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It’s at once exhilarating and terrifying.  My kids “know” Elmo.  I don’t mean we’ve been to Sesame Place (we haven’t) or that they watch Sesame Street (they don’t) or that they have three thousand Elmo-emblazoned toys at home (they haven’t).  I mean, they’re at the age where they’re pointing out all the Elmos in the world.  And that furry red monster is a sneaky bastard, lemme tell ya.  Dude is everywhere.  Sure there’s clothes, toys, and games.  Elmo has moved beyond the Tickle Me stage, and has matured into Big Hugs, Forever Friends, Lullaby & Good Night, Steps to School, Guitar Elmo, Potty Time Elmo, Counting, Trains, Soccer, K’nex, Memory, LeapFrog, and, the most disturbing evolution yet of the Tickle Me Elmo, “LOL Elmo”.  In addition to fruit snacks and applesauce with the tempting red furry mug on them, Elmo is now peddling a variety of Earth’s Best organic foods, including crackers, cookies, canned pasta in sauce, frozen waffles, instant oatmeal, squeeze-pouch smoothies, and frozen entrees.

Unlike the happy meal or cereal box that comes with a prize (do they still do that? Or is an iTunes download more enticing?), these products have little to do with the character on them.  Maybe the crackers are shaped like Elmo’s head, but the oatmeal is just oatmeal.  They are simply branded to build loyalty, character recognition, and ring up sales.  My friend who is an expert in mass media is nodding vigorously right about now, and it’s no shocker.  Kids’ characters promote products to families with kids.

PhD please.

My children are just now entering the word-combining phase of their speech development.  We are collecting their gems such as “Mama poop” (a comment) “No, doggy!” (a condemnation)“Mama, off shirt” (a command) and “More oatmeal” (a request).  One of the things that fascinated me as they learned their first words were the semantic features they would use to differentiate between words.  “Cracker” was an early word, and it encompasses all small, crunchy hand-held foods, such as Chex, Cheerios, Ritz, yogurt melts, freeze-dried strawberries and Gerber puffs. My son uses his name to apply to all babies, in person or in pictures.  The children may understand many differentiations for footwear, but only a binary distinction is required expressively.  There are “choos”, and there are “cocks”.  And when they want their Crocs, you’ll know, as they shriek and point “COCK” at the top of their  lungs.  (and don’t ask me about how they pronounce “fork” and “shirt”).  Beyond the thrilling worlds of clothing and food, they’re learning about their environment and the people/animals in it.  Children’s authors receive a dictum that approximately 70% of books must contain farm animals.  I think the library associations are subliminally preparing our children for an agrarian lifestyle.  They’re also learning about furniture, everyday objects, and those big grown-up strollers: cars.  No shocker that “car” was one of their first words, and that “mama car” and “dada car” were two of the earliest two-word phrases.  Taking them shopping was a veritable sensory overload in the parking lot, trying to label and point to all the cars individually.  (There’s a car!  There’s another car! A car!  Look, a car!  Omigosh, another one!  Car over there! Here’s a car!”)

So it follows that I wasn’t the least bit surprised that they were identifying Abby Cadabby and Elmo as we ventured out into the world.  Mind, they’ve never seen the television tuned to any children’s programming.  We have books with these characters, and they occasionally have seen them on their box of crackers or in a Babies ‘R Us circular.  Taking them through Target or the grocery store is getting dangerous.  They’re liable to point out every Abby and Elmo in sight.  And of course, I get excited and proud when they recognize a familiar character or object.  Yes, my sweet little geniuses, that is a dog walking in our neighborhood!  That is an avocado just like we eat at home! But just as I can’t buy every avocado in the supermarket, I’m not going to bring home every Disney Cars toy either.

Planning their birthday party last year – I should say overplanning­ — I was lost for a “theme”.  Diving into the depths of Pinterest I saw all manner of one-year-old themes, from Eric Carle, to Dr. Seuss, to “You are my Sunshine”, to Mickey Mouse, to trucks.  I know the party is for the parents, to celebrate having survived the hardest year of their lives, have kept the defenseless slug-like child alive long enough to actually enjoy it, but I was perplexed by the themes.  Visits to the overachieving parents’ blogs would reveal, “Little Bisquick is so into The Very Hungry Caterpillar, we carved a butter sculpture with naturally-derived dyes in the shape of a chrysalis”.  Or “Rubella is so into Cookie Monster we turned the house into a Sesame Street backdrop for photo ops”. I wondered if there was something wrong with my kids that they hadn’t expressed preferences yet.  Should they be “into” princesses or hippos or farm equipment by now?  Sure there are books we read over and over and over again until we know them from memory, but my kids’ demanding to hear “Moo Baa Lalala” for the 47th time doesn’t make me want to run out and buy all the Sandra Boynton paper plates and napkins in the world.  I know they need repetition to learn language and concepts.  That’s why Blue’s Clues airs the same show five days a week.  It’s not so parents want to drive ice picks through their ears; kids actually learn that way.  (Learning from television itself, now that’s a separate story)

Once they started pointing out all the Elmos in the world, they also started pointing out more mundane things.  Cars, for one, but also doors.  My kids love to knock on doors, especially if their parents are behind said doors, trying to use the bathroom.  (I may have taught them this game, but I may have been influenced by a college roommate. I’m not naming names.  It’s funny if you’re 1 or 21, that’s all I’m saying.) So when we go to the children’s museum, they get excited by seeing the plastic bananas in the supermarket, riding the boat in the fairytale-themed exhibit, and knocking on the doors to the maintenance rooms.  Are they “into” doors?  Are they “into” bananas?

No, because outside of the sexy world of energy efficiency, Pella hasn’t figured out how to make doors fun and exciting to parents.  Chiquita hasn’t been working on cultivating the 3-and-under set to demand banana appliqués on their onesies.  There’s no commercial market place for unbranded products.  And no birthday theme packs, either.

I suppose that parents are so excited to see their kids recognize an object or character, that they project their own schema of interest, and that supplants the baby’s intent to just say, “Hey, mom, that’s a dog”.  Identifying the object (or pointing to every car in the parking lot) is the purpose of the interaction.  I know we want to support their growth, so we look for their interests.  We buy them all the Elmo drek, we fill their playrooms with vehicles and princess paraphernalia.  I think that gender roles and gender norms creep deviously into our minds and our parenting styles much more subtly than we think.  It’s not just the glittery pink Stride Rite shoes versus Star Wars action sneakers.  It’s also caregivers seeing a boy identify “car”, inferring that he’s into cars, and jumping on the boys-love-vehicles bandwagon.  They might ignore when their daughter does the same, or at least not praise it with as much overt enthusiasm.  You don’t have to explicitly tell a boy that dolls are for girls, but you might not perceive a boy as nurturing if you don’t recognize the times he pretends to feed his baby doll.

Have the marketers and ad agencies figured this out, too?  You betcha.  Put a character on a box of cereal or a carton of ice cream, and the kid will identify it, which the parent will interpret as “want”.  Even better, put it on a healthy, natural product (Princess carrots.  Have you seen these?), and the parent will coalesce the kid’s “interest” with their own desire to choose nutritious foods.  Once the kid does get old enough that the “interest” has been nurtured and funded, it’s only a matter of time until you overhear, “Mommy, I want Dora ice cream” and “But I NEED the Thomas backpack!”

That Dora cake at her first birthday?  That was all for you.  That carton of purple ice cream (or, technically, “frozen dairy dessert”) when she’s 5?  That’s to get you out of ACME without a major meltdown.

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When I was a younger, small(er) person, I helped my father hang French doors in the doorway leading from the foyer to the living room. For years we had had a ramshackle system of homemade gates designed to keep kids and dogs out of the living room and away from the musical instruments and breakables. Finally, we installed real doors, which had the advantage of keeping humidity out (instruments no likey humidity), letting light in, and sealing dogs out (instruments no likey dogs). My father handed me a hammer, a chisel, and a small ladder, and showed me where to carve into the virgin doorframe. Obligingly, and with utmost care to detail, I carved 4 perfect mortises (you come to this blog to learn vocabulary, right? A mortise is the rectangular inset in a doorframe where the hinge is attached, so as to make it flush with the wood. And now you know.) for the doors. I was called “The Mortician” for longer than was funny. I was 14, or 12, or 10. The age goes down with each retelling, the point being that I had accomplished this most difficult and adult task while merely a young child.

And a girl at that. The latter point being one of my own making, I was brought up without regard to “boy tasks” or “girl tasks”, and believed I could do anything presented to me, in spite of the model my parents set in their traditional roles. Mommie cooked, and Daddie took out the trash. Mommie sewed the clothing, and Daddie changed the oil in the cars. Daddie mowed the lawn, and Mommie picked out the wall color. Mommie stayed home with the kids while working part-time, but Daddie’s paycheck kept us in our home.

Yet I grew up learning and doing without regard to gender roles. As often as I’d raid my mother’s fabric scrap heap to sew quilts and clothing for my dolls, I’d raid my father’s supply of scrap wood to find boards to cut jigsaw puzzles from. I loved mowing our huge lawn, because that was a $10 chore; nothing else compared. I was even given my very own jigsaw as a birthday present. While my brother was perched on the counter baking cookies with my mother, I was in the basement with my father hot-gluing shingles onto a dollhouse. I seemed to feel equally at home doing both mommie and daddie things.

Even into adulthood, I see my parents’ view of me as one without gender roles. My house-warming gifts from them have included a Black & Decker power screwdriver, a sewing machine, a circular saw, and an ironing board. I feel as though they instilled in me a sense that I could do anything, that Girls were not limited to pink or dolls or the kitchen.

Now, though, I struggle internally as I see, again and again, the girls slink off to their corner to let the boys do “man stuff”. When it’s time to build a set, or take one down after a play, I see the boys leap into action, grabbing screw-guns and tool belts, and the girls retire to organize the costume racks, to inventory barrettes, and to wash stinky tights. As girls, and even teens, we struggled to appear competent and willing to pitch in for any activity. In college, as upperclassmen, we shared the burden of moving over-packed freshmen into their dorms with Suburbans full of stuff. And now, these same women, of my generation (they who wielded hand-trucks in the quad), gravitate towards costumes, make-up, and cleaning and stacking chairs while the men grab screwdrivers, don work gloves, and load up the trucks.

Am I now at a stage of life – wizened as I am at 28 – that I have nothing more to prove in this matter? I know that I can help out as willingly as any man, but do I care if anyone else thinks I can? I guess I can choose now not to. I now have excuses, if I choose to use them: my wrist has tendonitis which is aggravated by heavy lifting, my left hand never quite recovered its stamina after my brain surgery, so I lose my grip, and my acid reflux flares up when I strain to move scenery or furniture. I don’t use those, though. I need to be content that it’s my choice, not my ability, that has me scrupulously categorizing foundation and eyeliner during a set strike.

At home, we help each other with everything, Mr. Apron and I. We don’t share all home tasks 50-50, because things don’t work out that way. He likes playing in the sink, so he does the lion’s share of the washing up. I prefer to guard my delicates against the mean face of the dryer, so I do more laundry. I hate fueling up my car, so Mr. Apron helps me out when he can. Tonight, we were on the way back from rehearsal, and he made a point of stopping for gas, just because he knows I will need it in the week to come. Neither of us vacuum until we’re disgusted with the state of our rugs; it’s very balanced, you see.

I think this all relates back to feminism. You can call it post-feminism, you can say that feminism is simply refusing to be treated like a doormat, you can say my husband has a bridge-brain. Whatever. My brand of feminism, or whatever it’s called, means that I know how to check my oil, and add a quart. I know how to change a flat tire single-handedly, and I own my own air compressor. I can tell a ball peen from a claw hammer from a mallet. But…I’m just as happy to let Mr. Apron check my oil, call for roadside assistance if it’s 40 below, and let my mechanic top of the fluids in my car. I’d rather bake brownies to thank the man who fixed our lopsided bed. I’d rather bake brownies, period.

If you think that means I’m still not liberated from the shackles to the stove, I don’t believe you. It still pisses me off to watch women skulk back to their defined 1950s roles when the power tools come out, but I suspect there’s a good deal of social loafing going on. Or maybe they’re just exercising their preferences. Regardless of what we women choose to be doing, I just hope we’re all secure the knowledge of what we could do.