Welcome to the Party

A friend of mine sent me an article a few days ago.

The piece ran in Time Magazine, famously known for its annual award for Person of the Year and for Billy Joel not understanding the magazine’s contents (among some other journalistic credits, of course). It was entitled “How to Raise a Sweet Son in an Era of Angry Men” and it focused, predictably, on the parenting techniques that are often used toward young boys. The author, Ms. Faith Salie, a contributor to CBS Sunday Morning and author in her own right, cites numerous differences in the messages we send our male and female children, from the clothes they wear to expectations of behavior to their potential accomplishments in life. The idea is that parents send different messages to their children based on gender. Over the last twenty years or so, girls have begun hearing much more frequently that they can feel, accomplish and be whatever they want. Boys, however, are still expected to conform to “masculine” interests and professions.

“Boys will be boys, but girls can be anything,” she writes.

Ms. Salie’s argument focuses on the feeling of anger, in particular, and the ways in which men and women use anger to inform their actions. Her examples were predictable: angry men act out by hurting other people, while angry women act out by banding together to fight for equality and social justice. Her message, as a result, was not only that a child should be given the same opportunities and encouragement to pursue his or her interests, regardless of the child’s gender, but also that parents need to focus more on encouraging their sons to learn how to be more comfortable experiencing feelings in the first place. If young boys are taught how to live with negative feelings, perhaps they will not feel compelled to act out their feelings in such destructive ways.

My friend said that she thought of me when she read the article and I don’t blame her. I’ve written numerous times – like here and here, for instance – about processing the messages that I want my son to internalize about societal gender norms and what it means to be a man in today’s world. For that matter, I wrote my own version of this very Time article in a letter to my son just over a year ago. I imagine this Time article received a fair amount of internet applause and other positive attention, particularly in parenting circles, because of its seemingly refreshing message about the benefits of teaching boys to respect the people around them. Ms. Salie cites pertinent examples of the tragedies angry men have caused and makes a strong argument about the differences in the messages that boys and girls receive about their roles in society. It is a good piece of writing and I would recommend it to any new parent.

But I felt bored.

I don’t mean to disparage Ms. Salie or her writing. As I said, I think the article is an important message and there is no question that Ms. Salie has clearly found a larger audience for her message than I have. As I was reading, though, I knew that I had read similar think-pieces about parenting approaches for boys any number of times before. Time is supposed to be a news magazine but Ms. Salie’s argument felt like the latest entry in the “Here Is Some News That Is Not Really News” category. The attacks against conventional gender norms have been around for years and examples of men pursuing more developed senses of emotional intelligence have never been easier to find.

Welcome to the party, Time Magazine. It’s nice of you to finally join us.

All that being said, however, I should cut Ms. Salie and Time some slack. I pride myself on being self-aware and on examining the origins of my own biases and, in this case, they are fairly easy to identify. It makes sense that I would feel like this topic is not exactly newsworthy; I’m a social worker who specializes in working with children and I’ve seen my fair share of examples of the ways anger can lead to destructive behaviors, particularly in adolescent and young adult boys.

More importantly, I know that there are many places in the United States in which challenges to social conventions are not as easily accepted, not to mention the rest of the world. People hold life experiences and perceptions of the world dearly, particularly when the legitimacy of those perceptions is called into question. The messages that Ms. Salie describes being communicated to her son, as well as similar lessons which Trudy and I have seen being taught to Eitan, speak to the very reason why this article needed to be written, even if the message was not necessarily “new.” This type of article will need to continue to be written until our society finally accepts responsibility for changing the concepts we have been instilling in our children. We’ve seen progress; we just need to see a bit more.

Brushing Up on Color and Gender

It was a year and a half ago, just before Eitan’s second birthday, that I first wrote about color and gender. That post was a bit of a manifesto about gender bias coming through in clothing and toys that are marketed to young children. I took exception to the Spider-Man toys that were being given out at McDonald’s along with kids’ Happy Meals and to the way Party City had divided up the merchandise for kids’ birthday parties. I re-read it before sitting down to write this post and I’m still pretty proud of it, especially considering the fact that I was still fairly new to blogging at that point.

The reason I’m bringing it up again is that the concept of certain colors being associated with gender came up for us recently regarding Eitan’s toothpaste.

Eitan has moved beyond the fluoride-free, training toothpaste and is now using the junior version of “real” toothpaste. The idea is that, once the child knows how to keep the toothpaste in his mouth instead of swallowing it, it’s safe to start using the toothpaste with fluoride because you don’t have to worry about the child poisoning himself. The first tube of this toothpaste that we bought happened to have characters from the Disney movie, Cars, on it, and the toothpaste itself was blue. Eitan liked it and was using it properly so I never thought much of it.

Then, one weekend, we spent a night at Trudy’s parent’s house. We bought an extra tube of toothpaste for Eitan so that we could leave one with Trudy’s parents so it would be one less toiletry to remember to bring if we knew we were going to stay there or, at least, be there late into the evening. The store had the brand that we had been using, but the only kind they had was pink and had the Disney princesses on it. We bought it anyway, brought the pink toothpaste home with us and left the blue one with Trudy’s parents.

The next night, when I went to brush Eitan’s teeth, I took out the new toothpaste and we had the following exchange:

Eitan: That’s not my toothpaste. Maybe Brooke left her toothpaste here. (Brooke is a friend of Eitan’s.)

Me: It’s not Brooke’s toothpaste; it’s yours. It’s the same, it’s just in a different tube.

E: But it’s pink. My toothpaste was blue.

Me: That’s true, it is pink. And who’s on the tube?

E: Ariel and Cinderella and… I don’t know who that is.

Me: That’s Sleeping Beauty. I think her name is Aurora.

E: I think that toothpaste is for girls.

Me: What makes you think so?

E: It’s pink and there are girls on the tube.

Me: Is pink only for girls or can boys use it too?

E: (thinks for a second) I don’t know.

Me: Don’t you like Ariel and Cinderella?

E: Yeah.

Me: And don’t you sometimes use a pink bowl and a pink plate and a pink fork and spoon?

E: Yeah.

Me: So can you use this toothpaste even though it’s pink?

E: Umm… okay.

We ended up having a similar exchange for the next three or four nights. Eitan kept questioning the use of the toothpaste on the basis that it was for girls and I kept convincing him that the color didn’t matter because the toothpaste works the same way as the blue one. After using the pink toothpaste for the first time, Eitan also exclaimed that it tasted even better than the blue one. Now, he barely even notices the princesses on the tube and just refers to it as his “pink bubble gum toothpaste.”

This was a pretty easy win for me. Toothpaste is a pretty minor thing, especially since it’s used in the privacy of our home and no one else is watching when I help Eitan brush his teeth. I work hard to steer Eitan away from the typical gendered associations with colors. That’s why I rotate the different colored bowls for his cereal each morning and why I let Eitan tell me which dolls we should play with in his doll house. It’s why I’m proud of him for sending tennis balls over the fence in the backyard and also for feeling comfortable putting on a princess costume with his friends.

Even so, I’m still thinking about what will happen if Eitan says that he wants to go against the typical gender norms in public. I know it doesn’t bother me if Eitan decides that he likes a pink shirt or wants to wear a tiara at an amusement park or even if he wants to have a princess-themed birthday party. Eitan likes what he likes and it’s not up to me to steer him one way or the other.1 I can’t help but wonder, though, how other people would react to some of those circumstances and how that would affect Eitan. Even if I know that I would stand up for Eitan’s right to wear what he wants and play how he wants, I could see another parent telling their child not to play with Eitan because of something as insignificant as a wardrobe choice. And I would hate having to tell Eitan that his friend can’t play with him because Eitan was just wearing or playing with something that he liked.

It’s possible that I’m building up this potential scenario in my head and that nothing of the sort is ever really going to come about. Parents want to protect their children, so we come up with these scenarios so we can plan accordingly. And, let’s be honest, the most likely scenario is that Eitan continues to internalize gender norms with regard to color and just falls in line with what he sees from the world around him. Either way, I just want Eitan to feel like he is making his own choices. If he chooses to wear the typically male greens and blues, that’s fine. If he wants to wear the typically female pinks and purples, that’s fine too. But I would hate for him to want to wear pink and feel like he has to wear blue because the world tells him so or for his peers to treat him differently because of his color preferences. I guess I’ll just have to cross that bridge when I come to it. In the meantime, we’ll just keep focusing on toothpaste and on letting Eitan play however he wants to.

Because Eitan having fun is really all that matters.

 


1. Except the Yankees. Eitan, I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again: you are not allowed to become a Yankee fan.

What Color is Gender?

When I was young, probably around first grade, I remember having a conversation with a couple of friends about which colors were “boy colors” and which ones were “girl colors.” Blue, green, brown and black were definitely boy colors. Pink, purple and yellow were girl colors. I think I remember a small debate about red, since it fits with both fire trucks and hearts, but I believe the hearts won out. Red was a girl color, but a boy could probably wear something red and not get made fun of for it, depending on what it was.

As an adult, I know that the idea of colors having genders is absurd. Colors don’t play sports, play with action figures, get their nails done or do any other stereotypically gender-specific activities. Colors are colors. The problem is, even if colors aren’t capable of performing an action, they do carry meaning. The old NBC sitcom Friends1 filled a part of one episode by having the characters tease Ross about his pink shirt, which Ross tirelessly persisted was “salmon-colored.” That episode originally aired 12 years ago and I’ll admit that our society has become increasingly more accepting of the blurring lines between these social distinctions. But I would bet that if you showed that Friends bit to a six or seven year old child today, they would understand that it’s intended to be funny because a man is trying to get his pink shirt.

Clothes are only part of the issue. The bigger area where gendered coloring comes into play is regarding kids’ toys. Kids may not necessarily realize – or care – about the colors of their toys when they’re little; I’ve heard from a significant number of parents who buy their kids toys that their kids like, regardless of the color. But, as they grow, kids pick up on the messages being sent to them by the adults in their lives. Too often, those messages include judgments about the degree to which a person conforms to social norms. “Why would you let him play with Barbies? Aren’t those for girls?”

A few weeks ago, I came across an image on Facebook that described the different Spider-Man toys McDonald’s was including with its Happy Meals. The toys in the first group – a car, an action figure, a Spider-Man mask – were colored red and blue, Spider-Man’s typical colors. The toys in the second group – a headband, hairbrush, bracelets – were purple and pink.

mcdonalds-genderbiastoys (Borrowed with permission from www.daddydoctrines.com)

Before I get into the reasons why this bothers me, let me say first that I have no problem with two separate groups of toys, one of which is designed to appeal to boys and the other to girls. Kids like the toys that they like and it’s important for McDonald’s to make sure that their toys appeal to as many types of kids as possible. Businesses are out to make money and McDonald’s is a business so that’s fine with me.

The first problem I do have with these toys is how they are presented to the customer: “Would you like the boy toy or the girl toy?” The idea that toys can be labeled as “for boys” or “for girls” might have made sense twenty, or even ten, years ago, but it’s just inappropriate in 2014. If my son wants to wear a headband, it’s fine with me. If I have a daughter and she wants to play with action figures, she will. But my child should be able to make that decision without being told beforehand that there’s a right and a wrong answer.2 And, while we’re on the topic, if my daughter wants to have a Star Wars-themed party or my son wants to have a Disney princess party, no birthday supplies store is going to stop them.3

IMG_2079IMG_2078

The other problem I have is the use of the color pink, particularly in examples like this one. If a girl wants a Spider-Man headband, why does it necessarily have to be pink? Why can’t it just be a red and blue headband with a picture of Spider-Man on it? I don’t have a problem with appealing to a female demographic using specific toys or other objects, but I do take issue with the forced use of the color pink in order to do so. I get just as worked up about this topic regarding professional sports teams producing pink jerseys and hats. There is no pink in the red, blue and white Chicago Cubs’ logo; nor is there any pink in the navy pinstripes of the New York Yankees or in the orange and blue4 of the New York Mets. Maybe I’m a purist when it comes to sports jerseys and comic books characters, but pink is not one of the original colors and I can’t help feeling like the use of pink in these cases sends the messages that girls and women will only purchase something if it’s pink. Like they’re not “fan” enough to wear something that stays true to the original and it has to be pink for it to be worth their time. Give women a bit of credit here.

I realize that there is a part of my argument that seems to sit on both sides of the fence. On one hand, I say that I understand that these are all businesses that are out to make money and that they should be able to sell demographic-specific merchandise to be able to do so; then I say they shouldn’t use pink to appeal to women. I don’t have a problem with using pink to appeal to women; I have a problem with changing something to become pink in order to appeal to women. If Marvel and McDonald’s want to attract women using the Spider-Man character, they should work harder to promote Spider-Girl (link) or they should write slightly different stories for Spider-Man that will appeal more to women. If teams want more women in the stands, put on promotions like discounted women’s jerseys during certain games or team-sponsored ladies nights at a local restaurant. But don’t change the character’s or the team’s colors just because you think girls will only choose something pink.

Maybe I’m a purist. Maybe I’m too rigid. Maybe I just take sports too seriously. Please tell me what you think in the comments section below. But, I’m definitely not the first to raise concerns about gender-specific colors on toys so maybe, just maybe, I’m right.


1. I’m sorry if calling Friends “old” makes you feel uncomfortable about your age. It makes me feel old too, but let’s face it: the last episode aired ten years ago and the series is being re-run on Nick at Nite. It’s old.

2. To be fair, I’ve actually heard some encouraging news on this front. Many of the people I’ve spoken to have actually said that when they’ve gone to McDonald’s with their kids, they’ve been asked a question more along the lines of, “Which toy would you like?” No judgment, just a choice.

3. “Let’s call this store Party C. No, that’s too obvious. Let’s go with P. City.”

4. And, apparently, black. Ugh.