“I want to be a princess when I grow up!” exclaims my three-year-old daughter, “O.” Those few little words cause my heart to sink as I feel a collective SMH from my post-feminist peers. Where did I go wrong?! We have a plethora of gender-neutral toys, we consistently compliment strength of character and respectful manners over beauty, we even stress overall health and fitness over “girly” activities.
Then again…I did enroll her in ballet this year, and she got both Anna and Elsa dresses for Christmas, and I have been using her long hair as an opportunity to finally learn how to French braid. The truth is she and I have enjoyed each bit of it. So where did I get this feeling that I had somehow let my little girl down? In search of answers (and a scapegoat), I turn to my good friends: history and science.
It turns out it all started with how children were dressed. Historically, children weren’t identified by their outward appearances at all; though it sounds crazy to us now, most babies were simply dressed in white without a hint of pink or blue to be seen. (I don’t know about you, but even the parents in our home avoid wearing white.) The only early reference to wearing these categorical colors appeared when suggesting that blue-eyed dolls should wear blue and brown-eyed dolls should wear pink. It wasn’t until post-war manufacturers began interpreting consumers buying habits that little boys starting dressing more like their fathers and little girls like their mothers, with some room for girls’ “play clothes.”
A backlash on that era yielded more than the bra-less, hairy hippies of the 1960s. It also introduced a unisex version of clothing, with a more masculine slant on all styles. Children’s clothing was being mass produced in primary colors and touted for being easy to wash and wear. This trend continued distinctly through the 1980s. However, when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated animation and advertising targeted at children in the early 1980s, the floodgates for creating dual markets to sell licensed toys and clothing opened. By 1984, Saturday-morning cartoons were like one long commercial. In an effort to capitalize on their audience, toy makers began defining which toys were made specifically for girls and boys. (Because, why share when you can have your own, amiright?) My own childhood desire for a “Kid Sister” to go with my brother’s “My Buddy” illustrates just how well they did their job. My mom never gave in to either of those purchases, which may indicate how well she did hers. But either way, this type of marketing worked! I still remember the theme songs for most of these commercials—I mean, shows.
Pile on top of all that commercialism and the “buy, buy, buy” attitude of the 1980s the quickly growing practice of scientific gender prediction. By the mid-1990s, ultrasounds became routine scans used not only to screen for potential birth defects but just as frequently to predict gender in utero. The first question being asked of expectant mothers quickly became “what are you having?” and it remains a point of order whenever a baby bump enters the room.
So what does all this have to do with how our children play and develop into the best people we can muster? It turns out, a lot. Children don’t typically begin developing a sense of their own gender in how they make choices and interact with the world until the age of three or four—and even then it’s more likely that they are responding to outside influences. If we were to examine some of the outside influences, as parents, we would discover we are met with a conundrum: how do we encourage our children to experience the world without coming away with strict ideas of what is and is not OK for boys and girls to like or do?
A new campaign from across the pond is addressing this conflux of influences with an effort called: “Let Toys be Toys.” It seeks to educate parents and demand that toy manufacturers and publishers operate on a gender-free plane. Their advocacy work is backed by numerous studies, yet some research conducted using young monkeys perpetuates traditional gender preferences in toys, minus the social pressure of our species. Taking my cues from science, I plan to encourage my children to pursue what is appealing to them and work not to discourage their personal preferences regardless of whether or not they fall within traditional gender roles. To borrow from another mother, Carrie Goldman: “Pink is not the [problem]; stereotypes are.”
If “O” decides she wants to be a princess, it should be because that’s what she truly wants and not because anyone expects it from her. The same thing goes for our baby boy, “J”.