Can We Fight Gender Roles and the Pink Ghetto at Once?

This is a post for Karla, who donated to help send me to this year’s Women in Secularism conference. She asked me to address the following argument.

Let’s start with this premise: “An important goal of feminism is to eliminate unequal treatment based on gender.” Seems unarguable.

Except that there are two interpretations of that premise, and they’re incompatible. Let’s call them Position 1 and Position 2. By way of explanation, here’s a short article. It argues that although feminist parents often discourage their daughters from wearing pink, they should not do so, because it perpetuates the idea that girly colors, and by extension girly things, are inferior.

Position 1 thinks this article makes a good point. We don’t denigrate boys for dressing up like soldiers, so why should we denigrate girls for dressing up like princesses? That’s treating maleness as superior to femaleness, which is unequal, which is not OK according to our premise. By the same token: Movie studios and publishers ghettoize chick flicks and chick lit; that’s unequal treatment. The nurturing professions (childcare, nursing, social work, etc.) earn lower salaries just because they’re predominantly filled by women; that’s unequal treatment. Women are often denied tenure or a partnership because they’re unable to put in enough facetime because they shoulder a disproportionate share of the housework and childcare; that’s unequal treatment. We should work to overcome these biases against femaleness: we should review more chick lit in mainstream publications, we should pay daycare workers more, we should provide equal opportunities to women on the mommy track.

Position 2 thinks this article misses the point completely. The problem is not that we’re biased against girly colors; the problem is that there ARE girly colors. There should be just as many boys as girls wearing pink or any other color. There should be just as many men as women writing novels about relationships, and just as many women as men writing about novels about war. There should be just as many male as female nurses, and just as many female as male firefighters. There should be just as many male as female stay-at-home parents, and men and women should share housework and childcare equally. When there are no longer male and female colors, male and female professions, male and female roles in relationships, only then will we have attained equality. We should encourage women to embrace traditionally male attributes (a lot of progress has been made here) and we should encourage men to embrace traditionally female attributes (almost no progress has been made here).

Position 1 and Position 2 are not compatible. Position 1 takes male and female roles for granted; Position 2 wants to eliminate them.

If the positions aren’t compatible, then they can’t both be correct. Assuming one of them is correct, which is it, and why? Or can they be reconciled after all?

I agree with your premise. In general, I agree with Position 1 as you’ve stated it here. I have some quibbles about your suggestion on how the “mommy track” be treated, but they’re small and that’s another post (which is, in fact, about half written).

I think Position 2 is something of a misunderstanding of a different argument. That argument is about choice and about the freedom of our choices. Currently, many people point to male and female representation in various fields as the core reason for income inequality between genders. It isn’t, but again, that’s another post. From there, they extrapolate that the core reason for income inequality is choice, as everyone has a choice of what field they go into, and therefore, income inequality based on gender is not a problem we have to solve.

In response, feminists point out that choices are not always freely made, that is, made without constraints. When we look, we find constraints on the interests of boys and girls from infancy onward. Those constraints take the form of gendered clothing and toys, parental approval or disapproval (up to and including abuse) of gendered behavior, straightforward statements of what “boys do” and “girls do” from peers, biased perceptions of aptitude from teachers and employers, and sexual harassment and discrimination up to and including assault of those perceived to be gender nonconforming.

When we look at all those constraints, and listen to people whose choices have been affected by them, or those who had to deal with them in order to achieve their goals, it becomes very reasonable to point the segregation in today’s world and say that things would not look this way if we removed those constraints. We can look at how various groups have changed demographics in the last few decades as the restraints have been reduced to tell us that we’re right about that.

Does that mean that precise equality in numbers would rule the day if we removed all constraints? No. Continued inequality along with continued evidence of bias tells us we still have problems to fix, but it doesn’t tell us that the two are perfectly linked. Lack of bias is the goal, not equality of numbers. We pay attention to equal numbers because they’re a decent proxy for how well we’re addressing bias now, but they may not always be in the future, particularly as the amount of bias in our society decreases.

All that said, I see no incompatibility between Position 1 and Position 2. In fact, I see Position 1 as a necessary step toward Position 2.

I understand how the confusion arises, though. Position 1 deals with how we manage in the here and now of a society that is highly gendered. Because that is its primary concern, it’s using the language of the here and now. The reality behind the language is not as gendered as the language would lead you to believe, however. When we talk about “chick flicks”, we’re talking about films that–at the extreme–still found a quarter of their audience in men and boys. When we talk about the “mommy track”, about one in ten of those people we’re talking about are men. The names of the phenomena are feminine. The groups involved are much less so.

That means that when we say we shouldn’t allow the world to denigrate romance films or stay-at-home parents, we’re not talking about a problem that affects people or doesn’t based on their gender. We’re talking about a problem that is associated more with women by our society, though it actually affects people of any gender.

Nor do we only care about it because these issues are used to denigrate women. We also care about it because these issues are used to denigrate non-gender-conforming men, as well as trans and genderqueer people. You note that we haven’t come nearly as far in opening up the full range of human behavior to men as we have to women. This is quite true, and part of the reason that this has been difficult is this “woman = bad; man = good” dichotomy.

Women who transgress by adopting “masculine” gender presentation or interests are punished for that transgression, frequently by some form of sexual harassment. They face microaggressions in the form of questioning their ability and suggestions that their “real” interests should lie elsewhere. However, because “masculine” is coded as “good”, women who transgress are seen as doing something worthwhile. The risks they take are explicable, sometimes even grudgingly admired.

Men who transgress by adopting “feminine” gender presentation or interests also face punishment and microaggressions, but they don’t get the benefit of having their transgressions viewed as reasonable. They are seen as tainting their masculinity with undesirable femininity. For that, they often face stricter punishments. Where a young girl may have “boy” toys taken away from her if she’s caught playing with them, a young boy who plays with dolls may face having “the sissy beaten out of him”. He is sullied by transgression in a way a girl is not, and he faces a stricter punishment because of it. When we look at hate violence statistics, we find transgender women (women identified male at birth)–people who most strongly challenge male gender norms–to face among the highest rates of murder (pdf).

Position 2 doesn’t contradict Position 1. Position 2, when properly viewed as a shorthand for eliminating the bias that prevents people from following their own interests regardless of gender, requires that we eliminate the bias against “feminine” interests and activities. Until we do that, men and others identified male at birth cannot safely, much less comfortably, pursue interests that are currently identified as feminine. In this respect, they’re even less free than women.

Can We Fight Gender Roles and the Pink Ghetto at Once?
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8 thoughts on “Can We Fight Gender Roles and the Pink Ghetto at Once?

  1. 1

    On a relate note — do you remember the brouhaha when the Lego Friends line was released, an example of the “pink ghetto” if you ever saw one?

    Feeding into the complicated interaction between Position 1 and 2 there, my two sons and I have recently discovered that the Lego Friends sets, are, well, actually really nice. I probably have enjoyed them on average more than doing Star Wars sets, and I frikkin’ love Star Wars. 🙂 They tend to include a lot more clever small details, e.g. so instead of a stuff like big working rocket launchers (which is pretty cool anyway), the high school for instance has this really neat telescope made out of just a few standard Lego pieces. Or there was this really cleverly constructed keyboard for the rock and roll stage set. Just really neat little details, a richness that I find lacking in some of the other sets.

    Like a lot of progressives, I huffed at Lego Friends when it first came out. My wife pointed out (in consonance with Position 1) that Legos were already pretty ghettoized, what with most of the lines focusing on very stereotypically boy-centric stuff like big robots and planes, and muted colors like gray and blue, and that she thought the Lego Friends stuff looked pretty cool and wanted to try some sets. And I’ve wound up really liking them.

    Which is not to say that the criticisms of Lego Friends weren’t accurate. Sooo… once again, everything is hard 🙂

  2. 3

    Position 1 is about equality between gender expression; that seems reasonable enough. Why should ‘chick lit’ not be judged as fairly as a spy novel? In fact, most of the classic works of the 19th Century were ‘chick lit’ and literature as a whole was largely denigrated for this.

    In the case of the caring professions the pendulum really ought to swing the other way; those are clearly more socially valuable than many ‘male’ professions and ought to be rewarded accordingly. There’s something deeply perverse about a society in which people’s desire to care for others is used to legitimate lower wages or as moral blackmail to prevent them taking industrial action.

    Position 2 is about abolishing gender entirely. If pink, and dolls and romcoms are adopted equally by boys then they cease to be gendered; ditto skirts, high heals and make-up. If sports shirts, toy guns and war films are adopted equally by girls they cease to be signifiers of maleness. That seems a reasonable goal in a world in which sex exists as a simple binary opposition and I doubt many here would not argue that there ought to be much more fluidity.

    The problem is that sex isnt a simple binary opposition and part of the resistance you will get here is from trans people who see gender as an authentic expression of their identity. This isn’t about ‘men transgressing by adopting “feminine” gender presentation’.

    We are seeing this argument elsewhere on Freethought Blogs in the conflict between trans women and drag acts: drag acts subvert gender expression through parodying female performance codes but the cost is paid by trans women who’s gender expression is thereby delegitimised.

    So you need a Position 3 which acknowledges that many regard gender as a signifier of gender independent of sex assigned at birth.

  3. 4

    Shatterface, gender identity and a strong coding of interests and activities by gender are two very different things. I know of several trans people who resent having to perform their gender to a exaggerated degree in order persuade medical gatekeepers to give them access to the care they need.

  4. 5

    We don’t denigrate boys for dressing up like soldiers, so why should we denigrate girls for dressing up like princesses?

    I’m going to argue that both things are equally bad in their extremesand I discourage my kids from either.
    The princess is an object whose only value is in beauty, 100% passive waiting to be rescued.
    To be against this doesn’t denigrate femininity, it’s being against toxic bullshit*.
    Same with the soldier whose job is to kill, whose only solution is to kill, whose only worth is to kill. If I had a son that wouldn’t be the role model I would want him to have.** That’s toxic bullshit, too.
    Therefore, there are some things that are banned in this house.
    And yes, having kids I deeply resent the segregation of childhoods. I’m wondering hw this generation of children is supposed to function as adults together. No, there is nothing wrong about sparkle and pink and frills and unicorns and cars and dragons and pocketknives and blue. What is wrong is that people act like they are inherently male or female.

    *I do, indeed, own several “princess” dresses, handmade movie replicas. Yes, I quite love things made of silk and velvet
    ** I also own a few swords and a longbow. And a leather armor. The kids also have wooden swords.

  5. 6

    Position 2 is about abolishing gender entirely.

    I’m not totally sure after reading Shatterface’s comment whether they think this is good or bad, but I think it’s the latter. To which I would respond: Why? What purpose does gender serve? Why *not* abolish it?

  6. 7

    What worries me is the strength of the backlash; for, backlash it is.

    In the seventies and eighties, (and, in some families, like mine, even earlier) it was possible to raise children as children, not as ‘boys’ or ‘girls’. I was born in 1957; I had toy animals (zoo and farm), trains and cars (and no dolls – I hated them), and my brother (born 1960) had dolls. My even younger sisters were equally allowed to play with whatever they wanted – and Lego was a totally non-gendered toy.

    My older three (born in the ’80s) were also raised ‘gender-neutral’ in that they were allowed to play with whatever they wanted to; the boys loved their My Little Ponies at least as much as their sister did, (and I doubt they were the only boys of their age-group, which probably helps to explain ‘Bronies’ in their thirties). And all of them played with cars and trains and other toys. I don’t recall ‘pink packaging’ and I certainly don’t recall any such thing as gendered toy aisles (they might be a purely USAian phenomenon; I don’t see them to this day in Ireland).

    My younger two (90s) were also raised gender-neutral.

    There are a LOT of people in their twenties to forties who are the backbone of the equality movement; and a lot of older people in power HATE that – and are trying their hardest, with all the resources at their disposal, to try to subvert that movement by propagandising to my grandchildren’s generation.

    They have a fight on their hands. We won’t give in.

  7. 8

    Hm. I remember an old Doonesbry joke form the animated special. A little girl is playing with dolls, and little girl #2 little girl tells her she can’t. The first girl cries. “You’re reinforcing gender stereotyping” says girl #2. (I think she was supposed to be Mike Doonesbury’s kid, but this was in the late 70s).

    I don’t recall being particularly gender-enforced as a kid in the 70s, but who knows. There were some things that wre “or boys” and “for girls” but it was also a period in which we saw girls joining little leagues and such.

    I do notice that there is a lot more gender-policing in pop culture. That is, there’s more sexualization rather then genderization (can I use that word? Is it one? I am flailing a bit). I see Bratz and stuff like that for girls that seem awfully young for it. And my father, for instance, (he’s 70) noted that the sexualization of the culture generally has been turned up to 11 — and he’s been around long enough to notice I expect. But I too see it even when I think of the difference between say, a Playboy shoot from 1985 and what’s considered “standard” now — heck, when I think of being a teen 30 years ago I can’t help but feel that the “sex sells” bit has become more intense, if that’s the right word.

    Anyway, I can’t help but think that has an effect down the age curve. And that in turn has the pernicious effect of gender-segregation for smaller kids. Seems to me if you sexualize younger and younger women you automatically put on some pretty hard restrictions on gender roles.

    Obviously this is complicated a bit by the more out gay culture that exists, and for men the ability to non-gender conform is greater than when I was younger — being gay is no picnic but I’d say it’s better now for teenagers than it was (remember, we had the whole AIDS fear thing to contend with too back then too, that’s much less acute now. I talk to kids in their 20s and the fear levels are much, much lower than they were for me and my peers). But…

    I am curious if anyone else thought similarly – maybe I am being stupid.

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