Now that I am getting that bit older, quite a few of my friends now have children. Whenever I have to buy presents for the girls, I have my customary moan about how rubbish toys are for girls, compared to those for boys. (Remember if you will that I was always a tomboy. I never played with dolls. I always wanted a gun and a cowboy hat so maybe I’m an extreme judge.) It is not just my personal dislike of pink and cute dolls though, it is the implications of these toys. Boys get to discover science, other worlds, girls get to wait for their prince to come. They get to cook and iron. It all seems a little unfair.
I have now finished reading Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine and the final chapters looked at the effect the environment that children grow up in has on them. It also suggested how quickly children learn what is perceived as right and wrong for each gender. And how subtle their senses are. All very disturbing.
Most of my friends thought that they would try to bring their children up in a gender free environment. And they all made some concessions to this. No pink, perhaps. Neutral toys. Similarly, when I bought presents, I made sure to buy science or practical toys for the girls, for example. It wasn’t surprising that many of our efforts resolved around toys and clothes. After all, they are the most obvious signifiers of gender around. Pretty simple stuff, I suppose. And then when their little girls decided they wanted pink anyway (interestingly this does seem to apply more to girls than boys) parents started to question the social basis of gender and look towards genetics and biology.
And I was tempted to agree. Now, after reading Delusions of Gender, I realise exactly how small our efforts were. Fine writes of one family who changed all of the pictures in their childrens picture books so that they were of the opposite gender. That certainly made our efforts seem quite small by comparison.
One parent told a story of buying her daughter tools but seeing her look after them, wrap them in blankets, as if they were dolls. This was taken as biological instinct but Fine asked the question of who was the primary caretaker, who put the child to bed? Could it be that her daughter had simply learned the clues as to what she should do with her toys from what her mother did? Interestingly, Fine’s own sons played like this with their trucks and their father was the primary caregiver.
Children see gender everywhere. Fine talks of the number of pre-school books that still have gendered images, women in aprons and as primary caretakers, for example. And then there is the influence of other children. Children want to fit in with their peers. Children are more likely to make gendered toy choices in the presence of their peers then at home. Finally, there are other families. Even if your family has a stay at home father, your child will very quickly understand that this is unusual.
So we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that biology is the only thing so all encompassing as to be able to override our attempts at non gendered environments. After finishing this book two things were clear to me. One, our attempts at gender neutrality were too small to even matter, two, social factors were easily as large and all-consuming as biological ones. If, in the future, I have a family of my own, I now realise that I would have to go a lot further than a no-pink household in order to create a gender neutral environment.