by: D’Lane Compton and Tristan Bridges
–Cross-posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design and Your Queer Prof
Becoming a parent is fascinating, but becoming a parent who studies gender and sexuality, and—for one of us—identifies as queer… well let’s just say that creates a whole different level of awareness and curiosity. Prior to becoming parents, we both had a fine-tuned appreciation of the ways that gender and sexuality structure our experiences and opportunities. Anne Fausto-Sterling draws a great metaphor comparing the onset of gender binaries to the process of water erosion. At first, the erosion (read: gender) may not be visible. Small watery tributaries begin to form—the arms of future rivers that could, at this stage, easily change route. Gradually, streams emerge, slowly becoming rivers. And before long, you end up with something like the Grand Canyon. Yet, looking at the Grand Canyon disguises all of the crises that the fledgling streams navigated—a watery path whose flow, course, and geography were yet to be determined. Gender, said Fausto-Sterling, is no different. It takes time to learn to think of it as permanent and predetermined when it is actually anything but.
Just to put this in context, let us provide an example illustrating this issue as well as the sociological imagination of children at work. It involves a trip to the grocery store, a bold 3-year-old girl and her mother. At the checkout line, the girl trotted up to Tristan’s cart with her mother, pointed at Tristan’s son, and asked her mother, “Is that little baby a boy or a baby girl?” The mother looked at Tristan. He smiled, revealing nothing. “That’s… um… a boy, honey,” the mother responded, with a questioning tone (guarding, I’m assuming for the possibility of having mistaken a him for a her). “Why?” the little girl asked. Rolling her eyes at Tristan, the mother looked down and gave that classic parenting response—“Because!” she said. “Will he always be a boy?” she continued. The mother awkwardly chuckled, shrugging her shoulders, grinning and shaking her head at Tristan. “Yes, honey,” she laughed, “He’ll always be a boy.” And with that, they moved on.
The questions seemed odd to the mother, but the little girl clearly wasn’t joking. And she learned something significant in the interaction, even if her mother wasn’t actively teaching a lesson. In fact, some of the most important lessons we teach children are probably not on purpose—showing them what’s worthy of attention, what to ignore, what should be noticed but not discussed, and more. This little girl learned one of the ways that we think about gender in this culture—as a permanent state of being. To think otherwise, she learned, is laughable. This little girl seemed to understand gender as a young stream capable of becoming many different rivers. Her mother seemed equally sure that the stream had a predetermined path. And here’s where things get tricky—they’re both right. It’s likely Tristan’s son will identify as a boy (and later on, as a man). Most boys do. But treating this process as inevitable disguises the fact that… well… it’s not. This question came out of a 3-year-old because she’s actually in the process of acquiring what psychologists refer to as “gender constancy”—an understanding of gender as a permanent state of being. She’s not there yet, but interactions like the one discussed above are fast helping her along. These beliefs are institutionalized throughout our culture in ways that don’t make interactions like these completely predetermined, but make them much more likely.
With the news of a new child, D’Lane feels certain they’re somewhere in the stream, while Tristan is beginning to see the emergence of branches that are beginning to feel more likely than others. Yet, both of us feel the slow creep of the Grand Canyon. We have lectured for nearly 10 years on how gendering begins prior to birth. “Do you know the sex yet?” is one of the top two questions asked by most people. As a part of a same-sex couple, D’Lane experiences these questions as even more telling. Prior to birth, we organize names, nurseries, and language to prepare. One of the biggest reasons folks offer to justify their inquiries about the sex of babies before they’re born (when they do so) is largely gift-related. And the market for parenting and baby supplies structurally invites the question in more than a few ways and is a powerful force in reproducing our cultural understandings of gender.
“Gender-Neutrality” and the Market for Baby Gear
A great deal of marketing research must have gone into figuring out exactly what parents mean when they say they want “gender-neutral” clothes, toys, diaper bags, and all variety of baby and parenting paraphernalia. We’d guess that the meanings are pretty straightforward, and we’d imagine if you pressed parents, most would offer a sort of “Not too girly for a boy” response rather than vice versa (which—if true—would be interesting in and of itself). Through this process, colors like yellow and green have become the default “gender-neutral” colors. So, if someone has elected to not find out what their child’s genitals look like in the womb, there’s a line of products people can feel comfortable purchasing without worrying that they might have bought something “gender transgressive.”
And it’s not just colors; just about anything can acquire gendered meaning. Animals are clearly gendered. “Boy” clothes and objects display animals like dogs, lions, bears, dragons, any of the big cats or pachyderms. Meanwhile, “girl” clothes and objects are littered with kittens, unicorns, horses, butterflies, and dolphins. “Gender-neutral” lines that want to use animals end up selecting from an odd assortment of what’s left over—foxes, hedgehogs, owls, turtles, armadillos and an odd assortment of animals that don’t have enough of a cultural reputation for violence that might make them “boyish,” but are simultaneously not “girlie” enough either. But, the prototypical gender-neutral animal is the duck. In fact, if you ask for gender-neutral items before a baby shower, prepare yourself for ducks.
Patterns also become gendered. Through personal experience with gendered gifting, it follows that stripes are masculine, as is camouflage (unless it’s pink). Stars and hearts are feminine, as are rainbows. Results from a quick Google search show that geometric shapes and lines are considered masculine while polka dots, floral patterns, and scripts are feminine. There’s also a trend in bold colors vs. pastels for boys and girls respectively.
Gender-neutral clothes are easily available for the tiniest babies—presumably for those parents who elect not to “find out.” Though there’s not a huge selection, and almost all of it is yellow and depicts ducks, most stores in which you can buy for babies 6 months and younger have a selection of objects whose gender is not immediately apparent. As babies get bigger, however, gender-neutral options shrink—or perhaps more accurately, they migrate. Toddler-dom, for instance, is a life stage at which it’s increasingly difficult to find much that doesn’t scream “boy” or “girl.” It’s a niche that some of the more up-scale stores and labels have been keen to occupy. This is one part of a slow process that those fledgling streams begin to ossify into more predictable paths.
And it’s not just our children that get gendered. As parents, we’re also being re-socialized into new roles (mothers, fathers, and more) that subtly invite/compel us to take up certain gendered behaviors, roles, and gender-marked objects and clothing as well. Parenting gear is increasingly becoming as gendered as the objects we buy for our children.
Gendering Parenting Paraphernalia
Parenting gear has only recently emerged as a more sex-segregated market. New parenting “stuff” allows parents to consider how a diaper bag really reflects their own gender identity, and whether couples might require separate gear. There also seems to have been a sudden increase in the diversity of parenting gear available at all. This could be a byproduct of what feels like an increasing diversification of parenting philosophies. There have always been different ideas about what’s “right” for babies and what the “right” and “wrong” ways are to raise a child—but it feels like these ideas are becoming more polarized and/or parents of different philosophies are subtly encouraged to be at war with one another. And it’s significant that this is often referred to as the “Mommy Wars,” a label that casually implies that this is a war men seem to have been largely able to avoid. This might partially be because, while we assume that women will have one of an increasing diversity of parenting philosophies, we presume that men parent in one way (if we’re lucky enough to have them parenting much at all).
As men have begun playing larger roles in the parenting process—or, at the very least, are culturally expected to—parenting gear for men has emerged as well. Diaper bags, burp clothes, sippy cups, and more are now made with the consideration that men might have to lug them around too. Our brief survey of available “Daddy-specific gear” found that it really comes in two varieties (which often overlap): it’s either less practical than the “feminine” gear to which it was created in opposition (which is, somewhat ironically, exactly the opposite of how it is marketed), and/or it’s simply offensive (and not just to feminists, or even women… it ought to offend men as well).
For instance, companies like Diaper Dude market bags specifically to men. The website for Diaper Dude provides an origin story for the bag—and “movement,” according to the founder:
Diaper Dude, created by Chris Pegula, is a movement that began after the birth of the first of his three children by turning feminine-style diaper bags into ones that dads would want to carry. Pegula noticed that most diaper bags and accessories sold at retail stores were designed with women’s sense of style in mind. Instead of carrying his baby-stuff around in a gym bag or backpack, Pegula created The Diaper Dude for dads.
While the Diaper Dude appears to be a fairly reasonable option for parents who want colorful options without the “feminine” patterns, it is also a smaller bag. It will be great for those afternoon excursions or quick outings to the store, but appears to not be designed as an “everyday” diaper and childcare bag. Its size highlights a number of cultural assumptions, one of which is that dudes won’t be primary caretakers—at least in larger increments of time that might necessitate bigger bags.
There are other more extreme examples of masculinity in parenting gear. Using the diaper bag as a sort of case study, some of our examples include what we call the “Construction Bag” and the “Combat Daddy Bag.” There’s more than one bag that fit each of these patterns and most are too expensive to only qualify as gag gifts. Their existence led us to wonder what is being said through their purchase and use.
Consider the Combat Daddy Equipment Bag, a product that implicitly draws a connection between childcare and going to war. Indeed, it’s a cultural trope that’s amassed a small industry. Vin Diesel’s portrayal of a Navy Seal forced into a his most difficult mission yet (becoming a parent) in Disney’s “The Pacifier” plays on this same cultural narrative. That Diesel initially finds himself woefully unsuited to the task might superficially appear to honor the hard work that women do by illustrating that even a Navy Seal would struggle with the multitasking and time management required of good parenting. Yet, the story is not of Diesel becoming a “mom,” but rather, of finding ways of masculinizing parenting so that he can deploy his Seal skills in a new setting. Tristan is currently working on a collaborative project analyzing the content and imagery used in the new parenting books written explicitly to dads, and the metaphorical connection between parenting and warfare is a theme that’s emerged among the many new books marketed to men.
The idea that one may not know what they will be dealing with or what “equipment” might be needed, that a man couldn’t solve an issue without a shed of tools, and material on their backs as if they were going camping or to battle in dealing with children is offensive. He always will have at least puffy camping blankets. Neither does this critique even consider the offensiveness toward all the women taking care of children whose men are unavailable due to actual military deployment.
Parenting products like these emerge out of a climate that asks women to “let him do it (t)his way” while subtly telling both men and women that “he” will seemingly inevitably parent differently from (and with less competence than) “her.” In fact, prior to the emergence of parenting books for men, there was often a section for men in parenting books for women—or a section “about men” for women to read. Advice in these sections often contains the notion that “he’s going to do things differently,” which may be perfectly true. Yet, we’d question the notion that he is inevitably going to do things differently because he is a he.
“Men’s” parenting products help reproduce a cultural narrative that implicitly works to conceal the actual work that goes into care work by presenting some as naturally having it (women) and others as having to compensate for what are implicitly presented as intrinsic deficiencies with all variety of gadgetry.
Toward a Queer Revolution of Parenting
But what about parents who might not want the typical patterns of the classic “mom” look, but also might not want to be less functional or more kitschy daddy gear? Are there gender-neutral parenting paraphernalia options available? Can Diaper Dude fulfill their desires too?
Gender-neutral baby clothes and toys, just like the recent push toward “daddy” gear, relies on a partial understanding of how gender works. Objects acquire a gender, but are also gendered in how we use, display, play with, and contest them. So, calling a onesie “gender-netural” or referring to a diaper bag as a “daddy diaper bag” presents gender as though it resides within the objects themselves. This calls our attention away from the fact that we reproduce these meanings in how we use and display these objects, and as a result, conceals our ability to challenge the meanings in how they are used as well.
There is a lot to say about how parenting objects and paraphernalia are used in ways that might challenge their meanings. The construction diaper bag is a great example. Comments on Amazon concerning the product indicate that items like this might often be a gift that women are buying for men or kid-girls or kid-boys (something that may be the case for a variety of toys and gifts for every gender). Yet, what would this bag mean if worn by a gay dad (inviting a comparison with the play on masculinity that made the Village People famous)? What would it mean if worn by a woman? Does the meaning change? Is the product suddenly “queered” in how it’s been used?
But even things that are moving away from pink and blue can acquire different meanings when “queered” by the parents making use of them. For instance, Timbuk 2 sells a diaper messenger bag (the Stork Messenger Bag) that is marketed with images of men and women whose gender displays are marginally transgressive. In fact, when D’Lane first saw it they were stoked that most of the pictures online showed a diversity of gender. She believed it might be something queer and they could even potentially be marketing to queer parents. Like gender-neutral clothing for children, the Stork Messenger Bag is being marketed to a specific group: the ad depicts only white parents and children and the cost implies that it’s being sold to middle and upper-middle class parents. The video detailing the bag’s specifics, however—like most of the bags marketed to men—focuses more on practicality, including a joke about carrying around a beer for dad (referred to as “daddy’s milk” in the ad) in one of the many compartments. Here, the androgynous non-gendered bag, through language alone, becomes masculinized.
The images and the video are participating in marketing this product in two ways. In some ways, the Stork Messenger is being marketed no differently than the Diaper Dude, Combat Daddy, or Construction Daddy—it’s being sold to men who might want a diaper bag that doesn’t make them feel emasculated. But, men alone aren’t the only ones who might desire a less feminine bag. Images of parents with more transgressive gender displays market this product more covertly to parents who might desire to create new models of care, working to illustrate that a capacity to engage in care work can come in a variety of different “packages”—or gender performances, if you prefer. This subtle dual-marketing of the Stork Messenger is an illustration of our capacity to play with the meanings and gender of objects.
Thus, new products “for men” might be read as offensive in one light. But, the agency of consumers allows for a queer revolution in parenting roles and identities in which these objects provide the raw materials. Queering parenting is a cultural process that actively considers the ways in which parenting practices and identities can resist heteronormative assumptions that structure predominant parenting forms and relations. There is also an exciting potential embodied within these practices–aspects of which might become somewhat normalized within a wider parenting culture–to become an agent of change.
In this age of consumerism, it’s hard to disentangle the processes at work, but it is clear that there are more options available giving us more opportunities for gendering, disrupting gender, and gender play.
Considering how this all relates to Anne Fausto-Sterling’s comparison is instructive when thinking about long-term change. There are many ways in which we—and others—can intervene in the process of the formation of landscapes. For instance, there are many things we can do to encourage young streams to flow in certain directions and avoid others, but we’re also capable of challenging, re-routing, and even halting massive rivers. And we’re not alone. If we’re metaphorically considering rivers as gender, we can also metaphorically consider consumers as beavers. Beavers are capable of dramatically altering the flow, look, use, and geography of rivers and lakes. It’s what they do best. But it is also a slow and tenuous process. It takes time and incredible collaboration. Consider the largest known beaver damn, located in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. Numerous families of beavers through several generations have worked on the damn construction since the 1970’s. Most well known for being visible from space, the damn is now approximately 2,800 feet long, more than 5 times the size of what is typically considered a larger beaver damn—and still growing. To quote one Discovery News article, “they’re re-engineering the landscape” and we should be taking notes!
Hey …. why don’t you just use a backpack instead of a diaper bag? Plenty of really functional gender neutral backpacks around. You probably already have one – check it out, I just saved you ton of money!
But I digress. The diaper bag in and of itself is a statement of parenthood, and I understand its significance and symbology. Well written article nonetheless. 🙂
sometimes i feel like the great search for “gender neutral” clothing for kids is driven, in part, by a fear of cultivating children’s cross-gender exploration and expression. i dislike the pink/blue and princess/trucks binaries as much as the next (queer/feminist) person, but given that it’s what’s made available, i am surprised that more feminist/queer parents don’t buy girl-marketed clothing for boys and boy-marketed clothing for girls (though certainly more parents seem comfortable with the latter over the former). what do you both think about the benefits (or not) of this strategy vs. demanding “gender neutral” consumer options? theoretically, gender neutral clothing offers children a way to move through the world without immediately signaling their gender, but i find that in practice gender is still signaled in other ways (hair style, accessories, etc), with a little green or yellow thrown in to the mix.
I have this conversation all the time. I agree. Gender-neutral has come to be shorthand for “not signifying gender.” And this is not necessarily the problem. It’s not so much that I want my son to be post-gender or ungendered somehow. I want him to feel comfortable dancing, wearing pink, playing in the dirt, with trucks, dolls, and more.
One thing that I do think about though is whether princess culture is okay for our boys (from a feminist perspective) but not for our girls. I don’t have a great answer – and I’m not necessarily sold on it being considered “bad” or “pathological” for either.