My daughter is no princess. Loud, assertive, and headstrong, she would just as soon as stomp on a castle drawbridge with her size six feet than pine coyly from it, twirling a dainty lock of hair waiting for a Ken doll suitor. Yet the multi-billion dollar media marketing regime is poised to shoehorn her 2-year-old self into being one. As any parent with eyes and a pulse knows, a trip to Americana’s favorite non-unionized big box retailers is a crash course in the enduring power of gender segregation.
Trundling through the “girls’” toys aisle, maneuvering the explosion of pink frilliness, one expects to bump into June Cleaver or Donna Reed. Baby dolls, play ovens, play houses, strollers, dress-up kits, make-up and princess accessories, addle the senses. Around the corner in the boys’ commando-in-training section, trucks, science kits, building sets, blocks, action figures, guns and other rough n’ tuff paraphernalia signal a return to the jungle of discovery, adventure, violence and enterprise.In the ostensibly secular democratic West, this surfeit of consumer options represents “choice,” rather than cultural indoctrination. Unlike in the fundamentalist monolithically repressive Middle East, little American girls certainly aren’t programmed to be subservient. Women in power broker positions abound and capitalist consumption is politically “neutral.”
Indeed, proponents of shattered glass ceilings point to recent job data that suggest American women are actually making bigger employment gains than are men. The decline of the construction and manufacturing industries has severely limited men’s job opportunities. Coupled with the higher proportion of women in four-year colleges, American women would seem to be making out like gangbusters.
There are serious flaws in this premise. First, the gender wage gap shows no signs of narrowing. According to the Center for American Progress, women are the primary breadwinners in over a third of American families. Women are still relegated to the lowest paying service industry jobs in child care, clerical work, domestic work, and teaching. And black women, who are more likely to be single working parents than are women of other ethnicities, remain at the bottom of the gender wage ladder.
Secondly, the new job data fail to account for the double and triple burden of women’s work. Regardless of whether they are custodians or corporate execs, women continue to be saddled with the majority of child care, housework, and adult caregiving. The minute a working mother hits the door, down time is sacrificed for cleaning, parenting, cooking and counseling duties. Sacrifice becomes a woman’s life creed. And it is this message that store flotillas of pink baby dolls, strollers and play houses instill in little sacrificial princesses in training.
Recently, when my students presented a workshop on gender stereotypes in retailing to a group of their peers, the sole male participant commented that he had been targeted for not conforming to the model of “hard” masculinity because he liked to do hair. For young men, any activity that is remotely associated with caring or nurturing is feminine and therefore “gay.” As feminist writer Derrick McMahon notes in his article “Boys and Baby Dolls:” “Boys who wish to play with baby dolls are seen as punks, sissies, and weak…parents are quick to tell little boys that they have no business playing with baby dolls.” While young girls who express interest in traditionally masculine pursuits like car maintenance or science are tolerated as tom boys going through a phase, boys are punished with the heterosexist stigma of being less “manly.”
The consequences of this are exemplified by the epidemic of black male homicide. Trained to be hard, aggressive and indifferent to the value of each others’ lives as mere “niggas,” young black males are inured to the violence they inflict upon each other. What would it mean then for the future of African American communities if there were a paradigm shift, and boys were raised to be caring and nurturing? Biological determinists argue that boys gravitate to cars and guns because they are genetically hardwired to do so. In her groundbreaking book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain , neuroscientist Lise Eliot debunks this assumption, analyzing scientific studies on alleged innate sex differences. She argues that there is “little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains” and that adult perceptions of gender difference strongly influence children’s behavior.
As my daughter begins to navigate the minefield of gender expectations she’ll be constantly told what is proper for a girl. She’ll be hounded by peers, adults, the media and organized religion to be sexually desirable to men on the one hand and chaste and virginal on the other. In a nation of liberated “post-feminist” women, she’ll be propagandized with the contradictory message that romancing kitchenware, cooing after baby dolls, and being a sweet “daddy’s angel” are the keys to fulfillment. And as a third-generation feminist, she’ll be ably equipped with her loud mouth and big feet to storm the drawbridge of gender conformity.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.