Mehring: The Gender Trap

In early September, children’s retailer Toys “R” Us revealed that it would cease gender-based labeling and marketing in its United Kingdom stores. The move was heralded by many as a step toward progress and gender parity, but the potential precedent set by Toys “R” Us, and the staggering implications of the retailer’s decision, has been underappreciated.

Before we are even born, the outside world looks to our mothers’ ballooning bellies and inquires — boy or girl? For some, discovering the sex of their unborn child obligates a ritual: the all-important sonogram, the revelation (or do we wait to find out?) and then the shower celebration, during which the decorative balloons foretell the color of knitted cap placed upon the newborn’s head. Immediately upon entering the world, a human baby, still a cooing, helpless blob of flesh, has foisted upon it a humanity’s worth of social baggage.

Little girls and boys are first adorned in light pink and pastel blue, respectively, and then coerced into predetermined modes of dress, appearance and behavior. The absurdity of this prescription is evinced by a lesson in history: until World War II, boys were typically dressed in pink, allegedly a stronger, more confident color than the delicate and dainty blue. A reversal would occur in the post-war years, as pink became a moniker for communism and was then relegated to the sex apparently more deserving of the association.

The compulsion to categorize the human species (and everything else) dates back to the Enlightenment, during which an emphasis on empirical discovery and order sought to reveal truths about our existence. Entities of similar makeup or value were grouped together; those deemed different were kept apart. Delineations and associations were quickly taken for granted as absolute truths whether they were valid or not.

Society would designate a specific color (pink) to a specific gender (boys, at first) based on the shared interpretations between the two entities (virility). But the interpretations themselves are also rooted in misconstruction. We prescribe for each gender with a living environment that embodies certain ideals instead of responding with an environment that supports an individual’s emergent traits. We give building blocks and toy trucks to boys because we feel those items embody strength and confidence. We emphasize the association between boys, those toys and those traits, and then we raise boys to value those ideals. Then we fall back on supposed empiricism — brain differences, testosterone levels and the like — to reaffirm our inclinations, even as they have been artificially conceived.

But the mischaracterization extends even further. Underlying any discussion of gender- or sex-specific characteristics is a belief in sex and gender as valid means of classification. While it would be foolish to claim a lack of difference between the sexes — they were conceived at first along lines of perceived difference — there is little justification for how they were initially drawn up as distinct categories or for how important we hold these distinctions to be. In categorizing humanity, we decided to place primacy on the shape of the organs between our legs — as opposed to, say, the color of our eyes or whether we have freckles, walk with a limp or have perfect pitch. This delineation provided a bedrock on which assumptions about appearance, ability and behavior were built and served as a division along which much of empirical research sought to discover further differences. These differences became iconized as, for instance, specific colors and toys, and the whole kit and caboodle, now the preoccupation of so much about mankind, became stuck in a tautological loop.

With a small policy shift, Toys “R” Us, at least in the United Kingdom, looks to protect its impressionable young customers from being swept up into an unwarranted institution of gender constraints. Should the rest of the world follow suit, the underlying associations between gender and toys, too, may begin to crumble, and then the very assumptions that assign specific toys to specific sexes. And finally, just maybe, the very boundaries that define sex and gender will begin to fall, and a more healthy society can focus on the traits, desires and abilities that individuals actually possess as opposed to what tradition has prescribed to them.