Gift Giving and Gender Socialization

One thing I will never understand is how completely wed so many of us are to traditional gender norms, particularly in the way we raise children.  Even progressive folks who would never say “a woman’s place is in the kitchen” freak out when a little boy is in a pink outfit or when a little girl is given a GI Joe instead of a Barbie.

This is never more frustrating to me than during the holidays.  My nieces and nephew (on another note, is there a gender-neutral term for my sibling’s children?) are awesome but slightly spoiled.  Each and every family member showers them in gifts to the point that they can’t decide what to play with . . . there are too many options.  Some of these gifts are awesomely-gender-neutral like the shopping carts that the kids (boys and girls alike) loved to fill with toys and push around the house.  Others were as gendered as you can get (also note their outfits):

Aiden on His "Cat" Car

Abbie on Her "Princess" Car

At one point, Aiden climbed onto the “Princess” car, and one person in the family exclaimed, “Aiden!  You can’t ride that car!  That one’s for girls!”  Then his older sisters (5 and 3) started echoing the sentiment.

I’ve heard over and over from folks in my family and from others that it’s all pretty harmless or that there’s nothing we can do about it.  “Boys and girls are different biologically!  Boys like certain things, and girls like certain things.  Aiden just likes cars!”

To that, I have two responses.


2.  While I definitely recognize that there are inherent biological differences in the brains of little boys and little girls, I don’t buy that Aiden’s desire for “trucks” is all (or even in majority) biological.  It’s true that his parents do not overtly socialize him in gender norms as much as some other couples, but I asked his dad, “What kind of clothes was he put in as an infant, and what kind of clothes did Abbie wear?  What kind of gifts has he gotten from adults since an infant, and what kind was Abbie given?”  There is an obvious pattern.  These children already have a year and a half of socialization under their belts, and much of that socialization is gendered!

Be clear of the difference:
Sex – A classification based on biological construction, usually pertaining to hormone levels and genitalia
Gender – A classification based on social construction that defines normative roles, as agreed on within society, for those that fit into each category.

The unfortunate reality is that the gendered treatment of little children (blue for boys, pink for girls; trucks for boys, dolls for girls) is not innocent.  Gender is used to create little boxes of oppression that reinforce society’s standard with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity.

My mom likes to tell the story of when I was a little baby and she dressed me in a pink onesie that had been my sister’s.  My mom’s mother-in-law saw me in that outfit and exclaimed, “He can’t wear that!  You’re going to turn him gay!”  She immediately went out to the store and bought a “boys” outfit for me to wear and gave it to my mother.

Now, I likely couldn’t understand this event, but it is one event in an almost-constant barrage of socialization I have received since birth about how I am supposed to dress, act, and look so as not to appear gay.  The level of heterosexism and homophobia present in gender socialization only makes the ways in which boys and girls can express themselves as they get older more restrictive.  I remember, for instance, when I was in high school, and I wore a bright pink shirt to school.  A girl named Sarah came up to me and said, “Jesus, Jamie – you look like a faggot!”  That sends a very clear message to young men about how it is acceptable for them to act and dress in order to appear “normal” (since we clearly define anything outside of a strict gender construction and straight sexual orientation as the antithesis of normal).  What about pink is inherently feminine or gay?  What about blue is inherently masculine or straight?

Additionally, to force all in our society to fit into tiny, gendered boxes from the time they are born is to ensure that certain gender roles are passed on from generation to generation.  There is a reason that little girls are socialized to want to take care of a baby.  We want mothers who fulfill their duty and stay at home to take care of the kids.  There is a reason that all of the little tool belts are marketed in ways that appeal to our gendered understanding of the masculine.

Fortunately, because gender is a social construction, we have all the power to change it.  If we, as a collective, decide that it doesn’t matter what color little boys and girls wear, we can make that a reality.  The only way this happens, though, is for committed activists in movements for social justice to agitate to change acceptable norms.  For instance, it is increasingly easier to give a little girl a children’s chemistry set rather than an easy-bake oven thanks to the committed activists in the Feminist Movement.  It is increasingly more acceptable for men and women to dress and act outside of the gendered norms thanks to committed activists for gender liberation and for an end to sexual orientation oppression.

So how are you questioning gender?

Aiden on the "Princess" Car . . . That's more like it.


2 thoughts on “Gift Giving and Gender Socialization

  1. […] that doesn’t just happen by buying our kids gender-neutral toys or books with fantastic messages.  Instilling inclusiveness as a family value requires some tough […]

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