I had a discussion with one of my best friend recently about how his infant brother brought home a new bakery play set – so children could pretend to be bakers and customize several toy doughnuts – and his anger that this was placed in an aisle set aside for toys considered more appropriate for girls at Toys R’ Us. He saw this as a slippery slope issue: If his brother was old enough to understand that the toy he wanted was in the girls aisle, would he still want it? Chances are, he would not. Rather, he would want to conform to what was appropriate for boys. What if baking, for a moment, turned out to be his passion? Of course, anything is possible, but now that it’s “off-limits”, he would never know because he would be pressured to do something more masculine. Although times have changed, the archaic belief still remains that if a young boy does perceivably “feminine things” like play with Barbies and Easy-Bake Ovens, or dress up as a Disney princess for Halloween (or around the house), that this directly causes femininity and – worse – homosexuality. The same, of corse applies for a young girl who plays with toy cars and trucks and dresses like a soldier for halloween. This is all a part of a learned vicious cycle engrained into American society.
Of course, by now, we know for the most part through the works of psychologists that one’s sexuality is something you are born with. No piece of fabric or plastic toy can convince a child to become a homosexual, which is defined as the “romantic or physical attraction to a member of the same sex”. This does, however, get to the root of the problem here: If a boy wants to remain “cool” and have friends, they have to do masculine things. Michael S. Kimmel writes that:
“At the turn of the [twentieth] century, manhood [which was the opposite of childhood; the inner quality and capacity for autonomy and responsibility ] was being replaced gradually by the term masculinity, which refers to a set of behavioral traits and attitudes that were contrasted now with a new opposite, femininity. Masculinity was something that had to be constantly demonstrated, the attainment of which was forever in question – lest the man be undone by a perception of being too feminine.”
And if rejecting things that are feminine is cool, so is becoming homophobic and bullying kids that are more independent or different than everyone else. I argue that when parents scold their kids for doing something considered feminine, it makes them grow up to resent anything considered opposite who they are. Social constructs are not giving kids a`chance to think with an open mind.
Again, this is 2012, and society has slowly but surely progressed. The Huffington Post, for example, has devoted blogs and stories that have gone viral about parents who have no issue dressing their boys in dresses and buying them girls toys if they want, knowing that there is no direct cause leading to homosexuality, and have stood by their young children who have already came out of the closet if they have decided to come out. The social ethics-based ABCNews program, “What Would You Do?”, also had a segment on challenging gender stereotypes and examining everyday people confronted with the situation of seeing a boy ask his father for a girl’s doll and wearing girl’s clothes.
I feel that it’s important to examine that the way we perceive societal norms today is fluid and ever-changing in nature. Thus, we can never assume that society has always been this way. Toys, clothes, even sexuality itself has undergone transformations that helped to create our current perceptions of the world. Up until the late 1880s, infants and toddlers wore gowns and loose-fitting dresses, regardless of gender. In fact, boys and girls played together all the time. It made sense. But by the end of the 1880s, men – fearing that their sons would have a strong maternal influence that would make them feminine – started to dress their sons in what we consider gender-appropriate clothing, ie trousers and knickerbockers [Kimmel, 107]. Boys and girls started to play separately from each other.
Pink is for girls and blue is for boys. That’s obvious. Well, wait, how? How can colors be assigned to genders? Well, at the turn of the twentieth century, clothes started becoming color-coded to genders. While it was hotly debated, by 1918, the standard was that pink and red were masculine colors, illustrating determination, strength, and courage; while blue was flighty, delicate, and prettier for girls. This was a norm that lasted well until the start of World War II, and by the end of the war, the colors had inverted for genders.Toys, until the start of the twentieth century, were also gender neutral. By the 1910’s, toys being marketed strictly for boys and girls became common, as well as teaching boys to become aggressive and fight other boys, while girls learned from their mothers how to be a homemaker [Kimmel, 107]. Books and manuals on how to raise proper boys and girls became instant best-sellers and men were encouraged to raise their sons away from the influence of their mothers – lest they become feminine. Why was the 1880’s -1910’s such a transformative era that led to the dominance of masculinity and femininity?
As it turns out, sexuality was changing as well. Until the 1880’s, the Victorian era understand of sexuality was that men married women for procreative purposes only. There was no understanding of sexual pleasure. Although same-sex sexual friendships – which we would now consider to be homosexual relations – did indeed exist, because they did not procreate children, they were not considered sexual in nature. By the 1880s, the value of procreative sexual relations was diminishing in favor of pleasurable sex. It is at this point when the term heterosexuality first appeared…as a perversion of sexuality. [Katz, 55] But it was the work of Sigmund Freud that was popularized in magazines and other books around this period that led to the current understandings of sexuality as homosexual and heterosexual. Sexuality was about pleasure, he said, and that heterosexuality was normal and encouraged. Unfortunately, he also dictated that homosexuality – the physical and sexual attraction to members of the same sex – was abnormal and deviant learned behavior. For him and many other writers, if a boy was too feminine, he ran the risk of becoming flamboyant and a sexual deviant – and homosexual. This lead a widespread panic and fear about homosexuality, especially during the 1930’s and 1950’s that led to the Sexual Revolutions of the 1960’s, and the start of the gay rights movement. But as parents taught their kids about the fears of homosexuality, they grew up and taught their own children. This is why in 2012, after much progression, revisions, and complete rewrites of Freud’s theories, there are still misguided understandings about sexuality and materialism.
The best way to overcome this cycle of discrimination and misunderstandings is through continued education. It seems that the younger generation of Americans are starting to understand that homosexuality is not learned or something to fear. You either are or you aren’t. Masculinity and femininity as well are how you make of it, not exactly how society dictates it. So I applaud parents and people who don’t mind seeing boys wearing dresses or buying their sons toys like Barbies – or just a bakery playset. To borrow the album name of a well-known pop star and gay rights advocate, no matter your sexual orientation or what you wear, or do with your life, regardless of age, you’re born that way.
*For more on the fascinating social history of American masculinity and sexuality, I highly recommend Manhood in America by Michael S. Kimmel (Now in its third edition), and The Invention of Heterosexuality, by Jonathan Ned Katz. Special thanks to Brooklyn College Professor Gaston Alonso for using these texts for his groundbreaking Politics of Masculinities course, Spring 2010.*