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.