Originally published in slightly different form at I’m Just Not Impressed on October 14, 2011.
At least once in pretty much any discussion about patronizing idiot-chic tee shirts, uber sexy Halloween costumes, or itty-bity sexpot bikinis for 2 year olds, at least one person will take the time to comment “If you don’t like it, just don’t buy it.” It’s one of many phrases that could (and does!) fill an anti-sexualization/anti-stereotyped gender roles bingo card (along with comments about pedophiles and gender neutrality making kids homosexual). And on one level, it’s a reasonable assertion – if we don’t like a particular consumer product, rarely, if ever, are we forced to spend our hard-earned money on that product.
But it’s also extremely short-sighted.
As Melissa at Pigtail Pals, Ballcap Buddies has eloquently stated, it’s not about the t-shirt, or the costume or the bikini or the miniskirt or whatever. It’s not about crushing our tween’s budding sexuality or prudishness. It’s about recognizing that the singular product(s) that garner media attention are but a drop in an ocean of sexualization and negative stereotyping of our children that masquerades as “positive” sassiness. It’s about recognizing that children who are bombarded with image after image of boys being active and girls having tea parties and dressing up as princesses start to see these roles as their rightful place in the world.
Do I think that I, as a lawyer and a feminist and an active, powerful woman am the strongest role model my children have for what a woman can be? Absolutely. And I’m thankful every day that my kids have fabulous women and men in their lives who provide them with terrific support and examples.
But I don’t think for one minute that these are enough. Because we do not live in a bubble. My kids see supposedly “educational” programming that relegates women to cute supporting roles. They see toys in the toy aisle that encourage little girls to project an image of adult women dressed for a night at a dance club. These images are so pervasive that kids only see the “novelty” in each doll – hey, that one looks like a werewolf instead of a fairy instead of a mermaid instead of a doctor wearing clothing that is completely impractical for practicing medicine (ever try to rush around a hospital and stand performing surgery in stiletto sandals? Yeah, me neither). They see images of boys rejecting anything “feminine” and being told to be a “real man”.
And even if I could raise my kids in a bubble of non-sexualized, non-stereotyped messages until the age of 18, I wouldn’t want to. My job as a parent is to teach my children to successfully navigate the world as it is, not a magical land where no little girl feels like she needs to dress as a sexy witch for Halloween or no little boy is ashamed of liking pink toenail polish, much as I may wish that were actually our culture. I talk to my kids about the messages they see in media and how those messages might be mixed at best and I am thankful for communities of other parents who are doing the same thing. But my job as a human being is to want something better for all little kids – not just those with parents who see this stuff and talk about it, but those who don’t – even those who actively encourage gendered play and stereotypical, even oppressive traditional role. The kids of parents who see nothing wrong with a t-shirt proclaiming that their daughter is too pretty to do homework or their son is a chick magnet may be my daughter’s daycare classmate, or my son’s date for the prom. All kids deserve better, not just mine.
So sure, I won’t buy the t-shirt or the costume or the bikini. But what I want is not a culture in which no one is allowed to make such things, but a culture in which no one wants to.
Featured image via Jonathan Harford (cropped from original, all rights reserved).