Monday, October 18, 2010

Sugar and Spice

UNITED STATES - CIRCA 1950s:  Girls studying tegether.  (Photo by George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

I distinctly remember the moment in high school when I realized that every single one of my mother's close friends was a teacher.

Well, to be more precise, it wasn't the moment I realized it, but the moment I realized what it meant.

My mother was a kindergarten teacher, and the fact that virtually all of the adult women I knew were teachers as well -- including every single member of the tight-knit crew with whom my mother had gone to New York's Hunter College -- was just one of those facts that had never merited any special consideration before. It was just something about my world that I had absorbed, like the fact that we were Jewish, or that we lived in the suburbs.

But one day the implications of it finally dawned on me: it wasn't an accident or a coincidence that all of those women were teachers. They all became teachers because there just weren't very many options for women graduating from college in 1952. (Mom also knew a rogue nurse or two, to be fair.)

Perhaps that's why I had always harbored a romantic fascination with the one friend of my mother's who had refused to conform. Sue Slade marched to the beat of her own very distinctive drummer: an honest-to-goodness Bohemian, she became a theater casting agent and even once worked as a secretary for Marlon Brando. Sue eventually wrote a play called Ready When You Are, C.B., which ran for 80 performances on Broadway, directed by theater luminary Joshua Logan. It's still performed in schools and community theater from time to time. Sadly, she committed suicide in 1971, the year she turned 40. I never got to know her.

By the time I graduated from college almost 40 years after my mother and her crew, the idea that women could only be teachers or nurses seemed to me like a quaint relic, something akin to Victrolas and corsets. It had been drummed into my head throughout my childhood (see: Title IX, Free To Be You and Me) that I could be absolutely anything I wanted to be and the fact that I was a girl wouldn't limit me in any way.

I laughed when my first editor after college, after watching me turn around a transcription project at lightning speed, warned me never to let anyone know how fast I could type. It seemed charmingly anachronistic. He was mostly kidding, right? Because no one really thought that way any more, did they?

I'm now the mother of two little boys who have female doctors and female T-ball teammates and a female Senator. Maybe I haven't been watching the messages we're sending little girls these days as vigilantly as I could, but I naively assumed that we were still mostly on the right path. (I do take credit for sending a letter to Nickelodeon four years ago complaining about their sexist marketing of Dora. I loved that my then two-year-old son was a fan of a show with a strong female lead character like Dora. Why did they only make Dora merchandise suitable for little girls? Did they really need to spin off Diego just because he was a boy?)

Which is why I was so disappointed when I opened a recent Land's End catalog and saw this:

See, it turns out that boys and girls "aren't built the same." Girls' coats apparently need to be "pretty & playful" while boys' are "rugged & ready." Really? In 2010? It seemed so ludicrous -- so 1952 -- that I find it incredibly hard to imagine the meeting in which this copy was approved. Did someone think it was an episode of Mad Men, maybe?

Has no one at Land's End heard of Brandi Chastain?

PASADENA, CA - JULY 10:  Brandi Chastain #6 of Team USA removes her jersey while celebrating after kicking the winning penalty shot to win the Final match over Team China during the FIFA Women's World Cup at the Rose Bowl on July 10, 1999 in Pasadena, California. Team USA defeated Team China 5-4 in sudden death after two overtimes. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Or Hillary Clinton, a woman who mounted a completely credible bid to be the President of the United States a mere two years ago?

I was irked, but dropped it. An aberration, I decided.

Until last night, surfing around looking for bunk beds for my boys, I came across this:

Sigh. Need I walk through the litany of misconceptions here, starting with the idea that girls "just wanna have style" and need "sweet" bunk bed designs, while their boy counterparts need "manly" bunk beds that are just as "tough and cool" as they are?

For the record, marketers of the world, I'm perfectly ok if my three- and six-year-old sons sleep in "sweet" beds. They are neither particularly tough nor cool, and I'm fine if things remain that way for a while.

But you know who is tough and cool? And rugged and ready? Their seven year old cousin. In fact, like scores of little girls before her, she recently started trekking regularly to the ice rink with big dreams.

You know. To play hockey.

So take that, Land's End and I'm choosing to believe that Alexandra is the kind of little girl we should be raising in 2010, one who won't fit in the ridiculously outdated stereotypes you're still trying to sell her. And you know what? I bet Sue Slade would be proud.


  1. Greatest blog post ever. Seriously, Jen, that was a really good read. Loved the Sue Slade stuff.

  2. Love it! My almost eight year old daughter just began playing hockey in September and will participate in a U-10 girls hockey jamboree this weekend.

  3. Great blog. I like the way your mind works.

  4. I love this post. Your niece could be my 7yo hockey-playing daughter. Her twin sister would prefer the feminine, sweet bunk beds but I can't find anything - outerwear, shoes, you name it - rough and ready enough for my future Brandy Chastain/Hilary Clinton/Sue Slade. (P.S. She prefers Diego to Dora; he plays with more interesting animals.)

  5. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting. Now the dilemma: I really like those bunk beds. Can I buy them? (Hello? Randy Cohen??)

  6. How about girls clothes? I cant find a single thing without "too cute" or "pretty flower" that won't break the bank. It makes me want to just let her go naked...

  7. I have to add, kcorn, that your adding of Sue Slade to those list of feminist heroes has made my week. Maybe my year. Just the idea that she's being talked about and celebrated by a total stranger is amazing to me. (And my mother is totally going to cry.)

  8. Nice. I've always had a torn relationship with the girly/boy thing. I see that my daughter has the same issue. She LOVES pink and all things sparkly. On the other hand.. she will take her very own lacrosse stick, play her eldest brother in the yard, and then scream, "YES! In your FACE!" when he lets her score. She wants to play with the boys--she just wants to wear a skirt while doing it. ;)

  9. Jennifer, great post! You have nailed so many things here, and as the aunt to three unique, smart, and tough little nieces who love all colors, not just pink, and sports as much as dance, I applaud you. One of the things I worry about with our society's current "girl" conditioning is that we seem to have forgotten some of the important lessons of the 1960s and 1970s feminism. I work with college women who no longer seem to turn to Our Bodies Our Selves for wisdom . . . they are turning to media images of what it means to be a woman. It is really scary.

  10. Cat Valcourt-PearceOctober 19, 2010 at 8:55 PM

    My older sister was the first girl on our high school boys baseball (NOT softball) team. She was a catcher and she was always given a hard but she was damn good at fact, when I was a little girl I was her middle school baseball team's bat girl (ha, how many kids can say they were batgirl?).

    LOVE the photos of Alexandra. That child has spirit and coolness cornered.

  11. Oh, don't get me started on the kids TV thing. Have you ever noticed that if there is a main character who's a girl, every single other character has to be a boy? (cf Dora, Kai-lan...) Milo's favorite pajamas are pink sparkly hand-me-downs. I dread the day when he realizes that's some sort of problem.

  12. Rock on, sister! My niece plays ice hockey too. She's 10, pretty, playful, rugged and ready! :)

  13. Loving all the discussion here. And thank you to the new visitors!

  14. This is why we all still need to take women's studies courses. Take a peek at Jean Kilburne's Still Killing Us Softly 3 -- all about gender bias in advertising. Sadly this is neither new nor harmless.

  15. My husband threw a fit -- a FIT -- in Target when Sam was first born. He looked at the boy and girl supplies and toys, pointing to the girl stuff, "Secretary," he shouted. "This shit says SECRETARY." He turned to the boys' section, "President. Leader. Winner. My daughter's shit says 'servant,' and this says 'master.'"

    He's right. It does. I have a daughter and I think about this all the time. I hadn't seen the Lands End catalog at the time, or I would have flipped (before I, um, ordered her winter coat from there, ha ha? Pretty AND playful? Lucky me?).

    It's hard and frustrating and ridiculous on so many levels, and I find that, ironically, it's worse for small children than it is for grown ups. Our locally owned stores have a section for girls' toys (kitchens! brooms!) and boys' toys (footballs! pretend calculators!). It's ... it's unreal, is what it is.

    I am grateful, though, that my daughter has a father, not just a mother, who not only notices it, but sees it for the absurdly anachronistic danger that it is. That, I hope, will go a long way in overcoming it.

  16. Jonna, I think you hit on something very important that's kind of implicit in what I'm saying.

    That is, my niece is playing hockey because obviously she has parents who don't subscribe to "pretty and playful" or "secretary." They know how to guide her and encourage her so she won't fall into the traps that tied the hands of my mother and her peers.

    I think we all, as parents, are ultimately the ones who send the most influential messages to our kids, not corporate marketers. Or at least I really hope we still are. So the way WE talk about this stuff is so crucial. But I still find it amazing that somebody out there (are they parents?) is writing this stuff and putting it in catalogs and on websites and not thinking, "Gee, that's a really ridiculous line to write in 2010..."

    I asked Ethan yesterday, in the midst of writing this, whether there were any differences in the boys and girls at his school. He had no idea what I meant. I said, "I don't the way they play sports, or do in school, or anything like that."

    Long pause.

    "I'm thinking, but I really can't think of any."

    That's my boy.

    Now, in all seriousness, is it wrong of me to buy those bunk beds? I can't find any others in our price range that I like!

  17. I have to preface this by saying I'm having a very emotional day, but this post almost made me cry. So well written and such an important post.

    And I think that you can buy the bunk beds, but only if afterwards you write saying that you're a loyal customer who bought because you enjoyed the product so much, but were offended by the marketing and won't be so generous as to overlook it in the future.

  18. Ooh, I like Megan's suggestion.

  19. Completely agree with Megan: buy the beds, but write a pointed letter to the company afterward.

    And I nearly had a breakdown in an actual store, over the weekend, while coat-shopping for my son. I'd describe it to you, but you've already captured my sentiments EXACTLY. I was too flummoxed to actually buy anything.

    (on a related note, my boy loves Dora, and only discovered Diego when I brought home package of pull-ups — the boy ones only have Diego on them, no Dora. Huh.).

  20. Allison, when I was writing my Dora letter, I googled to see if anyone else had felt as frustrated about this. And found a blog post or message board posting of someone whose son insisted on wearing the pink "girl" Dora pullups. Which was totally fine, but one day they were on a plane and he spilled something on his pants and they had to take off his pants; he went walking down the jetway off the plane wearing his bright pink Dora pullups, much to everyone's amusement. (I can't seem to find it now, but it was cute.)

  21. I wrote about this very thing (and am too lazy to go find it) when shopping a mall store for surf wear for my daughter, and finding the boys' "Pro Surfer" tee, and the girl version of the shirt, which read "Surf Cutie." I'm glad to hear the same points made by someone with boys.

  22. Great post. As you know, I wrote Lands' End about that gross gender stereotyping. All these things do is reinforce the idea that girls and boys (and later women and men) need to be treated differently.

  23. Amen. This drives me crazy. Have you ever tried to find a gender-neutral kids birthday card? Good luck. No wonder these stereotypes are so hard to break - they're drilled in at such an early age.

  24. Is it OK if girls are just pretty and sweet?

  25. Anonymous: As the father of the hockey girl pictured above, absolutely. My daughter wants to be pretty and sweet, too, and wants to take ice dancing as well as hockey.

    I think the problem raised by Jen's column is when companies decide for you or your daughter that she WILL be pretty and sweet. Meaning, in their eyes, she doesn't really have that much choice. They are presenting only one subliminal option to girls. (Maybe not even that subliminal.) And we know that anyone, boy or girl, can grow up to be anything he or she wants to be--ice dancer, figure skater, hockey player, spectator or ref. Okay, not a ref.

  26. What Matt said.

    There is nothing wrong with "girly girls." There is something wrong with suggesting that's the only kind of girl there is.

  27. Well, if YOU want sissy sons and your brother wants a bull dyke daughter, that's your business.

    No, jk Jen--great post!

    @Matt: I don't think it's as simple as "companies decide" that your daughter will be girlie and adorable: far more disturbing, I think, is that companies cater to a persistent public taste for sugar-and-spice-y girls, which has not really evolved as much in the past forty years as you would have thought, when all is said and done. (I am SURE there are geographical variations on this, and it wd be v. interesting to see where the sugar-and-spice-campaigns are more effective, and where not. I can, naturally, make guesses; let's just say you're closer than I am.) But then, 'regressive' is the name of the cultural and political game just now, so this is hardly surprising.

  28. OK, "manly-looking boys' bunk beds" is just plain disturbing no matter how you slice it.

    I have boys, but I've talked to more than one mom of a girl who loves Diego -- NOT Dora -- and can't find licensed clothing to wear. The company that starts making Diego underwear for girls would be tapping into an underserved market.

  29. Great post! That is heartbreaking about your mother's friend committing suicide at such a young age. And, yes, the times have clearly changed.

    I wonder, though, sometimes about the bizarre need for so many girl-children to be clad in so much PINK. I think the marketing that you are pointing out is definitely part of it, but holy baloney pony, there is a whole lotta pink-ness going on in little girl land. I know, I know, it is a tangent!

    As a mom to three boys, I look on with only a teensy tiny bit of jealousy. And I say get the bunk beds if you want them. ;)

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  31. Can't believe I'm just reading this (gods bless Twitter). Incredible post.

    This stuff drives me in.sane. When my youngest son had to go to the ER for a respiratory infection, one of the nurses fell all over herself apologizing that the "girl" room in the ER was occupied. I kind of came unglued. First he can't breathe and now you want to turn him gay? Unacceptable!

    Thanks again--great read.

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