- “You’re a liberal or a conservative in America if you think the ’60s were a good thing or not. If the ’60s was a good thing, you’re left. If you think it was a bad thing, you’re right. And the confusing thing for a lot of people that gets a lot of Americans is, when they think of the ’60s, they don’t think of just the sexual revolution. But somehow or other — and they’ve been very, very, clever at doing this — they’ve been able to link, I think absolutely incorrectly, the sexual revolution with civil rights.”
- source: Rick Santorum and repealing the 1960s (Charles Blow for the New York Times)
Girls' swimsuits, Sears 1963
One of the reasons I wanted to write about unisex fashions is that they seem emblematic of a very complicated -- and unfinished -- conversation about sex, gender and sexuality. Rick Santorum's comment from last year is one expression of that conversation, and I thank him for being so honest in putting it out there. Many of us who grew up in the 1960s have mixed feelings about that era, though mine are more positive than Mr. Santorum's. Unlike him, I feel that family planning is good, abortion should be safe, legal and accessible regardless of income and that biological sex is an interesting category but not my be-all and end -all.
But here's the catch: something happens in the coding for feminine clothing in the 1960s that essentially conflates femininity, youth and sexual attractiveness, and it shows up in girls’ clothing. Six-year-olds in bikinis -- thank the 1960s.
More to come, as I am deep in writing mode for the next nine months. This site will also be changing to reflect the widening scope of my work. In my ample free tie, as they say.
Whew! A few months ago I was interviewed by Jeanne Maglaty of Smithsonian Magazine online. It promptly fell off my radar (I'm a professor! It happens all the time.) and suddenly it was online
last Friday. I posted it to me friends on Facebook and Twitter, who posted it to their friends, who posted it to their friends and suddenly it's everywhere I look. Exciting and scary. Many of the bloggers who have picked it up have made insightful comments and rather than sprinkle the answers all over the 'net, I thought I would try to respond here. If you have additional questions, post or email them. I am in the final month of the semester -- AKA Grading Hell - but I will try to answer as many as possible.UNC Sociologist Philip Cohen asks the $64,000 question:
"So, what would a gay 5-year-old in 1884 have done?"
That's a great question, and one that I was only able to raise -- and not to answer definitively -- in the book. My guess is:
- gay children still felt "different" as they gained awareness of cultural norms and expectations
- this sense of difference was mitigated and probably delayed because early childhood culture was less gender binary than it is today. In the baby books I examined, baby dolls were common gifts for both boys and girls at their first Christmas or birthday.
- the transition to boy clothing and the first haircut might have been more jarring for boys who were comfortable in feminized "baby"styles.
I am hoping this first serious foray into the topic will inspire others to examine this question. I am dying to see what historical clinical literature might reveal, for example.
Now that the manuscript is out of my hands, I an eagerly turning to my next project. On April 22, I'll be in San Antonio, Texas to give a paper at the Popular Culture Association conference. The title is "Pink Boys and Tomgirls: Raising Gender Variant Boys in the Twenty-first Century", and it's giving me a chance to delve more deeply into a phenomenon that is emerging so fast I couldn't cover it adequately in the book. here's the abstract, for starters (sorry, it's a tad jargon-y):For the last twenty-five years, parents who prefer neutral or androgynous styles for their children have had very few options in the retail market. How do these gender rules effect children who do not conform to dominant gender expectations, including not only the 1 child in 100 who is born intersex, or the 2-10% (depending on your sources) who will be sexually attracted to partners of their own sex, but all the girls who dislike pink and the boys who want to play princess? My own research strongly argues that clothing does not “make the man” when it comes to babies and toddlers; there is no evidence whatsoever that homosexuality is any more or less prevalent now than it was when boys wore dresses until they were five, or that lesbianism spiked among the first generation of girls to wear pants. But that does not mean that children between one and six may not use clothing to help explore and express what their biological sex in the cultural landscape into which they were born. In this presentation I will offer an overview of this emerging trend and discuss its connection to the current system of gender binaries in children’s clothing, in the context of contemporary psychological thought. I will place special emphasis on the appearance of blogs and organizations that provide support to parents with “gender non-conforming” or “gender variant” boys.
I have collected some resources in my Zotero library
, and will be working through the presentation here. Stay tuned!
My sister in the effort to rethink pink, Peggy Orenstein, has reported on Abercrombie's "push-up" bikinis for girls 7-12 a couple of times. Today she noted that the retailer has removed "push-up" from the description, though not, apparently from the bras. In my research, I also noticed the sexualization of bathing suits for even younger girls. In the early 1990s, bathing suits for baby girls were almost always one-piece; “femininity” was expressed through color (not just pink), floral prints and ruffles. In the summer of 2010, on one shopping website, which aggregates items from multiple sources, one third of the girls’ bathing suits in sizes 0-12 months were two-piece styles, nearly all of them bikinis. Why do BABIES need bikinis? They certainly aren't practical, and they can't be as comfortable as a tank-style one-piece.
I just got a great email from commenter Andi, AKA "Feministjerk" (no, he really isn't!). He offered an expansion of his theory that the connection between pink and femininity is the result of post-World War II capitalism and branding. I think he's partially right, but one of the arguments I make in the book is that children themselves are actors in the process, and any theory that does not take children into consideration as consumers is going to be incomplete. The more adults have listened to -- and marketed to-- children, the more clothing for children under the age of six has become gendered. The typical 4-year-old is about the most ardent believer in gender stereotypes you can find, because that is where they are developmentally. Thus the princess craziness, for example. Disney knows 3-6 year-old girls.
As infants grow into toddlers, they become active participants in the gender binary fashion show, much to the amusement, chagrin or dismay of their parents. For boys and girls whose gender identity generally conforms to their biological sex, this participation appears likely to be enthusiastic embrace. These are the girls who insist on wearing nothing but pink and prefer dresses to any form of pants, and the boys who clamor for buzz-cuts and ubiquitous sports imagery. One of the most puzzling questions raised by the gendered clothing of the last generation is, “What about the others?” What about tomboys, the little girls who for decades could wear plain girls’ styles or their brother’s hand-me-downs without appearing out of the mainstream? (In a study of college age women in the early 1970s, 78% described themselves as “tomboys” as children, though the age to which they referred was unclear.) What about the one person in 100 classified as “intersex”, whose body differs from standard male or female and whose sense of identity may not conform to the gender chosen for them by their parents? What about boys who, like tomboys, feel more comfortable in the clothing of the other sex, but for whom the English language has no positive term? Certainly, one of the outcomes of a strong gender binary in children’s clothing is the lack of expressive options for children whose identities may be more fluid or contrary to stereotyped images of masculinity and femininity.
One of the most vexing aspects of the book as been how to raise the question of sexuality. I'm not just talking about the way that gendered clothing can tend to slide into sexualized clothing (think Toddlers and Tiaras and the Huggies Denim Diaper ad). The gender binary pink and blue world reflects a heteronormative -- and homophobic -- construct of children's sexualities.The writings of G. Stanley Hall and other early psychologists were very clear in their view of male homosexuality as deviant, dangerous and preventable, but usually the sexual messages in children's clothing fly under the radar.
Another aspect of this issue is how gendered clothing -- particularly the strongly binary landscape we've bee in since the late 1980s -- is experienced by those children who do not conform to traditional gender constructs. Tomboys, girlish boys, intersex children -- what does pink and blue mean to them?
My Find of the Day in my Google alert of "neutral clothing" was Aly Windsor's post "Parenting outside the gender binary". Windsor and her partner are raising their son Avie to be as "unrestrained by gender as possible", and it's an interesting and thought-provoking post for anyone who thinks pink and blue clothing (and a serious lack of neutral options) is just harmless fashion.