Sunday, February 10, 2008

So that boys can play with Barbies

I have been waiting to see something written about "The Daring Book for Girls" and "How To Be the Best at Everything - The Girl's Book" and their companion male editions and it's finally here in today's New York Times Magazine. For those who somehow missed this publishing phenomenon, both these two series are similar handbooks on childhood activities and information that children generally should know.

I have several issues with the contents of these books. The authors try to make an effort try to include activities typically for the other gender but a comparison of the table of contents of the boys book and the girls book reveals that their contents are still gendered. The girls' book includes an overview of Robert's Rules of Order, how to paddle a canoe boy's. The fact based entries in the boys book tend to cover history, politics and the fact based entries in the girls book are devoid of conflict. Instead, the history related entries include "Queens of the World: Cleopatra of Egypt" and "Abigail Adams' Letters with John Adams". No mention of war! The boy's book has not one, but two chapter summarizing twelve battles from Thermopolyae to Gettysburg. It's a not-so-subtle message that boys are more active in the public domain and girls are shielded from the wars and battles the boy's book reveals.

A few of the entries overlap in content but are frame differently. In the boys, there is "The Fifty States". In the girls, a similar entry is called "States, Statehood, Capitals, Flowers, and Trees -- Plus Canada!" The girl's book also features entries on science but one of such is called "Paper Flowers and Capillary Action". Capillary action, as you might remember, is the process by which one substance travels through another, like water up a strip of paper. Why doesn't the boy's entry appeal to flowers and nature?

In addition, the crossing of gender lines only works on way in these books. The girls book covers traditionally male topics such as science and sports but the boys book says nothing of watercolor painting or famous female Olympians, entries in the girl's book. Are boys prohibited from learning about "Modern Women Leaders"?

The issue here is not so much that boys should not learn about female leaders but the deeply rooted homophobia. Boys who know too much about girl's activities are ... gay.

Secondly, even if you so mistakenly believe that the content of the girl and boy books are somehow appropriate for modern children striving for some, the design of the books is intentionally old-fashioned, harkening to the time when gendered behaviors were very much concrete and unchangeable.

As an advocate for gender equality, I want to see gender stereotypes of both sides broken down. In this overwhelmingly patriarchal world, it is less obvious the ways in which men too are bound by their gender roles. In particular, when it comes to children's toys, it seems that boys have it worse than girls in America. It is the boys who are less encouraged to cross the boundaries to play with "feminine" toys. Girls have more freedom than boys to engage in play that crosses gender role boundaries. There is a movement among parents to encourage girls to be more active outdoors and play with toys typically for boys -- Legos, cars, science kits. In fact, there's a hint of pride, of nonconformity for girls to be called tomboys. This is evident in that whenever a discussion of gender socialization comes up in my classes, a girl always raises her hand to proclaim that she decapitated her Barbies and climbed up trees. Imagine what people would think if a boy raised his hand to say he played with dolls?


jammer said...

This is such a good post Chen! I have been thinking a lot more recently on the ways in which boys are kept from "feminine" gender expression, while girls are at least somewhat allowed to take pride in it. I think its just another way of privileging "masculine" traits by making them acceptable to be desired by both men and women while "feminine" traits are not.

Joel said...

This is right on. These look like the kinds of books that "modern" parents might give their kids, feeling proud because they gave a book about math and science to their daughter (while ignoring the chauvinism you point out).

Stuff like this highlights that a new masculinity is needed, just as feminists strive to create a new femininity. With only two genders, defining one is really defining both.