Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gender and Gifts

Recently, Jimmy Kimmel released a YouTube video that went viral. The video was titled, “I gave my kids a terrible present.” The challenge: present your child with a holiday present a few weeks early, but make sure it’s something that the child won’t like. Videotape the reaction.

The clip is, predictably, funny. Most of the children appear to be 3-8 years old. Their cute, crestfallen faces are certain to induce fits of laughter. However, the video also indicates the extent to which societal gender stereotypes persist.

What makes a present “terrible?” Some of the “terrible presents” are gender neutral – an onion, a battery. But many of them are not. One boy receives a girl activity book. Another boy receives a Hello Kitty pink sweater. Another boy receives “ponies.” Each of these boys has a particularly vehement negative reaction.

In light of all that we’ve discussed over the semester, this struck me a discouraging example of gendered socialization at a young age. What makes a very young boy distraught over receiving a girl activity book, a hello kitty sweater, or a pony?  Why weren’t the girls upset about receiving batteries, or hammers? Why was the pony recipient’s sister devastated to receive a book?

The more I watched the video, the more I realized how ubiquitous and persistent gendered socialization is. In particular, I noted the extent to which hegemonic masculinity influences boys. In the article “To Lynch a Child: Bullying and Gender Nonconformity in Our Nation’s Schools,” Michael Higdon discusses bullying as a sort of “gender policing,” a way of making sure that individuals “mirror those stereotypes that exist within our society at large.” He points out that “our society tends to prize highest of all a form of masculinity referred to as ‘hegemonic masculinity,’ which is characterized by ‘power and the subordination of both women and non-hegemonically masculine men,’” and that, perhaps accordingly, “boys are both “more likely to bully and also be bullied.”

Boys’ resulting unwillingness to adopt traditionally feminine behaviors, in turn, helps to explain the so-called “reverse gender gap.”

And though a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, the clip in which a little girl receives “eggs” and a boy receives “a hot dog,” as well as the clip in which a young girl puts a rotten banana in her mouth, raise further questions. It’s not the children that I’m wondering about, here – it’s a society that (as regards the former) gave these presents, and (as regards the latter) selected this specific clip for mass viewing.

For gender-conscious parents, it seems that there will be an inevitable tension, during the holidays, between giving a child a gender-neutral gift and giving that child a gift that he or she will genuinely like. Perhaps, due to social pressures that Mom wishes didn’t exist, a little girl desperately wants a Barbie. What to do?

Although it’s arguably impossible to resist all of gendered socialization’s influences, I believe that it is worthwhile to resist giving one’s children those gifts that most blatantly entrench traditional gender roles. Children are malleable. My little brother was raised around three older girls, and wanted nothing more than to be accepted among them; he asked for ponies and paper dolls. A parent whose son (or daughter) throws a fit about receiving a gender-inappropriate gift can explain how the gift is “cool” – by pointing out, “the activity book will make you a better painter, like grandpa,” or “cowboys rode ponies.”

The winter holidays are a time of year defined by symbolism, and tradition. What better time to break away from the more restrictive aspects of our shared social history? What better time to start something new?

1 comment:

Girl Talk said...

I am so glad you wrote about this. I watched the video and thought it was hilarious. I also was extremely sensitive to the gender separation with regard to gifts. I remember that the boy who received ponies said something like, "I'm not a girl" or "ponies are for girls." He was seriously upset. The boy who got the Hello Kitty sweater was astonishing. He threw a fit and told his parents that he hated them.

I often think about how I will raise my kids in this gender socialized society. I insist that I will be a gender conscious parent; I refuse to "genderize" my kids. But parents can only do so much, as you point out. Because it's "normal" to genderize kids, unless I home-school my children and shield them from nearly all of society, they will inevitably be exposed to gender stereotypes and pressures. This presents a unique challenge for parents who want to push back against gender norms.

I don't have kids, so I don't really know how it will play out, but my plan is to essentially explain to my kids what gender stereotypes are and how they influence people as early as possible to minimize the chance that they will unconsciously fall prey to them. One thing I hope to instill in them is to be grateful for any gift they may get. The kids in this video are clearly privileged and expect to get what they want - but that's another subject.