How it reinforces outdated gender role expectations
Early on, I banned my daughter from using the word ‘tomboy.’ My explanation to her: “There is no such thing as boy things and girl things. There is nothing that a boy can do that a girl can’t.” In response, she ventured: “Peeing standing up.” But even then, there are ways around it.
I didn’t want my daughter to feel that she was borrowing from the rightful owners or trespassing on foreign land in pursuing traditionally male preoccupations. It’s a term thrown around all too carelessly by people who should know better. I’ve heard “my daughter is such a tomboy” used as a badge of honor by women who would stake their claim on their feminist credentials.
We need to stop using this word because every time we do, the gender binary is reinforced. Expectations based on a binary concept of gender are limiting and unnecessary.
Why do we do this? Who decided that playing in the mud and climbing trees is for boys and indoor play based on nurturing is for girls? Of course, no-one would argue that girls are being stopped from doing anything. Parents still feel that they need to put forward an awkward explanation for their child behaving in a way that comes naturally if it doesn’t fit into prescribed categories of ‘girl’ and ‘boy.’
There is nothing transgressive or shocking about a child being themselves when it is not hurting anybody. Surely what is unhealthy is labeling a child in a way that stifles and invalidates rather than encourages their interests.
I can’t help feeling that life is becoming increasingly defined by the gender binary, where more and more things ostensibly genderless become gendered. I became acutely aware of this as my daughter moved through the baby, toddler, and preschool years. It seemed that every purchase caused me to choose between a ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ version. There was no gender-neutral potty or nursery chair. So began the segregated clothing categories with no ground in between.
I know we are all prone to idealising our own childhoods, but memories of my 1970s childhood seem to be swathed in gender neutral brown, orange, and yellow plaid and velour.
The notion that gender is a binary concept is itself scientifically questionable. Further, the relationship between a child’s biological sex and their gender identity and expression is far from straightforward. Gender reveal parties are problematic because they assume all these things as given. There is a certain arrogance in pre-empting a child’s gender before they are even born and imposing all the expectations that go along with it. But that’s a whole other discussion for another day.
I’m not about to argue that girls shouldn’t play with dolls or boys shouldn’t play with trucks. But a girl shouldn’t have to navigate choosing a ‘boy’ thing over a ‘girl’ thing because she shouldn’t have to distinguish between categories in the first place. To dissuade a girl from pursuing a traditionally female interest would be missing the point that there is nothing inherently female about it.
Toys aren’t inherently gendered. The designation of separate categories of ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ toys has been completely arbitrary. Generally speaking, there is also nothing inherently good or bad in any toy. The question is how we define its place in our children’s lives, or if indeed, we need to define it at all.
I didn’t discourage my daughter from playing with Barbie dolls, although it never really gained traction with her. When I was a child, playing with Barbies arose from a fascination with miniatures. There was something about creating and maintaining tiny microcosms of order complete with furniture, décor, and clothing that appealed to my particular neurology.
Sure she went through a stage of embracing the pink, sparkly and twirly. We facilitated it amongst the myriad other things that she played around with and moved on from. We made sure she had other options. A couple of years down the track, her tastes veered toward the sporty and athletic. But the twirly dresses didn’t make her a ‘girly-girl,' and the activewear didn’t make her a ‘tomboy.’
I want my daughter to feel free to pursue things that ignite her passion and interest. If anything stands in her way, I’m determined that gender won’t be a factor.
At one stage, she was obsessed with making slime. Practical drawbacks aside, I could see the value in sensory stimulation, creativity, investigation, and learning. It was also a relatively ‘genderless’ interest, sought out by her because it met her needs in these areas.
More recently, she has become somewhat obsessed with makeup. I’m not about to put the kibosh on it because I can see the opportunities for creativity and self-expression that it affords her. I’m also not going to jump to the conclusion that it makes her vulnerable to premature sexualization when she is much more interested in looking at herself in the mirror than being on display outside the house. The emergence of popular internet identities such as James Charles demonstrates how makeup can transcend gender and be primarily about individual expression.
My daughter is making her own meaning by exploring her interests. Children derive an infinite variety of meanings from how they play, explore, and interact with each other. Our role as parents is to support and facilitate this, not to impose restrictive gendered meanings.
Those who see the issue of the gender binary in children’s lives as a trivial preoccupation that doesn’t matter: it does. It matters because when children absorb the notion that different things are open to them depending on whether they are a boy or a girl, it limits their options, with potentially dire consequences. Attitudes shape practices that have material effects on people’s lives. It matters in these ways:
- The stratification of occupations by gender and feminisation of industries such as childcare has entrenched low wages and poor conditions and contributes to a persistent gender pay gap.
- When women arrange their lives to stay home and play the caring role because “it just makes sense to do things that way,” they leave themselves vulnerable to future economic insecurity, particularly if the relationship dissolves.
- Many women have achieved success in study and work only to find their careers plateau due to the disproportionate amount of time they continue to spend on the domestic front. Even when they work the same hours outside the home, the woman shoulders the physical, mental, and emotional labor that keeps the family intact.
- The persistence of gendered expectations fuels the controlling and coercive behavior that is central to the experience of domestic violence for many women. Their male partners have a sense of entitlement because they have been taught that certain things are due because they are men. Their children become witness to this message.
Expectations based on a gender binary result in poorer outcomes for girls and women all around. We need to stop and think about the messages that are being imparted when we casually call a girl a ‘tomboy’ or 'girly girl.’
Boys also need to go through life, confident that they won’t be limited because of their gender. We need to stop the ridiculous panic that ensues when a boy chooses to dance around in his sister’s tutu.
Women miss out because they are denied social and economic power and, in some cases, personal agency. Men miss out because they are denied emotional engagement and a sense of being grounded in their private realm. Binary gender expectations limit everyone from enjoying the full experience of what it is to be human.
I like to think that my daughter has not yet absorbed a message that she can’t do anything because she’s a girl. This is not to set up unrealistic expectations or engage in toxic positivity. She is growing up in an increasingly uncertain and complex world, that it’s my job to help her to navigate. There will be plenty of factors limiting her dreams, but the fact of being a girl should not be among them.
My daughter is raised by two mothers who have careers and have shared her care equally between them. She has heard us talk about our female bosses and colleagues. She remembers when Australia had a female prime minister.
For my daughter, the notion that a woman can’t be in charge is simply absurd. That an opportunity would be denied, or an obligation imposed purely due to being a girl is unfathomable.
I am doing my best to counteract society's messages, but I can’t do it alone. From the beginning, it became clear what we were up against. It started with daycare and the misguided efforts of carers to “correct” her aberrant ideas of what boys and girls wear, play with, or are interested in.
As she got older and spent time in households other than her own, she became aware of how gender impacts the way families are organized. The mothers of her friends are strong, capable women. But what message does it send when they continue to take on the bulk of the domestic bundle without question?
At some point, she will be in a relationship, which statistically is most likely to be with a man. She will need to negotiate their respective roles in the relationship. I want to think she can have this conversation without being distorted by outdated expectations that her partner has brought from his world.
Messages about gender roles are powerful, and the way they play out in the home will shape the world that children grow into. The language we use to talk to children about gender is important. We need to stop taking it for granted and doing things because that’s how it’s always been done. If it seems easier not to change, you have to ask who it’s easier for.
Being mindful about parenting choices is not new. We do it concerning what our children eat and how they consume technology and pop culture. By making choices about the messages we give children about gender, we have a chance to bring about change. It’s not about achieving a prescribed outcome. It’s about disrupting old patterns of doing things so that new options can emerge.
The more mindful parents can be about gender messages, the more we support each other to counteract and re-shape the messages coming from society.
For example, children will learn to ask questions and examine assumptions if something seems off. If there is one thing innate in children, it is a sense of fairness and justice.
We owe it to future generations to stop curtailing their life experiences from birth (or even before) for the very fact of whether they are a girl or a boy.