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hawk eyed feminism: halloween; a celebration of sugar and stereotyping (the gender kind)

Whilst meandering through the second realm of reality, this tweet by @laureningram caught my eye:

sexism starts youngAustralia is increasingly absorbing and exhibiting the culture brought to us by the great inventors of spray cheese. Halloween is just around the corner, a festivity that is catching on. The above tweet was a pretty good summary of the gender stereotyping that has been rife within children’s dress ups and toys (we’ll tackle that one another day).

But hey, its 2012 now, we’re passed this yeah? Like any good writer, I hit up the World Wide Web in search of answers. Now I’m just sticking to kids costumes here — I’m way underprepared to get into what is being marketed to teens and women. Naughty Maid, Heidi Hottie or any kind of sexualised insect i.e. Sexy Bee or Fantasy Butterfly do come to mind though.

Looking through the top ranked websites on Google it appears that boys can be pirates, firemen, super heroes, doctors, ninjas and astronauts. Girls can be fairies, princesses, witches, ladybugs, nurses and skeletons. Oops, I mean Skelton Sweeties. Before you lose your cool, girls can be super heroes too. Just as long as they are pink,i.e. Pink Spider Girl, Pink Bat Girl and Pink Super Girl.

But maybe boys really do just want to be pirates and girls just want to be fairies? Well, I’m now going to delight you with a relevant yet distracting anecdote. Back in the day, my mum and her friend Kathy made kids costumes for their shop, often taking them to other rural towns. I have vivid memories of copious amounts of tulle and Dorothy-the-breaching-copyright-Dinosaur tails. Mum remarked that in general, the girls would go ape for dress ups, not really caring what they could wear as long as it was something neat (by that I mean rad, not 50s housewife style).

Interestingly, the boys almost always wanted to wear the fairy costumes. And why wouldn’t they? They were the brightest, had killer wands to perform woodland magic with and, let’s face it, glitter is kids’ catnip. Sadly though, nine times out of ten this choice was met with disapproval from Mum or a comment along the lines of ‘OK, but we won’t tell Daddy.’ And you thought your eyes couldn’t roll back that far.

So this article may read more like an energetic round of Trouble than a well strategised game of chess but I think the notions of gender stereotyping and children are actually pretty big to tackle. Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with boys wanting to dress as pirates or doctors and girls as fairies or nurses but why do these costumes need to be marketed and displayed exclusively to one gender? All this does is entrench the idea to young children (and parents) that gender determines who you can and cannot be and what characteristics you can and cannot have.

In lieu of coming up with an awesome strategy to overcome these issues, how about we just stick to the tried and tested pumpkin. Or maybe a taco

How can gender stereotyping in children’s costumes be minimised? Is it up to the makers, stores, parents or all of the above?

(Image credit: 1, 2)


7 thoughts on “hawk eyed feminism: halloween; a celebration of sugar and stereotyping (the gender kind)

  1. Speaking of anecdotes, have you heard about the case of David Reimer? David was born in 1965 and, as the result of a (really) botched circumcision, had his genitals cut off. A psychologist re-assigned and had him raised as a female and saw it is a validation of the theory that gender identity is learned.

    It was later learnt that David failed to identify as a female from the age of 9 and began living as a male by age 15, eventually being told the circumstances of his upbringing. He then proceeded to have surgery and, later in his life, married (a woman).

  2. I am not an expert by any means,but as a parent of both sexes (grown up now and as certain of their sexual identities as one can reasonably expect) I just wanna say that this isn’t a nature versus nurture debate really. Girls do have a propensity to be girls and boys will be boys certainly but that doesn’t mean there has to be rigid lines that define one from the other – especially when they are children.Kids really do seem to want to play however they like without regard to gender specificity. This is where the ‘nurture” part comes in I think – providing wider experiences for kids than stereotypical gender based ones. My son happily played with Barbies (not at home – I drew the line at Barbie!)with his female bestie when he was little and pretty much played all the games etc that his big sisters devised. As a teenager he sought out all those PlayStation games that involved blowing things up.The problem is just as you suggest Emmica, that these pervasive ‘suggestions’ about gender roles (girl= nurse, boy = doctor)really do have an impact with regard to the way in which children are socialised – most particularly on parents who have already been socialised! Arrrggh! I agree, a nice gender-neutral taco might be the right way to go …

  3. A little off topic, perhaps, but I have a friend whose three year old son happily plays with a baby doll. It appears to be a non-issue in their household, and I think that’s fantastic. Also, I worked in a department store during my late teens and witnessed, more than once, little boys throwing tantrums because mum or dad wouldn’t let them have *that* pink toy. My hypothetical future children will play with whatever toys they want to play with. (Except for violent toys like swords and guns – that’s where I draw the line.)

    • I was one of those children who was not allowed to play with toy guns and swords due to my mother’s fear that it would ‘make’ me violent. I got around this by secretly building by own swords and guns and inventing apocalyptic battle scenes in my head. This was certainly not encouraged by my parents and it’s an example of why you can’t define an individual’s gender identity simply by deciding which toys they come into contact with.

      Consequently, the big problem with social constructivist assumptions about human development is that it becomes a means of judging parents; If children really are indoctrinated by their cultural environment then one would probably conclude that my fascination with violence was due to my mother’s poor parenting and propensity to encourage violence. Likewise a child who only likes playing with toy soldiers can be remarked as having parents with traditional views about gender. Through this process, we seem to completely deprive children of any agency whatsoever, which I think is problematic.

      In short, I agree that toys are marketed too rigidly to one gender or another, but I think there’s dangers in placing too much responsibility for a child’s gender upon the parents.

  4. Chris makes a valid point – children need plenty of scope to discover what they need to know about themselves and their world and of course they need to be empowered to make choices. Hence being prescriptive about toys along gender lines is limiting for them. My son didn’t have toy guns or swords either. He just went outside and found a handily shaped stick and “shot” the imaginary soldiers/intruders/ aliens. And occasionally the dog…

  5. Pingback: Radio Interview: Halloween costumes and gender stereotyping « paperbagprincess

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