If your young niece’s favorite colors were pink and purple, would you deny her a Christmas gift in those colors just to buck gender norms?
Don’t tell my family, but of all the people on my Christmas shopping list, my 6-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew are the most important. They’re also the most fun to shop for—it’s not often that I look around at what kind of toys are on the market, or even think much about what kids want to play with. Shopping for kids’ stuff, in-person or online, always has the potential to be a fun trip back in time, or to uncharted territory. On top of that, no matter what you buy for a kid, you can’t help but feel like your gift will have some kind of impact. My dad accepts gifts graciously then loses them without ever making use of them or thinking twice about it. My niece, on the other hand, will enjoy whatever it is I get her for at least half a day, and even after the appeal of the item has worn off, she’ll remember that I’m the one who gave it to her. It’s a good feeling. It’s also mildly terrifying.
This year, I decided to give everyone homemade gifts, even to the children. My niece is getting two pairs of leg-warmers: one with bold, colorful stripes, and the other either pink with hearts or purple with a ribbon. Picking out the yarn for these projects was an ordeal. I know that pink and purple are her favorite colors (she told me), and I want her to love what I make for her. But as I looked at the selection of more gender-neutral colors, I couldn’t help but feel like Christmas wasn’t really the time to send a message about feminism and breaking free of gender stereotypes. So I chose the colors I knew she’d like.
For my nephew, I’m making a big, cuddly, stuffed pig. He’s a cuddly kid, and who doesn’t like a big pig? I spent a long time trying to pick a color for this project, too. Finally my partner came into the room and—after listening to me go on about how it was going to be weird knitting a yellow pig, and I couldn’t do it in pink because he’s a little boy—pointed out that a lot of pigs happen to be pink. Unable to argue with fact, I bought the pink yarn. I’m happy to have avoided getting either of them something straight out of a “for girls” or “for boys” gift guide, but I certainly didn’t really manage to steer clear of the gender trap.
It seems unfair and a bit ridiculous that a stuffed animal and a pair of leg-warmers should have any kind of significance, or that in giving gifts, I should worry about what sort of message I’m sending (or failing to send) about how my niece and nephew should feel toward the nuances of their respective gender identities.
But the holidays are nothing if not a vehicle for messages from advertisers, marketers, and society at large about what little girls and boys are made of. Online gift guides break toys and games down into those “for boys” and those “for girls”; television commercials depict a world in which boys play with boys, and girls play with girls, often with toys that look like they’re meant to be used as tools to rehearse the gendered roles the kids will adopt later in life.
It should come as no surprise that gift guides for adults often follow the same pattern, but instead of pushing dolls and Easy-Bake Ovens or toy cars and video games, they’re trying to get us to buy jewelry and kitchen appliances or electronics and Band of Brothers on Blu-Ray.
We’re living in an era where a more free and diverse range of gender identities is tolerated than ever before and yet the world that we’re told we want to live in takes a reductive, binary position on men and women and looks like it’s come straight out of Leave it to Beaver. Taking all that into consideration, it’s no wonder that someone might worry about what sort of message they’re sending by giving a young girl a pair of pink, heart-filled leg-warmers.
The obvious solution to this conundrum would be to find gender-neutral items for my niece and nephew. In spite of how pink and blue the toy store aisles are, it’s still possible to find things that will appeal to girls and boys and aren’t specifically targeted at either sex. And if I really wanted to make a point, I could buck stereotypes entirely and buy my niece a remote-controlled car, and a Barbie for my nephew; gifts can be used to reinforce gender norms, but they can also be used to subvert them.
But like I said before, my niece likes pink and purple. She also likes Disney princesses and Star Wars, her baby doll and her tricycle. She’s energetic, athletic, intelligent, hilarious, and kind. I imagine that when she gets the leg-warmers, she’ll be more into the fact that they’re fun things to wear and play around in than their color or design. My nephew is the same way, with diverse interests and a loving and lovable personality.
Children need to learn that there is more to who they are than being girls or boys, and be encouraged to explore and experiment with the things they enjoy, even if those things have implications that make us uncomfortable. And while I do plan to teach my niece and nephew all about gender equality, those are conversations that can wait until after the holiday celebrations have ended.
Emilie Littlehales lives in New York City and works in academic publishing. She’s contributed to LUNA’s Chix Journal and Jezebel, and writes regularly for the RUNiverse and her personal blog, I Came to Run. She is interested in questions of body image, physical and mental health, gender roles, and sexuality, and especially the various ways in which they are shaped and affected by society’s expectations.