Monday, April 11, 2011

An unconventional take on gender stereotypes and biology

A friend posted a link to Facebook that showed two word clouds, one showing words used in advertising for toys aimed at boys, the other showing words used in advertising for toys aimed at girls. I'm not actually going to post the link here, because while I think the author's point is correct, I think the post itself does nothing to support the point being made, and this is all a distraction from what I actually wanted to talk about. There's been something I've wanted to say for quite some time about gender stereotypes, gender bias, and biology; and thinking about how some toys are perceived as gender-specific finally revealed to me what I think is the right way to say what I am trying to say, without coming across as patronizing.

Is gender discrepancy in toy preference purely a societal construction, or does it have any biological roots? Well, I don't think one can assert a clear answer to this question (it's undeniable that social convention reinforces this discrepancy, even if it didn't create it, which makes it very difficult to measure). But consider the following facts: Men are on average larger and more muscular than women. Babies only come out of vaginas, and milk (generally; don't distract from the central point) only comes out of the nipples of women. Given those realities, I don't think it would be surprising if we were to discover that, independent of culture, boys were more likely to play with fighting superhero toys, and girls were more likely to play with baby dolls. I'm not asserting that as true, but I really don't think it would be surprising.

But that's only a bit of speculation about what is; it says absolutely nothing about what we ought to do about it. Worse yet, it's not even the complete picture: It's undeniable that, even with gender stereotypes being bolstered by powerful cultural reinforcement as they are today, many boys would still rather play with dolls and many girls would still rather play with superheroes. It is not fair that these individuals be short-changed or stigmatized just because they don't fit a stereotypical mold, even if that mold has a perfectly natural origin. (Edit: In re-reading this, I think I inadvertently came across as presenting somewhat of a false dichotomy, i.e. that each individual either likes "boy's" toys or they like "girl's" toys. That's bullocks, and of course equally important is that even if, say, a given boy might usually want to play with superheroes, he should ideally not feel reservations about playing with baby dolls on occasions when it strikes him to do so.) Individuals should be empowered to do what they want, to act according to individual preferences and desires. This personal liberty and autonomy is one of our most important shared human values!

The upshot of this is that if it is the case that gender stereotypes have a biological basis (and again, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to make an assertion about this either way), then that would only intensify the importance of minimizing any cultural reinforcement of those stereotypes. It might even suggest that we ought to work towards not only elimination of that cultural reinforcement, but an outright reversal of it, i.e. a society where it's "cool" to explore the opposite gender stereotype.

There is absolutely no reason to believe natural selection should be egalitarian in regards to gender. The moderate sexual dimorphism of our species suggests evolution has not been entirely blind to gender in H. sapiens (though thankfully we are quite a bit better off in that regard than C. lectularius!), and therefore we should be prepared that there might very well be natural behavioral differences between men and women. But as organisms with a uniquely powerful ability to reason about concepts of fairness and morality, we owe it to ourselves to do better than unguided evolution in this regard. The possibility that conventional gender roles might have biological roots is not an excuse to shrug our shoulders at stereotyping and inequality: rather, it is a call to redouble our efforts in combating those pernicious effects.


  1. Just thought I'd mention that as a little girl growing up, I played with My Little Ponies. And Dinosaurs. At the same time. Ponies occasionally fell prey to T-rex Jurassic Park style. I also hated baby dolls. But I loved dressing the poor cat up in their clothes. Based on the anecdotal evidence of one, I'd say most boys and girls, left to their own devices without all the stereotype reinforcing would probably be happy playing with a little from column A, and a little from column B.

  2. I think that's probably right, and that's the experience I'm having with my older son right now (the younger guy is only two months old and so not really expressing toy preferences yet ;D ). He definitely seems to express a preference for traditionally "boy" toys -- trains, cars, robots, pretending that stuff is blowing up, etc. -- but he also has a couple of baby dolls that he likes to play with, tucking them into bed and pretending to change their diaper and things like that. At this age (two) we choose his toys, of course, but he chooses what to play with, and while I wouldn't say the dolls are his favorites, he definitely likes them. (Of course the best is when he lovingly tucks his robots into bed with him..)

    It's impossible to say whether his general preference for traditionally "boy" stuff is natural or a result of environmental influences -- no matter how hard we might try to avoid imposing gender stereotypes, I am quite sure it comes through from time to time, and in any case regardless of what we do he's not immune from the general cultural influences around him -- but even if it is natural, it's definitely not absolute. It makes me really sad to think that some parents would be like, "You can't play with that doll, that's a girl toy!" What an impoverished view of life that would be...

  3. no matter how hard we might try to avoid imposing gender stereotypes, I am quite sure it comes through from time to time

    On a relate note, I have found it is virtually impossible not to express heteronormative attitudes from time to time. "When you get older, are the girls gonna be all over you..... Er, uh, um, or maybe the guys I guess. I dunno, whichever you want." hahahaha, the joys of trying to be a progressive parent...

  4. I do believe there are behavioral differences in men and women, but that doesn't mean they have to play with specific toys as children. (I have 3 and they do boy & girl things - like, the Darth Vader doll flys around on My Little Pony, or my 3 yr old son will have his older sister's dress up dress on while swordfighting.)The difference I notice isn't so much with toy preference, but how they manipulate those toys.

    I take slight issue with how you paint trucks vs. dollies as "pernicious." As if we all were meant to be gender-neutral. It's one thing if parents are bullying their boys into being "tough" or coddling their girls into being prissy, but if you buy your boy a tonka truck for his birthday, you don't have to buy him a barbie too, to make sure all genders are covered. Sheesh. Sometimes "progressive parents" overthink things and make everything seem weird.

  5. Argh, stupid Blogger erased my comment. When will I learn to type long comments in a text editor and then past them into a form?

    Anyway, I think you misread there. I was not referring to "trucks vs. dollies" as pernicious, I was referring to "stereotyping and inequality" as pernicious. And I stand by that, and I think the word "pernicious" is particularly appropriate, in that our preconceived notions of gender are not only harmful, but that they can intrude in subtle and gradual ways that we may not even notice.

    The point I am trying to make with this post is very much in line with what you said: That it's wrong "if parents are bullying their boys into being 'tough' or coddling their girls into being prissy" even if there turns out to be a natural tendency for boys to want to be "tough" and girls to want to be "prissy" (so to speak).

    Don't get too hung up on my choice of kids' toy preferences for an example; this same point could be made in regards to, say, gender differences in career choices or skill at a given career. I steered away from that because I think it is even more of a minefield, but the point I am making is a general one: That if preconceived notions about traditional gender roles turn out to have a biological basis, that is not an excuse to embrace our preconceptions, but rather a warning to be doubly on the look out for the possible pernicious effects of those preconceptions.

    All other things being equal, if a woman wants to be a homemaker (for example), then she ought. Some might speculate that there could be innate gender differences that make many women more likely to want to be a homemaker. Without commenting on whether there's any chance of that being true, if it were true, than the take-home wouldn't be "Oh, women want to be homemakers anyway, so it's no big deal if there is societal pressure for them to take that role." Instead, the message we should take from that would be "Knowing what we know, it's going to be dangerously easy for powerful societal influences to develop that strongly pressure women into being homemakers, whether they want to or not. We need to be doubly careful to try and avoid those influences, since that's clearly not what all women want."

    Does that make any more sense? It is not innate gender differences that I am calling "pernicious", it is gender discrimination and pressure to conform to specific gender roles. I think innate gender differences -- which are neither good nor evil, to the extent they exist they are simply facts -- can exacerbate those pernicious effects if we aren't careful.

    Some people, on both sides of the issue, seem to think innate biological differences would justify discrimination and pressure to conform. Whether that leads someone to say that sexism is no big deal because that's how we are naturally, or if it causes someone to assert that there can't possibly be natural gender differences because that would be sexist, either way I think these folks have it all wrong.

  6. Very well said. The problem isn't with our biology but with our assumptions.

  7. Yes you make perfect sense - I was reading kind of fast. One one hand, I don't want to push my kids into any "role" but on the other hand, I've seen some boys aggressive urges stifled instead of channeled correctly.

    I have been sort of jaded because we have some friends with two boys. She's a stay-at-home mom and micromanages them all day. These poor boys cannot fart without a comment or behavioral correction from mom. They are not allowed to wrestle, to get dirty, to eat meat, they cannot watch Star Wars (the violence!), or TV in general unless it is ultra-juvenile and learning oriented, they can't play with guns, swords, or soldiers of any kind. Instead she bought them a kitchen set. She went so far as to throw out all the pretend meats, the snack food items and the pancakes (the sugar!!!) They may play with farm animals, but she will not allow dinosaurs anymore because the boys would play "dino-attack" with them.

    I had a playdate with them ONCE a few years ago. My (then) 4 year old daughter played monster with her 3 year old son and went "RRRRAWR!" The boy hid behind his mother and in the most pathetic voice, whined, "she scawed me, mumma." And the mother started to lay into my daughter about how we don't scare people.

    I said to the boy "_______, if she is scaring you, ask her to stop. I am sure she will. She's a very nice little girl. If she doesn't stop after you've asked, then you can come to us."

    Last time I went over there. I just couldn't help thinking to myself, "Those kids are going to be eaten alive in school."

  8. WOW. I can see how that would color your perceptions!

    My wife very much has a pet peeve when parents feel like they have to swoop in any time kids have a disagreement over a toy or something. Obviously you don't want them to hurt each other or for things to get too out of hand, but I'd rather have one yell momentarily and have them work it out themselves rather than constantly intervene. I think in the long run it's better for them, and plus that you miss out on hilarious moments like this one. (that's my kid yelling "Don't touch!")

    I guess the only sympathies we'd have with that mom is that we've considered going veg with the boys (but haven't done so), and I'm not sure how either of us feel about toy guns (he's already got a toy sword and I think some toy soldiers that, well, do have guns I suppose). I don't think it's the greatest toy for a kid, but then again, I heard this anecdote once about a mom who absolutely forbade her kids from playing with toy weapons of any kind, and then one day her kid tore his sandwich into the shape of a gun, pointed it at her and said, "Bang bang, you're dead mommy!" hahahaha, they'll pick it all up SOMEwhere, so trying to keep them sheltered just seems pointless.

    No no, we are very big on trying to give as much autonomy as possible. Our oldest is two right now, so that still means "not much" -- but even still, we try to do what I can. The worst we've done with trying to force his toy choices is my wife likes to get him play cleaning toys, like a little broom and such, in hopes of encouraging him to develop good habits in that vein. Of course, the law of unintended consequences means when he sees us sweeping, he grabs his broom and "helps", which means poking his broom at the pile of dust and really just making a mess. hehehe...

    He *does* have a play kitchen, but I do most of the cooking for our family so I don't even think of that as a traditionally gender-specific toy. I know for many people it is, but I just don't even think about it that way.

    As far as getting eaten alive... some of his friends at playdates, the kids' parents have worked on manners so much that if our son (or another kid) comes up and tries to grab a toy away from them, they will just shrug and walk away. That's great, but... I dunno man, I'm pretty sure it's normal behavior for two year olds to be pretty crappy at sharing. I'd rather teach him to really understand what sharing is, and then have him do it voluntarily, rather than have him just be trained to let people take stuff from him.

    Our son is awesome at his pleases and thank yous, because we started phasing that in when he could understand what it meant. He'll really genuinely give a great big, "Oh thank you!!" if it's something he really wanted. Now, he doesn't really say sorry yet at all.. other kids his age do if prompted. But they don't mean it, it's just a script. I'd rather teach him to actually feel sorry than just to say the word. So I'm willing to wait out some two-year-old-typical lousy manners and keep trying to teach him the real life lessons until he starts to understand them.

    I'm rambling now, but.. yeah, I'm pretty much the opposite of the parent you describe :)

  9. Ha ha - I like your son's little Jedi hand movement, like he's putting up a magical forcefield to keep the other little tot from crossing the line.

    I have no problem with people who buy their boys a kitchen set. I just see some trying too hard to stifle aggression. It's not always a bad thing, but it needs to be channeled. Our son started Tae Kwon Do to learn how to control his "exuberance." We don't say "no no!" and make him sit quietly. That isn't natural.

    I think if you have good parents who teach their children that violence is not the answer & terrible as well, will have good kids, no matter how many plastic nerf gun fights they get into as kids. :)

    Take care -

  10. Hey Jay,

    I enjoyed your post. BUT, I disagree - big time. In the tradition of the internet, I will attempt to sound like more of an %$@hole than I really am.

    Though we haven't talked recently, I remember you as being a pretty logical guy. What happened!?

    The "unguided evolution" that you blame for gender stereotypes happens to be the precise recipe for humanity. We wouldn't be what we are today if our ancestral societies did not teach their young girls to be mothers and young boys to be hunters/protectors.

    Young animals play to learn how to fill their roles as an adult.. its like that for lion cubs, dogs, bears and humans. Evolution filtered out what did not work, and what did not work for humanity or civilization was babies sucking on dry and harry man nipples and pregnant women hunting mammoths for dinner.

    I understand that it is currently hip to think we are above our genetic programming, but the fact is men and women are not equal. Somehow we have confused gender inequality with gender discrimination. Sure, men and women deserve equal respect and opportunity.. but -equal- we are not.

    In your post you call for a reversal of gender stereotypes. Such a radical idea would be poison to our future! We are talking about raising today's children, not in some gender agnostic paradise of the future, but in our imperfect world with stereotypes and taboo. A boy encouraged to play with "girl toys" today is going to be an adult in less than 20 years.. the stereotypes everyone here seems to be so upset about are still going to exist. What will this boy think about his dolls and pink clothing in 5 years? 10? How about when he is 35? Will he be sitting around the break room table at the office chatting with his work pals about his fond memories of playing barbie dolls? I doubt it, he will likely be ashamed and save that conversation for his therapist.

    Maybe a tolerance would be a better position to preach. A tolerances for girls who play with boy toys, tolerances for getting stuck with a girl toy on Christmas, and especially a tolerance for people who were raised to buck social norms.