little boxes

The topic of gender is on a lot of people's minds lately. From issues close to home that affect transgendered students in our schools, to celebrities coming out about fluidity within their gender expression, to the continued online threats to women and those in gender studies at our institutions of higher learning, there is no lack of discussion about gender and how it colours our everyday lives. While I highly suggest you read about these issues above (and take action where you can), today I would like to discuss the concept of gender neutrality

As a primer for those who may not understand what I am talking about, gender neutrality is described as the idea that policies, language, and other social institutions should avoid distinguishing roles according to people's sex or gender, in order to avoid discrimination arising from the impression that there are social roles for which one gender is more suited than the other.

In other (far simpler) words, not dividing the world according to BOY things and GIRL things. 

This month Ellen Degeneres launched a new line of clothing in partnership with Gapkids. The Gapkids X ED line is supposedly aimed at being a more gender neutral clothing option for our kids. Except all the ads are about girls, and if you go to the Gapkids website, the clothing line is still divided into girls styles and boy styles, with way more options for girls.  

Which makes me wonder, how exactly is this gender NEUTRAL?

In a wonderful article in the National Post this week, Audra Williams wondered some of these very same things as well.

Is it really that revolutionary for girls to wear pants and muted colours, no matter what the soundtrack? Why does “gender neutral” have to mean “without any traditionally feminine signifiers”?

Don't get me wrong. I really like the new line from Ellen and Gapkids. What with all the funky graphic tees, cool jackets and comfortable leggings, what's not to like? My almost 7-year old daughter is all over it, probably because her main clothing concerns these days happen to be, "Is it comfy?" and "Do I look "cool"?".  Truth be told, I'm pretty much at that same place in my style choices as well, and having just perused Ellen's grown up clothing line, I have picked out a few pieces that I quite like too. But, let's be clear, however cute/edgy/funky/cool this new line of clothing is, it is NOT gender neutral.

The problem is when companies start talking about or trying to be more gender neutral and then proceed to NOT actually be truly gender neutral. In this case, (and almost all cases) it is very much as if the concept is distorted to mean making "girl things" more like "boy things" (and rarely ever vice versa). This whole Gapkids X ED campaign leaves me shaking my head and feeling a bit like Inigo Montoya in Princess Bride telling Vizzini that he is not using the word inconceivable correctly. 

The default for gender neutral in our consumer-led, historically patriarchal world is almost always MALE. Which in and of itself is a bit funny considering that biologically our default gender is actually female (Fun Fact: for the first 8 weeks of our existences, all fetuses have the exact same rudimentary reproductive and sexual organs that are physically female.) But back to the clothes. Or toys. Or Lego. Ms. Williams goes on in her article to cut to the heart of the issue and says:

If gender neutral clothes are only made for and marketed to the parents of little girls, it is less a sign of gender equality and more an indication of the misogyny that is so ambient in our culture. There is such a devaluing of anything traditionally feminine that we’d rather chuck it out triumphantly than ever demean our boys with it.

Now, I have my share of opinions on clothing manufacturers going a bit TOO far on the female gendered spectrum and reducing girls to being "Mrs. {Insert Male SuperHero Name Here}", but like Audra, I question the gender box that boys get forced into as well. Do you know how hard it is to find a toddler boy outfit not depicting some kind of construction vehicle, sports ball or superhero on it? What of the boys who like colours other than green, blue and brown? The ones who love rainbows and art and My Little Pony and cute puppies or kittens or bunnies? Where are the gender neutral shirts for those kids? 

The thing with all this gender neutrality talk and the sudden uptake by manufacturers into this market is that I am not sure if it actually exists and I am not convinced we should force it into existence. Also, and this is important - gender neutrality does not mean or necessarily lead to gender EQUALITY. 

As our understanding of gender evolves, we know that it is not an easy black and white concept, and I see no reason why our expression of it should be constrained to such rigid definitions of male, or female or, in the case of gender neutrality, neither or both. I am all for empowering girls to do what they love; be it long-boarding down my street at breakneck speeds, rocking out on the electric guitar, building epic worlds in Minecraft, or performing in the most beautiful tutu ever on stage with nine other little ballerinas. I am also all for empowering boys to do what they love and not putting traditional gendered limits on what that is, and also perhaps purposely exposing them to a few things they might not otherwise think of doing because they are considered "girl" things, like cooking, art, dance, babysitting, or design work. 

In the current context of the words and in our world, "gender neutral" tends to mean anything that is primarily more boy-like. I believe that this phenomenon of touting gender-neutrality, while not ACTUALLY being neutral for both genders and simply eschewing all things feminine, is just as damaging as all the hyper-gendered labeling of everything in our world.

Ellen rocks a great pant suit and kicky sneakers like no ones business. And while I have always loved her style and aesthetic, I also recognize that it is HERS and is an expression of her gender and her personality. If my kid wants to rock out on her guitar (actually, she's more of a ukelele girl) in a pink sparkly tutu and purple sequins top, who am I to stop her, or tell her that her more feminine choice of clothing is wrong, or that people won't take her seriously, or that it's what she is wearing that counts more than THE CONTENT OF HER CHARACTER and her kick-ass Uke skills? And if it is my son who is doing something he loves in the same tutu and top? Again, am I to tell him otherwise? (And, really? Have you seen the outfits that rock stars wear? Hello... Steven Tyler!) 

"And though she be but little, she is fierce and totally rockin' that frilly tutu in the middle of the store LIKE A BOSS!"  ~ William Shakespeare 

"And though she be but little, she is fierce and totally rockin' that frilly tutu in the middle of the store LIKE A BOSS!"  ~ William Shakespeare 

I think it is time that we really take a look at what message we are sending when we say that feminine things, be they sparkly dresses or Lego Friends sets, are somehow wrong and steer our children to more "gender neutral" options. This is not the path to equality and acceptance of all human beings, regardless of their gender expression, as full, beautiful, worthy people. It is once again, a simplified detour around the real issues that girls and boys face growing up in a world that continues to want to keep them in nice, tidy, separate, little pink and blue boxes.