10 May 2013

Gender Neutral

I find myself confused about the sudden push for labeling things "for boys."  For example, Pinterest is full of pins claiming "best chapter books for boys," "party games for boys," and "craft projects for boys."  Maybe I am confused by this because I have girls, so there is not motivation for me to be considering gender specific activities, but I still have to ask: why?
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My inner humanist is rolling her eyes right out of her skull because...come on. We live in a country where every single last thing caters to a male normalized view.  Strikes me that finding things that are designed for boys can't really be that hard. I am not saying that having boys (or being a boy) is inherently easier, but it does seem that when your interests have been historically considered to be the only worthy interests, there has to be a prevalence of male-oriented material out there. I am willing to continue with the thought experiment, and set the idea that there is some kind of dearth of boy stuff as a reasonable parameter for this disjointed collection of musings on the matter. 
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As a culture we do not realize that all toys are gender neutral toys.  Children are, for quite a while as they grow, completely gender fluid.  Kids will play with what is there, and exposure to all kinds of toys from blocks, to dolls, to cars, to dress-up only serves to heighten their creative play and build up their little brains.  Kids only concern themselves with what is "for boys" and what is "for girls" when they become conscious of the social agenda around them.  While some parents enforce this strictly so as to support their own stringent ideas of gender roles, even parents who purposefully aim to raise children in a gender neutral/friendly/equal opportunity environment soon find themselves with their preschooler informing them that "Kaitlyn said cars are for boys."  Maybe the take-home message here is that is we were all a little less panicky about our sons wanting to take ballet, or our daughters not wanting to take ballet, then the need for an endless litany of books/movies/crafts that won't damage anyone's fragile ego wouldn't be no necessary.
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I am reminded of a discussion that took place at PAX East in 2012 during a panel with the writers from Geek Mom and Geek Dad.  The basic premise was that finding books and media within the geek culture that portrayed strong female characters (and not ones we like because they are "so beautiful") can be hard.  As the conversation rolled on everyone seemed to agree that girls would read anything that appealed/was available to them, regardless of the protagonists gender classification, while getting boys to read books where girls are the lead characters was not as successful.  The point was that there is a larger market available when you cater to boys because girls will just suck it up and read it anyway. See also: Pixar and gender bias in movie marketing.  Since I refuse to believe that boys are somehow less creative or inherently less able to enjoy media that isn't "dumbed" down to their specific niche, I can only assume that external forces- too many socially enforced gender norms-have a big role to play here.  Much like toys, books should be considered gender neutral---even when that is really hard given the huge volume of gender pandering crap that seems to be written for kids these days.  There is a reason why Harry Potter and Percy Jackson,both featuring male protagonists with strong female counterparts who consistently steal the show/save the day, are modern classics.
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I have written about the gender disparity surrounding our staunch belief that boys must be Boys, with a capital "B" before, but maybe it bears repeating.  I do not say these things to be derisive of boys, or people raising boys.  I say it out of frustration that in a culture that prioritizes "maleness" above all else, that gender identity is so much more restrictive for boys.  Girls may suffer more discrimination, more sexual shaming, and just plain more work for the same rewards, but girls do get a bit more of a pass on gender-specific activities.  Not like it makes is makes it fair, overall being a woman in America is harder than being a man, but the bar for "being a man" is set so high, it makes you wonder how anyone makes it to being a well-adjusted grown up.
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I guess the point of all these musing is that, SPOILER ALERT:  there is no such thing as a "crafts for boys."  All kids crafts are for all kids, if you perceive paper mache as having a gender implication...well yeah, you might want to do some soul searching.  Same thing with books. Stories are for people.  Well written stories will capture the interest of most kids because good writing has a universal appeal.  Encourage your children not to read "boy books" or "girl books" but merely to read books, and make art, and do crafts, and try sports, and write poetry and any other goddamn thing they think they might like.  Green goddess on a pony it is just "play."

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