Tag Archives: gendered products

Review of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Disclosure: I solicited a copy of Pink and Blue from the author, Jo B Paoletti, for review and for my own research purposes, and was sent one complimentary by the publisher.

Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Over two years ago, a new Twitter-friend of mine told me of her mother’s research, into the history of American children’s clothing generally and of pink and blue as gendered signifiers specifically, and of a forthcoming book on the topic. I have been bouncing in my seat — my capacity for patience, never very high, at its lowest — ever since, nagging my friend (or Twitter-stalking her mom) every few months: “Any word on the book? When’s it coming out? What can I do to help??” (My eagerness matched only by my hubris.) Finally — finally! — I have it sitting next to me, notes scribbled on nearly every page, showing wear from two children, two pets, a pencil wedged beneath its cover, and a week of being carted around stuffed in a diaper bag, and I can say: read this book.

A Costume History (it Doesn’t Mean What You Think)

Paoletti, an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of Maryland, is first and foremost a textiles, costume, and consumer economics scholar. As she points out, “costume” does not mean Halloween dress-up, but rather simply the collective clothing and accouterments that humans use to protect and adorn ourselves. Thus, Pink and Blue is primarily a costume historiography, with primary sources of baby and advice books, paper dolls, and advertisements. It focuses on children’s clothing from birth through age seven or so, from the mid-1800s (though she does stretch back a bit farther for reference) through 2011, particularly the ways in which their dress did — and didn’t — signify gender.

Critiques: I have them

Before I tell you why you should buy and read and share the book anyway, let me tell you of its shortfalls.

First of which is: as a book, Pink and Blue is not that great. Which is not to say the writing is bad: it’s at worst fine, and often ascends to quite engaging or enjoyable. But it lacks the cohesion and polish of a really excellent, thoroughly readable popular text; though it approaches this in many places (especially toward the end), it is uneven. The first chapter, for example, appears to have at one point been written as the introduction (p 8: “In this introduction, I will focus… but in each chapter, where appropriate, I have incorporated…”), and certainly it reads like a book with two (each well-written) intros.

Pink and Blue is, as she says, “several overlapping and interconnected narratives” (p XVI), so there is a significant amount of repetition of information: because of this, and because there are only so many times I can read 1865-this and 1868-that before my eyes cross, I found myself wishing again and again for an overarching time-line, perhaps in appendix or introduction, that covered all the key dates mentioned throughout: the introduction and cessation of “the white dress”, the start of bifurcation in toddler wear, the Little Lord Fauntleroy fad, the Time Without Pink in department store catalogs. Though these things are all rather fuzzy, Paoletti does successfully attach dates to many of them: to lay them out chronologically, and then explain their research and ramifications in the text, would be so helpful in the reading and absorbing of her ideas.

Finally, on the topic of trans and gender non-conforming children, I found earnestness and good intentions but a few cringe-causing comments nonetheless, including cissexist pronoun use and centering of assigned-gender as “real” (as in “a boy who insisted that he was a girl” p 13) and conflation of gender nonconformity and transgender experience1. This is not the main focus of the book, however, and so the few failures are irritating imperfections, not prohibitive problems.

Read It Anyway

If you’re interested in gender, parenting, and the societal forces influencing these — that is, if you’re a regular reader of this blog — odds are excellent you’ll enjoy Pink and Blue. I certainly did, frequently exclaiming over a new thought, a clarifying detail, or a novel approach to historical analysis. It’s not that often that I read a book on gender in which I learn something new to me (rather than learning more about something I already knew): Pink and Blue is a refreshing exception. Even in the places where I disagreed with her analysis, I felt engaged rather than put off.

One of the most intriguing (and novel) ideas in the book is Paoletti’s theory of the generational, developmental evolution of children’s clothing. That is, “[t]he fashionable infant of 1900 was the fashionable schoolgirl of 1908 and the fashionable young miss of 1914, and the fashionable woman of 1920 might become the grandmother in a polyester pantsuit in 1973.” Paoletti asks, and to some extent answers, “what connections might there be between children’s clothing of one era and the adult clothing of the next?” (p 15)

It is this question that most fires my imagination, as I clothe my children; it is this especially that compelled my fascinated flip from page to page until the last; it is this that will guide me as I seek, in whatever small way my writing and activism allow me, to affect the next generation’s gender health; and it is wondering what answers their historians will find in my work that fuels me.

Thanks to the groundbreaking scholarship of Pink and Blue, I have no doubt there will be historians working in this rich and fascinating field for years to come.

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If you can’t find it at or don’t want to trek to an independent bookstore, support your local blogger and buy Pink and Blue from Powell’s or Amazon.

  1. Although I will admit that especially in children there is a significant amount of blurring between gender nonconformity and transgender experience — and that the two are not mutually exclusive, as in the trans boy who likes flowers as dolls — there are of course many trans girls, just as there are many cis girls, who want nothing more than the mainstream binarist offerings of pink, pink, and more pink. The point being not that they are two distinct categories, but that neither are they interchangeable: transgender does not mean binary-defying any more than cisgender or gender typical means binary-loving.

Guest post: Linkspam

The hellish torture that is moving with a newborn1 babymooning continues apace, and to everyone’s surprise, or at least mine, the stress of it all has not yet landed me in hospital. But as I’m typing this one handed2, I leave you in the capable, lovely, and not nearly as baby-occupied hands of my friend Emily.

Hi all, Emily Manuel here.  You might remember me from such internets as The Tiger Beatdown, The Global Comment, or The Twitter, or the comments of this here blog.  But if not, then hi!  How’s you?

Anyway, while Arwyn’s off babymooning, I’ve volunteered to provide the link posts.  As with everything, Don’t Read The Comments, etc etc.  So here goes.

Sociological Images has a round-up of gendered kids stuff, including that J.C Penny shirt (you know the one).  PhD in Parenting has mixed feelings about a blood test that can predict the sex of a fetus at 7 weeks.

s.e smith writes at Bitch magazine about how pharmaceutical companies frame mental illness in their 2.5 billion dollars worth of advertising a year.  I wrote at Alternet about how the states are privatising Medicaid through “managed care” programs.’

In amazing News From the Future, scientists say lab grown meat is just 6 months away.  True Blood for humans, y’all.  Also, pooping pandas make better biofuels.

And for your obligatory pieces of Whovianism, there’s Sady Doyle talking about how Doctor Who became “Nurse Rory” (note: I edited this piece. But you should still read it, even if you don’t agree), and this gem of a video, “Previously on Doctor Who.”  Shots from every single episode in five minutes, amazing.  A warning: the sound’s a bit rubbish, so turn down your speakers before you watch it.

  1. To quote myself: “I hate every part of this except the smell of my new baby’s head, the feel of my new baby’s skin, and the sound of my new baby’s breath.”
  2. My left, natch. I’m right handed.

10 Myths About Gender Neutral Parenting

I had a fabulously fun time on the radio yesterday talking about gender neutral parenting on OPB’s Think Out Loud, and while the session went great (you can listen to it at that link!), many topics came up we weren’t able to address in the time alloted. Many of those topics are fundamental misconceptions about what I and many parents mean when we say “gender neutral parenting“. To that end, in what I expect will be a number of upcoming posts on the subject, here are 10 myths (plus a bonus!) about gender neutral parenting, debunked:

Myth: You’re trying to do away with gender.

TRUTH: While I can’t speak for all parents who identify with the term “gender neutral parenting”, that is certainly not the goal of my family or those I know who are practicing this style of parenting. The last “wave” of gender-neutral parenting, in the 70s and early 80s, arguably had the goal of “androgyny for all children”, based on the belief that gender was entirely culturally created and imposed — and then, when (shockingly!) the kids had their own ideas, we as a culture appear to have thrown up our hands and said “to heck with it, it’s all innate!” The truth, which I believe the modern “gender neutral” (more accurately called “gender diverse”) movement is based on, is somewhere in between. Gender, it is true, is innate, and so to some extent is a desire for a traditional or nontraditional gender performance — but what gender performance looks like and what the culturally accepted gender roles are are almost entirely socially constructed, and thus malleable. Today’s gender neutral parenting is not about doing away with gender (if it ever really was), but about doing away with many of the unhealthy pressures around gender, and giving our children the freedom to figure out what gender means to them.

Myth: Your child will never learn about gender if you don’t teach it to them.

TRUTH: It’s always amused me, in a dark and Alanis-ironic sort of way, how the people who most argue that sex = gender also seem to think that gender is so fragile that any sort of variation in rearing practices will damage it. The truth is we all have some sort of gender identity (even if, for some of us, it’s a strong feeling of not having a gender at all, or if it changes over time), and all, in one way or another, perform that gender identity either according to or in a flaunting of our culture’s expectations (or, most often, some mix thereof). So of course our children will learn about gender, what gender means to us, what gender means to the people around them, and what gender means to their society.

But rather than telling them what their gender is in some sort of absolute, often coercive way, and giving them a narrow prescription of how they are supposed to perform that gender, we give them time and freedom to use their amazing observational and social skills to figure out gender for themselves, much as we might give them time to learn to walk — all the while modeling it for them, and trusting they’ll pick it up when they’re ready. Not on their own, or without guidance, but at their own pace, with an awareness that they might come up with answers we may never have thought of.

Myth: You’ll damage them. / You’ll confuse them.

TRUTH: In “traditional”, phenotypical sex = gender = gender performance families, it is guaranteed that 1-5% of children are confused and damaged. These are the 1-5% of children who are transgender, “gender variant”, or gender “non-conforming” — that is, whose internal sense of gender does not accord with the gender assigned to them based on their genitals, who may not fit neatly into the genders “boy” or “girl”, or whose gender performance preferences do not conform to their assigned or declared gender. Being raised in such an environment, with inflexible gender assignments and rigid gender expectations, is highly damaging for many of these children. Being trans* is not inherently, unbearably stressful; being trans* in a culture that rarely even acknowledges the existence of people like you and mocks them when it does often is, and is much more confusing for children, who aren’t even aware of what is happening.

On the other hand, there is no evidence that children raised with gender freedom and a celebration of diversity of gender expressions are damaged or confused at all. The key here is the difference between coercion — which can happen both toward strict traditional gender norms or toward gender-elimination or “androgyny” — and freedom. Coercion around gender is harmful for children; freedom is not and cannot be.

Myth: You’ll make your kid gay!

TRUTH: Oh, if only.1 The simple fact, proven over and over and over again both experientially and scientifically, is we can’t control, predict, or change our children’s sexuality.

(What we can do is make life easier for queer/non-straight children, by modeling for all our children celebration of various sexualities, and by being educated ourselves not just about straight and gay but the whole QUILTBAG2. We can raise confident queer kids and strong straight allies, and part of how we do both is by not assuming we know their sexuality until they tell us.)

But back to the myth, which comes from a conflation of gender performance and sexuality. That is, it is only a reflection of:

Myth: Gender = gender performance = sexuality.

TRUTH: There are many permutations of this myth, including the above “Dressing your boy in pink will make him gay”. Other variations include “How will she know she’s a girl if she dresses ‘like a boy’?” and “Oh, what a handsome little lady-killer!” They all rest on the conflation of gender (one’s innate sense of boy, girl, or neither/both/other-ness), gender performance (how one presents one’s gender through clothing and speech and movements and accessories) and sexuality (the gender[s] or lack thereof one is attracted to). These are three different things, and though sometimes they go together in ways we expect, they often don’t. There are femme lesbians and girly straight boys and trans girls who are tomboys and every possible variation under the sun — and then some. The thing is, people are not stereotypes, even those who appear to fit the stereotypes.

How does this relate to gender neutral parenting and especially to gender diverse parenting? One of the goals of this parenting style is to recognize that each of these things is different (and that phenotypical sex is yet another distinct category), so that our children can choose the combination that is right for them — yes, even if what’s right for them appears to conform to the stereotypes.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting means banning Barbies and trucks and princesses and Nerf guns.

TRUTH: Some parents do ban one or all of those things, and often for well-thought-out and highly personal reasons, but it’s certainly not required in order to practice gender-neutral (or especially gender-diverse) parenting. What is discouraged is only having one “type” of toy, whatever it is, or disallowing one “gender” of toy in favor of another (even if it’s cross-gender: that is, banning dolls, but not trucks or guns, for an assigned-girl).

Instead, a gender-diverse household tends to have lots of different kinds of toys, preferably ones that encourage open-ended imaginative play: for example, blocks to build a garage for Barbie to park her truck in, knocked down by a sudden Nerf attack! And if we find our children exclusively playing with one sort of toy in one sort of way, we might use Playful Parenting or similar tactics to encourage a broadening of play; but most children rarely get so stuck as to call for any sort of even subtle adult redirection.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting is impossible. / It’s all or nothing.

TRUTH: While 100% “gender neutral” parenting perhaps is impossible, even for the families who decline to share the phenotypical sex of their child and do not assign them a gender, there is a wide spectrum possible between that absolute idealism and the most rigid of “traditional” sex-segregated and stereotyped parenting. In truth, most “mainstream” parenting falls somewhere in-between as well, with very few parents completely disallowing all dolls or light colored clothes for assigned-boys and even fewer banning balls or blocks or pants for assigned-girls.

What most self-identified gender-neutral or gender-diverse parents do is try, as much as is practical or possible in their own lives, to move closer toward the “ideal” by turning down the sex-stereotyping and offering their children more options. In truth, many “gender neutral” families look not much different than many “traditional” families, especially past the infant months, whether due to following the child’s own preferences, gifts from more traditional family members, a bias in hand-me-downs, concerns about push-back from the public (especially in more marginalized families, who may depend on extended family or social services), or any number of other reasons.

Certainly as a child ages and comes into their own identity, it may be harder to tell a gender-neutral family apart from any other, which brings us to:

Myth: Gender neutral parenting is a failure if your girl wants to wear pink (or your boy refuses to).

TRUTH: All children are individuals, with their own preferences, and eventually with their own awareness of their gender and preferences about their gender performance. For many children, especially during a period shortly after coming in to a solid internal sense of their own gender (usually somewhere around 3-4 years old), this means wanting to align themselves strongly with what they perceive to be the cultural norms for that gender. Far from wanting to do away with this process, gender neutral parenting is all about leading up to this process in an entirely healthy way, for children of ALL genders and gender performance preferences, including the probably-majority who fall along “stereotypical” lines.

Thus, after years of wearing blues and browns and reds as well as pinks and pastels and purples, and with a closet full of similar diversity, when your 3-4 year old now-self-proclaimed girl wants to wear exclusively pink, you can know that it is her own knowledge of her gender, her personal preferences, and her awareness of her culture’s gender norms that are driving her choices, rather than highly segregated, sexist programming she might, in a more traditional household, have grown up with. And, you can know that just because this is her preference for now, it might not be reflective of her desires for all time, and you can use the tools of gender neutral parenting to continue to offer her an array of options, while honoring her choices, in the years to come.

Myth: You’re engaging in a social experiment with your child! / You’re indoctrinating them!

TRUTH: All parents “indoctrinate” or “experiment” with their children, in that we follow our own beliefs or our cultural memes and myths and parent accordingly. Everything we do with and for our children communicates to them our ideas about how the world works, how it should be, and what we want for them. The only difference with paths such as gender neutral or gender diverse parenting is that we are going against the current cultural mythos, that says boys and girls are two distinct, discrete genders that as such need to be given entirely different sets of clothes, toys, names, endearments, and role models — which is hardly a universal human belief itself.

Myth: Gender neutral parenting only benefits children who don’t conform to gender expectations.

TRUTH: While as previously mentioned gender neutral/gender diverse parenting is especially beneficial (and necessary!) for non-conforming children, it has numerous benefits for “stereotypical” children as well. For one, also as previously mentioned, it lets us know that if our children do conform closely to socially-approved gender expectations, this is authentic and is coming from within them. But also, many “normal” (cisgender and gender-typical) children are less strongly gendered than traditionally thought, and when raised in a gender neutral way care less about the “boy” or “girl”-ness of their clothing and activities than we might expect.

Further, as peer pressure increases and their awareness of gender norms expands, having a gender-neutral/gender-diverse base (meaning both their home life and the early years of gender neutrality) helps them question the “rightness” of culturally assigned roles and stereotypes, and the very existence of unnecessarily gendered products. And, gender diverse parenting helps prepare even the most culturally-conforming child to be more aware and more accepting of diversity, making them more supportive friends for their gender non-conforming peers.

BONUS Myth: Your children will hate you for screwing them up.

TRUTH: Well, maybe. But that’s pretty much a risk for any parenting path, most definitely including “mainstream” parenting. Considering the very little we have to lose, and how much we have to gain, isn’t it worth it to take that risk on something you believe in? Isn’t it worth trying some variation of gender neutral parenting?

  1. I jest!
  2. Queer Unlabeled Intersex Lesbian Transgender Bisexual Asexual Gay.

“Gender Neutral Parenting”, in which Lisa Belkin at the NYT confuses “gender” and “gender roles/performance”

Lisa Belkin, who writes the column Motherlode for the New York Times, has a piece out called Gender Neutral Parenting which explores the “seeming contradictions” in what we know about gender — that it is inborn, more or less immutable, and assigned gender is not always congruent with true gender — with those of us who parent in a “gender neutral” or gender diverse1 manner.

Her question in response to the assertion that gender is inborn, and not even Cher’s “almost drag-queenlike hyper-female persona” could be responsible for her son Chaz being transgender2, “Then why are all those [parents] working so hard to paint nurseries brown, yellow and orange?” betrays ignorance — hardly hers alone — between gender, gender roles, and gender performance.

The point of “gender neutral” or gender diverse parenting isn’t to raise androgynes — as though it were possible to force someone into a fully androgynous nonbinary gender — but to give kids a chance to develop without the programming of conventional (though hardly traditional) gender-coding. While in no way does this determine — much less subvert — a child’s inborn gender (or sexuality), it does make life easier for those whose genders, or gender performance preferences, are atypical, as they grow up welcome to explore and to pick and choose from a variety of colors, clothings, toys and activities, with which to construct gender performance(s) that feel most correct to them.

And further — and more traditionally the argument of “gender neutral” parenting advocates — gender neutral/diverse parenting influences a child’s perception of gender roles: according to popular gender-coded clothing and toys, girls are expected to be passive, perform male-centered superficial beauty, decorate, and caretake, whereas boys are expected to be active, not care about appearance (except for avoiding appearing “girly”), construct, and destroy. Even the most binary, “typical”, cisgender children benefit from the destruction of this imposition and expansion of their horizons — and options.

Ultimately, I agree with Belkin’s conclusion3, but the “contradiction” she prefaces her piece around — and fails to deconstruct — is in fact nothing of the sort.

  1. Gender neutral parenting is often presented as eschewing, or rather attempting to eschew, all gender coding altogether; the term gender diverse parenting indicates offering a spectrum of products and options from all sorts of gender-codings.
  2. In his words, “There’s a gender in your brain and a gender in your body. For 99 percent of people, those things are in alignment (ed note — aka cisgender). For transgender people, they’re mismatched. That’s all it is.”
  3. “You can’t “make” your children anything. You can’t really “stop” them from being anything in particular, either. But you can help them explore the fullest definition of who they are. And you can try to work it so they feel good about whoever they discover themselves to be.”

Naked Pictures of Faceless People: Yes, Tinkerbell!

Welcome to RMB’s Naked Pictures of Faceless People, a series of guest posts from diverse anonymous bloggers. (Read more about NPFP’s origins.) These are the posts that are jumping to get out of us, but for whatever reason — safety, embarrassment, conflict of interest, protection of loved ones’ reputations or feelings, or so on — we don’t or won’t or can’t post at our own blogs. Anyone, whether blogger or reader only, is welcome to submit or discuss a potential post by emailing me at arwyn at raisingmyboychick dot com.

Yes, Tinkerbell!

I am the mother of a toddler boy (or apparent boy, but I’m going to stick with the male pronoun since as best we know it applies), and recently he had his second birthday. We took him out to do several things. Including pick something (modest, not huge) out at the toy store, and get a toddler pillow for his new bed.

At the toy store, we were wandering with him in his dad’s arms (where he had chosen to be), trying to spot things to offer him as choices. As we strolled through the books, he lunged down to grab at a book on a shelf that was waist-high to his dad (ie, down around his feet) and clung to it. Well, then. The book in question was a Tinkerbell book, an oversize board book with a little keyboard that played some pre-set sounds related to the story. My husband was briefly concerned but, to my relief, his concern was whether or not the book had small parts (our son still tries to eat his toys and books) — it was age-suitable, and my husband relaxed.

Our son loves this book. He punched buttons all the day he got it, and he comes back to it frequently. One button is a pink sparkly heart that makes a sound I can only describe as sparkly, and the first time I heard it I said “Awwww!” (in that sappy voice you do) and now my son says that about every fifth time he hears that button.

That evening we went to get him a second pillow for his newly-converted bed (he already had one I made him). There were a number of options, but once we offered him the Tinkerbell pillow he rejected all others in the “this one or that one?” game and clung to it throughout the store. So Tinkerbell came home again.

When we got home, he poked the pillow in Tink’s nose and frowned. “Bwoken!”

“No, honey, it’s not broken. The book makes music. That’s a pillow. It’s still Tinkerbell, but it doesn’t make music.”

He set the pillow down on a chair and went back to playing with the book. I left the tags on the pillow, waiting to see what would happen (and to give him time to forget the disappointment), and he appeared to ignore it for the most part. Two days later I asked him if he wanted the Tinkerbell pillow in his bed (the Tinkerbell book stays downstairs; we try to keep loud toys out of the bedroom). “Tinkuhbell upstairs!” He hugged the pillow. I took the tags off. He’s cuddled it many nights since.

I don’t personally understand his love of it: it’s very pretty, and the back side is soft, but the Tinkerbell side is scratchy because of the fabrics and threads she’s done in. All the same, he does love it.

To those of you who, when told this story, give a sigh of relief when I describe his disappointment to discover that the pillow didn’t make music, and to whom I never tell the ending: fuck you. The Tinkerbell pillow is cute, my son loves it, and I probably ought to tell you that but I also refuse to pull him — a living breathing person you know — into a battle he doesn’t even realize exists.

To those of you who are neutral: thank you.

To those of you who visibly bristle when I say I left the tags on the pillow (often before I say why, because of how I normally tell it, feeling out my audience), and who relax or smile when you hear why, and that he did keep it? Thank you. Thank you for caring enough to be ready to tell me off (or at least be contemplating it) if I was squashing my child. I remember, and I appreciate it.

Thank goodness, none of the people who disapprove of his love of Tink are close to him so far. (At least as far as I know; maybe someone hid it better, but if they hide it, it’s their problem, not his or mine.) Because if it were someone who would bring it up to him, I’d have a Conversation to have.

A few things for you to think about, if my son’s love of Tinkerbell bugs you:

1. He’s two. Just barely two. Nothing about now is permanent, unless it is. There’s no way to know.

2. What is he supposed to do, hate girls or fairies? I’m not too worried about him being antisocial with faeries (the Tinkerbell kind, not using this as the modern slang, thanks), but he does have to attend school and work with girls and women as he grows, and I’d rather he liked them than not!

3. If you’re worried he’ll grow up feminine, or gay, or…let me just say that if he turns out to be a lesbian when he grows up? My one hope would be that he’ll be a happy one. Which means that if you disapprove of this kind of thing, you’re not the person I want much involved in his life, in case I’m using all the wrong pronouns now.

He’s young, and he’s a person, and he’s finding his own way. I won’t push him to like or dislike Tinkerbell — or trucks, or dragons, or roaring, or anything else that isn’t harmful to himself or others. And if I can help it, I won’t let others, either.

Because I want him to grow up whole and strong. Whoever he is, whoever he will be, he is my child and I love him. And I expect you to at least respect that he is and ought to be his own person.

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From Arwyn: For more posts on this topic which, serendipitously (or unsurprisingly, given my known interest in gender and parenting) I recently ran across, see Tinkerbell Valentine of Much Consternation and And Another Thing! at Pax (Ro)mama and My Sons are Gender Conformists at Blogging When the Baby Isn’t Looking.

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