Is your child normal or is he a girl?

A small boy I looked after sometimes had been given a real computer for his 7th birthday – a second-hand BBC Micro, which will tell you how long ago this was. He showed me it, full of pride and joy, and the 5 1/4″ disk full of pre-written games. I told him “Did you know you could write your own?” and he said no, and I said “I’ll show you, it’s really good!” and right then I showed him how to write his first computer program. His attention span for a text-based game did not last long – he wanted to play Chuckie-Egg – but as I was showing him how to enter lines of code that would let him tell the computer to do things, he looked up at me and said spontaneously “I hate girls!”

I had a momentary but profound shock. Then I said “I’m a girl. Do you hate me?” (I was 20, a terribly serious feminist, and would never have accepted being called a “girl” by anyone under the age of say, about seventy. Shut up. I was making a point.)

“No,” he said, looking embarrassed.

His sisters were both years older than him and doted on him. I named them. “They’re girls. Do you hate them?”

“No,” he said, looking really embarrassed now.

“So what do you mean, you hate girls?”

We clarified that he meant girls at school, girls in his class, and without any comment at all I went right back to showing him how to program his computer until he declared he was bored with this and we could play Chuckie-Egg. (I beat him, because I’m mean like that.)

The new Lego for Friends is, by all report, not actually “for girls” except that the kits are in what’s been culturally defined as girly colours and girly kits.

I stopped playing with Lego some years before I was 14. I can’t be more precise, but when I was 14 we moved house, and if any of us three kids had still been playing with the Lego regularly, our mum would probably have kept it. As she donated it, I’m pretty sure we’d all stopped building with it for years by that time. In our family, toys were usually only the private property of one child if defended with a lot of aggro – and my mum, a traditional-type feminist, was pleased to have her son playing with culturally-defined “girls toys” or her daughters playing with culturally-defined “boys toys”. (She denied the distinction existed, but of course we knew it did.) But Lego never came into that category: like the poster paints and the plasticine, Lego was just something we all built with. Like this 14-year-old girl who could have been me.

I’ve been following the problems friends who are now parents are having with buying toys for their children that aren’t “boys toys” or “girls toys” – a friend swore off Early Learning Centre forever because of the segregation problem:

there are tape recorders and electric keyboards, identical but for colour and decoration (pink with flowers; blue with circle-y things). The packaging on each shows girls and boys respectively; posed almost identically in what is clearly the same set. Look here for a nice clear illustration. The final proof comes at the checkout, by the way. It might be “Cool Keyboard – blue” on the website, but take it to the cash desk in the shop and I’ll guarantee it comes up as “keyboard boys”. I know because I bought Firstborn [a girl] this easel once.

As everyone, I hope, knows, “girls like pink” is a 20th-century invention, as childhood became culturally defined and commercialised in the Victorian era, it got definitely settled that one colour was for girls and one colour was for boys:

As part of this differentiation, there seems to have been an effort to establish characteristic colors for girls and boys. But it took decades to develop a consensus on what those colors were. For years one camp claimed pink was the boys’ color and blue the girls’. A 1905 Times article said so, and Parents magazine was still saying it as late as 1939. Why pink for boys? Some argued that pink was a close relative of red, which was seen as a fiery, manly color. Others traced the association of blue with girls to the frequent depiction of the Virgin Mary in blue.

That’s from Cecil Adams at The Straight Dope, who goes on to say that “Nobody really knows” why this happened, or why the colours had come down the other way by the end of WWII.

A mother of a daughter – both Lego fans – discovered that now the new line “Lego Friends” had come out, her daughter had been unilaterally switched to the new “Lego for Girls” version of the monthly magazine, and that from now on, the “regular” magazine would be boys only. She says:

The usual two page spread dedicated to kids’ own creations is still there – but every photo shows a girl. This concerns me, as it implies that the other magazine will never again feature a photo of a girl, they’ll be saved for the Girls magazine. … I suspect this move was simply out of fear that they would lose existing (male) customers by polluting their experience with contagious girl stuff. … To me, the biggest problem is that in producing a specifically girl focused edition, all female content is sidelined there. As LEGO have confirmed, regardless of which version your daughter may subscribe to, if she sends in a photo of herself with her own LEGO creation it will appear in, and only in, the girl edition. While I can see some positives in showing lots of girls enjoying LEGO, this means that the standard edition contains zero girls. They are erased from the male experience of LEGO.

And then there’s that gamer who described overhearing a man trying to teach his son – violently – what a boy ought to like:

Eventually, I helped the brothers pick a game called “Mirror’s Edge.” The youngest was pretty excited about the game, and then he specifically asked me, “Do you have any girl color controllers?” I directed him to the only colored controllers we have, which include pink and purple ones. He grabbed the purple one, and informed me purple was his FAVORITE. The boys had been taking awhile, so their father eventually came in. He saw the game, and the controller, and started in on the youngest about how he needs to pick something different. Something more manly. Something with guns and fighting, and certainly not a purple controller.

The whole pink-and-blue thing isn’t to make girls into girls. It is to set off “what’s girly” so that boys can enjoy playing with their favourite toys without their parents getting freaked that their son is “just like a girl”. Remember the little boy who dressed up in a Daphne costume for a kindergarten Hallowe’en party? His mother writes:

A year later, looking back on the events before and after Halloween, I still struggle to understand what all the fuss was about. The silly thing is that everybody else put far more thought into the costume than my son did. He loved Scooby Doo the cartoon, but he had already dressed as Scooby Doo, the dog, for a past Halloween. He looks just like the Scooby Doo character Fred in real life, so he didn’t see a lot of costume potential there. The obvious choice, to him at least, was Daphne — orange wig, purple outfit — can’t get much more fun than that.

But from comments left and right, it matters.

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Filed under Childhood, Women

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