FeminismPlay

Why I’m On the Fence About “No Gender December”.

Maybe it’s just my Facebook peeps, but for the past couple of days, I’ve been seeing a reasonably steady stream of info about “No Gender December“, an initiative by an Australian group called Play Unlimited. The stated goal is focused – rightly in my book – on gender-specific toy marketing and seems like it should be right up my non-gender-essentialist alley. The campaign claims to be focused on toy stores and companies and marketers, which continually perpetuate, even promote, gender specific and exclusionary toys. According to Play Unlimited’s About page:

The aim of the campaign is to work towards eliminating the segregation of toys along gender lines and to promote the idea that children should be encouraged to learn through the widest possible range of play experiences. We hope to raise parents awareness of the narrowing impact gendered marketing can have on children’s perspectives about what it is and isn’t ok to like or play with as a boy or a girl.

And that, my friends, is a goal I can totally get behind. Likewise, I 100% support the idea that kids should play with what they want to play with. I completely agree that “[k]ids should be free to decide which toys interest them” and that “[k]ids shouldn’t learn that certain toys are off-limits for them because of their gender.” [Source] I love that they suggest toy-free ideas for holiday giving – experiences like trampoline centers, movie passes (although that raises an entirely different set of stereotypes and problematic presentation), even charitable contributions. I’d be happy to add museum visits, theater tickets, and special researched day trips to that list.

So why the fence-sitting?

I guess it starts with the tagline – “stereotypes have no place under my christmas tree”. Right up front, it excludes non-Christmas celebrants, whether due to religion or not. Christmas is not the only December gift giving holiday, but that’s a different post. The combination of “No Gender December” with that particular tagline bugs me because this tagline isn’t aimed at marketers, it’s aimed at individuals. It is an assertion about the toys themselves and by extension, the kids that play with them, not toy marketing. It’s an implicit statement about what I should, presumably, be buying for my kids, who as it happens will be getting some gifts that fit their respective gender identity stereotypes, as well as some that don’t fit so much.

The concept of total rejection of gender really bothers me as well. This is one of the accusations that often gets lobbied at activists for more gender neutral/gender fluid space for children, and I don’t actually think that Play Unlimited or the vast majority of supporters of No Gender December are actually advocating for that you-want-kids-to-be-genderless strawman. I, like most everyone I’ve encountered speaking in this space, think there is a distinctive difference from thumbing our noses at the obsessive need of corporations to insist that boys and girls need different colors (or in the case of girls, just one or two colors) and suggesting that individual gender identities and a completely natural human desire to fit in with their gender identity is somehow bad. So, what’s my ish? I guess I just don’t think that we’re quite far enough down the path of correcting these issues to be anywhere close to reclaiming the concept of “No Gender” for a catchy name. Maybe things are vastly different in Australia, but in the US, it is still way too much of a hot button to become catchphrase rhetoric.

Likewise, I’m all for accepting gender fluidity, non-cis identities and the separation of biological sex and constructions of personal gender identity. I think we are far to absolute in our constructions of gender, particularly for young children who are still learning what it means to be a girl or a boy. And I think that is what this campaign is about – no gender in the toy aisles! But I’m uncomfortable with the casual acceptance, even advocation, of rejecting gender entirely – it strikes me a bit as like those people who “don’t see race” and use their supposed non-seeing of gender as an excuse to ignore pronoun preferences and erase trans identities. Again, I don’t think that is the intent here, but it is enough of a possible reading to make me uncomfortable taking the NGD pledge.

And what about that pledge. It is simplified in order to appeal to the broadest possible audience and actually get read (unlike thousand + word blog posts), which makes total sense, but in doing so it seems to miss a salient point:

I pledge to support ‘No Gender December’ because there is no place for gender stereotypes under my Christmas tree.

 

Gender stereotypes limit children’s imagination and development, also perpetuating inequality. I encourage every child’s freedom to choose, to grow and develop, to be themselves without the damaging influence of gender stereotypes.

I agree with the second paragraph, so so much. But at the same time, I can’t shake the feeling of an assumption that somehow kids *won’t* pick the stereotypical choice. If we are truly going to allow children the “freedom to choose, to grow and develop, to be themselves” then part of what we also have to accept is that sometimes our kids will choose the stereotypical option. Attempting to divorce our children from insidious marketing and supporting toy stores and retailers that don’t succumb to the lowest common denominator of pink/girls, blue/boys aisles is one thing. Giving our children lots of options irrespective of their sex and assumed gender at birth is absolutely wonderful. Encouraging our kids to try new things and play with new kids and have new experiences regardless of our culture’s gender coding is absolutely something we should be doing. Avoiding products that perpetuate limiting and/or negative stereotypes is A+ in my book. But at the same time, there is nothing wrong with our kids chosing things that are otherwise perfectly interesting toys that happen fit their gender identity.

I guess, you could say I’m tired. I’m tired of having the same conversation over and over. I’m tired of feeling like I have to justify my children’s preferences and continually defend against the further demonization and marginalization of what is coded as feminine as inherently negative. Whenever new voices come into this conversation, I brace myself for the pride that people feel in the fact that their kids “resist” gendered messaging. I find the idea that stereotypes are one way streets that can somehow be avoided by letting kids play with what they want unsettling, since so much of what kids want is a complicated alchemy of their own personality and the, yes, stereotypical ideas of what they should like and want to be. I keep feeling this creeping sense of the kids who do conform being, once again, collateral damage in the fight against oversatuation, while simultaneously struggling with my awareness that I am coming from a place of so much privilege, in which my children’s identities are regularly reinforced and supported in a variety of ways.

So, yes, I agree so so much with just about everything being suggested by Play Unlimited and their holiday campaign against stereotyped marketing. But I remain balanced on my fence, fully aware that I’m arguing around the margins and not at all sure what to do about it.

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Emily Sexton

Emily Sexton

Writer of incomplete novels, entertainment lawyer, mom of two with a wide age spread, blogger here and elsewhere, wannabe vocalist and v/o actress, atheist, weirdo. That last bit went without saying. Find Em on twitter @emandink and maybe she'll use it more.

5 Comments

  1. December 4, 2014 at 5:03 pm —

    “If we are truly going to allow children the “freedom to choose, to grow and develop, to be themselves” then part of what we also have to accept is that sometimes our kids will choose the stereotypical option.”
    The problem is, we don’t raise our kids in a vacuum. No matter how much WE try, they go out into the world and see those stereotypes and most of them want to fit in and that’s not a failure or a crime.
    I remember the last summer holiday before my eldest started daycare at three. The world was still colourful, she picked a wide variety of things from all the options she had, she loved blue and green. And then she started daycare and it nearly broke my heart to see how much her world shrank. It didn’t make me sad that she liked all the stereotypical things, because there’s nothing wrong with liking pink and fairies. It made me sad because it wasn’t really the things she liked, but the stereotype, the idea that liking those things was what made her a girl.
    The world is a shitty place when a little child thinks she has to like X and cannot like Y because of her gender. But the solution cannot be to deny her and make her feel bad about this.
    So, yes, why we should fight against the stereotyping of toys (oh how I miss the 80’s when there were still toys for children instead of toys for girls and toys for boys), but in the meantime nobody is helped if I force the truck construction kit on a kid who’d love to get a toy unicorn.

  2. December 4, 2014 at 7:34 pm —

    “nobody is helped if I force the truck construction kit on a kid who’d love to get a toy unicorn”

    Yes! This, exactly.

    • December 4, 2014 at 7:39 pm —

      This is why I focus so much more on culture and marketing, rather than kido themselves. We can try to limit their exposure to marketing and stereotypes and we can make sure we’re always exposing them to a wide variety of options, but there’s nothing to be gained, imo, with demonizing what kids already like (within limits).

      • December 5, 2014 at 2:33 am —

        Yep, it’s not like I don’t have limits I’m not willing to cross. No make up for preschool and grade school kids. I wouldn’t get them a toy machine gun either, even though they’d be totally gender non-conforming. There are things in both “boy culture” and “girl culture” that are simply not good. I reserve the right to have an opinion. As Peggy Orenstein said, there’s a multi billion advertising world out there telling them what they should and shouldn’t like but when I voice an opinion I’m suddenly brainwashing the kid?
        Though sometimes the “bad things” can also be a good discussion starter. This summer the horrible “Topmodel” books* were THE thing for my eldest. She’d beg pages from her friends so for her birthday I got her a book. And then we had great fun trying to pose like these models, which clearly showed her that these were not realistic depictions of women.

        *silhouettes of women with extremely unrealistic proportions and a total lack of personality where you can draw your own fashion creations on top. (interchangable faces, all caucasian)

        • December 5, 2014 at 7:14 am —

          Exactly! Not everything I like is non-problematic either. I have my lines (more along the lines of realistic militarized weapons and particularly egregious dolls), but we also make sure that we use bad examples as educational opportunities and we talk about why certain things don’t fit our values.

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