themselves against injustices that stand out against that context. Lastly, too often the women of the past (real or fictional) are given no credit for understanding the complex rules within which the nature of their power is defined. Whatever tools of influence they possess, however small, they will learn to use to greatest possible effect.

If there is any testament to the flexibility of human nature, it is this ability we have to take what we are given by circumstance and make the most of it. Which is why I refuse to demean my children for learning what society hands to them, at the same time that I try to help them think beyond it.


  1. Some feminist views, like hating everything classically feminine, remind me of fad diets. It's an attempt to make a sudden change -- like eating nothing but grapefruit, or shunning "girly" things -- in the hope that one decisive action will fix everything from now on. But lasting change doesn't work like that. We, as societies, are better off learning about the nutritional factors that make up a culture, and planning meals accordingly.

    I won't labour the metaphor any more, but I do agree with what you're saying here, Juliette. There are a lot of factors involved in modern gender identity. And as much as we might want it all to be simple, good/bad paradigms are not the answer.

  2. Much to my personal dismay, my daughter was VERY "girlie" when younger (pink, frills, sparkly, flowers, etc). despite my own dislike of such things, I encouraged her to go for it, no matter what; it was what she liked.

    Now she's a perky goth-lite chick, and I'm telling her to 'go for it' as well.

    I personally decided that some more 'traditional' roles were ok for me in my personal life, and I get a lot of kick back for that from more 'feminist' women. But professionally, I broke into an excessively male field and did well for 2 years. So just because I make one choice doesn't mean I won't make a different one elsewhere.

    and isn't that the point of feminism? to be able to make choices?

  3. Thanks for your comment, Heidi. Interesting way of thinking about it!

    Loquacious, indeed, I think that choices are at the root of all of this. Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts.

  4. One of the most moving things I ever saw was a man who was being interviewed about the horrible rape/mutilation/murder of his daughter. He started to cry *and apologized for crying*! I thought any society that made men feel like they had to apologize for crying was not something I wanted to participate in.

    I taught my son it was ok to cry, while secretly chewing my nails and worrying that people outside the family would say "big boys don't cry" or "cry baby" or anything else. I talked to his teachers at the beginning of each year and told them why I wanted him to be able to cry. He certainly had easy access to tears and never apologized for crying.

    (In one of life's ironies, he's currently in therapy because he can't cry over the death of his father.)

  5. Suzi, Thanks for telling me about your experience with your son. I also try not ever to say that crying isn't all right.

  6. I agree wholeheartedly with your post, Juliette. In fact I got so carried away in my comment that I'm going to save my thoughts for a blog post next month when I review some fantasy books. It will suffice to say I get annoyed every time I see a sword-swinging princess who wants to marry for love-- where is she getting these outlandish ideas from in a world with no female role models in traditionally male roles or history of courtly love?
    - Sophia

  7. Thanks, Sophia! I'll look forward to seeing it.