When I was pregnant, the most common question I was asked was “how long to go?”, which was usually followed up with “Really?! That long?! You look like you’re about to pop?!” and an incredulous expression. But after the shock at my huge belly was out of the way, it was always “is it a boy or a girl?” I always answered honestly “I don’t know” and sometimes added “it doesn’t really matter to us.”‘
We didn’t find out the sex at our scans, because I didn’t want to have to lie when people asked me, and also because I wanted to extend the time before she was “encouraged” into gender norms and expectations for as long as possible. I wanted to let her just be a baby. I didn’t want to force her into a box of expectations based on her sex, and I definitely definitely didn’t want everyone else to do it for me.
And for a while, it was easy enough. We were at home or with good friends a lot, with relatively few outside influences. It was easy to get “gender-neutral” clothes in her size. She had short hair, and most people couldn’t tell if she was a boy or a girl. This meant that many of our interactions were missing that layer.
But it didn’t entirely stop the expectations. We still heard that we were lucky to have a girl, because they were “calm and easy” (despite the fact that in her first year of life she could easily have been voted “kid most likely to try to get into stuff” in most settings). We were still told we should put a headband on so that people could tell she was a girl. We still had people say that she loved her Papa because she was a girl (a “daddy’s girl” at that).
Things have shifted and changed, as things tend to do. Her hair has grown. There are fewer “gender-neutral” clothes in her size, and she rather enjoys the colour pink. We don’t hear “boy or girl?” so often when she’s there with us, because most people can guess based on appearance that she’s a girl.
But even if we don’t hear the question out loud so often anymore, we’re still hearing “boy or girl?” all the time, in so many ways. The message it sends is only getting louder. And The Campground Kid is hearing it too.
A couple of days ago, someone in one of my Facebook groups posted a fairly innocuous question to McDonald’s about why they ask “is it for a boy or a girl?” when they sell happy meals, rather than just offering a choice of toys: “do you want a ninja turtle or a beanie baby?”
I found out about the post, and made a quick supportive comment, expecting that there would be a few supportive comments, a couple of misinformed negative comments, and a cheerful but meaningless response from McDonald’s that they were “working on it”.
And in two out of three cases, I was correct. There were a few supportive comments and a fairly standard corporate response from McDonald’s. But there were not just a couple of misinformed negative comments. There were thousands. Literally thousands of people who thought she was a) making a big deal of something that was a non-issue, b) an overly precious lefty liberal caught up in the PC brigade, c) pathetic for being concerned about this when people are being killed in wars/can’t afford food/have real problems to worry about, d) a terrible mother who should be worrying more about feeding her toddler McDonald’s or maybe not raising kids at all, or e) all of the above. Some of the comments were seriously nasty, she received private messages abusing her and her parenting, and they just kept coming and coming and coming.
I don’t necessarily want to give this one post more attention than it needs. McDonald’s have already taken the feedback on board, there’s been an article published on news websites, and I’m pretty sure the poster wasn’t expecting this level of attention. But posting and reading on the discussions has been eye-opening for me.
I am not surprised when I’m asked the question at McDonald’s; I’m used to the casual but insidious gendering of our kids, which is perhaps why I’ve never thought to complain to them. But I was shocked at the level of disagreement on the post. I never realised just how much hate for progressive thinking was there beneath the surface, and how much people were clinging to gender roles as a bastion of “the good ol’ days”‘. (I know, I know, there were SO MANY clues, but this little issue just seemed like a no-brainer to me!)
The Campground Kid has the occasional Happy Meal from “‘Miss Donald’s” (her words). I ask what toys are available and let her choose, or choose the one that I think she would like the best (or the one that I think would be the least annoying, if I’m honest), and we get on with our days. The impact of this specific issue is minimal.
And, just so we’re crystal clear on that point, OF COURSE this isn’t the biggest worry in my life. I have plenty of other things to worry about, and I spend plenty of time worrying about them. But, we can worry about more than one thing at once. Trust me, I’m well versed in worrying.
And OF COURSE if I had the choice between “no children killed in wars” and “no gendering of the toys in McDonald’s” I would choose the former.
And OF COURSE I’m not going to win over many people in the comments section of a Facebook post.
But those things don’t mean it’s not a real issue. Because it’s not just about the Happy Meal. It’s easy to ask for a “boys toy” for my kid, if that’s what they want, but I think it’s important to question why we as a society even consider a truck or a ninja turtle or a superhero to be a “boys toy”, and how we influence our kids’ choices and “natural preferences” every day with the messages we give them.
The “boy or girl?” question is asked, both explicitly and covertly all. the. time. And all the little instances build up.
They build up to a world where men are encouraged to be violent rather than showing any vulnerability and where women are considered “less than” if they don’t conform to arbitrary standards of beauty. They build up to a world where children drop their favourite hobbies because they’re “too girly” or “for boys only”. They build up to a world where Donald Trump is the President of the United States. They build up to a world where a woman is shamed and ridiculed on the internet because she dares to question our entrenched ideas of gender.
That’s not the world I want for my child, and if that makes me an “overreacting special snowflake” in some people’s minds, then so be it.
I have more thoughts on this (SO MANY MORE). But my post is too long already, and there are people who’ve said it better, so I’m going to finish off with two recommendations.
First is Let Toys Be Toys, a volunteer organisation in the UK who advocate for removing gender-stereotyped advertising. They explain why it matters and have successfully lobbied several retailers. In the last few days, I’ve realised more and more how important their efforts are.
The second is this article about how we can very simply reduce our children’s tendency to stereotype, by speaking in specifics rather than generalisations.
And the third is a book, Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. I’m only part way through, but it is FASCINATING and important and engaging and everyone should read it.