Friday, 29 August 2014

Blue for the boys.....

ToysRUs may have withdrawn gender labelling from its toys, but a casual glance round my local Asda Living reveals that gender-specific baby clothing is big big big.

What's more, the younger the baby, the more the rows are neatly divided into tiny pink frilly things and tiny blue things with cars on. This stuff sells. You can buy feeding bottles in pink or blue. Cots. Potties. Dummies. I've haven't seen pink/blue nappies yet - maybe someone's missed a trick there (or I've made my million, finally?) The point is, the shops are loaded with this stuff. And its because parents can't get enough of it! It excites them. It offers them a way to express their love. 'Its a little bit more expensive to get the blue bottle instead of the plain clear plastic, boy is special.'

So what's going on? Why are some parents so keen to buy in to gender stereotyping? And what, if anything, is wrong with it?

Many  fashion/beauty accoutrements are about enhancing our gender - women shaving their legs, men working out to get bigger biceps. I know, as usual, that my hare-brained musings are subject to all sorts of exceptions and objections - androgeny is often considered attractive too, but in more of a high-fashion way, which is often counter to 'normal' ideas about sexiness. But a lot of our behaviour plays along with the norm that individuals are more attractive when they are hyper-gendered - who are closer to the extreme end of the phenotype for their sex. We prefer males with deeper voices, stronger jaws, wider shoulders. Females with higher voices, daintier hands, smoother faces.

So it's pretty standard that adults adopt stereotyped signals of gender, in order to make themselves more attractive to the opposite sex. The unpalatable implication is that parents also utilise gender cues for their children, in order to make them more attractive. Obviously its massively distasteful to think of parents wanting to make their babies look sexually attractive. But its undeniable that parents are very keen to choose accoutrements that make the child look as good looking as possible. Is this wrong?

As a society we are all obsessed with how attractive we are. In certain circles it is not cool to be guided by this. In middle class intellectual circles, especially, it's considered shallow, even vulgar, to focus on appearances. But people of this class are generally seeking a different signal in sexual selection: they are choosing mates for what they know or what they can do, more than what they look like. Accordingly, they manipulate their image to send the signal that they don't need to prioritise looks, for they have other attributes. Members of this class are least likely to dress their babies in pink or blue, most likely to campaign for ToysRUs to remove their stereotyping. Is wanting to help your child be as attractive as possible really worse than wanting to help them be as bright as possible? As artistic as possible?

I suppose the difference is  to do with what a person has power over. We can't help the way we look but we can help how hard we try (can we?) or how nice we are. So its not fair to judge people on looks. Against this, anyone can wear pink or blue though, at Asda's prices its truly egalitarian. Why is it fair to care how intelligent someone is?

I guess the complaint is that gender stereotyping is limiting. There is just one choice for boys and one for girls, and  the children don't get to choose which they have. Gender stereotyping this runs counter to a celebration of diversity, the protection of minorities.The colours themselves, of course, are innocuous. Pink only became a girl's colour after the first world war anyway. The problem is when they act as markers for a stereotype which carries many other more sinister and unfair connotations. Being labelled as a girl is one thing, being labelled as pretty, delicate, caring, gentle, unintellectual, heterosexual, bad at maths, compliant and inferior is......well loads of other things.

Robert Axelrod explained in 1984 that any observable conventional marker will suffice to underpin a stable self-confirming stereotype. We could take any group of people and give them badges of either green or blue, along with the advice that members of their own group are nice and can be trusted, while members of the other group are mean and should be treated as such. In any system in which being nice to a meanie is costly (many many human interactions have this structure) the green/blue badges will serve as an accurate cue about how any given interaction behaviour will behave. Furthermore, it will be in each participant's interest to keep to the advice about reserving good behaviour for members of one's in-group.

"Blues believe that Greens are mean, and whenever they meet a Green, they have their beliefs confirmed. The Greens think that only other Greens will reciprocate cooperation, and they have their beliefs confirmed. So if you become a deviant, you are likely to return, sooner or later, to the behaviour that is expected of you."(Axelrod 1984, 147).

The labels don't have to be based on any kind of objective difference, they merely have to correlate with the majority's expectations about how bearers of the label will behave, and then they become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Never mind that the members of both groups would do better overall if everyone dropped the labels altogether.

Social expectations can make or break us. I don't want to dress my bear in gender labeling clothes,even if blue does suit his eyes tremendously, because I want him to be free to choose his own identity. But aren't I just switching a gender label for one that shouts 'middle class'? The only way we could entirely eradicate the messages hidden in clothes would be to all wear exactly the same thing. Maybe limiting everything to pink or blue is a good start?

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