Why do I want a baby girl so badly? Because I know girls, I get girls, I can talk to girls, I find girls interesting, more interesting than boys, maybe because girls are allowed to be interesting in a way that boys are not. All this, and also because I’m a feminist and I want the chance to raise a daughter a little bolder, more fiester, freer than I was.
So when I came across an excerpt from Peggy Orenstein’s book Cindrella Ate My Daughter in the newspaper, I found myself both nodding and crossing my fingers. And then I went out and got the book.
I identified with Orenstein’s gender preference, although I was never shy of admitting it. She writes: “Then I saw the incontrovertible proof on the sonogram (or what they said was incontrovertible proof; to me, it looked indistinguishable from, say, a nose) and I suddenly realised I had wanted a girl – desperately, passionately – all along. I had just been afraid to admit it. But I still fretted over how I would raise her, what kind of role model I would be, whether I would take my own smugly written advice on the complexities surrounding girls’ beauty, body image, education, achievement.”
She goes on:
Shopping for her, I grumbled over the relentless colour coding of babies. Who cared whether the crib sheets were pink or tartan? During those months I must have started a million sentences with “My daughter will never …” And then I became a mother.
Well, thankfully for me, my own mother cautioned us long ago on the inadvisability of saying “my child will never”. She noted that it often turns out that your child does exactly that while you look only haplessly.
Orenstein describes how she initially succeeded in shielding her daughter from the gendered choices imposed by society but how all was rather quickly undone when her daughter ventured more and more into society.
All it took was one boy who, while whizzing past her in the playground, yelled, “Girls don’t like trains ‘” and Thomas was shoved to the bottom of the toy chest. Within a month, Daisy threw a tantrum when I tried to wrestle her into trousers
She goes on to ask:
Since when did every little girl become a princess? It wasn’t like this when I was a kid, and I was born back when feminism was still a mere twinkle in our mothers’ eyes. We did not dress head to toe in pink. We did not have our own miniature high heels. As my little girl made her daily beeline for the dress-up corner of her classroom, I fretted over what playing Little Mermaid, a character who actually gives up her voice to get a man, was teaching her.
One of the important things Orenstein points out is how much of it is marketing. One the rationales – one I was susceptible to myself – of finding out the sex of your child before birth is for the baby shopping. So you (and everyone else) can buy baby things and do up the room in the correct colour and style. Except less than halfway into my last pregnancy I realised how irrelevant this is. What correct colour and style? Why must we conform to this? Why can’t boys wear pink?
No reason, Orenstein says. The whole pink/blue thing was just a stroke of marketing genius:
Girls’ attraction to pink may seem unavoidable, somehow encoded in their DNA, but according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, it’s not. Children weren’t colour-coded at all until the early 20th century: in the era before domestic washing machines all babies wore white as a practical matter, since the only way of getting clothes clean was to boil them.
What’s more, both boys and girls wore what were thought of as gender-neutral dresses.
When nursery colours were introduced, pink was actually considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red, which was associated with strength. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, symbolised femininity. (That may explain a portrait that has always befuddled me, of my father as an infant in 1926 wearing a pink dress.) Why or when that switched is not clear, but many of the early Disney heroines – Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Wendy, Alice in Wonderland, Mary Poppins’ Jane Banks – were dressed in various shades of azure. (When the company introduced the Princess line, it deliberately changed Sleeping Beauty’s gown to pink, supposedly to distinguish her from Cinderella.) It was not until the mid-1980s, when amplifying age and sex differences became a dominant children’s marketing strategy, that pink fully came into its own, when it began to seem innately attractive to girls, part of what defined them as female, at least for the first few critical years.
So what makes boys boys and girls girls?
Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain, says that for the most part, at least in the beginning, the behaviour and interests of the two sexes are nearly indistinguishable.
Both go gaga over the same toys: until they’re about a year old, they are equally attracted to dolls; and until they’re around three, they show the same interest in actual babies. Then the whole concept of labelling kicks in – sometime between the ages of two and three they realise that there is this thing called “boy” and this thing called “girl” and something important differentiates them.
Toy choice does vary according to gender, Eliot says. Studies on different kinds of monkeys have shown that male monkeys gravitated to boys toys (car aand ball), the females to a cooking pot and doll.
Toy choice turns out to be one of the largest differences between the sexes over the entire life span, bigger than anything except the preference (among most of us) for the other sex as romantic partners.
But that’s pretty much where it ends, or should, if gender differences weren’t such a marketing bonanza. “Splitting kids, or adults, into ever-tinier categories has proved a sure-fire way to boost profits. And one of the easiest ways to segment a market is to magnify gender differences – or invent them where they did not previously exist.”
It might be tempting to say “oh nature”, throw up ones hands and hand your daughter that baby doll. But Eliot makes an important point. Even if your daughter does prefer a baby doll, doesn’t mean she necessarily loves pink or would hate a toy train.
“Think about language. Babies are born ready to absorb the sounds and grammar and intonation of any language, but then the brain wires itself up to only perceive and produce a specific language. After puberty, it’s possible to learn another language, but it’s far more difficult.
I think of gender differences similarly: the ones that exist become amplified by the two different cultures that boys and girls are immersed in from birth. That contributes to the way their emotional and cognitive circuits get wired.”
“Hormones, genes and chromosomes, then, aren’t quite as powerful as we tend to believe. ” Something we would all do well to remember.