Is it 'natural' for boys to play with guns and girls to like pink? Come on!

I feel I haven't had a proper rant for a while. What with the holidays and all, I've been positively calm and cheerful, and, frankly, that's not healthy. So here's something that really gets me going.

Back when Charlotte was at Kindergarten, they used to play this game. The children would be sitting in two groups - boys on one side, girls on the other. The teacher would shout out: 'Who likes pink?' and all the girls would have to yell 'I do!'. Then the teacher would ask  'Who likes Blue?' and the boys would have to answer. That's not really what pisses me off. I'd long decided that this particular school could not teach my daughter very much, and at home, we worked hard to counteract every single one of their efforts towards gender discrimination.

No, what really gets to me, is normal, non-sexist people. The ones who tell you that yes, this is all very wrong, and schools shouldn't be allowed to put such ideas in children's minds. But then they start nodding and smiling wisely, and using their confiding, yet down to earth voice, they tell you that once you have a boy, or a girl, you can't help but notice certain things. Boys just like to play with guns - there's nothing you can do. If you won't buy them toy ones, they'll just use a random stick and shoot the hell out of you. And girls, well, they're different. They're quieter, aren't they? And they do like pretty things.

All this has nothing to do with the way you bring them up, they say. You never bought guns, or hair ribbons. They just naturally turn to them. They really weren't expecting their boys or girls to be like that - after all, they've always thought of themselves as feminists, and wouldn't have dreamt of pushing gender prejudices in their own home - but, somehow, they are. That's nature for you. Shame, isn't it. Those theories about equality were so nice and pleasant. Well, you can still be a feminist, but you just have to moderate certain points of views as you get older and wiser, don't you?

Bollocks to that.

Nothing to do with what the parents model, or encourage, so it has to be natural, right? Right. Because children couldn't possibly be influenced by what other children do, by what they see on tv, or the fact that in a lot of toy shops, you have boys' toys in green and brown and girls' toys in pink. Well separated. With the jigsaw puzzles in the middle. But no: parents are so very powerful that only their influence could possibly count - anything that doesn't come from their teaching is in the genes. And if it's in the genes, it's about sexual difference.

At first I used to hold my own kids up as counterexamples. I have a daughter who's never played with dolls. Was never into tea parties, wears her hair mostly down, and whose favourite outfit is leggings and a t-shirt. She's not particularly sporty - maybe because she's short for her age, but she loves to climb. Her favourite pastime has always been crafts (just as it was mine).

My son, by contrast, loves dolls - little ones, he can put in his doll house. He prefers it if they can take their clothes on and off, so they can be put to bed. He has a tiny china tea set to serve them dinner, and fimo food that Charlotte and I made for him. He's also very keen on hair clips. Last time I was in an accessory shop (filling up on hair bands to tie my hair back - nothing fancy...) he asked me to buy him a few things. He selected some tiny hair bands and a few miniature clips, just right for the amount of hair he has on his head. All black. Very tasteful. He put them on as soon as we got to the restaurant. For a long time his favourite piece of clothing was a big white tutu that he would wear with a manly t-shirt and rubber boots. It did actually look quite cool. When he does wear stuff like that, no one mistakes him for a girl. He looks no more 'effeminate' (whatever that means) than Charlotte looks like a boy. They just look like themselves.

So you see, I did feel like I could point to my children for these parents who would tell me that gender differences would come up, no matter what we did. And to be honest, our kids never watched that much tv, apart from Cbeebies - and whatever you think of the Teletubbies you can't very well accuse them of encouraging gender prejudice... - and we never spent that much time in toy shops either (there's only one where we live and we usually give books and craft things for birthday gifts). So, yeah, maybe I could have cited them as an example. But then there was always the fear that people would turn around and say Max was 'different' and may be not a 'typical' child - for at the time we didn't yet know he was autistic.

Now we know. And of course you know what people say about autism: that it's an exaggerated form of 'boyness'. Well, you know what I think of this theory. If not, go have a look here. But still, if that's what people think, they can't very well use Max's autism to refute my claim that being a boy doesn't necessarily mean wanting to play killing people and kicking balls all the time. If only people were that rational...

What I do think, seriously, is that it is Max's autism that enables him not to pick up on all the cue that tell boys what they ought to be like: autistic people aren't great at picking up social cues.
What about Charlotte? Well, she's just strong minded. She doesn't need a tv advert or a snotty friend telling her what she should and shouldn't like. (and you know what? My kids aren't the only ones: I know a bunch of other boys and girls who don't fall into stereotypes!) Let's hope that lasts!


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid i am one of those friends you describe. I do think there are natural differences between the sexes, but i also do think that nurture is extremely powerful (and i box in culture and social pressures in there). So, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish chicken from egg. But i do think there are differences at the core. As regards likings for pink or blue i think you can safely guess that's nurture, since pink used to be the colour considered as masculine, and baby blue feminine. As a believer in evolution, i do tend to ask "what evolutionary advantage would that give?" Some of it makes sense when u think like that. Again, there is no survival advantage for boys liking blue!


Sandrine said...

I suppose there are some difference... But it's not so much that I hate to admit it, as that I feel it's pointless and to some extent harmful to harp on about them as some people seem to. As you say, so many differences come from our environment - so what's the point of focussing on the fact that there are potentially natural ones too... It really depresses me when that happens.

Looking for Blue Sky said...

I would say that there do seem to be some gender differences, but that they are more of a continuum - I would be more towards the 'boy' end than either of my girls for example. My eldest girl was given both dolls and a train set and played with both and my son also played with both, but after a certain age it was as thought they decided that that was no longer okay. What I find interesting is that Smiley, who is severely intellectually disabled, is very 'girlie' : she shows a strong preference towards pink sparkly stuff when given a choice: and I am not convinced that she would be really influenced by TV etc.

LinzW1976 said...

Love it! My boy is 20 months and does exhibit proper 'boy' behaviour - he likes cars and buses and vans and he climbs and falls over a lot.... however... he also likes to push baby pushchairs around and put the washing in the washing machine and take it out and hang it on the radiator. I was also a tomboy who was happier in my brothers' cast-offs than any dress my mum tried to put me in!

I think there are natural differences, but I also think a lot of it IS dictated by society and how people are told to be. Really interesting blog, thanks! :-) x

Imcombobulated said...

I don't buy any 'natural difference' arguments. There's all kinds of sex and gender research that shows pretty definitively that none of that stuff is biologically determined.
I'm regularly appalled that my daughter has taken up the princess narratives of Western culture. But as you point out, there's all kinds of ways she's been exposed to them. I didn't encourage the princess thing but that sure as heck is not evidence of princessliness being in her blood! I'm less distraught by her princess obsession these days, as she'd decided that drag queens are the best princesses. So true.
I'm also very glad that she persists in calling Max her best friend. Because the two of them really are the most awesome fit.

Sandrine said...

@looking for blue sky - I actually think that if you discount the influence of tv, fashion, etc, it's quite natural to like pink sparkly things, whether you're a boy or a girl! If it's bright, shiny and cheerful, what's not to like? Men who would never dream of wearing pink trousers or even pink underwear often buy pink shirts, because they're available and acceptable. Also, Smiley clearly has very good taste, as I recall from her cullinary preferences! Thanks for commenting!

I also think there probably are some natural difference: why wouldn't there be? I just don't think we are in a position to know what they are because we've imposed so many socially constructed differences on ourselves. So I think that saying there are some natural differences in a context when we're questioning externally imposed differences muddles the issue. Let's get clear on what's not natural first and then see if we actually need to figure out what is! Could be we get on very well without having to resort to gender differences at all.

@Imcombulated: I couldn't agree more with every single thing you say! I'd ssay that there's definitely a bit of royal blood going through Imogen's veins though - maybe that's where the princess thing comes from!

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