Gender and Play Clothes

The last time I ventured into the baby section of a clothing store I was looking for something for a friend’s new baby.  Something plain, I thought, maybe a 3-pack of onesies that I could stencil something onto.  Apparently those don’t exist anymore.  Instead, I found a shop divided decisively into a pink side and a blue side, into tiaras and t-shirts, tutus and tractors.  Boys got pictures of dinosaurs and builders, girls got bedazzled shoulders and cutesy slogans.  When it comes to children, their clothes are gendered, as are their toys, as are expectations of who they will be and become.

The toy industry magazine Play Things poses an interesting question: If underwear sections in a Chinese department store aren’t gender-specific, why are our toy stores?  The thing is, we don’t have to travel very far to be reminded that there’s a different way of doing things.

Below is a print ad run by Lego, taken from Sociological Images.  It’s not just the burnt orange and brown colour palette that makes me nostalgic for my own days of lego – it’s the denim dungarees,  practical braids and turn-ups.  It’s the idea of PLAY CLOTHES.

Where did that idea go?  That children need a wardrobe of clothes that it’s okay to get messy, outfits that say “what I am about to do is more important than looking cute”.

Now, I love dinosaurs, tutus, tractors and tiaras but I think they ought to be voluntary and open to all genders to pick them up, wear them in odd combinations or ignore them as desired.  Instead, the situation we are now putting children into is one in which everything is thoroughly and aggressively gendered.  The professions they are offered for imaginative play are a) less inventive than those they would come up with on their own and b) strictly limited by gender.  Every object is placed along a binary line from girlness to boyness – and increasingly the argument is being made for those distinctions as natural, innate and inescapable.

The gendering and segregation of merchandise is complicated and adaptive, and requires us to educate ourselves about our purchasing habits.  It may seem bad business to separate off half of the population from half of the merchandise, but one of the consequences of being told “all of these things are for boys” can make a boy, or the person shopping for him, think that all “these things” are necessary.  Think about how this plays out with adults – the aggressive distinctions in how skin care products are marketed to men and women encourages both groups to buy it, and to buy lots of it.  By being told “it’s okay for you to have this” marketers are telling you that a) your gender presentation requires constant work to maintain and b) the products you purchase and display can perform or destroy the maintenance work you do.

But because we know this on some level, and because many of us shopping for toys have been frustrated at the selection, accommodations are made.  A girl can aspire to be a doctor, so long as she wants to look hot while she’s doing it.  Toy microscopes are available in black and in pink, but the pink one is less powerful.  Now, I’ve taken these links from the website Sociological Images, but have found the same thing in any toy shop or catalogue I have dared peek into.  I’m going to reference Images again here, for a great post on the fractal nature of the binary, which explains how you can have things which appear to subvert this gender policing, but actually don’t.  I can’t help the linking love – it’s so rare to find a website I believe is a genuine resource to humanity!

The thing is most children are, at some point, already preoccupied by gender.  It’s wildly important to them at different stages, as they work out how they fit into the world and how to define themselves within and against it.  All of the elements of their lives, what they wear and what they play with, now combine to give them a very specific sense of who they are and what they can be – while telling them that it’s more important how they look than what they’re doing.

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