The PC parent brigade is all over gender-neutral clothing these days, and it’s seen as a major feminist failing to be spotted out with your baby girl dolled up in pink frills. But what we’ve forgotten in our efforts to stop gender-stereotyping our kids is that “gender-neutral” primarily means just “not feminine” — which in itself is inherently sexist.
Gender-neutral clothing is basically just “boy” clothing because when the feminine is removed, masculinity becomes the neutral default. A great example of this lies with the second-wave feminists of the '70s who rejected feminine clothing in favor of an androgynous aesthetic (aka menswear). They did this to escape the masculine gaze and to counteract patriarchal constructs of femininity — which I totally get. But ironically, what this also served to do was to further denigrate the feminine.
It’s no secret femininity is still largely seen as weak or as something to be ashamed of. While female-assigned children are often given toy trucks, taught how to skateboard and dressed in blue these days, male children are rarely encouraged to play with fairies, do ballet or wear pink. There’s even a rising trend to give baby girls traditionally male names, but rarely does this happen in reverse. Even, or perhaps especially, feminists are guilty of this aversion toward femininity. A high-femme queer feminist friend of mine once turned up to lunch with her young daughter sporting a frilly headband. “She chose it. It wasn’t my idea!” she justified frantically the second she arrived.
Why are we still apologizing for the feminine but celebrating the masculine? It’s seen as subversive to dress your female-assigned children in overalls, mini tuxes and anything with trucks or dinosaurs. It’s cool to give her toy tool kits or train sets. But pop her in head-to-toe pink, and the death stares will freeze you in your tracks.
Well, for starters, we can put our girls in dresses. And our boys too. We can offer both boys and girls a wide range of clothing options regardless of what they have between their legs. Some people say things like, “Of course if my boy wants to wear a dress, I’m OK with that,” but you’ve got to give that choice from the very beginning, not just wait for them to ask for it. The feminine needs to be normalized, not seen as some frivolous, silly thing. And yes, we can also take our kids to see Billy Elliot and provide a wide variety of toys, and if we want, we can even name our boys Alice or Stacy or Rose.
Of course, putting our kids in dresses is no more than a tokenistic attempt to invert sexism, which is in itself too small-scale to make any widespread changes. But in my opinion, the conversations that happen around these things are the important part.
We’re not going to end sexism overnight, but challenging people’s ideas of gender is always a good start. I find it can be interesting to respond to comments such as, “Boys can’t wear dresses,” with a deadpan, “Oh, really? Why is that?” and watch the critic flounder. Or if I’m feeling particularly facetious, I say something like, “Shit. Thank you for telling me. I’m so out of touch with fashion trends these days.” Because once you look at the history of clothing, you see that’s really all dresses (or any clothing item, gendered or otherwise) is: a fashion trend.
The whole “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” rubbish actually used to be the complete reverse — and was a marketing tool that started around about the advent of World War I and cemented itself in the 1940s in an attempt to sell more clothes. And the really weird thing in today's culture? Once you're past the age of 14 or so, it then becomes perfectly culturally acceptable to pair pink with penises again. In a recent walk past my local men’s clothing stores, I spotted pink polo shirts, salmon-pink shorts and even a snazzy pair of hot-pink men's dress shoes.
Gendered clothing might seem innocuous, but it’s the tip of the gendered child-rearing iceberg that sees girls pigeonholed as homemakers and nurturers (putting their dollies to bed and cooking the food) and boys as emotionally stoic aggressors (ramming trucks into walls and killing each other with toy guns). And it limits kids in the way they are able to express their gender, which is damaging for everyone, but especially so for those children who might be trans, gender diverse, or gender non-conforming. If we want to challenge the culture of toxic masculinity and move toward true equality between the sexes, both boys and girls need to be allowed to cry when they’re sad and admit it when they’re frightened. They also need to be taught that being feminine is something that's available to everyone — and that it most certainly doesn’t equate to weakness.
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