Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Makeup For Babies! Super Great!

In my last post I mentioned a speaker at a conference about domestic violence showing a picture of himself as a 3-year-old, looking, sure, adorably rough-and-tumble, and using it to illustrate that "all children are at equal risk for being abusers" and that gender difference hadn't set in yet. That little boy, he asserted, did not even know he was a little boy! He was just a gender-neutral small person!

Girls like purses because they used bags to gather berries.
Wrong. Oh, oh, so wrong; I wish he was not so wrong. But he is so. Wrong.

It was an offhand remark in the conference, and I didn't address it at the time because it seemed like a derail, but the more I think about it, the more it sticks in my craw. How dare this guy not know how early this messaging starts? Before babies are even born we're talking about them in terms of their gender, buying pink blankets for girl babies and blue blankets for boys, as though the baby zirself will be confused as to what their genitals look like if they don't have the label of a blanket. That may seem like a small thing, coloured baby blankets, but they are illustrative of the way we treat humans differently based on whatever colour blanket they were born into (whether they fit in it or not). Because there is makeup for babies, and because makeup for babies is almost not even the most egregious example of this kind of shockingly early gender manipulation. Makeup! For babies!

Here to tell us more is AlphaParent:

This may sound like a sensationalist overreaction on my part; these products are aimed at babies after all, and babies have no concept of gender, let alone objectification. However it is the introduction of beauty paraphernalia into the baby’s everyday world, its familiarization and indoctrination at an unconscious involuntary level that enables these toys to set the foundation for such issues. Even before their first birthday babies can assimilate messages presented to them. Psychologists have discovered that babies know, explore, observe, and learn more than we would have ever thought possible. In some ways they are smarter than adults. Several studies show that even the youngest children have sophisticated and powerful learning abilities (Gopnik. A).
Read the whole post to see an alarmingly huge and still-perfunctory list of a bunch of highly gendered toys for children under the age of three, for both boys and girls. Overwhelmingly, the message is that boys make things ("My First Toolbox") and girls buy the things that boys make and look pretty while doing it.

Toys and messages like this work in a few different ways. First, of course, there's the simple fact of teaching a child that she's for looking at, or he's for building things, and that there are no other options for gender, and few others for how that gender presents (a girl can also be for cleaning or cooking! Boys could shoot things! Choices to choose from!). As AlphaParent points out, young children learn things early, and are capable of assimilating messages far more complex than these ones.

Secondly it reveals the belief that these are interests innate to children because of their gender. That toys for children under the age of one would be so strongly gendered highlights the fact that toymakers thinks there is something about being a girl which biologically or evolutionarily (ugh, ick) dictates her preference for pink, for sparkles, and for any and all aspects of domesticity. Companies like Hasbro believe - or pander to the belief, and I don't think it matters which - that girls are fundamentally designed for housework and baby-raising, and boys are designed for active adventures and building and destroying things.

These toys work the same way all pop culture works: it simultaneously illustrates and reinforces underlying social messages. Parents learn to put their female babies in pink (my father had my ears pierced at about 6 weeks - an Italian tradition, at least in our family, but also, by his own admission, a way to make sure people knew I was a girl), so that strangers know to call her beautiful, or their boy babies in blue so strangers know to call him strong. Toy companies didn't create the gender dynamic, but they insist on its relevance and accuracy, thereby perpetuating and legitimizing age-old tropes of gender essentialism. Those tropes stay with children all their lives, as they do with us all, and are used to justify the status quo which systematically offers men and boys greater and more meaningful choices and opportunities, and which situates male power in action and female power in attractiveness.

Oh, a sexy nine-year-old! Seems fine.
In addition to the simple fact of heavily gendered toys for small children, it is worth looking at how the messages to each gender have changed over the last few years. It's too much to cover in one post, but there's a lot more to be said here about how gendered messaging dovetails with the increasing sexualization of younger and younger girls, which starts with things like Makeup for Babies and the insistence that being attractive to men is the highest achievement for a woman. While I think that has always been true of the messages we give girls - being beautiful has never NOT been a thing demanded of women - what constitutes "being attractive" has started to slide down a slippery slope, as it were, so that high heels and thongs for 8-year-olds are now a thing you can sell in the shop and 9-year-olds are doing burlesque. The reasons for the slide are complex, but have something to do with the increasing pornification of our sexual habits, which rely heavily on eroticization of male dominance; bolstered by bat-shit crazy evo psych nonsense that insists we were right all along about gender roles, because of lizard-brain; combined with the sort of enlightened sexism that makes people talk about all this stuff like it's super fine and great because sexism is dead anyway! These messages exist on a continuum that starts early, and My Pretty Purse and makeup for babies are just the beginning.

What's next? My First Pole Dancing Kit? Oh.

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