According to the San Jose State University sociologist Elizabeth Sweet, who studies gender in children’s toys throughout the 20th century, American gender categories are more rigid now than at any time in history, at least when it comes to consumer culture. There may be greater recognition in the abstract that gender exists along a spectrum, but for young children (and their parents), consumer products have a huge influence over identity development and presentation. “Toymakers are saying, well, we can sell each family one toy, or if we make separate versions according to gender, we can sell more toys and make families buy multiples for each gender,” Sweet told me. The same holds true for clothes, baby gear, school supplies, even snack food. And parents begin gender-coding their children’s worlds before those children are even born, sometimes kicked off by “gender reveal” parties, a sort of new version of the baby shower, in which parents-to-be discover the sex of their baby alongside family and friends through a dramatic, colorful display.
There is so much parents can’t know when a baby hasn’t been born—they can’t know the baby’s hair color or eye color or whether they’ll be colicky or peaceful, healthy or sick. But they can know their child’s anatomy, and with that information they can create a to-do list full of tasks that quell the angst of knowing so little else. They can paint a nursery, buy onesies, pick names. A baby’s sex creates a starting point on a cultural road map that the whole family and community can use to direct the child towards defining who they are, and who they are not.
Of course today, among a certain set, there’s an active rejection of pink for baby girls, whose parents don’t want them treated as delicate flowers. But again, the reverse still has no purchase. Exceedingly few parents dress their baby boys in a headband and a dress.
Somewhat ironically, those pink-foresaking parents of infant girls often find themselves, three years later, remarking that in spite of shielding their daughters from overly feminized colors, toys, and media, they’ve still turned out to be princess-obsessed preschoolers. The parents display lighthearted self-consciousness that they couldn’t render their girl immune to sparkles.
It’s unlikely, though, that they shame their girls for their “girliness.” They throw up their hands and acquiesce to an Elsa costume. By contrast, boys’ parents tend to double down on reinforcing masculinity.
“Most nonconforming adult men, when they talk about their upbringing, say their first bully was their dad,” reports Matt Duron, whose wife, Lori Duron, wrote the book Raising My Rainbow, about their gender-creative son. Matt, who had a 20-year career as a police officer in Orange County, California, has been a vocal supporter of his son, though in their conservative region, his stance has been attacked. The Durons’ son, now 11, gave up dresses years ago, but he still loves makeup and wears his hair long. Classmates bully him, but he finds support from his family, and lately at Sephora in his local mall, where male employees demonstrate a different way to be grown men in the world.