Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shorter Sunday Review

-Ross Douthat pulls a right-wing YPIS and accuses Mayor Bloomberg of being a coastal elite in his pro-gun-control advocacy.

-Frank Bruni assures us that It Gets Better, if you happen to have a platform for your views on gay rights in the NYT. As in, if you turn out to be not just gay, but a really big-deal gay person, your father might be so proud of your professional successes as to get past his homophobia.

-A doctoral candidate who isn't me has an op-ed in the Times, so if I disagree with it, I'm just being, as they say on "The Only Way Is Essex," jel. But, like, I thought Science had shown that as a rule, girls prefer girl-toys and boys boy-toys (such an unfortunate expression). I thought the goal wasn't to scrap gender-roles, but to allow for the fact that some girls will prefer trucks, some boys dolls, and that we-as-a-society need to accept this, and to teach our children to accept this as well. (Just like some men are drawn to wearing eyeliner and dresses, some women are as well. It's not all the patriarchy.)

-Or is the problem not so much gendered toys, as toys whatsoever? Because, as we learned a couple days ago, materialism is evil - consumption is never about enjoying beautiful things and spending within one's means. If you prefer shopping to Nature, your parents taught you wrong.

Nature, unless this hawk bought this squirrel at Wegman's, in which case, shopping.


Miss Self-Important said...

No, she has decisively countered Science with: "That’s ridiculous, of course: it’s impossible to neatly disentangle the biological from the social." Well, maybe, but not by virtue of the assertion of ridiculousness alone. Is it clearly more possible to neatly disentangle gendered from non-gendered toys in a catalog from 1923?

Also, self-consolation: her dissertation requires her to "research into the role of gender in Sears catalog toy advertisements over the 20th century." Would you be proud to announce that you spent years in grad school so you could gender-type the toys in 100 Sears catalogs?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm not sure how proud I should be of the time I've spent poring over 19th C French-Jewish newspapers for badly-written stories about intermarriage, and at least the Sears thing has obvious contemporary trendy relevance.

But as for the deeper content of this, gender is clearly in part a construct. But it makes no sense to analogize this to race (the "rapper" doll), when gender just isn't a distinction anyone seriously wants to scrap. Are the-socially-liberal now asking gays not to see gender, and to therefore marry those of the opposite sex, because isn't that more convenient?

It seems the only way to go on this issue that makes sense in terms of actual lived experience is to say that there are some differences between men and women in general, but that some men and women, some boys and girls, without necessarily being gay or trans (although gay is reasonably likely) will in certain ways lean more towards that which is expected of the opposite sex. So it's important to emphasize that liking the less-expected toys/activities doesn't mean one is not the gender one was born. But it's also futile to pretend that if it weren't for marketing, we'd all opt for gender-neutral potato sacks. Whatever it is that draws a few boys to girl-stuff draws a great many girls to it as well. It seems important to remember that an equal playing field, career-wise, doesn't require men and women to have equal per-capital interest in shoe-shopping. (Obviously, these are all generalizations, and if the stale jokes on "30 Rock" are anything to go by, my own shoe preferences do not match up with my sexual orientation.)

Ponder Stibbons said...

I thought she was arguing that the marketing was working against the goal of "acceptance":
This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle: as toys have become more and more gender segregated, the social costs of boundary crossing and the peer pressure to stay within the lines are huge, for kids and parents alike.
I didn't read her as arguing that we should work towards a society where there are no gender preferences in toys. Just that the current regime works against people who don't conform to gender roles.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Ponder Stibbons,

In that case, it would seem a losing argument - acceptance of non-gender-conforming kids, and of gay adolescents, as well as knowledge of bullying, etc., has probably never been greater than it is today, and today is also apparently the age of gendered toy marketing.

Which gets at what I found unconvincing more generally - really strict gender roles have receded, just as in real life, women have more opportunities than ever before, thanks to the pill, second-wave feminism, the gay-rights movement, what-have-you. If these pink toys are really such a new development, it would seem precisely that they don't indicate a problem.

Britta said...

Actually, the extreme gendering of toys is somewhat new in the past 30 years. The 70s were a high of androgyny in clothes and dress, and since then toys are becoming increasingly gendered. Even the "girly" playmobil I played with as a kid looks unisex compared to its modern updated version.* Whether this translates into anything larger is unclear though.

*I would guess this is as much about pushing product as it is about anything else. If toys and clothes are explicitly gendered, it makes it harder to share or pass down to an opposite gendered sibling, requiring parents to buy more toys.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I think we're all agreed that this marketing is new. But if it coincides with an era of unprecedented acceptance of gender-non-conforming, esp. in children, then sure, we can remark on this being a marketing scheme to sell more toys, but the pink-blue divide can hardly be blamed for problems that are not as bad as they once were.

rshams said...

It seems as if Frank Bruni's dad would have been more accepting (in a more open and warm way, and earlier) of the fact that his son is gay if Bruni were not a high profile writer. If we take the article at face value, Bruni's dad was more uncomfortable with his son discussing his identity on such a public forum than the identity itself. So, maybe, all else being equal, it gets better, sooner, for Bruni's non-high profile counterparts.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yes, I suppose that reading is possible as well.

PG said...

when gender just isn't a distinction anyone seriously wants to scrap

Actually, people who want sex/gender to be treated as a suspect classification that receives strict scrutiny pretty much are saying that they seriously want to scrap it as a legal distinction. When someone compares anti-same-sex-marriage laws to anti-miscegenation laws, she is saying that the law should "see" sex in the context of marriage no more than it "sees" race, i.e. not at all. Obviously gay men would be free not to find women attractive and desirable to marry, just like an Asian man is free not to find Asian women attractive and desirable to marry.

And of course the law's view of race, whether in the one-drop days of slavery or the 1/16 days of being Native American for the purpose of college admissions, is based on some ridiculous social constructs. The law has never been much for science-based racial rules, like "if you have X quantity of African genes you must be tested for sickle-cell anemia at birth because at X percentage the benefits multiplied by the likelihood of finding a real case outweigh the false positives and cost of testing."

Agreed with rshams reading of Bruni, particularly given that Bruni was a food writer on the NYT until recently; he got his OpEd perch in May 2011. And before he was a restaurant critic, he was a real reporter covering the Gulf War, city desk, Italy and D.C. As a real reporter, he could write about the Vatican's opposition to homosexuality without adding "the Pope hates me," or even about the proliferation of gay characters on TV without mentioning his own sexuality. I didn't even know he was gay until someone explained it to me after his 2007 review of the Penthouse Club restaurant belabored how uninterested he was in the ladies' charms. Some bloggers think it was Bruni's first mention of his sexuality, even obliquely, as a NYT writer.

PG said...

Over the past 20 years, there has been a growth of “brain science” research, which uses neuroimaging technology to try to explain how biological sex differences cause social phenomena like gendered toy preference.

That’s ridiculous, of course: it’s impossible to neatly disentangle the biological from the social, given that children are born into a culture laden with gender messages.

It is ridiculous if they are doing the neuroimaging on children who have been exposed to that culture for a couple years. I'd be curious to see the neuroimaging done on babies. There's a Hindu ceremony performed, I think within the first six months, that includes putting different things (books, clothing, money, etc.) in front of the baby and seeing which s/he goes for, and the family joke is that that is predictive of the baby's interests.

While a certain amount of gendered socializing already has been done by 6 months, what with the pink ribbons versus truck-covered onesies, if someone wants to try to suss out the biological aspect, presumably the less socialized younger children are better test subjects.

PG said...

An earlier and much lengthier version of the toys op-ed does grapple with the seeming paradox of having toys get more gendered as the adult world becomes seemingly less so.

Andrew Stevens said...

PG, it's very difficult to learn much useful though, since babies small enough to not yet be acculturated can't do anything but look at things. However, girl infants (a week or so old) will look at a human face for a statistically significant longer time on average than boy babies and boy babies will look at mobiles for a statistically significant longer time on average than girl babies. This might predict that girls will prefer dolls and boys mechanical things (on average, of course - any individual boy or girl might prefer the other), but it's not really proof.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


-I know that you're a lawyer and thus trained to think in these terms, but when I write something on WWPD, there's no implicit "in the law" tagged on. What I'm referring to is precisely that no one seriously wants to remove gender as a category in life. Whereas plenty of people do think it's wrong - or something we humans ought to get past - to have racial preferences in dating. It's obvious, yes, that there's no imminent law asking for race-blind dating, but it would be incredibly different to say 'I only date whites' than to say 'I only date women.' That's the distinction I'm referring to.

-You've obviously looked into the Frank Bruni trajectory more than I have, so you win this point. But if (I feel as if I repeat myself) you step out of point-winning mode and consider the broader point I was making, the issue is that we have this It Gets Better narrative (as vs. the project itself, which I believe takes pains to be more diverse), which almost invariably involves a gay white middle-class man moving to the big city and becoming wildly successful and then everything's OK in the end.

-Re: toys, adults, and children: This grappling that happens in the longer version of the op-ed - care to summarize?

PG said...


What I was trying to say in that comment is that I don't think Bruni was engaged in the "It Gets Better" narrative at all. He did not relate any woes of having been bullied or mistreated. Instead, he was overtly talking about what "evolution" on the issue of sexual orientation equality can look like. The idea of "evolution" had been treated skeptically by both left and right when Obama claimed it's what he was going through. Bruni explicitly posits that it's a real thing.

Similarly, in discussing same-sex marriage, its legality is a rather important aspect nowadays.

However, if all you got out of my comments were an attempt at point-scoring and dragging the law where it doesn't belong, my comments evidently are too poorly written to be worth posting.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I generally appreciate your comments, but do think you sometimes get into point-scoring mode, where everything you write I'll think, technically, point taken, but there's some broader issue you've missed. And I do think that in particular re: what you wrote about gender - I wasn't talking about the law, and you won a point, as it were, by changing the topic.

But now that you've explained re: Bruni, I'll grant you point won and not just for the sake of winning a point. Still, not sure I agree in terms of this relating in some way to Obama - I'd thought he basically did favor SSM but had to pretend he didn't for a while. That doesn't mean no one ever evolves, just that there's reason to be skeptical in that case.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Oh, and PG, I think this is also just a question of tone, and it being tough to assess via blog-comments. It could well be that you were merely adding a new dimension to the topic (in this case, or others) and I misread it as point-scoring!