My children are a bit older now, so I don’t shop at The Children’s Place as much as I used to. I happened to stop in the other day though, and I found myself worrying about the sort of messages that we are sending to boys in our culture. For those who don’t know, it’s a clothing store. The layout is always the same: they are split right down the middle, with girls’ clothing on one side and boys’ clothing on the other. This provides a particularly convenient opportunity to compare what is being sold to girls and boys, at any given moment, and to contemplate the various assumptions about gender that go along with it.
For instance, looking the “graphics tees” section, I noticed a very striking difference in the type of images and messages being marketed to girls and those being marketed to boys. Here is a selection of the girls’ T-shirts.
And now here is a selection of the T-shirts being sold to boys.
The difference in messaging is, I should mention, not a new thing. The overall theme is one that’s bothered me for years. For a long time, the working assumption seemed to be that boys were only interested in dinosaurs and video games (and, of course, sports). The “girl power” theme, on the other hand, is pretty much a constant. This last time I went into the store, though, it seemed to me to have gone completely over the top.
It should go without saying that, if the genders were reversed, and boys were currently being sent the messages that are currently being directed at girls, we would not hesitate to describe it as sexist. So I hope it is not too controversial to describe the current messaging as “reverse sexism.” Girls are being encouraged to be smart, to be successful, and to become powerful. Boys are being encouraged to be lazy, to work less hard, and to be stupid. In other words, it’s not just that girls are being encouraged to strive for success, but boys are being encouraged to develop habits that will lead them to failure in life.
For those who are inclined to say “whatever, it’s just one store,” I want to insist that boys in our society currently get this sort of thing a lot, not just from the ambient culture, but in school as well. It’s not quite so egregious in school, but it’s the same pattern. Male success is simply taken for granted, and as a result, is seldom positively encouraged, and is sometimes discouraged.
When we evaluate these cultural practices, it’s important not just to look at them through our own eyes, the eyes of adults. It’s also important not to assume that children today must be experiencing the world in pretty much the same way that we did, when we were children. You have to try to picture it through the eyes of a 10-year old, who doesn’t know anything about how the world works. We, as adults, may understand why boys are being subjected to reverse sexism (and some may even be prepared to justify it). But boys find it completely bewildering.