Gender boxes limit all kids

I don’t think her mother would have to send an email out to the parents, warning them of her fashion choice.

I’ve gotten so many comments like this in reaction to my blog about the sexism intrinsic in the NYT piece “What’s So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear a Dress,” that I am going to respond in a post.

No parent would send such an email because gender-pressure/ sexism against girls is more accepted. (I’ve been calling it “subtle” as well but, really, how subtle are Target’s gender-segregated aisles?) I wish we could write emails, but people would think we’re crazy, because people don’t think they’re sexist; they don’t think sexism exists and so, unfortunately, an email won’t work. Much of my whole, damn blog is dedicated to just pointing out sexism. Sexism exists, and it exists everywhere, and it’s often celebrated and not questioned by smart, progressive, educated parents. One commenter just sent me a link to this blogger praising the NYT piece with: “girls who waltz into previously male-dominated arenas are almost uniformly applauded.”

It’s just not true. God, I wish it were.

I do have some tactics to suggest for parents to deal with sexism/ gender-pressure, but before I even go into that, it’s really important not to let this issue devolve into: who has it worse, girls or boys? When we create rigid gender boxes for our kids, everyone loses out. Everyone. This is about raising healthy, happy, children, helping their brains grow so that they can reach their potential. Defending a boy for wearing a dress and a girl for wearing a Spider-Man T is the same thing, not an oppositional thing. And it’s a much deeper issue, too, because most girls today are in a place where we can’t defend them, because they won’t put on a Superhero shirt. Obviously, the same is true about boys in dresses, even if it’s only playing dress up.

Here’s the thing: Most kids like to play with dolls, but we label them “dolls” or “action figures.” Most kids enjoy pushing objects on wheels, but we sell them either trucks or babystrollers. As I wrote, most kids would have fun painting their nails if they thought it was OK to do so. Most kids, while playing outside will pick up sticks and occasionally poke each other with them. Most parents respond to that same act with “Boys will be boys” or “Sweetie, stop that! You’ll hurt yourself and rip your dress.”

There’s this one part in the NYT article that I excerpted in my first post:

Still, it was hard not to wonder what Alex meant when he said he felt like a “boy” or a “girl.” When he acted in stereotypically “girl” ways, was it because he liked “girl” things, so figured he must be a girl? Or did he feel in those moments “like a girl” (whatever that feels like) and then consolidate that identity by choosing toys, clothes and movements culturally ascribed to girls?

While the writer doesn’t go on to explore that, the point of my first post was that adults can’t even begin to decode without first recognizing the gender-Jim Crow kidculture that our children are immersed in.

It kind of reminds me of when I had an eating disorder, and I told my therapist I felt fat. She told me that fat was not a feeling. “What?” I said, shocked.  “Do you feel anxious?” she asked me. “Lonely? Frustrated?” It took me years to decode fat talk. Though I don’t say or think “I feel fat” anymore, I hear other women use those words all the time, eloquent grown-ups with large vocabularies. What are they trying to say?

Here are some ways, daily, that I decode gender talk, because though an email won’t work, saying the right thing at the right time sometimes does. Here are three main groups parents need to speak up to, even if it’s awkward, even if you feel like a bitch.


At a parent conference, my favorite teacher glowed when he told me that my daughter played soccer like a boy. “What does that mean?” I said. “She’s good,” he said. “She goes right after the ball.” We then got in a discussion about my daughter’s behavior, and how she loved kickball, but that at recess the kids were starting divide up: girls do monkey bars, boys do kickball. I asked the teacher if he would encourage the kids to mix it up. I offered my help.  When I was a parent volunteer on a field trip, the naturalist asked the kids to split in two groups, so the teacher said: “Boys on one side, girls on the other, that’s easiest.” So what if it’s “easiest” at that moment? Moves like that, in the long run, hurt kids. A teacher would never dream of saying: “White kids here, kids of color there.”  I suggested a different kind of split and luckily,  the naturalist backed me up, pairing them up herself.


When my kids go to the doctor, they’re often called princesses, told their clothing is pretty, and when they leave, they’re offered a princess sticker. I asked the workers at the office not to offer the princess stickers, though it’s still a struggle because most characters who are girls are princesses. When people tell my kids they are pretty or their clothing is pretty, I change the subject, “XX is a great artist, tell the nice woman what you drew on your way over.” Or “XX loves to read, tell her about Charlotte’s Web.” As I’ve written about quite a bit, these are adults trying to be nice, trying to break the ice with kids. Help here is often appreciated when delivered the right way. Rebecca Hains just posted about taking her son to the dentist, and here is how she tried to intervene:

“Hello!” said the dentist. “I just want to count your teeth today,” he said reassuringly. “And let’s make sure they’re all boy teeth, okay?”

As my son smiled and opened his mouth per the dentist’s request, I said, “Gee, I’m pretty sure they’re all people teeth, doctor.”

The denist began the exam but seemed to have missed my point. “Let’s see. Boy tooth… boy tooth… boy tooth…”

I didn’t like where this was going. In a gentle effort to redirect his script, I asked a playful question: “Hmm…Are you sure none of them are puppy teeth?”

“Puppy teeth? No… But, uh, oh!” In a voice of mock concern, he asked, “Is this one a girl tooth?!?!”

Smiling at my son as naturally as possible, I said in a bright, upbeat tone, “Gee, it could be!” (Meaning: and there would be nothing wrong with that!)

The dentist frowned and furrowed his brow. “No, no,” he said, “this is a boy tooth. You are a boy. You don’t have any girl teeth! Phew.”

It’s hard. It’s awkward because we can’t send an email like “GET A CLUE. BE OPEN. BE KIND.” And the fucked up thing is, people are often trying to “be kind” when they push stereotypes on kids. Except when they’re not…

Other kids

My six year old was at a party yesterday with a jumpyhouse and she told me that a girl there said to her (the little sister of the party girl, no less) “You can’t come in unless you’re a pretty princess.”

“What did you tell her?” I asked. Hoping for something like “I’m brave and strong and can jump over your three-year old butt.”

My daughter said, “I told her I was Ariel.”

Ariel, ugh. But at least my daughter thought it was weird, noticed it enough to talk with me about it after. A tiny victory, but something.

If I were there, of course, I would’ve smiled and said something like, “What about Merida? She can shoot arrows and turn her mom into a bear!” And I bet they both would’ve laughed and gone in. Little kids are the easiest to intercede on, and I do it all the time.

Balancing Jane asked this question as well: what can parents do on a daily basis?

So first I would say: Do something! Speak up.

I started a blog, that helps a lot. Now I have a whole community of people and resources to help break out of gender boxes.

I seek out books and movies that feature heroic females. This blog has many recommendations and lists. A Mighty Girl is a great resource. And remember, it’s important to read books and show your sons movies featuring strong girls. The myth out there, reinforced by parents terrified their boys will wear dresses, is that girls will see movies about boys but boys won’t see movies about girls. (Nothing to do with training, nothing to do what Hollywood offers them…) Take a leadership role in proving that untrue.

I’m writing a middle grade book about strong girls. That helps, too.

As the mom of three girls, I schedule playdates with boys and invite boys to birthday parties.

Last night, I put my three year old in Superman pajamas, called her Supergirl, and said, “You’re so strong! You can fly!” We played for a while before bed.

Little things are big things.

Emails won’t work, so we’ve all got to be creative here. Tell me your ideas. Even better, report your acts.

Reel Girl’s Letter to the Editor

I emailed this to the editor of the New York Times piece “What’s So Bad About a Boy Who Wants to Wear a Dress” today, though so far the New York Times email isn’t working for me and the one I made up, last name isn’t working for me either. I emailed something similar to the “corrections” department yesterday, which you send in the same way you post a comment.

Dear Ms. Titunik,

In the New York Times post “What’s So Bad About A Boy Who Wants To Wear A Dress,” journalist Ruth Padawer writes:

“Of course, had Alex been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no e-mail to parents would have been necessary; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt.”

Kids and adults do much more than “raise an eyebrow” when young girls stray from gender norms. Stories that received a great deal of media attention about pressuring  girls include Katie, the girl who was bullied for bringing her beloved Star Wars lunch box to school, “a boy thing;” and more recently, Our Lady of Sorrows baseball team forfeited a championship rather than play a girl. You can find the links to those stories on my blog Reel Girl which I created, as the mom of three young daughters, in response to that “raised eyebrow.”

As in those two stories above, the pressure for girls to conform often comes through bullying, but it can also be more subtle as well. That subtlety makes the sexism more insidious and harder to call out and change. For the New York Times to print “no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt,” in a story about gender no less, is untrue and irresponsible.

Margot Magowan
Reel Girl

The reason this is so important to me is because the gendering of childhood is everywhere.

Just today A Mighty Girl posted about boy and girl magnets/ words:

All we can say to this one is WOW — in case girls and boys had any confusion as to what their appropriate interests should be, these gender-divided magnet sets will help clarify matters. According to this toy manufacturer, “boy words” include bike, swinging, forest, caterpillar and swimming while “girl worlds” include lipstick, jewels, clothes, glitter and dancing. How very limiting for both girls and boys!

Children are segregated; without recognizing the Jim Crow in kidworld, it’s impossible to have a real discussion about gender.

Gender-fluid piece in NYT insulting to girls and women

The New York Times piece on gender-fluid kids reinforces so many stereotypes, I’ve got to go through them.

Let’s start with sentence #1:

The night before Susan and Rob allowed their son to go to preschool in a dress, they sent an e-mail to parents of his classmates. Alex, they wrote, “has been gender-fluid for as long as we can remember, and at the moment he is equally passionate about and identified with soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas (not to mention lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows).”

Here, the writer, Ruth Padawer, sets up a series of stereotyped binary/ boy-girl opposites: soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas, lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows. I waited for her to explore any reasons why our culture promotes this symbology. Unfortunately, I waited for the whole article.

Why are princesses considered to be the epitome of femininity? Could it, perhaps, have little do with with genes and everything to do with the fact that perpetuating the image of a passive, “pretty” female  is popular in a patriarchal culture? Just maybe?

A few more sentences down:

Some days at home he wears dresses, paints his fingernails and plays with dolls; other days, he roughhouses, rams his toys together or pretends to be Spider-Man.

Most kids on Planet Earth would paint their fingernails if they weren’t told and shown by grown-ups that it’s a “girl thing.” Nail polish has nothing to do with penises or vulvas or genes, or even anything as deep and profound as “”gender fluidity.” To kids, nail polish is art play, brushes and paint. That’s it. Oh, right, art is for girls. Unless you’re a famous artist whose paintings sell for the most possible amount of money. Then art is for boys.

On an email that Alex’s parents sent to his school:

Of course, had Alex been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no e-mail to parents would have been necessary; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt.

What? Does this writer have young daughters? Has Padawer heard about the boy’s baseball team from Our Lady of Sorrows that recently forfeited rather than play a girl? Or what about Katie, the girl who was bullied just because she brought her Star Wars lunch box, a “boy thing,” to school?  Does Padawer know Katie’s experience isn’t unusual? How rare it is to find a girl today who isn’t concerned that a Spider-Man shirt (or any superhero shirt or outfit) is boyish and that she’ll be teased if she wears it? My whole blog, Reel Girl, is about that “raised eyebrow.” Has Padawer seen summer’s blockbuster movie “The Avengers” with just one female to five male superheroes? The typical female/ male ratio? Or how “The Avengers” movie poster features the female’s ass? Think that might have something to do with why females care more than males about how their asses are going to look?  You can see the poster here along with the pantless Wonder Woman. Does Padawer get or care that our kids are surrounded by these kinds of images in movies and toys and diapers and posters every day? How can Padawer practically leave sexism out of a New York Times piece 8 pages long on gender?

First sentence of paragraph 3: (Yes, we’re only there.)

There have always been people who defy gender norms.

No way! You’re kidding me. Like women who wanted to vote? Women who didn’t faint in the street?

Moving on to page 2:

Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted.

Um, wrong again. Been to a clothing store for little kids recently? Ever tried to buy a onesie for a girl with a female pilot on it? Or a female doing anything adventurous? Check out Pigtail Pals, one of the few companies that dares to stray from “pervasive and accepted” femininity. One of the few. And we’re talking toddlers here.

The studies that do exist indicate that tomboys are somewhat more likely than gender-typical girls to become bisexual, lesbian or male-identified, but most become heterosexual women.

Is the writer really writing a piece on gender fluid kids and using the word “tomboy” without irony?

Next page:

Still, it was hard not to wonder what Alex meant when he said he felt like a “boy” or a “girl.” When he acted in stereotypically “girl” ways, was it because he liked “girl” things, so figured he must be a girl? Or did he feel in those moments “like a girl” (whatever that feels like) and then consolidate that identity by choosing toys, clothes and movements culturally ascribed to girls?

Hard not to wonder. Exactly! Finally, the writer wonders. But, not for long. Here’s the next sentence:

Whatever the reasoning, was his obsession with particular clothes really any different than that of legions of young girls who insist on dresses even when they’re impractical?

Once again, I’ve got to ask: Does Padawer have a young daughter? Legions of young girls “insist on dresses” because like all kids, they want attention. Sadly, girls get a tremendous amount of attention from grown-ups for how they look. Today, my three year old daughter wanted to wear a princess dress to preschool, because she knew that if she did, the parents and teachers would say, “Wow, you’re so pretty! I love your dress.” And if it’s not a girl’s dress everyone focuses on, it could be her hair, or perhaps her shoes which are probably glittery or shiny or have giant flowers on them because that’s what they sell at Target and Stride Rite. Unfortunately, focusing on appearance is how most adults today make small talk with three year old girls.

The next two graphs are the best in the article so I will paste them in full, though notice the use of “tomboy” again with no irony.

Whatever biology’s influence, expressions of masculinity and femininity are culturally and historically specific. In the 19th century, both boys and girls often wore dresses and long hair until they were 7. Colors weren’t gendered consistently. At times pink was considered a strong, and therefore masculine, color, while blue was considered delicate. Children’s clothes for both sexes included lace, ruffles, flowers and kittens. That started to change in the early 20th century, writes Jo Paoletti, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America.” By then, some psychologists were arguing that boys who identified too closely with their mothers would become homosexuals. At the same time, suffragists were pushing for women’s advancement. In response to these threatening social shifts, clothes changed to differentiate boys from their mothers and from girls in general. By the 1940s, dainty trimming had been purged from boys’ clothing. So had much of the color spectrum.

Women, meanwhile, took to wearing pants, working outside the home and playing a wider array of sports. Domains once exclusively masculine became more neutral territory, especially for prepubescent girls, and the idea of a girl behaving “like a boy” lost its stigma. A 1998 study in the academic journal Sex Roles suggests just how ordinary it has become for girls to exist in the middle space: it found that 46 percent of senior citizens, 69 percent of baby boomers and 77 percent of Gen-X women reported having been tomboys.

The piece is riddled with more gender assumptions that aren’t questioned.

When Jose was a toddler, his father, Anthony, accepted his son’s gender fluidity, even agreeing to play “beauty shop.”

But why is beauty shop feminine? We all know beauty toys and products are marketed to girls, but why? Here’s that Avengers ass poster again. In a male dominated world, women are valued primarily for their appearance. They are taught to focus on how they look and that if they do so they can get power and prestige. Appearance is the area where girls are trained to channel their ambition and competition. Oh, sorry, girls aren’t competitive or ambitious. That’s a boy thing.

On gender fluid child, P.J., the author writes:

Most of the time, he chooses pants that are pink or purple.

Wait a minute, didn’t she write a few pages back about Jo Poletti’s book Pink and Blue? Remember, pink used to be a “boy” color; it’s only recently that it’s perceived as a “girl” color?

Here might be the most fucked up quote:

When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?

When Miss Representation posted that on its Facebook page  above the link to the the article, angry commenters immediately began to respond:

i am NOT the lesser gender!
why can’t people see how insulting that is? i mean, who would *openly* call a race or ability or sexual orientation “lesser” and not largely be considered a bigot?

It was that comment that inspired me to write this post, because the whole piece is insulting to girls and women. I hope it’s insulting to boys and men as well.

Read my email to the New York Times editor here.

Read my response to comments on this post here.