Surprised as many of you might be, I actually think Target’s move to take gender labels out of their toy aisles is positive news. Of course gender is important. Of course the current push to live in denial about gender differences is harmful to individuals as well as families. Rigid gender stereotypes, however, can also be quite harmful.
Gender is more of a book than a box. Understanding gender helps us greatly to understand ourselves. It helps me understand why I have to deal with so many emotional roller coasters — horror-mones, as I sometimes call them. It also helps me understand why, try as I may, I still can’t run as fast as so many boys. Even on my high school cross-country team, as one of the top female runners, I was only as fast as some of the slower Junior Varsity boys.
Gender isn’t a box, though, and treating it like an exact box can also be confusing. Traditional gender lines certainly haven’t been successful at telling me everything about myself. For example, I’m good at spatial reasoning, and I struggle with multi-tasking. I enjoy rock climbing and woodworking. Until I had a baby, I never cried during movies. Not even when Simba’s dad died in The Lion King. All my friends cried at that part. I felt depressed, for about three days, but never cried. At the same time, I love a good pedicure and working on crafts.
Luckily I grew up in a family where this was all ok. I didn’t have to be a girly-girl, but could be if I wanted to be. Whatever my interests, I was still a girl and I was still ok. My parents helped me see this as they kept to the general gender roles at home but were not too rigid regarding what was acceptable for boys to do and what was ok for girls. My mom was a mom in every sense of the word. We were lucky enough to have her at home. She cared for and nurtured the family. My dad was the bread-winner and was good at teaching us discipline. But he also helped a lot with the laundry and the dishes. My mom also mowed the lawn and built some furniture for our home.
Katie Goldman and Layla Murphy (the Star Wars girls) are also lucky to have supportive families who aren’t too fearful about crossing a few gender lines. If you have seen their pictures, you know they are adorable girls, both of whom could easily pass as the next Princess Leia. Crossing the line over to the boys’ section for Star Wars action figures hasn’t made them boyish at all. They have the freedom to enjoy their hobbies and be girls too.
Those who grow up pressured to fit into a more rigid, boxy view of gender lines are not as lucky. People in these environments like to assume other things about those who cross gender lines, merely for the sake of their hobbies, that aren’t actually related to the hobbies at all. This is something I started to notice when I was about twelve, and I’ll be honest: I’ve always felt it was a little dysfunctional.
It was a conversation with my older brother’s girlfriend that struck me as odd. She was telling me about one of her guy-friends who told her that he liked interior design, cake decorating, and activities of that sort. She laughed as she said, “I told him, ‘Dude, you’re gay!’ And he said, ‘No, I’m not’, but I said, ‘Yes, you totally are! You have to be.’”
At the time I’m sure I just looked a bit confused. But as I grew older, I kept wondering, why does he have to be gay to like feminine pastimes? What if he isn’t gay, and wants to date women? Would he have to give up his hobbies for women to take him seriously in the dating scene?
No one has ever given me grief about my affinity for rock climbing, or wood working. When I took an Auto class in high school, people saw that as cool, not weird. No one told me I must be a lesbian. Can’t a man similarly like interior design and women? What do hobbies and sexual orientation have to do with each other anyways?
I thought about this even more as I learned that one of my husband’s friends decided he was gay. We had been on a double-date with him when we were first dating, and he wasn’t effeminate at all. Later, we watched him perform in a play, and then after we were engaged he said he’d be happy to make our wedding cake for us. We took him up on it, and he did a nice job. A guy who likes to participate in community plays and make wedding cakes. Cool. I was still surprised when he announced on Facebook that he was gay. Honestly, since his announcement he has seemed so miserable, despite all the love and support he gets from friends and family. It is possible that he just feels torn between his newly-chosen lifestyle and his family’s religion. I have to wonder, though, if maybe he’s not actually gay. Is it possible that he was pressured into believing he was gay because of his interests?
True, men who engage in feminine hobbies aren’t always explicitly labeled homosexual. But they usually get some sort of negative or uncomfortable feedback, similar to the teasing Katie Goldman and Layla Murphy got from their classmates before their families and communities stepped up to support them. With a chuckle here and there, a friend once told me about her college-roommate’s dad who liked to crochet. She described a strong and active farmer, a good husband and father, who liked to crochet to stay busy during the winter months. He even gave her one of the scarves he had crocheted. (The scarf was actually the conversation-starter. She still has it.) I’m sure he got plenty of looks when people found out he liked crocheting, because even as my friend told me about him and his interests, her underlying tone was, “It was weird, but whatever”.
The key to remember is that gender is biological. Biology determines our gender, our interests do not. Have some confidence in that. Taking gender labels out of toy aisles won’t confuse people about what they are. It will just make it more ok to be a girl and like Star Wars, or to be a man and decorate cakes and date women. That’s a good thing.